By T. Kingfisher

Rating: 4 stars

This little novella is a delightfully subversive retelling of Sleeping Beauty which takes as its starting point: what if the fairy wasn’t the bad guy in that story? What if there was a reason that the child needed to be kept asleep? Toadling is a wonderfully sympathetic protagonist, and I really liked Halim, the knight who comes sniffing around the old stories, because he’s bored and doesn’t want to hit people at tourneys.

The author says in the afterword that she considers this a sweet book. And I very much agree with her. Despite the child-eating fish people, and villain who tortures animals and animates the dead. But it is sweet. Both Toadling and Halim are kind and curious and want to do what’s right and you just want things to work out for them. You find out more about the situation Toadling is in through flashbacks: from being pulled from her happy place, to her great mistake, to trying to put it right, to just existing in a sort of stasis that it takes Halim’s arrival to pull her out of.

It’s a short novella, but feels like the perfect length for the story it’s trying to tell. I enjoyed this one a lot.

Book details

ISBN: 9781803364230
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2023

Under the Moon: Collected Speculative Fiction

By E.M. Faulds

Rating: 4 stars

This collection brings together fifteen stories featuring female, or female-coded, protagonists. Some are fun, while others are challenging, and difficult to read, especially for a male reader like myself. For me, the standout story here was One Murder Called which, incidentally, I never want to read again. It’s very powerful, putting you in the head of a woman called to seek justice for another woman, who’s been murdered. I don’t normally like second person narratives, but it works incredibly well here, leaving me squirming in my seat as I was reading it. All the pain that our protagonist has to deal with, the micro-aggressions from those around her, the PTSD from dealing with her past. And yet, a grace note of hope to end with. That one put me through the mill!

One of the characters that is “female-coded” is the protagonist of The Amelioration of Existence in Spite of Truth and Reconciliation which is an AI that once inhabited a warship, and felt itself to be mother to its crew, but now has been condemned to be the intelligence of a shop in a forbidding area of post-climate change Earth. This was a nice story that did its world-building well and gave us an AI that feels both distant but present. Not an easy task, but Faulds pulls it off.

I was worried where Isadora’s Kitchen was going to go, but despite the prejudice of the protagonist, it had a distinctly happier end than I feared. Fruiting Bodies mostly just got skimmed because I’m very squeamish about body horror, while I enjoyed the satire of using negative emotions to power the society in The Power of Negativity. It’s a nice observation on social media, but also following that thought to its logical conclusion.

My favourite story was probably The Sun Line which not only featured my beloved Scotland, but also had two competing time travellers a la This Is How You Lose the Time War. I sort of cackled when I discovered what the two sides in the conflict were!

This collection is very deserving of the BSFA Award that it won. There’s a lot of challenging stories here, but each one is preceded with content warnings where appropriate, to let the reader judge for themselves if they want to continue.

Faulds is a very talented author who I expect to see much more of in future. I’ll definitely be actively looking out for her work in future.

Book details

ISBN: 9781739685119

Where Peace Is Lost

By Valerie Valdes

Rating: 4 stars

Kel is a refugee, from an Order that chose to disband in the hope that it could do more good than continuing to fight the Pale empire. Now she’s in hiding on an out of the way planet, remaining anonymous to protect those around her. Except someone has activated one of the Pale’s giant war machines, and Kel finds herself, along with a young friend, guiding two strangers who have offered to shut it down again… for a price.

I really enjoyed Valdes’ previous trilogy featuring swashbuckling space captain Eva Innocente so pre-ordered this as soon as I found out about its existence, without even stopping to check what it was about. And now, having read it, I don’t regret that at all.

This is a quieter, more contemplative piece than the Chilling Effect books. As the author unfurls the world, you get the impression that, if she wants to be, Kel could be incredibly powerful, and could leave destruction in her wake. But that’s not what her Order was about. That can be summed up in their mantra, which Kel repeats to herself throughout the book:

“Where peace is lost, may we find it. Where peace is broken, may we mend it. Where we go, may peace follow. Where we fall, may peace rise.”

