Wynonna Earp: Strange Inheritance

By Beau Smith

Rating: 2 stars

I suspect like many people, I came to this via the TV show from the mid 2010s, and in that context, it’s a bit of a shock to the system. The 90s and early 00s were not great for women in comics, as the awful representation of Wynonna here show. In the first two thirds of the book, she’s pure cheesecake: scantily clad, with physics-defying breasts and big guns. The final third, which was written in 2011 fares better. The art now depicts Wynonna with a more believable body shape and sensible dress. The big guns are still around though. It also really leans into that 90s/00s ultra-violence thing as well.

In terms of storytelling, it’s also very different to the TV show. Rather than an unwilling member of the Black Badge Division, Wynonna is recruited and is an enthusiastic member of the Division, travelling the country, shooting paranormal things until they stop arguing. Whereas the TV show restricts the action to a single town and its surrounding areas, the comic goes all over the US, from the mid-west to New York to Alaska. I do wonder what made some TV execs look at this comic and decide that they wanted to buy the rights to it. Especially given how differently the TV show turned out from the source material.

It’s maybe interesting from an historical perspective, but it’s not that great, to be honest, and maybe only one for a completist. I’m just glad that I read it through Kindle Unlimited and didn’t pay any money for it.

Book details

Year of publication: 2016

The Hanging City

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 2 stars

I’ve read and enjoyed several other books by the same author, so had high hopes for this one too. Unfortunately, it just didn’t come together for me, in a way that I’m struggling to explain. I didn’t particularly engage with the protagonist, Lark, a young woman on the run from an abusive father, or really anybody in the city of Cagmar, in which she finds refuge. Lark has the power to invoke fear in others, something that the elders of the city find they can use to protect themselves against the monsters that haunt their underground city.

The city is quite interesting, being built to hang off a giant bridge over a canyon, and grows downwards into the canyon. Lark is initially housed with a warrior and her brother, Azmar, who is an engineer, helping maintain and extend the city. Other than its upside down nature, there’s not a lot to find attractive about Cagmar and the trolls (or trollis as they’re called here) that inhabit it. It’s a very strictly caste-driven society, where strength is valued above all and the few human refugees are treated as below even the lowest of the trolls.

For someone who wields the power of fear, Lark spends so much of the book afraid herself. Of not being granted refuge, of not keeping that status, of the slowly building romance with Azmar. It made the book a chore to read and I seriously thought about giving up several times.

(I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but this is a major part of why I struggled with the book): I fear for the romance between Lark and Azmar. While love is a powerful force, such a union between human and trollis is taboo in Cagmar, and the single half-troll that Lark encounters in the city is regarded as an abomination, and there’s nothing to suggest that humans would react any better. Lark puts a lot of faith into the human settlement that she hears about where there’s another half trollis who seems to accepted. But there’s a difference between tolerance and acceptance, and when she and Azmar leave Cagmar at the end of the book, with everyone in the city turned against them, it’s putting a lot of faith in something she’s only heard about second hand.

There was some interesting world-building about how humans had dominated the trollis in the past, until climate change caused their civilisation to crash into something that struggles to just survive, but I didn’t think this was integrated into the story particularly deeply.

So not a book that worked for me, but I trust the author enough to still look out for other stuff that she’s got coming up.

Book details

ISBN: 9781662508714
Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2023

Eat, Drink & Be Witchy (Witch on the Rocks, #3)

By Lily Harper Hart

Rating: 2 stars

You know when you really want something to happen, and then it does, and it’s not great? Well that’s what it felt like when Hali and Gray finally got together in this book. It sort of feels like Gray has had a personality transplant, like the cringeworthy early scene when Hali is trying to tell him about a murder, and he just wants to find out about her breakfast. Urgh.

Apart from a prologue, the merrow don’t make an appearance in this book, but there’s plenty else going on, although the two protagonists are more interested in their new relationship (not that this stops them still constanstly sniping at each other) than the murder.

The world-building is frustratingly vague for me. Like Hali is a member of a coven, but it’s not clear what that entails. She never seems to attend meetings or anything, and the coven appear in the background of scenes without really doing very much. And Hali’s powers are very ill-defined. In the first book, they seemed to be about telepathy, but this time round she’s lobbing fireballs from her hands. And what really is the status of the paranormal world? Although everyone says that they need to keep it secret from the normals, it feels like everyone and their flamingo know about it. And speaking about flamingos, I was fully expecting Hali’s drunken familiar to turn out to be Chekov’s Flamingo, but three books in and he’s just a drunk. A bit pathetic, but it’s frustrating that neither he nor Hali seem to make any effort with the other.

There’s an interesting, and somewhat surprising, subplot regarding sex work, with younger members of Gray’s pack having to fend for themselves after an altercation with the pack, but this is never really unpacked, and both Gray and Hali have a depressingly negative view of sex work which I don’t really get.

I’ll still read the next book but this one feels like a dramatic fall in quality to me.

