Nine Goblins

By T. Kingfisher

Rating: 4 stars

This is a fun little novella set in a fantasy world where the goblins are at war with humans and elves, after being pushed further and further to the edges of their lands until they hit the sea and have to turn and fight. We’re following the “Whinin’ Ninth”, a group of warriors, led by sergeant Nassilka, who, unwisely, charge a wizard, and find themselves transported elsewhere, behind enemy lines. They have to get back home without getting killed, with help from an unexpected elven vet.

I really liked Sings-to-Trees, as Vernon focuses on the decidedly unglamorous aspects of being a vet in a magical world. We first encounter him up to his elbow up a unicorn’s unmentionables, trying to help in a breech birth (a benefit of having read the All Things Bright and Beautiful series is that I understood what was going on here!).

My other favourite character is Blanchett, a member of the Whinin’ Ninth, who was injured in battle and now wears a rather manky stuffed teddy in his helmet and insists that he’s only relating what the bear is saying. The thing is that everyone does talk to the bear, since it’s remarkably sensible…

When the plot happens, it’s surprisingly grim, although I don’t know why I expected anything else from Vernon, who can’t write a sweet romance without adding an undead dog. She also fits quite a lot of plot and good worldbuilding, as well as an interesting magic system, into a short novella.

I’ve never read a bad Vernon/Kingfisher story, and I haven’t started with this one. Enjoyable, but a bit gruesome, with lots of dead things (animals and people, including children).

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Beware of Chicken 2 (Beware of Chicken, #2)

By CasualFarmer

Rating: 4 stars

The second volume of this series expands upon the first, both in terms of world and scale, and in terms of PoV characters. The first book mostly focused on Jin and his magical rooster, Big D, while this one elevates Big D to co-protagonist, sending him away from the farm on a quest to understand the solstice-greeting dance that he witnessed in the previous book, and its connections to the wider country.

We also spend more time with Gou Ren, and Xiulan, both of whom join Jin and his wife Meiling at the farm for most of the book. I particularly enjoyed Xiulan’s journey, and how therapy with Meiling and the acceptance of the others on the farm help her to deal with her PTSD following her battles with rogue cultivators in the previous book. Oh, and Tigger is substantially less obnoxious as a human than as a cat.

This is still as charming as the last one and I really enjoy spending time with our protagonists. It seems that the author is setting up some sort of long term antagonist who we look in on every so often. And we also get a different view of the cultivation sects than the previous book. Jin had a very bad experience and we saw them through his eyes, while now we get cutaway chapters back to his previous sect to see the fallout from what happened to Jin. It’s a neat way of reminding us that first person protagonists can be unreliable narrators.

I’m not a picky reader, but sometimes self-published works are, er, obviously, self-published. I don’t find that this work suffers from that. I didn’t find it dragging or in obvious need of an editor. Heck, I barely found any typos. The art that intersperses the books is fab, in a very manga-esque way. I almost wish I was reading in a higher resolution screen than my e-ink kindle to be able to appreciate it properly. So being well written, and with high-quality art, if you’re at all interested in this xianxia-style fiction, this is well worth your time.

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ISBN: 9781039415713

The World We Make

By N.K. Jemisin

Rating: 3 stars

Jemesin says in her afterword that this was a difficult book and that she made the decision to cut the story from a trilogy to a duology. Unfortunately, I think that that shows a bit – Jemesin is good, but the book still feels a bit rushed, particularly towards the end. We were building up to a big climactic battle (which I assume would have been awesome but inclusive, leading to the real conclusion, a book later) but it’s cut short to a bit of talking and a rather anti-climactic conclusion.

It was nice to get into Padmini’s (aka Queens) head a bit more, even if the subplot that started with her seemed to just fizzle out. Another possible victim of having to cut the series short. At least Manny still got a decent plot, as we find out more about who he was before New York claimed him. This could have been a whole book in its own right, with the tension between him and his family, and the choices he makes. The relationship between him and Neek (the primary avatar, who spent most of the first book in a coma) is tense, although it’s pretty much resolved in the coda (again, something that could have been much longer).

This is still an enjoyable story and a good follow-up to The City We Became. Even though Jemisin says it was difficult, that doesn’t really show in the writing, other than the truncation of the story. Definitely worth the read, if you enjoyed the first one.

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ISBN: 9780356512723
Publisher: Orbit

Beware of Chicken (Beware of Chicken, #1)

By CasualFarmer

Rating: 4 stars

I’ll be honest, I really only picked this up because a friend liked a review of it on GoodReads and I thought the title was hilarious. I’m not particularly familiar with xianxia but I have read some manga and seen some anime, so I was vaguely aware of the tropes involved here. I did nearly give up after the first chapter but persevered and I’m glad that I did. Once you get through all the unfamiliar concepts and meet the characters, they’re really charming.

