Fault Tolerance (Chilling Effect, #3)

By Valerie Valdes

Rating: 4 stars

I had a huge amount of fun reading this third (and final?) book of the adventures of Captain Eva Innocente and the crew of La Sirena Negra. In this one, beacons appear all over the galaxy, next to travel gates, all broadcasting the same message – surrender or be exterminated! Somehow, it’s up to Eva and her crew to find the superweapon that will be all that stands between civilisation as we know it and annihilation!

Despite the fact that the stakes were nominally really high in this book (the destruction of the Earth!), I don’t think I ever felt like Eva and her crew were ever in real peril throughout this book, or that they would fail to win, but that never mattered to me. It was all about how they solved the puzzle and made it to the next step. They’re all likeable characters, and the crew have gained a bit of depth over the books. Leroy (plus girlfriend Momoko) comes back for this one, after being mostly shelved for the last one, but he doesn’t get much to do, and there’s still no details on his past, which is a shame. But there’s so much going on, that I only realised this well after I finished the actual book.

The Transformers giant, shapeshifting robots from the climax of the previous book make a return here, and we learn more about them and the neverending war between the two factions, and we get to see our gang face off against them in giant mechs, which is just as cool as it sounds. Also, the mechs’ “final form” completely cracked me up.

As with the other books, there was a liberal sprinkling of Spanish throughout the book, which I mostly ignored – I tended to assume that it was inventive swearing or other stuff that wasn’t vital the the plot. There were a handful of times I was moved to load Google Translate, but I don’t think it was hugely important.

I’ve very much enjoyed spending time with this series, which I first discovered when the first one was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I thought was unusual, since the Clarke usually goes for more literary works, so an old-fashioned space opera on the shortlist made me sit up and take notice. I’m very glad that I did as the whole series has been fun, and I feel that Valdes has grown as an author as the series has progressed. Recommended to any fan of space opera, giant robots and/or cats.

Book details

ISBN: 9780063085893
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Year of publication: 2022

Manners & Mutiny (Finishing School, #4)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 4 stars

Like the rest of this series, this final book is fairly fluffy but great fun to read. I enjoyed the time I spent with Sophronia and her friends on the floating espionage/finishing school that is Mademoiselle Geraldine’s. This one picks up the threads that have been left lying around by the previous books and deftly weaves them into an action-packed finale. I was pleased to see that a theory I’ve had since almost the start of the series was confirmed, and it was nice to see Agatha get some cool stuff to do, since she’s very much been a background character to date. Sidheag was off-screen this volume, which is a shame, since she’s a great character, but she had her time in the limelight last time round.

There’s a great action sequence towards the end that really sees the stakes raised and it’s great to see Sophronia take everything she’s learned over the last four books and put it all to good use. The romance between Sophronia and Soap finally takes off as well, although complicated by the events of the end of the last book.

It might not be great art, but it’s perfect for a weekend read in the autumn sun. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the series, and will definitely look out Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, which is set in the same world.

Book details

Quest of the Three Worlds

By Cordwainer Smith

Rating: 4 stars

I found this in a trawl of second hand bookshops in Wigtown and mostly picked it up because I’m a big fan of Cordwainer Smith and a quick perusal of the back cover suggested that it wasn’t actually set in his Instrumentality of Man future history, since I think I’ve read everything he ever wrote in that. As it turns out, it actually does collect three linked stories set in the Instrumentality, but since I had no memory of any of them, I read the whole thing anyway.

I’m very fond of Smith’s prose style. It’s maybe a bit purple, but it’s poetic and soaring and I love that. The rough plot involves Casher O’Neill’s travels through the stars, searching for weapons to help him retake his home planet after a coup. The first story has him travelling to a planet where gems are common and soil is rare, and helping to deal with an immortal horse that an eccentric brought to the world. There’s some glorious description and the feeling of a deep history – that this history exists somewhere in space and time. But it’s also distinctly tongue in cheek, Smith pointing out the absurdities of life, using a planet where a bucket of soil is worth more than a gemstone the size of your head.

The second sees Casher travel to a world where he’s asked to kill a girl, in exchange for a busted space cruiser. It’s no spoiler to say that he can’t kill her and ends up becoming a sort of disciple. This one was a bit creepy in places, as O’Neill sexualises this person, named T’ruth, who looks like a prepubescent child. There’s also a bunch of Christian symbolism that I don’t remember in Smith’s writing before and didn’t really know what to do with.

