BooksOfTheMoon

Prime Deceptions

By Valerie Valdes

Rating: 4 stars

The second book in the adventures of Captain Eva Innocente picks up about six months after the first, with the crew of La Sirena Negra now picking up missions from Eva’s sister, Mari, to harass The Fridge, the organised crime ring that Eva thought had kidnapped Mari and forced her to work for them to pay her ransom in the first book. Now the group that Mari works for offers them a mission to find a missing scientist (and also, coincidentally, the brother of new engineer Sue, who was also kidnapped by The Fridge). Unfortunately, the trail leads Eva to the site of her greatest failure, and something she’s been running from for years.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s fast-paced, full of action, and a lot of fun. Eva is a great protagonist: hot-headed, always preferring to look after she leaps, and full of enough angst to satisfy a gaggle of emos. The rest of the crew are still not as well-developed, although there was a slightly delightful geek romance going on (which self-absorbed Eva obviously didn’t catch on to until way later than she should have). I was disappointed that although Leroy made an appearance, it was more a cameo than anything else. He had a really interesting background that I would have loved to see explored in more detail.

I was also a bit disappointed that the amorous emperor from the first book pretty much disappeared in this one, hand-waved away with a one-line explanation. After his return at the end of the last one, I thought he’d play more of a part here. Oh well, that still left plenty for the crew to get their teeth into.

In the last book, we had a pop-culture reference in the shape of Portal guns. Valdes goes one better here, by introducing evil Pokémon (there’s another one later one, but given the glee I felt when I figured it out [much later than I should have!], I’ll not spoil it for viewers at home).

This is a really fun series. I don’t speak Spanish at all, but I’m happy to treat the Spanish language stuff as set dressing, something that adds atmosphere without necessarily needing to go into it in great detail (at least I hope not, since I rarely reached for Google Translate). There’s another book in the series coming, and I look forward to spending more time with Eva, Vakar and the rest of the crew of La Sirena Negra.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356514437
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2020

Light Chaser

By Peter F. Hamilton

Rating: 4 stars

Amahle is a Light Chaser, the pilot of a starship that makes a long, slow circuit around human space, at nearly the speed of light, carrying trade and information between worlds, coming to each planet in her circuit roughly every thousand years. But a name keeps coming up again and again, and with it a conspiracy as deep and ancient as human spaceflight.

I’m guessing that the pace of this cracking belter of a space opera must come from Powell. This is sort the sort of idea that Hamilton would make a door-stop trilogy (at least) out of. Despite the brevity, we get a good thumbnail sketch of this interstellar human meta-civilisation, as Light Chasers are rare and many planets are stuck at different stages of civilisation, whether this is age of steam, feudalism, all the way up to post-scarcity. What Amahle uncovers leads her to wonder at why these various societies are as static as they are.

Amahle is engineered for longevity, and her relativistic travel basically puts her outside of all human societies, other than her peers (none of whom make an appearance here). Even by her relative standard, she’s probably hundreds (maybe thousands) of years old. From the point of view of the outside world, she’s timeless. And yet, even her enhanced human mind can’t hold that many memories, so she’s resigned to the old constantly making way for the new, losing more of herself with every planet she visits.

There’s also a mystical strand that runs through the story, with the idea of reincarnating souls and (literally!) star-crossed lovers destined to meet across many lifetimes, which is a bit weird but it fits.

I went through a Hamilton phase in my 20s, where I read everything I could get hold of (although I’ve not read anything by him in probably a decade now). I’ve not read as much Powell, but this is a neat fusion of the two, not really feeling like either but a solid third voice. It’s a very enjoyable light space opera that breezes through different human societies in pages, where it could have spent whole chapters (or even books) in them, racing towards its finale at breakneck speed. A lot of fun to read.

Book details

Publisher: Tordotcom
Year of publication: 2021

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

By T. Kingfisher

Rating: 5 stars

Mona is a teenage girl with the very specific magical ability to work with bread. From telling it not to burn, to making gingerbread men dance, Mona is the very definition of a minor wizard. But she’s happy being a baker, working with her Aunt Tabitha, and using her magic to help her. Until the other wizards of the city start disappearing, until soon she’s on the run for her life. And then, she’ll be the only thing standing between her city and an invading army.

I loved this little novella. It was charming, but with enough of a hard edge to make it worth savouring. Mona is a great protagonist, whose actions feel believable all the way through (up to and including the giant gingerbread golems). She doesn’t want to be doing this, she’s a teenage girl, and she’s (rightly) angry that all this has fallen on her shoulders. Why wasn’t the duchess stronger? Why didn’t other people speak out? Why was it left up to her?