Book details

The Perfume of the Lady in Black

By Gaston Leroux

Rating: 2 stars

The shadow of the villain of The Mystery of the Yellow Room looms large over this book. The fear of Larsan causes terror and almost hysteria in almost every major character, to quite a wearying degree. It felt really overdone to me, to the point where I mostly just stopped caring. Our detective, Rouletabille, is a shadow of his previous self here, as he quakes in terror of Larsan, and some personal stuff relating to the eponymous Lady in Black, quite removing his ability to drive the plot in any meaningful way until right at the end of the book.

While I’d enjoyed The Mystery of the Yellow Room, the overwrought writing style here feels very different. The narrator is attempt to install a sense of dread in the reader. To this reader, at least, it backfired badly.

On top of that, the physical book that I had didn’t do the story any favours. It looks like a badly OCR-ed print-on-demand edition with so many typos that really distract from the story. It’s also printed on a page size larger than a standard paperback, making the lines just slightly too long to read comfortably, and is missing at least one illustration – the plan of the castle where most of it takes place, which would have been very useful in visualising what was going on (although there is a large gap in the text to indicate where it should be).

The book is in the public domain, but doesn’t seem to be on Gutenberg yet (if anyone wants to undertake that, there’s a scanned copy of the book at Hathitrust).

I’d say this may be of historical interest, but I didn’t find the plot engaging, or the characters particularly interesting.

Book details

ISBN: 9781533186461

Wages of Sin

By Kaite Welsh

Rating: 2 stars

Sarah Gilchrist is a female medical student in 1892 Edinburgh, living with relatives after being exiled by her family after a scandal, and struggling to manage her studies and the disdain of both faculty and fellow students. She also spends evenings working in a poor hospital, and when she finds one of the patients on her dissection table the next day, she can’t let it go.

Firstly, I wonder if “Sarah” Gilchrist is a reference to Marion Gilchrist, who was getting her medical doctorate (the first woman to get such a qualification in Scotland), on the other side of the country, in Glasgow, at around the same time as this book is set.

Anyway, aside from possible coincidences of nomenclature, I struggled a bit with this book, although I whizzed through it. It’s not huge, and I got through it in an afternoon off work. Sarah is incredibly impulsive, not hesitating to trail men into the worst parts of the city. And, as we learn, she should really know better. She’s also very mistrustful of men, being quick to see any action in the worst light, and being ready to believe the worst of them. We find out why this is, and what has happened to her is truly awful, but it’s still frustrating to see her making poor decision after poor decision.

And you might expect solidarity from her fellow female students, but they’re under the thumb of class mean girl Julia and keep their distance, at best. I assume that Welsh is isolating Sarah on purpose, to make us empathise more with her, but it’s also exhausting to read.

She doesn’t even really solve the mystery. The mystery solves her, more or less, and it comes completely out of the blue. I know I’m not good at figuring out whodunnit, but I don’t know that there were any clues here at all. And I also don’t really get the murderer’s actions towards the end of the book. The attempt on Sarah’s life seems entirely unnecessary, given how clueless the girl was. There was another person who it would have made more sense to silence, but maybe it was deliberate – the author showing the murderer’s judgement slipping and them making mistakes?

I’m not that familiar with Edinburgh, but enough of the ancient city has survived intact to the modern era that I was able to follow the famous streets and landmarks that Sarah lives amongst (unlike poor Glasgow which had a shovel taken to its heart after WW2). Still, it’s nice to see something set in Scotland, rather than London, which always seems to be where murderers and detectives set up shop.

So, I sympathised a lot with Sarah’s predicament – I can’t imagine the strength of will necessary to recover from what happened to her, and then deal with the scorn of trying to do a medical degree in that period as well. But I found many of her actions bizarre and unreasonable, and I never really saw why she got so obsessed with this murder over any of the others that must be happening in the city at any given time. I’ll not be searching out any more of her adventures, I don’t think.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472239822
Year of publication: 2018

Journey Beyond Tomorrow

By Robert Sheckley

Rating: 2 stars

I gave up on this book after about 70 pages, which is disappointing as I’ve got a lot of time for Sheckley and generally enjoy his work (although I do find that he tends to be better at the shorter form than the long). This very much feels like it’s talking about its own time, that being the early 1960s, although obviously the satire on the failures of the justice system depressingly apply as much today as they did half a century ago. But although the satire was on-point, I just wasn’t particularly enjoying the book, and didn’t think it would get better. I did jump forward to the last couple of chapters, and that pretty much confirmed my decision to give up on it was the right one.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575041226
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1987

Mail Obsession: A Journey Round Britain by Postcode

By Mark Mason

Rating: 2 stars

This book sort of falls between two stools for me. It tries to be a travel book crossed with a trivia book, and doesn’t entirely succeed at either for me. It sort of felt like the author was trying to outdo Bill Bryson, and, friends, he is no Bill Bryson. Notes From a Small Island did the tour round Britain so much better, and even when Bryson didn’t like a place, it never felt like he was looking down his nose at it, the way Mason does about Belfast, Swansea or Southall.

