Witch Hat Atelier, Vol. 4

By Kamome Shirahama

Rating: 4 stars

Volume 4 of this charming series moves the focus from Coco to her fellow apprentices Agott and Richeh, as they take the Second Test, along with, Euini, an apprentice of a different master who has crippling anxiety. Richeh has no interest in learning other people’s magic but focusses entirely on perfecting her own spells, and is initially furious that she’s been put forward for the test. The three of them have to put their differences aside, however, once the Brimmed Caps show up, and work together to save themselves, and the baby penguin-like myrphons that they’ve been in charge of.

The story here moves on at quite a pace, and we get an insight into why Richeh is fixated on using her own magic and becoming her own kind of witch. The art is lovely and we get another (pair of) cliffhangers at the end. Very readable and a lot of fun.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632368607
Publisher: Kodansha Comics
Year of publication: 2019

Terminal Alliance (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse, #1)

By Jim C. Hines

Rating: 5 stars

Despite the blurb describing this as a “hilarious” book, it’s much more serious than I was expecting from a group of space janitors accidentally being left in charge of a spaceship, while still being an awful lot of fun to read. I was expecting the out and out comedy of something like Red Dwarf, but Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos and her crew are remarkably competent.

The book is set after the zombie apocalypse on Earth, where humanity pretty much destroyed itself. The alien Krakau discovered and started curing us, in exchange for helping fight in their Alliance’s war against the Prodryans. Mops is head of the hygiene and sanitation team aboard the EMCS Pufferfish (I do like how the Earth warships are named after the most deadly things on the planet, including the EMCS Mantis Shrimp, the EMCS Hippopotamus and, my favourite, the EMCS Honey Badger) and after a battle, her team is the only one unaffected by a bioweapon that undoes the cure, reverting humans to shambling biters. They have to save their crew, learn to work the ship, and stop the weapon being unleashed throughout human space.

Like I said, I was expecting an out and out farce, but the book is played much straighter than I was expecting (notwithstanding the Clippy-like Puffy, who appears to offer tutorials on how to work the ship (“It looks like you’re trying to fire the weapons. Would you like some help…?”). The menace is real, and the aliens are all interesting and well-created species. When they try to contact Command for help, they’re basically told that they can’t afford to take any chances with the bioweapon and that the affected crew will be “put down”. This is what prompts Mops to effectively hijack her own ship to try and save her crewmates.

The worldbuilding is intriguing, the rest of Mops’ crew are all good characters, even if they don’t get the same characterisation as Mops herself. There’s the ex-marine, Munroe, with an intelligent prosthetic arm; Kumar, who reads technical manuals for fun; and Wolf, young and eager to fight.

There’s some major revelations towards the end of the book and it’ll be really interesting to see if Hines can pull off the consequences for the rest of the series. Either way, I enjoyed this a lot and I’m looking forward to more adventures of the Pufferfish and her motley crew.

Book details

Year of publication: 2017

Nothing Serious

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 4 stars

I generally feel confident when picking up a PG Wodehouse book that I’m going to enjoy it, and this was no exception. This collection was from after the War and most of the stories are set in the US (although a US full of the sorts of rich, independently wealthy sorts that populate the rest of Wodehouse’s output). There’s an awful lot of golf-related stories in the book, and while I’m not a great fan of the sport, it is a great setting to take the mickey out of the sorts of people who do enjoy it. There’s a handful of favourites here, with Bingo Little having to deal with a heavy-handed nanny; Lord Emsworth turning his hand to door-to-door salesmanship; and Ukridge trying to get his hands on enough money to buy a second hand suit.

The book is full of people getting engaged and disengaged at the drop of a hat, formidable aunts and stuffy uncles and plenty of happy endings. Exactly what I want from a Wodehouse story. Maybe not classic (and a bit to sporty for my tastes) but still a warm cup of tea on a cold day.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841591575
Publisher: Everyman
Year of publication: 2008

The Frost Fair Affair

By Tansy Rayner Roberts

Rating: 4 stars

Mnemosyne Seabourne is trying to make the most of her notoriety (from both her family name and the events of the previous book) by campaigning for women to be able to travel by portal, instead of swan-shaped boat. Now, while the idea of swan-shaped boats sounds delightful, I hate travel and have often said that my ideal superpower would be teleportation, so I’m all in favour of travel by portal. While staying with her cousin’s new wife, the river freezes to the point where a frost fair is possible, and while enjoying that, Mneme gets caught up in something more than she was ready for – something that her beau, the spellcracker, Mr Thornbury, seems to be right in the middle of.

I thoroughly enjoyed this cosy, pseudo-Victorian, novella with magic. I still can’t take a country called the Teacup Isles seriously, but I enjoy the characters and the adventures they get involved with. There’s also a surprisingly serious bit where a number of women contemplate being wives of men involved in dangerous professions and how every knock at the door could be the one they’ve been dreading.