But despite it all, she rises to the occasion (pun very much intended). With obligatory Little Orphan Boy (Spindle) at her side and with the help of her familiar – a sourdough starter called Bob (really, it’s scarier than it sounds) – she fights bigotry, rogue wizards and bureaucrats (as well as the aforementioned invading army).

The world is well-developed, without any big infodumps and the writing is clear and a joy to read. I’d love to read more of Mona’s adventures, but that would require her to be a hero again, which would make her angry, and she might set Bob on me.

Book details

Publisher: Red Wombat Studio

Cage of Souls

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 2 stars

Shadrapar is the last remaining city on Earth, with the remnants of humanity having retreated behind its walls. Stefan Advani wears many hats, but the most important one when we meet him is that of prisoner. Taken away from Shadrapar, to the Island, the brutal prison where all the city’s outcasts are exiled.

The most immediate comparison that came to mind when I read the blurb for this book was Clarke‘s The City and the Stars, but Shadrapar is no Diaspar. A more fitting comparison might be to Jack Vance‘s Dying Earth series. It’s got that sort of vaguely mythological feel to it, a mix of high and low technology, and a grime embedded by building on countless previous civilisations that have risen and fallen on the planet since our day – so long past that even myths of our time have been lost.

But Tchaikovsky’s world is far more depressing than that of either Clarke or Vance. Stafan’s world is just the Island, where the Marshal rules with a rod of iron, under the mostly absent Governor. He rules through fear, killing merely as an example; throughout the whole book we never see him betray any emotion other than hatred. Alongside him, is Gaki. A fellow prisoner, but one that Stefan fears as much as the Marshal. He doesn’t do much beyond scare Stefan for most of the book, until the end when his true psychopathy becomes clear.

Amongst the pain and grime of the Island, there are little elements of hope. Stefan befriends a warden named Peter, who is kind to him throughout his life on the Island, and he makes a few friends amongst fellow prisoners, but these are pinpricks in the misery and hopelessness that the book is steeped in for much of its length.

The book offers flashbacks to Stefan’s life prior to the island, and we get to see both Shadrapar and its Underworld. The city is corrupt, with the elite chasing each other’s debt and mutilating themselves for fashion. And the Underworld has its factions and its poverty, but it seems to have a sort of energy to it that the city proper hasn’t.

And then there’s the ending.

Spoiler

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that ends with the vast majority of the remaining human race killed off, and off-screen, at that! The book is vague about the remaining number, but seems to come down on the side of it not being a viable population to recover from. So Tchaikovsky basically makes the Human race extinct. And yet… it’s not entirely hopeless. The web-children may not be a direct genetic successor, but they are our inheritors, the ones who will use Stefan’s mind-power knowledge and maybe create something better.

I mean, that’s bare scratchings of hope – basically burn it all down and start again from scratch, in the hope that it’ll be better. Humanity has had its chance, and it’s been found wanting. Not my idea of hope, but not as bitter an ending as I’d feared.

So yeah, Tchaikovsky is an accomplished writer, very capable of creating vivid characters, worlds and scenes. But he also seems to be a pretty dark writer. Between this and Bear Head, I think I’m putting his books down and walking away.

Book details

A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot, #1)

By Becky Chambers

Rating: 4 stars

Sibling Dex is a monk whose vocation is to travel the lands and listen to people’s problems – a sort of travelling therapist. But they feel dissatisfied with their life, and so begin a journey that will take them out of the human lands, into the wild spaces that were given over to nature, and to where the robots retreated when they gained consciousness. They meet one such robot, Splendid Speckled Mosscap, and begin a conversation.

Dex is an interesting character, aware that something’s not quite right but unable to identify it and change it themselves. Mosscap is a very different personality entirely, curious about everything and delighting in the world around it. It doesn’t show up until about a third of the way through the book (until then we’re learning about Dex and the world of Panga in which they live, where humans try to tread lightly through the natural world), but livens up every page thereafter.

The book is optimistic and hopeful; portraying a world where humans realised the damage they were doing during the oil-burning “Factory Age” and made a conscious effort to stop. They use their technology in a very different way now, and although I can’t quite see how we’d get there from here, it’s definitely something to strive towards.

Like all of Chambers’ writing, this story is kind and humane, and a pleasure to read. I might grumble about the cost of novellas, but that won’t stop me from snapping up the next one as soon as it’s available.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250236210
Publisher: Tor.com
Year of publication: 2021

Chilling Effect

By Valerie Valdes

Rating: 4 stars

Eva Innocente is the captain of the small freighter La Sirena Negra (or The Black Mermaid for those of us who don’t speak Spanish). After some dodgy stuff in her past, she’s trying to go straight, and then she discovers that her sister has been kidnapped by the ruthless organised crime organisation known as The Fridge. Eva will do whatever she has to to free her sister, and if that means giving up her crew and the life she’s built, then so be it.

