Just Add Water

By John Dodd

Rating: 4 stars

Chief engineer Mara Logonova has been woken up early as her colonisation ship has developed faults that the automated systems can’t resolve. But something is clearly wrong with the AI and they seem to be in orbit of a planet. Mara has to revive some trusted crew to help her figure out what’s wrong, while avoiding the ever-present watchful AI.

The premise here of the human crew being “deconstituted” to dust and being revived by, as the title says, just adding water (it’s more complex than this, but that’s it in a nutshell) is pretty absurd, but I sort of love it. Neater than cryo-freezing or generation ships, and without the need to raise a whole generation if fertilised embryos are used. It’s very silly, but has a lovely internal logic.

This is a tightly paced novella, with few wasted words, and a sting in the tail, which I didn’t see coming. It’s fast-paced and doesn’t outstay its welcome. The characters are likeable (especially the perfectly tailored quartermaster in the three-piece suit!) and the plot keeps you engaged. Good fun.

Book details

ISBN: 9781913387457
Publisher: Luna Press Publishing
Year of publication: 2021

Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom

By Sangu Mandanna

Rating: 4 stars

Having read, and adored, Mandanna’s The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, I went looking for more works by her and found this children’s novel available in my local library. It’s very different in style and tone to Witches, fitting much more into standard portal fantasy territory, albeit with the added twist that the girl who goes through the portal, the eponymous Kiki Kallira, has fairly crippling anxiety.

At the start of the book, Kiki is out with her friend Emily and Emily’s sister and friends to the fair. A chance remark makes her realise that she can’t remember if she locked her front door on the way out, which leads her immediately to a worst case scenario (burglars have broken in and killed her mum) and she can’t stop until she leaves her friend and goes home to check. This is a strong opening, showing us just how baked in Kiki’s anxiety is, and that it’s not your everyday worrying, but something deeper. Later, Kiki finds a world that she’d drawn in her notebook coming to life and she has to go in to stop the demon who she created to terrorise it, helped only by a group of rebel kids.

Kiki has to deal with all the traditional problems that a portal fantasy protagonist has, and with her anxiety on top of that, for extra fun. There was a twist towards that end that I should probably have seen coming, but I was having too much fun with the plot to be self-aware enough of what was going on.

I don’t read much children’s fiction, but I found this very readable, with extra points for an Indian protagonist and Hindu mythology folded into the plot as well. It doesn’t talk down to the audience, and even as a middle aged man, I found Kiki well-realised and easy to relate to. I’ll be looking out for the sequel.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444963441
Publisher: Hodder Children's Books
Year of publication: 2021

Descendant Machine

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 4 stars

This book returns us to the Continuance fleet about fifty years after the events of Stars and Bones, this time following another navigator – a young woman by the name of Nicola Mafalda – whose trust in her Vanguard scoutship, the Frontier Chic is severely dented by the severe measures it takes to keep both of them alive after an unexpected attack. Some months after this, the Chic comes to her with a mission, one that involves an old flame of hers, and which she can’t turn down. This leads her into a plot to reactivate a giant machine that’s been dormant for millennia, or longer, something that could have terrible ramifications for the galaxy.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It seems that half a century in the Continuance makes a lot of difference. It feels more self-assured now, and they’ve run into many more alien species and are taking part in a loose galactic society. Nicola fits well into this new, more assured Continuance, or she did until the event that leaves her hiding out in a cottage half way up a simulated mountain. She’s a great protagonist, and most of the book is told from her point of view, with occasional deviations to the Chic and one or two others.

Powell does scale well. He showed this in Stars and Bones with the scale that was going on there. In this one, he introduces megaships that dwarf even the arks of the Continuance; mechanisms that require whole stars to power them; and a galaxy turned almost entirely into computronium. And yet, he manages to keep the scale at a human size as well, with the focus being on Nicola and the people around her. Her friends, her rivals, her lovers, the ones she trusts with her life and the ones she’d give her life to protect.

So a huge amount of fun, with a lot of fantastic world-building, and a climax that doesn’t descend into ultra-violence. Powell has created a fantastic sandbox of a world here and he’s enjoying playing in it. In the best possible way, this reminded me of Iain M. Banks Culture novels. It’s got the same scope for telling stories, without needing them to be connected. I look forward to whatever he does with it next.