Because I never entirely liked the authorial voice, I didn’t get on with the book. The facts are fun and all, but they’re pretty random, and while I’d hoped that the Royal Mail might act as as central theme, it didn’t really feature that much.

A bit disappointing, and, I suspect, a book that will find its way off my bookshelves, the next time they need clearing out a bit.

Book details

ISBN: 9781780228334
Publisher: Weidenfeld Nicolson
Year of publication: 2016

Driving Blind

By Ray Bradbury

Rating: 2 stars

I’ve enjoyed almost everything I’ve read by Bradbury over the years, but this collection left me a little cold. It’s from the tail end of his career and, unfortunately, most of the stories just didn’t really click for me. Most of them were non-genre and a lot of them I just didn’t get. There was an uncomfortable degree of sexism in some of the stories (I don’t know how to read The Bird That Comes Out of the Clock in a non-misogynist manner) and more “kissing-cousins” than is strictly necessary (ie greater than zero). Bradbury’s writing always had a strong streak of nostalgia running through it, but it felt very strong in this one, to the point that I was rolling my eyes at times.

Not a great collection, to be honest. This may well not be a keeper.

Book details

ISBN: 9780671022075
Publisher: Earthlight
Year of publication: 1998

The Master Magician (The Paper Magician Trilogy, #3)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 2 stars

I had been irritated by Ceony, protagonist and apprentice paper magician, a bit in The Glass Magician, but I found her so bad here that I nearly put the book down several times. I wasn’t convinced by the big reveal of the last book, that a magician can unbind themselves from their chosen material and rebind to something else, and the fact that Ceony uses it here almost as a superpower is just a bit dull. But beyond that, her paranoia and obsession with getting involved with things when others are perfectly competent to deal with them is almost upsetting. Saraj Prendi is the big bad here, upgraded from henchman in the previous book (and yes, I do find it slightly dubious that the only non-white character in the series is the bad guy) and she gets obsessed with finding him, worrying about her family and her mentor, Emery Thane. At one point, Saraj even points out to Ceony that not everything is about her, something which she should really have taken to heart much earlier.

The relationship between Ceony and Emery is now much more open (something which is still a bit dodgy) and to ensure that there’s no accusations of favouritism when she comes to do her magician’s test, he hands her off to someone that he had bullied as a child, ‘cos that’s going to go down well with everyone, isn’t it? Not that Magician Bailey gets much to do other than to glower and be Not As Good As Emery. The attempts by the author to manipulate us into disliking him are pretty obvious.

I’ve tried to ignore it, but the setting here has had me twitching since the start of the series. I’ve tried to palm it off as just an alternate world where Things Are Different, but there’s too much where Holmberg brings in real-world things that just break my suspension of disbelief. This very much didn’t feel like early Edwardian Britain, but more modern day America in terms of attitudes and actions. The stuff with Ceony’s sister sort of came out of nowhere, but it really felt much more like she was a 1990s rebellious teenager (complete with cigarette), not someone from the turn of the 20th century.

It’s a shame as, despite the flaws, I’d enjoyed the first couple of books in the series (although I thought the first was definitely better than the second) but this really didn’t work for me. After her stupidity throughout the book, I almost resented Ceony’s happy ending, which is not the way you want to leave a series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781477828694
Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2015

How the World Became Quiet

By Rachel Swirsky

Rating: 2 stars

Urgh, I hate having to review books like this. This is another case of me really not enjoying the contents of the book, but very much appreciating its literary merits. It’s difficult to give a star rating in such a case. There’s no doubting Swirsky’s talent, but she seems to have taken to using writing as a substitute for therapy. There’s a lot of grimdark and depressing stories in this collection, far too many for my tastes. The collection starts as it means to go on, with the first story, the novella The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window starting with a powerful sorceress being murdered and then recalled on a recurring basis and seeing the land change over the millennia. The protagonist of that story is a very hard woman, who despises men and from a culture that uses lower caste women as walking uteruses. The second story, A Memory of Wind retells the start of the Iliad from the point of view of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, who must be sacrificed to appease the wrath of Artemis.

The collection begins with a warning that there’s explicit sexual violence in two of the stories. And while The Monster’s Million Faces softens that a bit, With Singleness of Heart is just about unbearable as it gives a close-up of rape as a weapon of war.

There are some points of light in amongst the misery. The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth is a whimsical fairy tale, and The Taste of Promises is a great little SF adventure story set on Mars, where two boys have run away from home.

There’s a lot of talent in this collection, which I mostly picked up because I knew Swirsky from her time editing the audio fantasy fiction magazine Podcastle, and from her Hugo-winning story If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love. But after reading it, I’ll not be going out of my way to find more of her fiction. As I say, a talented writer, but really not to my taste.

Book details

ISBN: 9781596065505
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Year of publication: 2013

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