This was a fun, if fairly episodic, space opera, with Eva dashing between assignments for The Fridge, inevitably getting into trouble at each stop, and trying to keep everything from her crew for as long as possible. There’s a creepy guy who makes a pass at her at one of these who Eva turns down. Except that he turns out to be an emperor who won’t take no for an answer, and keeps popping up after that with his fleet, trying to add her to his harem. Oh, and there’s psychic cats.

Apart from Eva, the crew of La Sirena Negra don’t get much characterisation, which is a shame, since there’s a lot of potential there, especially for Leroy, who spent years as a “meat-puppet soldier”, with his body being piloted remotely in some unknown war, and who now has PTSD. There’s also Pink, the ship’s medic, who also served with Eva in her shady past, and Min, the pilot, who spends more time linked to the ship than her own body. And then there’s Vakar, the new engineer. He’s the only non-human (other than the cats) on the ship and I don’t think he was really described very much, other than having “pangolin-like” skin and “face-palps”. I’m struggling to picture him at all. His most interesting feature is that his scent changes depending on his mood, something that makes it very hard for him to lie, if you can understand the scents.

Valdes has created an interesting world. As is more usual these days, humans in this universe are johnny-come-latelys, not kings of the hill, and are currently in the process of applying to the current galactic federation (the amusingly named BOFA), not that Eva has much time for politics, between trying to keep her crew afloat and trying to save her sister.

The episodic nature of the story does sometimes feel a bit like going through computer game levels (something only heightened when they come across what can only be described as Portal-guns, although that made me laugh out loud when I figured out what they were).

Despite those minor complaints, there’s some decent twists, and Eva is a lot of fun, with her Mysterious Past and her found-family crew. I’m definitely looking forward to the second book in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356514420

The Witness for the Dead (The Goblin Emperor, #2)

By Katherine Addison

Rating: 4 stars

I loved The Goblin Emperor but wasn’t sure where was left for the story to go. Thankfully, for the sequel, Addison has chosen to leave the emperor’s court behind and, instead, follow a minor character from the first book – Thara Celehar, the Witness for the Dead who solved the murder of the former emperor. He’s now living in the city of Amalo and practising his calling, when he’s called to witness for a young woman found drowned in the canal. He’s got to solve the mystery of her murder while avoiding getting bogged down in clerical politics and offending too many important people.

After the courtly intrigue of the first book, having a whodunnit as the follow-up is just the right change of pace to keep it fresh. Calehar is a sympathetic protagonist, still ridden with guilt over his dead lover, but content in his own way. The world feels established in that of The Goblin Emperor and it’s not as difficult to keep track of people and locations (although a glossary would still have been welcome). There are only the most tenuous links to the first book, so someone could easily read this without having read the first, although you would miss out on some of Celehar’s character, as his background isn’t (re-)explained here. This book also deepens the world, and adds a larger pinch of fantasy than the first one had, with Celehar’s communication with the dead, and his having to deal with risen ghouls.

The world-building is unobtrusive and well done. Of the new characters who populate this book, my favourite was Iäna Pel-Thenhior, the composer and director of the local opera, who almost becomes a Watson to Celehar’s Holmes. I love the easy working relationship that they develop together, with tentative hopes (on both sides?) that it could be more.

I’m not sure that this counts as a proper “whodunnit”, in that the reader (like Celehar) doesn’t have enough information to solve the mystery until right at the end. I don’t think there’s clues spread throughout the book to point you in the right direction. I look forward to a re-read at some point to see if that is the case.

It’s a great book, with good characterisation and world-building and a lot of heart. When it comes down to it, Celehar is a kind person, and that’s uncommon enough to be worth something, both in fiction and the real world.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781089514
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2021

New Horizons: The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction

By Tarun K. Saint

Rating: 2 stars

I kind of wish I’d enjoyed this collection of short speculative fiction from the Indian subcontinent more than I did. The omens weren’t good when then footnotes for the introduction were almost longer than the introduction itself. And it was long and dry, feeling very much like someone wanted to be able to repurpose it at some point into an academic paper.

There was a mix of old and new stories, with some historical ones, although most were modern. It would have been nice to have some clue as to to the age of each story, actually, since the copyright page listing the stories was incomplete, and some of the ones that were present lacked dates.

