The Red Scholar’s Wake

By Aliette de Bodard

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve not read much of de Bodard’s Xuya universe – the odd short story, as well as the novella The Tea Master and the Detective – so I was a little lost in the world here. But the important world-building was established fairly clearly: two East Asian-inspired empires in a cold war with each other, with everyone else caught in between. This particular story involves politics and morality in clans of space pirates.

Xich Si was a scavenger, before her ship was boarded and she was captured. The Rice Fish is a starship, de facto leader of the Red Banner, and the widow of the Red Scholar, who knows that her wife wasn’t just killed in normal combat, but was betrayed. But she needs help to prove it, and Xich Si proves to be the one to help. In exchange Rice Fish offers a marriage of convenience, one that will bestow her protection on Xich Si.

There are a number of relationships at the heart of this book. Obviously there’s the marriage between Xich Si and Rice Fish, which starts off purely as a contract and evolves to something more. But there’s also a number of familial relationships and there are friendships, political and otherwise. It’s these relationships and the ties between them that make the book so compelling. Seeing the blooming trust between Xich Si and Rice Fish, is something I really enjoyed. And just as much, seeing Xich Si slowly stop being afraid of the pirates who surround her. That’s important because of her history, of the wider world that de Bodard portrays through her, that the corruption on her home station meant she was always hunched and flinching, trying not to be noticed. It’s ironic that it takes being thrown into a den of pirates to change that.

And de Bodard doesn’t sugar-coat the pirates. Despite Rice Fish’s valiant attempts, the various banners that make up the pirate group still kill people for fun, they board ships and kidnap people, either to ransom them off, or keep them as indentured bondspeople (aka slaves). Between this and the corruption of the empires, I was convinced that the author had written herself into a dead end, and there was no way out of this mess, but I didn’t give her the credit she deserves. The redemption came from an unexpected quarter, but it doesn’t feel undeserved. It’s not perfect, it couldn’t be, given what’s come before, but you can leave the book with a sense of optimism for the future.

Book details

ISBN: 9781399601368
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2023

Boy of Chaotic Making (Whimbrel House, #3)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 3 stars

This time round, Merritt is very confused when he gets a letter from Queen Victoria personally, expressing interest in his dog. The dog, of course, isn’t just a dog, but contains the soul of his many times over great uncle Owein. Victoria is not only queen, but one of the most powerful wizards in the world, as a result of a British breeding programme to try to preserve magic, and she’s interested in getting Owein moved to a human body and married to a young cousin of hers. They go over to find out more, and, after a vision sends her packing, Hulda isn’t far behind them, leaving the mess that arose from the last book to deal with later.

I enjoy Holmberg’s books, but I sort of wish she’d stay in America. Her books set in Britain just don’t convince for anyone British. I tend to avoid London but even I’m painfully aware of how sketchy her geography is. And on top of that, for a book set in 1847, “that whole mess with Ireland” is a hell of a thing to say. She might not mean it that way at all, but my first thought was that that was quite a way to dismiss the Great Famine.

But if we switch focus from history and geography to plot and characters, things do improve. This book focuses more on Merritt than Hulda and we get much more attention paid to Owein, who’s not really had that focus until now. It examines what it’s been like to effectively die multiple times, and the darkness of being left alone as just a house, left empty for decades at a time. And although he’s now mobile and can, in a sense, communicate, although haltingly with a letter-board with everyone other than Merritt, he is desperate for a new body, the ethics of which forms much of the tension in the book.

The other half of the tension comes from the arranged marriage and contract with Owein’s intended wife, a thirteen year old girl named Cora. Arranged marriage is very much one of my least favourite tropes, and the use of it here, especially in contrast to Hulda and Merritt’s love match is a bit icky, although I suspect it’s supposed to be. It’s just another way to contrast the ways that American and British society is different.

I was a little annoyed by Hulda here, as she, somewhat uncharacteristically, I think, jumps to the worst possible conclusion on two separate occasions – once in regard to another character, after learning about his family and without knowing anything about the man himself; and once in regard to Merritt. The level-headed, sensible woman of the past two books has somewhat fled. But she’s mostly just a supporting character here, and I imagine (hope) she’ll be back on form by the next book.

And yes, I’ve moaned a bunch here, but I did definitely enjoy the book and will definitely read the next one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781662508721

Witch King

By Martha Wells

Rating: 4 stars

While I’m a big fan of The Murderbot Diaries, I’ve never read any of Wells’ fantasy. But someone had an advance copy of this at Satellite 8 last year and showed it to me. It looked really interesting but I never got around to picking it up until now. And I’m glad that I finally did, as I really enjoyed it. I’m going to have to go back and read some of her older stuff now as well, I think.