Book details

ISBN: 9781789094312

Heir of Uncertain Magic (Whimbrel House, #2)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 4 stars

In the second book in this series, Hulda has to deal with people from her organisation’s parent company come over to appoint a new director, a post she’s being considered for, along with one of the gentlemen who come over. While this is going on, Merritt is getting settled into his newly disenchanted house, with its former spirit, Owein, now happily inhabiting the body of a dog. Merritt is trying to get used to the magic that he suddenly discovered at the end of the last book but he’s struggling to control it, and is also avoiding confronting his family over the revelations that the man he called his father, and who threw him out of his family home, isn’t.

This one felt really quite soapy in a lot of ways. The whole family thing with the stepfather feels right out of Days of our Lives, and then you’ve got the moustache-twirling villain who’s trying to take over BIKER, and the shadow of the first book’s Big Bad looms large. But despite that, it’s a lot of fun, I do enjoy the characters (very intrigued to find out more about Baptiste’s past – he’s obviously more than just a chef) and the romance between Hulda and Merritt is almost painfully sweet.

The idea of magic having negative consequences for its wielders was a bit more prominent here than in the previous book, especially near the start when Merritt was unable to control his ability to understand animals and plants, which robbed him of his own voice. I still think it could have been embedded more into the world and be more of an issue for magic users, but it is what it is.

I thought that this was the second of a two-book series, but there’s a third on the way, and since I enjoyed this so much I’m definitely going to pick it up.

Book details

Year of publication: 2023

Thud! (Discworld, #34; City Watch #7)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

I think I was definitely too hard on this book originally. Having re-read it for the first time in over a decade and a half, I laughed out loud a lot more than I did first time round. Maybe it’s just the events of the last decade, but I no longer feel that the themes are heavy-handed, and the plot whizzed along.

I was sort of unsure about the Sally/Angua plot, and jealousy is really not a good look on Angua. I’d actually have liked to be in Sally’s head a bit, to see what it’s like trying to fit in in a Watch where everybody knows that the Commander hates your kind.

But other than the aversion to vampires, Vimes in on top form here, trying to solve a crime in order to prevent a war in his city. One thing I did notice though is that although the book makes a lot of Vimes being incorruptible, he’s not averse to using his power to get home in order to read to his child. Admittedly, it’s not Vimes himself that does this, but he certainly doesn’t discipline Carrot for misusing authority on his behalf.

Few grumbles aside, this is a very enjoyable mid-period Pratchett with Vimes doing what Vimes does best, and some great character work (A. E. Pessimal is a work of genius).

—- Original Review (2008) —-
I enjoyed this book but it felt very much like “New Pratchett”. There were bits that made me smile, but few that made me laugh out loud. It also felt like it was hitting you on the head a bit with the themes of the book, namely politics and Getting On With Each Other. Also, it does feel a bit like a summary of lots of other Guards books. Like I say, I still enjoyed it though, it just wouldn’t be first on my list to Pratchett books to lend to someone.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552152679
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 2006

The Birthday of the World and Other Stories

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4 stars

This volume collects eight of Le Guin’s longer short stories, most of them set in the Ekuman shared universe. Most of the stories share an anthropological theme, with an outsider’s eye on the societies we encounter.

Coming of Age in Karhide explores adolescence in Gethen, the world of her novel The Left Hand of Darkness and ins and outs of sexuality in a world where gender-fluidity is part of their biology. There’s not much of a plot, but Le Guin is just having fun exploring the world through the eyes of its natives, rather than a rather biased Terran.

The Matter of Seggri has a number of Ekumen mobiles across time visiting the world of Seggri, where there is a very unbalanced ratio of male to female births, and the males are sequestered away in their own “castles” and brought out by the dominant female population to provide sex and stud services, and it follows how the society changes after first contact. It’s a fascinating study into the ethics of first contact (different Ekumen visitors make different decisions on whether or not to reveal their origins) and into such an unbalanced society and one way that it could possibly develop.

