Hexarchate Stories

By Yoon Ha Lee

Rating: 4 stars

Upon opening this collection, I was surprised by how long the table of contents was, for such a slim volume. The was explained once I got into it by the number of short and flash pieces that there are. Starting the volume, a few years since I last read the Machineries of Empire trilogy, I did have to do some googling to remind myself of the big outline of the story and of the threads that stories here touch on.

There’s a handful of stories here not related to the cast of Machineries of Empire, including one set before the formation of the Heptarchate, but mostly this is the Shuos Jedao show, with special guest star Kel Cheris. The big draw here, is Glass Cannon, which is, by the far, the longest piece in the book, taking up nearly a third of the page count. This is set a couple of years after Revenant Gun and features the second Jedao coming in search of Cheris, in the hope that he can get his (or rather, his original’s) memories back. It’s a great story and disrupts the fragile equilibrium that has settled over the Hexarchate in interesting (and spoilerific) ways.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. The shorter pieces are character studies, or historical fragments, or fluff, but they still fill in the world of the H*archate, and the author’s notes that follow each story provide more context. To be honest, the collection is worth it for Glass Cannon alone, but the others definitely complement it. Recommended for fans of the series (definitely not one to read before Machineries of Empire, as there are many spoilers for the series).

Book details

ISBN: 9781781085646
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2019

Everfair: A Novel

By Nisi Shawl

Rating: 3 stars

This (very busy) novel came to my attention after it was mentioned on the Imaginary Worlds podcast, in their post-colonial worlds episode. The central what-if is: what if Fabian socialists from Britain join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, (Everfair), is set aside as a safe haven for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.

As I said above, there’s a lot going on in this novel. There’s a large cast of characters, and it spans about thirty years, covering the creation of Everfair, and its early years. Each chapter jumps around in time and place, jumping into little scenes from the country’s history. Especially once we leave Britain for Everfair, I often found it difficult to keep track of what was going on. You’re left to infer a lot through context, and I sometimes wished for a more traditional omniscient narrator who could pause for a moment to give you a larger scale overview of what was going on.

Into the alt history, we also add steampunk, as the melting pot that is Everfair brings forth airships, powered by some sort of mystic power source that’s lighter than coal, giving them the edge over Europeans. And then there’s the magical element, with the missionary Thomas Wilson being turned, somewhat against his will, into a priest of a god called Loango, and the exiled king whose spirit-father advises him. These aren’t just metaphorical – Loango actually gives Thomas the power to influence battles, amongst other things. So we have alt-history, steampunk, and magic all mashed together, with a narrative that stays very close to the people it’s following, without zooming out. This makes it feel quite claustrophobic at times, and quite choppy.

The technology isn’t really described (I do like a bit of tech porn!) and even the big idea – that of new ideas coming out of the melting pot that is Everfair – was hinted at rather than spelled out. I still have no idea what the “Bah-Sangah” earths, that were core to the airships, were (or, what Bah-Sangah itself was, come to that – was it a religion? A magical creature? A god?), and large swathes of the politics are, similarly, only lightly touched upon. There’s a lot to like here, but the book did leave me a bit frustrated. 3.5 stars, rounded down.

Book details

ISBN: 9780765338068
Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2017

Timeless (Parasol Protectorate, #5)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 4 stars

There’s a lot going on in the fifth and final book of the Parasol Protectorate series. We have a bit of a time jump since the last one, so that Alexia’s daughter, Prudence, is now a toddler, with the ability to strip a supernatural of their powers and take them for herself, at a touch. Something that plays havoc in a household with a vampire adopted father and a werewolf biological father, and can only be undone by her mother’s preternatural touch. Into this chaotic domesticity comes a summons from Queen Matakara of the Alexandria hive, and reputed to be the oldest living vampire. But before they can set off, a werewolf is attacked and murdered, leaving Alexia to sort it all out.

As I say, there’s a lot going on here. We have two major parallel strands: the investigation into the murder in London, carried out by Professor Lyall and new pack member Biffy, while Alexia’s version of travelling incognito is to take an entire acting troupe with her, led by her best friend Ivy Tunstall! There’s a lot going on in Egypt, and I wish we’d had more time to spend with the Alexandria hive. The intrigue here was all swept up and dealt with far too quickly. I sort of wish that the whole London plot had been abandoned in favour of more here – the idea of the Alexandrian queen being over five thousand years old and the sort of thoughts that such a creature might have deserved to be given more time.

Alas, we didn’t get any of that, in favour of a balloon ride down the Nile, and a bunch of politics going on in London with the Kingair pack (although I did like the quietly blooming romance that went on there). And, of course, in between all the supernatural shenanigans, we’re reminded that the true monster is Man, as Alexia’s sister, Felicity, causes unwarranted mischief, fuelled purely by jealousy. I would have been happier if she’d got what was due to her, although for someone with her mentality, maybe her punishment is just.

I don’t think this is quite the banging end to the series that I’d hoped for, but then I also don’t think the series entirely recovered from the misstep at the end of the second book. Ivy’s ending just left me shaking my head a bit, although I did appreciate Conall’s proposal for saving him from alpha madness towards the end of his life.

All in all, I think I preferred Carriger’s Finishing School series over this one, although that might be because I read them first. Still fun, and I’d still read other work set in the same world.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841499871
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2012

Heartless (Parasol Protectorate, #4)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 4 stars

After a wobbly couple of middle books, this fourth volume of Alexia’s adventures is back on firmer ground. This time, a ghost warns the Maccons of a threat to the queen, which sends Alexia off investigating (including into her husband’s past), while avoiding multiple attempts on her life, due to an ongoing vampiric fear over her baby, and dealing with the tribulations of being eight months pregnant.