Kai is a demon who wakes up to find his body dead and that he’s been caught in a water trap for about a year. He promptly kills and sucks the life out of the people trying to resurrect him to be their slave and takes a new body, finds his also-trapped pal, Ziede, and they go out to find out who did this and what happened to her wife. The book has a split story, across two time periods. In the past, we see a young Kai and during before the war against the Hierarchs, powerful magicians with a vicious xenophobic streak, who killed his adopted people; and in the present we’re trying to find out who imprisoned him and what happened to his disappeared friends. There’s a lot of politicking going on, and the world-building is drip-fed to you as you go along. I suspect that this is a book would reward re-reads, once you have a better understanding of both the world and the politics of the situation.

Despite being a demon who can suck the life out of any living creature and hop bodies on a whim, Kai is a likeable protagonist. Especially when he’s young, he just wants to live amongst the mortals his people have a treaty with, but the Hierarchs put pay to that. In the present he’s obviously substantially more mature and more powerful, but he still mostly just wants to be left alone to do his own thing, without being caught up in the empire-building and politics. It’s great writing on Wells’ part to portray someone who’s definitely the same person but in different stages of their life.

There’s some throwaway stuff about gender in here which makes for some subtle worldbuilding: when we first meet Kai in the past he’s in the body of a young woman, but he is always referred to with masculine pronouns. He moves bodies a few times and although he notes one being taller than another, or getting used to a different gait, he (nor anyone else around him) mentions the gender thing. Between that and a few throwaway lines, it sort of suggests that gender is much less of A Thing in Kai’s world than it is in ours (or, at least, that’s the case in the society that he’s from).

The magic system is interesting, having multiple different kinds of magic that can be used by different groups of people. Kai uses his own pain to power much of his magic, and this is something I would have liked to see more introspection around. If I could do something really powerful but I’d have to hurt myself really badly to do it, that would really limit the amount that I’d do that thing, or at least I’d really have to brace myself to be able to bring myself to do it. This comes up at least once, but it would have been interesting for it to be more of a thing.

This book tells pretty much a complete story, but there’s lots more to explore in the world. I don’t know if it’s intended to be standalone or part of a series, but if the latter, I’ll definitely be following Kai, Ziede and the gang in their future adventures.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250826794


By Genevieve Cogman

Rating: 4 stars

The elevator pitch for this book is: The Scarlet Pimpernel but with vampires. Eleanor is a maid working for a vampire in England. Her mistress “loans” her to the Blakeney household, ostensibly as a seamstress but the real reason is that she happens to bear a striking resemblance to the queen of France. Something which the Scarlet Pimpernel might find useful in his greatest heist ever: to rescue Marie Antoinette and her children.

I’d read The Scarlet Pimpernel when I was young, but I never really considered it critically. It was a cracking adventure, but it was all about how nobility was, er, noble and this dreadful revolution was ruining everything. Now, while the revolution might got, well, out of hand, a bit, it certainly had justification, nuance that Baroness Orczy had little time for. So I was excited to see what this version of the story would be like, already being inclined to be well-disposed to it, as I thoroughly enjoyed Cogman’s Invisible Library series. And I enjoyed it a lot. I think the author knew exactly what she was doing when she picked a working class woman to be her protagonist. She’s been raised in an aristocratic household to look up to her “betters”, and she’s horrified at what’s going on in France, but as she starts to get more involved in the situation, she finds things are more complicated than she’d like to believe. If nothing else, she starts to realise that her ambitions should rise higher than just aiming to become lady’s maid in Lady Sophie’s household.

Cogman gleefully pulls at the threads that Orczy wouldn’t have her butler touch and then you have the added fun of vampires (or sanguinocrats as the revolutionaries call them, presumably with a Gallic sneer). Vampires map on to the aristocracy so well, making literal the metaphor of sucking the blood from the people, and we have all sorts here, from the genteel English ones who hobnob in polite society, to crazed hunters and killers. And then there’s something extra thrown in about half way through the book. It’s not something that I was expecting, and to say more would be to offer spoilers, but I’m certainly curious to see where Cogman will take this in future volumes in the series. But wherever it is, I’m looking forward to being alongside Eleanor and the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel to face it down.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529083743
Publisher: Tor

Hard-Boiled Witch: Hocus Pocus, You’re Dead

By K.A. Laity

Rating: 3 stars

Fun enough little short story, but it felt a little generic to me. I didn’t get much feel for our protagonist nor much about the different kinds of magic used here. There’s obviously pre-existing relationships between the characters, but they fell a bit flat for me too. Dropping us in media res is all very well, but I’d like a bit more fleshing out. A diverting read for half an hour though.

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