The final story in the main arc sees Casher, now armed with huge psychic powers, finally return to his homeworld and, after he completes his lifelong mission, goes off on a journey. This was the strangest of all the stories here, and I had little clue of what was going on and what Casher was looking for at the source of the “Thirteenth Nile”. This really felt like the weakest of the stories in the collection. I can see that Smith didn’t necessarily want to do the straight big fight/end of the hero’s journey thing that’s so common, but his replacement felt a bit incoherent to me.

There’s a fourth story in the book, which is only tangentially related, in that the plot is kicked off by Casher, but we follow three living weapons sent by the Instrumentality to deal with a very distant planet from where a psychic hatred of humanity was detected. I enjoyed this a lot, but Casher was only in it as a distant observer, providing some exposition when needed. It helps to expand the universe of the Instrumentality, rather than Casher’s story.

If I’d realised that I already owned the stories in the book I wouldn’t have bought it, but it was fun returning to Smith’s vast future history, and since I didn’t remember any of them, I can’t say it wasn’t worth it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345329318
Publisher: Del Rey
Year of publication: 1978

Waistcoats & Weaponry (Finishing School, #3)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 4 stars

There’s more frothy, fashion-filled fun as Sophronia and gang return for espionage and carrying themselves properly. This time Sophronia and her friends attend a pre-wedding party for Sophronia’s brother, and help Sidheag stowaway on a train heading back to Scotland to deal with a serious problem in her clan of werewolves.

As with the others, this is a huge amount of fun, even if Sophronia does spend a lot of it angsting over the two delicious boys who are fighting to fall at her feet. But we do get some respite from that with politics! The politics of this world are all about balance, trying to keep the differing supernatural and human factions equally disgruntled. And now there’s something that upsets that balance, and it’s up to Sophronia and friends to do something about it.

I’ve seen complaints that Sophronia is a Mary-Sue character. This might be right, but I’ve read enough golden age science fiction featuring “hero scientists” (Doc Smith and Heinlein, I’m looking at you!), to suspect that we’d not be having this conversation if the protagonist was male.

Tangentially related, I’ve recently got very into the Hugo, Girl podcast, and one of the segments they have is “boob talk”, where they talk about egregious descriptions of (usually) female characters. This has made me much more aware of it when I come across this in writing. Something that I might have not really paid attention to before now stands out quite a lot. There are a lot of references to Sophronia’s looks and figure here, which I guess makes sense in a series about a school for female spies – as Lady Linnette says, seduction as a tool of espionage has a long and (maybe) honourable history. Still, it was slightly uncomfortable to read, especially about a teenage girl.

Still, notwithstanding that, the book is hugely readable and a lot of fun. The status quo has been well and truly shaken up and I can’t wait to see where it goes in the final book.

Book details

Publisher: Atom
Year of publication: 2014

The Complete Debarkle: Saga of a Culture War

By Camestros Felapton

Rating: 4 stars

This was a comprehensive history of the Sad/Rabid Puppies kerfuffle from the middle of the last decade in which the author tries to put the campaign into the wider historical context of the culture wars that were happening, primarily, but not entirely, in the US at the time. The work was released, one chapter at a time, on the author’s blog and later collected and revised into a single ebook.

Felapton has examined the subject in great detail, starting from the early days of fandom, providing “dramatis personae” on all the major players and going through the events leading up to the kerfuffle itself, and finally looking at what happened afterwards and how the culture wars continued to develop after the puppies themselves stopped being relevant.

This last section is possibly the least successful, since it doesn’t tie into the fandom stuff at all, other than looking at what the leaders of the puppies, the so-called “Evil League of Evil” were up to at the time. The main event, however, is excellent. Felapton has read Vox Day’s writing so that I don’t have to. They comprehensively document the events leading up to and during the puppy slates, with many, many footnotes and long quotes from the major players themselves, with links back to primary sources. The only complaint I have about that is that the footnotes aren’t hyperlinked so aren’t as easy to read as I might have liked.

Despite meandering a bit towards the end, this is a really good piece of writing and was a worthy contender for the 2022 Best Related Work Hugo award (no slating required).

Book details

ISBN: 9798201696450
Publisher: Cattimothy House
Year of publication: 2021

Curtsies & Conspiracies (Finishing School, #2)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 4 stars

Picking up from where the last book left off, we discover more about the macguffin that everyone was trying to get their hands on last time, and also get some insight into the political machinations of vampires and werewolves. There’s more floating school based shenanigans and the relationships between the girls deepen. There’s also the beginnings of a love triangle (something that always makes me cringe a bit) between Sophronia, Soap and Felix. And speaking of Soap, while I enjoy a fun steampunk book as much as the next person, one without much in the way of introspection of class feels a bit frothy. The sooties are the same age as the girls in the school but their circumstances couldn’t be more different.