Jin Rou dies at the hand of his fellow initiates at a cultivation sect and at the same time, someone from our world drops into Jin’s body, who decides to leave the sect and become a farmer. He acquires some chickens and makes friends with people in the nearest village. He starts clearing his land and putting his magic (Qi) in to everything he does, including his chicken, which slowly becomes sentient.

It’s a gentle little story that I found just delightful. Jin acquires more animals that also slowly become sentient and regard him as their Great Master. Jin left the sect as one of the weakest members, but as he spends time on the farm his strength grows as does that of his disciples. He’s a really cheerful person who soon falls for a young woman in the village and makes friends with two locals. It’s the kind of book where you don’t worry about how a modern day person from Canada knows so much about farming and construction, and basically builds a house and farm from scratch. You just enjoy the journey and don’t think too hard.

Jin is really easy to like, he doesn’t have a malignant bone in his body and you really want him to succeed. He defeats magical beasts almost by accident, while his animal disciples do substantially more fighting than their Master. It’s not a small book, but I tore through it. It’s a delightful comfort read and I look forward to reading more of the series.

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ISBN: 9781039413993
Publisher: Podium Publishing

The Martian Job (NewCon Press Novellas Set 3 Book 1)

By Jaine Fenn

Rating: 4 stars

The last time Lizzie Choi hears from her brother, he sends a message to say that he’s dead. In a world where America wiped itself out with an unlimited AI and China is now dominant; and being under suspicion at work for the actions of her criminal mother, Lizzie takes a leave of absence and travels to Mars to try and find out what happened to her brother. Oh, and take over the heist that he was masterminding, for some unknown patron.

I do enjoy a good heist caper, and this was a fun one. It’s only a novella, so not long, but it pulls together well. The different members of the gang don’t get much character development beyond their roles in the caper, but the payoff would have had me cackling out loud, if I weren’t in public.

Fun and definitely recommended. It’s currently on Kindle Unlimited, so if you have that, then if you enjoy a good sci-fi heist, you’ve really got no excuse.

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A Marvellous Light (The Last Binding, #1)

By Freya Marske

Rating: 4 stars

This is a queer fantasy romance set in the early 20th century. Sir Robin Blyth is dumped sideways into what an enemy thinks is a dead end civil service job, but which actually turns out to be the liaison between the PM and the magicians of Great Britain. His counterpart on the magical side is Edwin Courcey, a weak magician, but academically gifted.

It turns out that Robin got his job because his predecessor has been murdered, and the people who do it aren’t above cursing him with a pain curse to try and get (non-existent) information out of him. This brings Robin and Edwin together to solve the mystery and break Robin’s curse, at the same time as they’re drawn to each other.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot. The magic system is interesting, and the way that Edwin has to rely on a piece of string to perform the required hand gestures (a crutch that only children are expected to use), and the casual cruelty of the magical set at this weakness is very well drawn. Contracts are mentioned as part of the magic but not really leaned on, although I can see that this may be important in later books in the series.

In any historically set fiction involving queer characters, I always worry about them being caught and what might happen to them. Thankfully, Marske mostly steers clear of this, and there’s never a worry that someone might barge in on them when they’re kissing or during a sex scene. Being a Romance-with-a-capital-R book, there was the inevitable angry break-up about 2/3 the way through, which I don’t entirely feel was emotionally resolved. It was more a case of the love interest being in danger and needing rescued and then them deciding that Love Conquers All, but without really talking through the issues that had caused Robin to, understandably, storm out.

But I’m definitely invested in the world and will be reading the next in the series, although I understand that’s got a different (albeit related) set of characters.

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Publisher: Tor

The Stories: Five Years of Original Fiction on

By Gregory Benford

Rating: 3 stars

This is officially the book that’s taken me the longest to read, at over two years! Partly that’s because of the sheer intimidating size of the collection, containing over 150 stories, but, to be fair, I would also put it down and not pick it up again for long stretches of time.

I’m not sure how you go about reviewing such a big book. I do wish it had been arranged chronologically, rather than alphabetically by author. That way, it would be easier to trace thematic changes over time, but as it is, you just get samples of individual authors’ works. One thing that does stick in the mind though, is how many dystopian/downbeat stories that there are. Mind you, stories that you like less may be more likely to stick in the mind, and I don’t like that sort of story, which is another reason for how long it’s taken me to get through it.