She continues to hide, always second-guessing herself – would she cause more harm by continuing to hide, or by revealing herself and fighting? And near the end of the book, you’re just waiting for the switch and for her to stand up and draw her sword… and then she makes a different choice. It’s not a story often told, and is slightly heartbreaking. (minor spoiler: you do get to see her doing her thing eventually, and it’s awesome).

The other thing I really liked about this book is showing how lonely that Kel is. She lives in the wilderness, with only the young Lunna going out of their way to befriend Kel. She tries to hide this loneliness from herself, but when she has to go on this road trip with Lunna and the off-worlders – Dare and Savvy – it starts to hit home. In a lot of ways, Kel reminds me of Obi-Wan or Yoda, albeit we see much more of the pain of self-inflicted isolation than we did with those two characters.

The romance that slowly blossoms between Kel and another character is lovely to see, between two very damaged people who, it turns out, have as much in common as divides them.

This is very much as self-contained story, but I hope Valdes comes back to the setting, since I’m sure there are more stories to be told about Kel and her new found family and resistance against the Pale. And I’m here for them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780063085930

The Dispatcher (The Dispatcher, #1)

By John Scalzi

Rating: 4 stars

In a world where 999 out of every 1000 people killed deliberately disappear and reappear in their own homes, with their bodies reset to pre-murder status, it seems that murder is a thing of the past. And, of course, a new industry grows up around this new fact of life. What if an operation was going wrong, and the patient was going to die? Have a licensed professional on standby to kill them, so that they reappear safely and you can try again. Our protagonist is one of these “Dispatchers”, who gets involved in the disappearance of one of his colleagues, working with the local police to unravel the mystery.

This is a nice, tight novella, where Scalzi pulls together a clever mystery and the world-building necessary for it, together with his trademark snark into a satisfying whole. There’s a lot of implications of this new world and it sounds like the inhabitants, as well as the readers, are only just getting to grips with it.

This is the first in a series, set in this world. There’s definitely scope for more stories here and I’ll look out for others in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 159606787X

The Golden Enclaves (The Scholomance, #3)

By Naomi Novik

Rating: 4 stars

It’s been a very long time since a series sucked me in as much as this one did. I was actively resentful, not just of having to go to work, but other fun things that took me away from finishing it. But finish it I did, and it was a fab and satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.

We pick up immediately from where we left off, with El having been pushed out the gate of the Scholomance by Orion, to deal with Patience himself. Obviously, this is a bit traumatic, and despite her efforts, she can’t bring him back. But time is not on her side, so rather than being left to grieve, she’s pulled into the thick of things when there’s an attack on London enclave. And from there, it’s a whirlwind of jetsetting around the world, hopping from enclave to enclave (including a trip back to the Scholomance itself) as the revelations continue to pile on. And when we find out just what Orion really is and how he gained his very specific powers, it’s as heartbreaking for us as it is for El.

El reminds me of a mix of Wednesday Addams and Granny Weatherwax. She’s incredibly powerful, and very angry at having to be the good one. She could lean in to her power and nobody in the world could stop her, but she makes Granny’s choice again and again, having to rein in her dark side. In this she’s helped and kept grounded by her friends, particularly Aadhya and Liu, who have become not just allies, but BFFs. Liesel from the second book plays a much bigger role here, joining El’s circle of friends, almost despite herself. but Liesel clearly does likes El, even if I wasn’t entirely keen on the leaning into stereotypes of German efficiency.

One issue I had was that for the first half or more, it felt like El had very little agency. She was just jumping from one crisis to the next, without ever getting time to sit and decide what she wants to do. And by the end of it, I honestly didn’t think it was going to end well. When we find out the truth of how enclaves are founded, and the truth of Orion, I was sure that there could only be one outcome. But Novik sidestepped that and gave us something more hopeful.