I love how the books use Victorian England as their template, but have lifted them into this archipelago of small islands to enable the author to add casual acceptance of same-sex relationships and a few other changes that make the Teacup Isles easier for the 21st century reader to hang around with (no hints yet of whether nor not they’re involved in a colonialist project, fingers crossed that that’s not something that’s happened in this world!).

I enjoyed this a lot and will certainly be reading the next in the series.

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Saga, Volume 10

By Brian K. Vaughan

Rating: 3 stars

It sort of breaks my heart to say it, but after waiting four full years for a resolution to the massive cliffhanger that the story got left on back in 2018, I think I might be done with Saga. I was desperately hoping that Marco would have had some way to get out of the situation he was in, but, if he did, it wasn’t in this volume. And the misery porn keeps piling up. As much as I adore Hazel and Alana, their story is getting darker and darker, and the bodies are piling up. The number of people who want to kill a ten year old girl is sickening. And sure, that might be part of the point, of what unending war does to people, and to societies, but it’s not something I want to read any more. I might come back one day, once the story is complete but for the moment, I’m bowing out.

That’s not to say anything bad about Staples’ art or Vaughan’s storytelling. The art is as consistently good as ever and Vaugan is good at what he does. The overall story is moving along, and some of the dialogue is just brilliant, but the story no longer makes me want to eagerly read the next volume.

Call me back when The Will gets a much more horrible death than the one Marco refused to give him.

Book details

ISBN: 9781534323346
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2022

They Met in a Tavern (Glintchasers #1)

By Elijah Menchaca

Rating: 4 stars

This is basically the story of what happens to your D&D party after the campaign ends and everyone goes their own separate ways. The Starbreakers were one of the best group of freelancers (“glintchasers”, as they’re called) in the business. Then something really bad happens and they all blame each other and go their separate ways. Now someone is hunting them down, along with other groups, and if they can’t put aside their differences, it might be the end of them.

As someone who played the same D&D campaign for six years, bringing my character from a green rookie to beyond level 20, I recognised a lot of this. It really did feel like D&D with the serial numbers filed off. From the spellcasting clerics, to thieves with short range teleport, to charismatic duelling ladies men and more. But I enjoyed spending time getting to know these people. Phoenix, the mage whose power comes from the magic items he forges, obviously cares about the group, but doesn’t know how to make the first approach. Brass, the duellist and face man (*cough*bard*cough*) carried on with the lifestyle. He’s charming, never seems to take offence and is delighted when he has a chance to meet his former comrades (although the feeling isn’t always mutual). These two are the group members we meet first and spend most time with.

I feel Snow and Angel got a bit short-changed, since they’re both lumped in the “angry woman” category, and don’t get an awful lot of characterisation beyond that. One is an assassin with cold powers, and the other an angel fighter. They antagonise each other a lot and beyond knowing that Snow used to date Phoenix, there’s little about them. The final member of the group, Church (the cleric), is a bit bland, although we don’t spend much time in his head getting to know him.

It might sound disparaging, comparing Menchaca’s world to a D&D campaign, but honestly, it’s not. I spent many happy hours not just playing my campaign, but thinking about it, on my own and with my GM, and world-building. Menchaca has done the same with his world. He obviously cares for it and enjoys writing it, and I enjoyed reading it. It’s maybe not as self-assured as it could be, which gives it away as a first novel, but the fast pace and easy reading style more than makes up for it. I want to find out what the Starbreakers do next.

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The Wind from the Sun

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Clarke and I’d forgotten just how good a writer he is. This collection of eighteen stories contains all his short fiction output of the 1960s, stretching both sides of Apollo, and, apart from a couple of things, could almost feel modern. The two things I mention are firstly, of lesser importance, that all the (scientific) measurements are in imperial units. As a child of the late 20th century, I might still think in miles for travel distance and pints for milk, but scientific measurement will always be metric. Reading distances in inches, or weights in pounds just feels weird, when coming from the mouth of a scientist (and so many of Clarke’s protagonists are, or are closely associated with, scientists).

The second problem is a bigger deal: there is a complete absence of women in Clarke’s fiction, and that sticks out like a sore thumb. There’s a wife mentioned in Maelstrom II, and a “woman operator” who gets a couple of lines in A Meeting with Medusa, but that’s about it. Clarke was never very good with writing women but while I might not have noticed when I was first reading Clarke, back in the days of my youth, it’s really obvious.

But having herded the elephant in the room back out on to the savannah where it’s happiest, what about the stories? As I said, Clarke is a stonkingly good writer. And he’s got a decent range too. This collection includes the longest SF story ever written (one page), a very short shaggy dog tale, that is the setup for a pun that had me laughing out loud; but also poignant stories about men trapped in the vastness of space, without any hope of rescue; an adventure on Mount Everest; a consciousness recorded by aliens after a freak accident; and other great ideas. While I might like some stories here better than others, there were none that I actively disliked or thought just didn’t work. The man knew his craft.