There’s a lot of big names in the book. It seems that just about everyone has written for, who have become one of the biggest publisher of short fiction around at the moment. If you dip in and out, you’re bound to find something that you like, but if you read it all the way through, good luck in having anything stick out.

Book details

ISBN: 9781466851306
Year of publication: 2013

You Sexy Thing (Disco Space Opera #1)

By Cat Rambo

Rating: 4 stars

A unit of veterans, led by Captain Niko Larsen, manages to buy their way out of a military and ends up on the far edge of known space where they set up a restaurant. As the book opens, they’re awaiting a famous critic who could award them a space-Michelin star, while also having to deal with an admiral from the navy they got out of coming knocking.

This is the sort of book where someone can say “well, at least things can’t get worse” and then something blows up. It’s a lot of fun and I enjoyed the way that Niko and her crew were a family. Well, most of them. There are a couple of people on the edges who are forced closer due to circumstances.

You Sexy Thing is the name of a (sentient) biological spaceship that the gang find themselves accidentally stealing. It is intensely curious about its latest passengers and finds itself feeling new emotions and having sensations it had never experienced before. It’s fascinating to see it growing as a person as the story goes on. Also, there’s a modicum of body horror here as the Thing is literally almost completely biological and can sense and reshape its interior. The mention of the tongue-like blanket that it extrudes for someone who’s feeling cold left me shuddering (while simultaneously wondering what it would be like).

The setting is very much science fantasy, with magic sitting alongside the technology. How much is real magic and how much is Clarke’s Third Law is left as an exercise for the reader. There’s a great selection of alien aliens too, from the Arranti, who play some vast unknowable game, to Tlellans, squid-like creatures, with a fondness for physical contact. Niko is, in fact, the only human in her group, although not the only Earthling – her quartermaster is an uplifted primate who communicates through sign language.

The one let down for me was how 2D that the villain was. He did everything but tie a damsel to a train track while twirling his moustache. I think Rambo may have been going for an Ahab-like obsession honed over decades, but frankly, it seemed a bit ridiculous when we found out the cause. But this is a minor issue in an otherwise great book. I shall be looking out for the sequel.

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ISBN: 9781250269300

The First Bright Thing

By J.R. Dawson

Rating: 3 stars

For me, this is a book about dread. After the Great War, the Ringmaster and her circus of marvels spend most of the book fleeing from the black tents of the Circus King and in fear of the war to come. The circus is a haven for those with the Spark – magical powers that started appearing during the War. Like the X-Men, those with the Spark are feared and hated, shunned by the majority. The Ringmaster gathers Sparks and her circus travels the US, helping those who need it. But the fear of the Circus King is always in the back of her mind. Her own Spark is the ability to travel through space and time. And now powers have grown such that she travels forward far enough to see that the War that’s just been fought isn’t the “war to end all wars”, but that they’re in the eye of the hurricane and there’s worse to come.

That’s a new time travel idea that I’ve not seen before. That someone in that interwar period knows that there’s a new war coming, and that despite their best efforts, they can’t prevent it. And won’t be able to save the family they’ve put together. That those people will taken by the upcoming war and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. And if that’s not enough, the bogeyman you’ve been running from for years has found you and is taunting you. So yes, dread. It was a difficult book to read. I dislike chase stories anyway, where our heroes are being pursued for the length of the story. I find them stressful to read, and this was no different.

Although most of the book is told from the point of view of The Ringmaster (who just goes by that name, like she’s a Time Lord), there are some flashbacks to someone whose Spark is mind control, allowing them to compel other people to do as they say. It becomes clear how Edward is related to the Ringmaster fairly early on, and I hated those chapters. Edward is a terrible person, no matter how much he tries to convince himself otherwise. He sometimes tries to not use his powers, but always ends up giving in, to get what he wants. And what he wants is Ruth. He compels her to run away with him, and does horrible things to her mother who tries to stop him, and later he marries her. It’s never made explicit, but the implication of rape in that situation is inevitable and I shuddered through every one of those chapters.

The other thread in the book is the dread that underlies the future and the upcoming war and the fact that they can’t stop it. In this sense, all they’ve got is to live in the present and make the post of the time they’ve got. This is something that the Ringmaster and her family (especially her wife Odette and best friend Mauve) have to learn to do.

In the end, I’m left with a difficult rating. I would say that I appreciated this book more than I enjoyed it. How much of that is down to the book, and how much is just down to the fact that I’ve been reading very lightweight stuff over the last while is unclear. I loved the found family, but found the chase followed by cat and mouse, and the mind control stuff difficult and uncomfortable. It’s good, but I probably wouldn’t read it again.

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ISBN: 9781035018192

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