I like that there’s no clear “bad guys” here. The closest that we get is Orion’s mum, but even she has reasons for what she does and can’t just be written off. When it comes down to it, her objectives and El’s aren’t that dissimilar. There’s lots of shades of grey, which honestly makes for a more interesting story.

I love the fact that sexuality basically isn’t a thing here. El turns out to be bi and nobody bats and eyelid, and she’s not the only one. In fact, there are several queer relationships that are just there and valid. This is, absolutely, the future that liberals want! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to search AO3 for fanfic of the El/Orion/Liesel polycule that is so clearly missing here.

Book details

ISBN: 9780593597699
Publisher: Random House
Year of publication: 2022

The Last Graduate (The Scholomance, #2)

By Naomi Novik

Rating: 4 stars

This book picks up pretty much immediately after where the last one ended, with El entering her final year in the Scholomance, and working with her new allies (and, indeed, friends) to try and graduate (ie leave the Scholomance without dying), as well as working out her feelings for class “hero” Orion. It’s a setup that gets torn apart relatively quickly as El realises that her conscience won’t let her just play the odds to get just her group out. It’s very much about deciding that the only way to win is to not play, and changing the rules.

The book starts off by having the Scholomance throw everything it can at El. I had wondered about this in the previous book, where it seemed like the school had a slightly wonky AI that was trying its best, but here it does seem out to get her. Why would the wizards who created the school make it malevolent, if they were trying to keep their kids safe? That question does get answered (and it’s quite the revelation), and the solution that El and her friends come up with is pretty jaw-dropping.

El’s character arc continues here, as she begins to accept that, even in the Scholomance, people aren’t intrinsically selfish and may be willing to work for the good of the many, rather than just themselves. She becomes more aware of when she can’t do something herself and becomes able to ask for help.

And then there’s that ending. It builds to a great crescendo of mutual aid and everyone working together, and then wham, you get that ending. I think if I didn’t have the next one sitting next to me, ready to go, I may have thrown the book across the room! Thankfully, I did have the next one, so I was able to just emit something between a gasp and a chuckle and be angry that it was late and I needed to go to bed like the responsible adult I am, rather than go straight into the next one.

It took me the whole of the first book to get over my nitpicking of the worldbuilding, but I tore through this book. Very readable, with a great protagonist and a hopeful message.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529100907

Rivers of London: Here Be Dragons

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 3 stars

This was fun but pretty inessential. I’m a bit disappointed that Aaronovitch himself has stepped back from the graphic novels, and now even his friend and collaborator Andrew Cartmel has moved to “script editor” rather than writer. This was a fun enough story about dragons (sorry, wyverns) running around London, with added rock stars and roadies. I enjoyed it, but it felt slight. Peter had his internal monologue, but it didn’t sparkle the way that it has done in the past (although I did enjoy his er, edited retelling to himself of the creatures he’s faced in the past).

I might not preorder the next one, but wait and see what people say once it’s out.

Book details

ISBN: 9781787740921

A Deadly Education (The Scholomance, #1)

By Naomi Novik

Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed Novik’s previous couple of books, the ones themed around Eastern European mythology, but this is quite a departure from that style. When I first heard it was yet another magical school, where terrible things happened to the students, I just rolled my eyes and decided to skip this trilogy, but after several people told me that it was worth reading, I borrowed it from a friend to give it a go.

The book is told in the first person by Galadriel (El) Higgins, a student at the Scholomance, a school for wizards that exists outside time and space, from which under half of the enrolling students graduate from. El is a pretty spiky protagonist. She has an affinity for spells of mass destruction, something that she desperately doesn’t want, and, despite her own delusions of practicality, she can’t bring herself to suck power out of the environment (read: people) around her to power her spells, so she spends her nights doing sit-ups and other painful and tedious things to build up the required mana to use basic mending magic.

The school is also full of monsters, most of which can’t make it past the hall that connects it to the outside world, but some get into the ducts and pipes and which pick off the weaker and less well connected students to provide a tasty meal. The big question is why you would ever send your children to such a place. The answer that the book provides is that it’s because it’s better than the alternative. Here, they’ve got some protection and it’s harder for the “mals” to get in, whereas in the outside world, the young wizards, who haven’t come into their full strength yet, would be easy pickings.