The incident where Conall had thrown his wife out has been papered over and quietly forgotten and the two are as much in love as they ever were. I still don’t entirely believe that such a major breach of trust could have been forgiven and forgotten so thoroughly, but I guess that’s love.

This book keeps the sharper Ivy Tunstall that we had in the last one, and we finally have the formal creation of the Parasol Protectorate, even if it’s only as a sort of joke. We also deal with the fallout of Lord Maccon having to have made former drone Biffy into a werewolf and have a somewhat ill and distracted Genevieve, which causes Alexia more than a degree of worry.

There’s a lot of plot to juggle here, which Carriger manages well. Jokes at the expense of the Scots are limited to references to visible knees, although there’s a lot of waddling and other references to Alexia’s infant-inconvenience, as she calls it. Not that it seems to stop her, she gets into an awful physical situations for someone so pregnant.

This was a lot of fun and has set up some interesting changes in the in-world status quo. I look forward to the next, and final, book in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356500096
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2011

Spotlight (Miss Silver, #12)

By Patricia Wentworth

Rating: 4 stars

I was recommended Patricia Wentworth after reading an Ngaio Marsh book a few months ago. Having had various issues with that one, I thoroughly enjoyed this introduction to Wentworth.

Gregory Porlock is a blackmailer, who invites the various people he’s got stuff on to his home for a dinner party. He obviously goads someone too far, and he is murdered during the course of the evening. Miss Silver gets involved through a set of unlikely events and, in between bouts of knitting, soon sets things to rights.

I enjoyed this an awful lot. Wentworth sets the stage carefully, introducing us to Porlock and each of his guests and making us dislike the man intensely. The murder doesn’t happen until over a hundred pages in, and then the police investigation is the focus for quite some time. It’s not until well over half way through the book that Miss Silver makes her main entrance (although she’d had a cameo earlier).

I loved the interplay between her and police sergeant Frank Abbott. By this point in the series, Miss Silver is a known feature at Scotland Yard and the young Frank has taken a great shine to her, calling her his “revered preceptress”. His boss, chief inspector Lamb is less affectionate, but still respects her abilities a lot.

It was a great story, with good characterisation, and I’m impressed with how deftly Wentworth handled a large cast. I wasn’t wild about the very paternalistic relationship between Dorinda Brown and her cousin, Justin Leigh, but it’s very much of the period. Anyway, I shall definitely be looking out for more of Miss Silver’s handiwork.

Book details

ISBN: 9780340178331

In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns (Sub-Inspector Ferron Mysteries #1)

By Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 4 stars

This novella introduces us to Sub-Inspector Ferron, a detective whose latest case involves a person who has been literally turned inside out. And the only witness is a genetically engineered cat who’s been wiped (and ends up re-imprinting on Ferron). Set in a future India, we get brief, tantalising glimpses of a fractured world as Ferron and her lieutenant, constable Indrapramit, try to find out who could have killed the victim, and what their motive could have been. At the same time, she has to deal with her overbearing mother, and there are rumours of unusual activity in the region of the Andromeda galaxy.

There’ a lot packed into this novella. The world-building of the future that it’s set in is impeccable and very deftly handled. Throwing in parrot-cats, breakdown of nation states, immersive virtual reality and much more, while keeping us grounded with Ferron and Indrapramit. In amongst all this, the actual murder actually gets a little lost. I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t figure out who did it (I never do), but I still don’t really think I understand the why of it and what actually happened. But then, does it really matter, with such a wonderful world, and the intrigue of a signal from the stars?

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A Narrow Door

By Joanne Harris

Rating: 3 stars

Rebecca Buckfast (and living in Scotland, I’m sorry, but I can’t take her seriously with a name like “Buckfast”) has finally made it to the top – she’s now head teacher at St Oswald’s, formerly a boys-only grammar school, she introduces girls to the school, hoping that they will come to stride through the wide arches, not have to quietly enter through a “narrow door”, the way she did. Becky has secrets in her past, and when confronted, she settles down to tell elderly Latin master Roy Straitly her story, as she rediscovered it herself.

I found this book very readable, which is interesting, given how much I disliked most of the characters. Most of the book is in the form of Becky telling the story of what happened 17 years previously, when she was a young teacher at a different, nearby private school, King Henry’s. Becky’s brother, a student at King Henry’s, disappeared when she was a young child, something which affected her parents dreadfully, and which Becky herself found so traumatic that she buried the memory so deeply, that it’s only twenty-odd years later that they start to re-emerge.

Between her own trauma, her overbearing boyfriend, Dominic, and the missing brother, there are layers upon layers of secrets and lies, which get peeled back, one at a time, all being told the ailing Straitly, who was, I felt, the most relatable character in the whole book. Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll end up like him – a ghost haunting the halls of my University, mumbling about people and departments long gone, yet tolerated, even treated fondly by the new guard.

Apparently there are other books about St Oswald’s, featuring Straitly, but this is perfectly standalone and I hadn’t read any of them before reading this one, and I was able to follow what was going on, although some events were mentioned in passing that I assume were expanded upon in the other books.

It’s a very well done thriller, which kept me turning the page to find out what happens next. All the twists and turns were unexpected (to me) and all believable. As I say, I didn’t like many of the characters, but it was a well told tale. Recommending for breaking the glass ceiling, by whatever means necessary.

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