But other than that, the book was a huge amount of fun to read, and with dry humour and silly names, it’s clearly making fun of a certain kind of twee British aristocrat. I’ll certainly be reading the others in the series.

Book details

Mulliner Nights

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 5 stars

With this book, The Angler’s Rest joins The White Hart and Callahan’s as pubs that I wish were real and where I’d love to hang out and listen in on the regulars’ conversations. In the Angler’s Rest, Mr Mulliner holds court and regales the patrons with unlikely stories of his extended family, giving us the funny (sometimes laugh out loud funny), warm and gentle humour that Wodehouse was famed for.

I’ve not encountered the Mulliner stories before but on the strength of this, I’ll certainly be on the lookout for the others! These are Wodehouse at his finest, whether it’s a private detective with a disconcerting smile, quests for strawberries in winter, love found over murder mysteries or fear of headmasters, you’re drawn into the stories almost with a sensation of glee. You know what you get with Wodehouse and each story is short enough that it can’t get too convoluted and silly. If you’re at all fond of his bumbling heroes and improbable situations, this comes highly recommended.

Book details

Publisher: Barrie & Jenkins London
Year of publication: 1980

My Little Pony/Transformers: Friendship in Disguise

By Ian Flynn

Rating: 4 stars

This is an extremely fun graphic novel. A magical misfire interferes with a malfunctioning space bridge, to bring a load of Cybertronians to Equestria. Each of the Mane Six has their own adventure with an Autobot chum, as they fight the Decepticons, and Spike (the dragon, not the human also called Spike), goes the other way and finds himself paired up with Grimlock to defend the Ark.

As you’d expect, lasers and Decepticon evil are no match for friendship and love, with the ponies and their new Autobot friends winning the day. The art is clean and colourful (appropriate for Equestria) and the whole volume is quick to read. It’s a lot of fun for fans of both MLP and Transformers.

Book details

ISBN: 9781684057597
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Year of publication: 2021

Murder in Mesopotamia

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

Amy Leatheran is brought in as a nurse to the wife of an eminent archaeologist who is on a dig in Iraq. Nurse Leatheran senses that all is not well on the dig, but is still shocked when there’s a murder. Thankfully, Hercule Poirot is in the vicinity and is called in to assist on the case.

I really enjoyed this mystery, with its evocative setting and intriguing characters. As Poirot says, the key to the murder is the psychology of the situation – especially that of the victim, and how her personality affected those around her.

The book is narrated in the first person by nurse Leatheran, who is a fun character to have in that role. She’s very prim and proper, and has the appropriate amount of British distrust of foreigners, although she does fall into playing the Hastings/Watson role with remarkable ease.

Something that I thought was quite odd was how unsympathetically that the female characters in the book spoke about other women. There are several women involved, starting with nurse Leatheran, and all of them often speak badly about both specific other women, and the female sex generally. I wouldn’t have been surprised by this if the book had been written by a man, but it wasn’t. Both Mrs Leidner, the woman that nurse Leatheran is here to look after, and Mrs Mercado, the wife of another member of the dig team, are described in particularly, one might say, catty, terms.

But leaving that aside, the mystery was intriguing, I enjoyed the characters a lot and, as usual, I completely failed to figure out whodunnit.

Book details

Publisher: Pan Books in association with Collins
Year of publication: 1981

The Nine Tailors:Changes Rung On An Old Theme in Two Short Touches and Two Full Peals

By Dorothy L. Sayers

Rating: 4 stars

I do enjoy a good classic whodunnit, and this was a lot of fun. It’s very evocative of place, with lush descriptions of the fens of England. And of time as well, although that may be more accidental, given that when it was published, it would have been pretty contemporary. But reading it now, it’s a wonderful window into society of the 1930s, where deference to wealth and titles were still prevalent, and the idea of not duffing up witnesses/suspects to get the answers you wanted was a pretty new concept, that the police were only grudgingly coming around to.

The mystery kept me interested all the way through and I learned more about the art and science of campanology than I ever needed or wanted to! Assuming that Sayers isn’t lying to me and that nine hour peals did (do?) happen, I’m very glad I don’t live near to a church with a rector keen on the subject!

Peter Wimsey is a protagonist I enjoy reading. Between him and Bunter, there’s a bit of Jeeves and Wooster to the pair, although Peter is much more competent than poor old Bertie! A fun story, with a clever solution and great descriptions.

Book details

Publisher: Victor Gollancz, London
Year of publication: 1954

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