I’m not convinced, especially for the rich kids. In this world, the resource that makes a difference isn’t money, it’s being part of an enclave. Enclaves seem to be like the school: large communal spaces that exist in “the void”, offering protection from the mals. Why would residents of the enclaves still send their kids to the Scholomance? Why wouldn’t they keep them home and school and protect them there? But Novik uses the fact that they don’t to highlight the class system, whereby “independent” kids end up desperately currying favour with enclave kids to try and be offered a place in the enclaves. They end up doing most of the maintenance in the Scholomance, in the hopes of making alliances. The thing is, that even if they do, the enclave kids usually just use them as human shields, letting them take the hits while they escape the Scholomance after graduation.

It all sounds perfectly awful. And it mostly is. But we’re seeing it from a specific point of view. El is very much an outsider, who has few social skills and no alliances. We join her the year before in her penultimate year (and it’s nice to have a wizard school where we don’t start in first year and work our way up), with no friends and very few people even willing to tolerate her presence. But during the course of the book, we see, through her grudging eyes that not everyone is motivated entirely by self-interest, and that friendship, and even romance, is possible.

I don’t, for one moment, believe in the world of the Scholomance. I can’t believe that this was the only solution that the best magical minds of the age could work out to protect their children, but, despite myself (and despite her), I started to become fond of El, and I want to see where her story goes next.

It was a slow start, with a lot of infodumps in the first few chapters, but the pace really picked up towards the end of the book and I shall definitely be reading the sequel.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529100877
Publisher: DelRey Books

Jackalope Wives and Other Stories

By T. Kingfisher

Rating: 5 stars

This is a fantastic collection of stories. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Kingfisher/Vernon’s longer fiction – she writes great novels and novellas (not to mention webcomics; I first encountered her through the Hugo-winning Digger) but I’ve not read any of her short stories until now. And what stories! There’s not a bad story here, and very few ‘meh’ ones. Godmother contains elements that she would expand in Nettle and Bone; Jackalope Wives deserves all the awards that it’s won, and its protagonist returns in The Tomato Thief for another adventure (is it just me or does Grandma Harken remind anyone else a bit of Granny Weatherwax?). There are funny and charming stories (That Time With Bob and the Unicorn or Cinderella retelling The Dryad’s Shoe), and deeply creepy ones (Razorback or Origin Story) but all are very well told and perfectly formed.

Book details

ISBN: 9781614504030
Publisher: Argyll Productions
Year of publication: 2017

Supergirl, Volume 1: Last Daughter of Krypton

By Michael Green

Rating: 4 stars

I picked this up purely because it’s on Kindle Unlimited which I’m going to get rid of soon and I wanted to see what comics were there. I don’t know anything about the New 52 or any other background on it, but this was pretty standalone, and I don’t feel that I’m missing any context.

Superman’s cousin, Kara Zor-El, crash-lands on Earth and Kara comes out, disoriented. As far as she’s concerned, Kal-El is a baby and she has no memory of leaving Krypton. Earth forces try to seize her (sigh, of course they do) and she responds in kind, discovering her powers in the process.

Kara is somewhat impetuous, and prone to preferring violence to discussion. Immediately after the crash, you can understand this, but when she goes searching for her home and encounters an alien, the first thing she does is punch them. Not exactly conducive to influencing people and making friends. But she does learn from the encounter and speeds back to protect Earth from the “worldwreckers” while Superman is otherwise engaged.

The pace of the story is good, and it introduces all the characters it needs to, without feeling bogged down. It also sets up a long-term mystery, while still having a satisfying story in this volume. I’m not going to keep Kindle Unlimited for much longer, but I’m intrigued enough about Kara and her story that I might pick up a few more volumes while I can.

Book details

ISBN: 9781401236809
Publisher: DC Comics

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