I enjoyed this collection, although I do have a bit of a bias towards Clarke, having grown up reading him when my tastes as a reader were being formed. If you can put aside the lack of women then there’s a lot to enjoy here.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552096546
Year of publication: 1974

Project Hail Mary

By Andy Weir

Rating: 4 stars

Like The Martian, this book features a highly competent astronaut, far from home, trying to stay alive long enough to get a job done. Unlike that book, our protagonist wakes up not knowing where or even who he is and has to figure many things out from first principles, while his memory slowly comes back.

The book takes two parallel tracks, firstly in the present, our protagonist (who eventually remembers that he’s called Ryland Grace) figures out that he’s on a spaceship, but not in our solar system, while the other story fills in the blanks about how he ended up in that situation. What was dire enough to send him in a coma so far into space? Unlike The Martian’s Mark Watney, at least Grace doesn’t have to do it all alone – technically this is a (fairly minor) spoiler, but it’s important for the plot, so Grace meets an alien, who, it turns out, is on a similar mission to himself.

While Weir is top notch on the physics in the book, the linguistics around this was an area where I felt he hand-waved a bit. It just seemed too easy for the two to learn to communicate. It takes a few pages, starting with basic counting and ending with them being able to communicate complex abstract concepts like ‘hope’. It’s not a big thing, but it bothered me.

The book is a lot of fun to read, it’s got that same close first person narration as The Martian and Grace is almost (almost!) as personable as Watney and is great to spend time with. When you eventually find out his background, though, I’m not as convinced that he should be as competent as he is. I also never really felt that he, or his alien companion, was in any actual danger at any point. It felt like they were going to be able to “science the sh*t” out of whatever situation they found themselves in. The only remotely shocking revelation came in the second-last flashback, which made you sit up and re-evaluate Grace entirely, not to mention Ms Stratt, the administrator the world put in charge of Project Hail Mary.

Speaking of Stratt, that’s another thing that doesn’t entirely ring true. Maybe I’m just cynical in my old age, but I honestly don’t think the various nations of the world would have agreed to work as closely as they did to get the Hail Mary launched, giving Stratt effectively unlimited authority. We’ve just been through (hell, are still in) a global pandemic, and we saw countries close themselves off, rich countries pay to ensure that they got the vaccines before poorer ones, and a hell of a lot of secrecy around treatment and vaccine development. Now granted, Covid-19 wasn’t an existential threat to the whole of humanity the way that Astrophage is, but it’s a glimpse into how we’d react. And we were found wanting.

Still, that just makes it a comforting read, to think that politicians might actually work for the best when the chips are fully down.

A riveting book, very easy to read, with an intriguing mystery, a sympathetic protagonist and a lot of science!

Book details

ISBN: 9781529157468
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2022

Redwall (Redwall, #1)

By Brian Jacques

Rating: 3 stars

This is one that I remember being very fond of when I was young, but had no real memories of the story beyond that. Revisiting it, it took a while to warm up to it, but once the evil Cluny and his horde turns up, it starts getting exciting fast. A couple of points that caught my attention, reading it with a 21st century adult eye. Firstly, I had completely forgotten how violent it is! There’s lots of battles, and people (animals) die by swords and arrows, but then you also get cauldrons of boiling water poured on some, death by snakebite and plummeting from the top of the Abbey tower for others. Secondly, the love interest is literally handed to the warrior at the end as a reward. And I was slightly uncomfortable with the “savage” Sparra (sparrow) tribe’s speech being made out like TV “Red Indians” from the 1930s or 40s.

The Guosim (Guerilla Union of Shrews in Mossflower) are an odd bunch too. The author seems to be using them to mock the left (in the “People’s Front of Judea” sort of way that Monty Python’s Life of Brian did), and at one point, the hero loses his temper at them and their democracy and asserts that if they’re not with him, they’re against him. Er…

But it’s also a tale of bravery, friendship and loyalty. Of banding together for a greater cause. And of pouring boiling water down tunnels full of rats.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099512004
Publisher: Red Fox
Year of publication: 1987

Space Opera

By Jack Vance

Rating: 3 stars

In this pun-tastically titled story, Jack Vance gives us a space opera about, er, opera in space. Roger Wool’s rich, eccentric aunt is very into opera and when she encounters a troupe from another world, she is determined to return the favour and bring an opera company into space, travelling the stars and ending finally at the mysterious planet Rlaru. Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan.

This is an odd book, and one that took a while to grow on me. I think the author was going for wry humour, which didn’t entirely work for me. Dame Isabel’s snobbishness and the fawning of her entourage should have been funny, but I mostly just rolled my eyes. The first section that actually worked for me was the visit to the prison planet, which was actually quite clever, and I quite liked the way that Madoc Roswyn manipulated so many of the crew (even though it was fairly transparent, from the outside, at least). Her story was interesting in its own right, complete with sunken, lost continent!

The question on whether music is universal amongst sentient species is a fascinating one, and what sort of tones and scales might be used. There’s a bit of that here, but it’s mostly steamrollered over in Dame Isabel’s snobbishness on the subject, and her unwillingness to attempt to understand or appreciate music outwith her narrow operatic obsession.

To me the book felt competent and solid, but the humour didn’t work for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780340267752
Publisher: Coronet Books
Year of publication: 1982

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