The stories themselves were a mixed bag. The editor notes in the introduction that SF isn’t a genre that’s been historically popular in south Asia, but he includes some in here anyway. The opening story, Planet of Terror feels very “Golden Age”, and that’s followed by a satire in which a police inspector goes to the moon, to teach the people of the moon the ways of a modern, efficient police force (i.e. corruption and bribery). A lot of the stories are quite dystopian, which isn’t really my cup of tea, and many of the others feel quite experimental, and what can I say, I prefer more traditional styling in my fiction.

It’s a mixed bag, of course, and I did enjoy some of the stories. These included The Man Who Turned Into Gandhi, a diary of a man who, er, turns into Gandhi, and how he tries to continue living his life; Flexi-time is a gently humorous story about the perils of living your life too regimented and a paean to “Indian time”; and the last story Reunion is a cli-fi piece about the importance of change and adaptability. My favourite story is probably S. B. Divya’s Look Up, about a broken family, one of whom is trying to put her past life behind her with a new start on Mars.

So, an uneven collection, not to my taste, but I still think it’s important and that there should be more like it. I’ll certainly keep looking out for them, hoping that a different editor has tastes closer to mine.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473228689
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2020

Vet in Harness

By James Herriot

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this fourth volume of James Herriot’s veterinary memoirs even more than the preceding volumes. This volume spends less time on farms with Jim elbow-deep in a cow’s vagina, and more time with some of the smaller animals that a vet sometimes has to deal with, particularly dogs. There’s also a slightly melancholy air to it, as although it’s hardly mentioned, the War is looming. And indeed, this volume ends with Jim being called up to serve, along with his partner Siegfried and the newly qualified Tristan (Siegfried’s brother), leaving the practice in the care of strangers.

Speaking of those two characters, another change to previous volumes is that they barely show up. There’s an amusing story of Siegfried judging a Christmas cake and Tristan pranking a drunk who mistakes their surgery for the GP practice next door, but other than that, it’s very much just Jim trudging through the Yorkshire hills and the characters he meets in his practice.

To make up for it to some degree, we’re introduced to a new regular – the specialist small animal surgeon Granville Bennett, a larger than life character with whom Jim inexplicably tries to match drink for drink every time they meet up, and ends up consistently making a fool of himself, in an endearing way.

Like the other Herriot memoirs, this is a very gentle and readable book, where Herriot’s love of the Yorkshire countryside is often to the fore. I look forward to the next one soon.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330443562
Publisher: Pan Books (UK)
Year of publication: 2006

The Five Brothers (Krishnavatara, #3)

By K.M. Munshi

Rating: 3 stars

The third volume of the Krishnanavatara deals mostly with the five Pandava brothers, with Krishna relegated to political mover and shaker, rather than taking part in the adventures himself. Duryodhana, the son of the blind king Dhritarashtra* hates his cousins, the five brothers, and plots to have them killed. Through “shenanigans”, they are believed dead, but go into hiding, only to be miraculously “brought back to life” by Krishna when it’s politically convenient.

In the course of the book, we encounter cannibalistic rakshasas, ridiculously overblown senses of entitlement, and a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a trans man. Through it all Krishna goes from crisis to crisis, exerting his (supernatural?) charisma, making people trust him and making unwise promises. But he somehow pulls it all together and comes out smelling of roses.

It does feel like most of the problems in the book (not counting cannibalistic rakshasas, who can be dealt with in the old-fashioned way of killing the existing chief and becoming their king) were mostly down to vastly inflated egos. Both Duryodhana and the brahmin master of warfare Dronacharya are idiots who who can’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

I did know about the polyandry of Draupadi marrying all five of the Pandava brothers, but I hadn’t known how that came about. She was “won” by Arjuna, but through a ridiculous misunderstanding, his mother tells him to share “his alms” with his brothers. And the boys always do what their mother tells them… Even though she admits that she made a mistake. It’s just silly.

We also finally get some “real” magic in this book, with both a Brahmin who heals the lame, and a Yaksha who magically turns Shikhandin from a girl into a boy. I’m still surprised how sympathetically that was handled, by the way (although I suspect it wouldn’t have been so understanding if the case had been that of a trans woman).

I will continue to read these, as I get a chance, but I can’t help feeling that so much could have been defused by people talking about their feelings, and going to therapy.

* it’s commented several times in the book that Dhritarashtra couldn’t be a king, because he’s blind (um, sure), and so his son couldn’t either (eh?), and yet Dhritarashtra is very definitely a king, and Duryodhana becomes crown prince, so I don’t know what that’s about

Book details

ISBN: 8172763786
Publisher: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan
Year of publication: 2006

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