Unchosen Love and Mountain Ways are both set of the world of O, where the population have (by our standards) very complicated four-way marriages. The former involves a man of the country who falls in love with a man from a craggy oceanside fastness but who struggles to make his way in the village, questioning if love is enough to survive. While the latter involves a remote, mountain village and bending the customs to breaking point for the sake of love.

The world of Solitude is a difficult one. It’s another society where men and women are split along gender lines, with women forming communities, and when boys reach adolescence they’re expelled and have to live off the land, fighting rather than working communally. An Ekumen observer comes to this world to try and understand it, bringing her children with her. Unfortunately for her, her daughter fits in rather too well.

Old Music and the Slave Women is one that I skipped here, because I’ve read it before and found it hard going. I’m not really interested in exploring the horrors of slave-driven societies. If memory serves, it’s a good and powerful story, but not one that I want to re-read.

The title story, The Birthday of the World is one that Le Guin says she doesn’t know if it’s in the Ekumen or not. I could go either way on it. It’s an interesting society where the rulers are literally regarded as gods, with an added dose of incest. There’s prophecy and a military coup and a lot of interest.

The final story, Paradises Lost, is definitely not Ekumen. It’s a generation ship story of the middle generations who are destined to live and die on the ship having never seen Earth and who will be old when the ship reaches its destination. It shows us how the society is constructed and designed to be entirely stable, and how religious influence was controlled, but how a new religion eventually subverts this.

Le Guin is a master at constructing interesting and quirky societies, and she never forgets the place minorities within them, whether those are ethnic, religious or sexual in nature. This is a great collection from a master of the form, with a keen eye for anthropology.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575074798
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2003

84 Charing Cross Road

By Helene Hanff

Rating: 4 stars

This volume contains both the original 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, another short book that Hanff wrote about a visit that she finally was able to make to London some years later, alas after Marks and Co had closed down. The original book is probably the better of the two, giving a wonderful correspondence not only between Hanff and Marks and Co’s chief buyer, Frank Doel, but with others in the shop and Frank’s family that she gets to know. It’s amazing just how quickly the correspondence moves from formal to friendly, at least on the American side. Frank is more reserved and for longer, but the friendship and genuine affection comes across in droves.

You keep wanting Helene to make it over to London but there’s always an emergency of some kind that requires funds and so it’s not until we get to The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street that she finally makes it. By this time much has changed. Marks and Co is no more, and the first book is already out and it’s the British edition of that that finally allows Helene to make the trip, to publicise it. This one is in the form of the diary of her trip, as she relies on the kindness of strangers, and friends known only from paper over the previous twenty years to get by. It’s enjoyable, but although we get characters like the Colonel and “PB”, as well as finally getting to meet Nora Doel, it doesn’t connect as much as 84 Charing Cross Road. There’s less humour and more travel writing, and Hanff is entranced by the sort of institutions that I politely loathe (such as Eton College), which is a bit of a reminder of the distance in both time and space that she’s writing.

The whole thing was still a delight to read, although I’m a bit disappointed that with Marks and Co a distant memory, I’ll never get a chance to step inside and browse the dusty shelves.

Book details

ISBN: 9780751503845
Publisher: Sphere
Year of publication: 2007

Stars and Bones (Continuance #1)

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve been burned by Powell’s work before, but this is a new series in a new universe and the premise sounded really interesting. About seventy-five years ago, the human race was evicted from the Earth by a member of a godlike, benevolent alien race, just as we were about to annihilate each other in a nuclear war. The chance opening of a small, experimental wormhole just as the missiles started to fly convinced this “Angel of the Benevolence” that we were worth saving, rather than letting the planet wipe us out and start again. So it built us a fleet of a thousand giant arks and every single human on the planet was transplanted on to them, along with AIs to run them and matter printers to cater to physical want, warned to travel the stars and never to try to settle another planet. Now Eryn King of the scoutship Furious Ocelot has pulled a number of strings to be assigned to a rescue ship after her sister disappeared, but what they find there follows them back and threatens the entire fleet.

There’s a lot of world-building going on here, to construct the world of the Continuance. A universe where sentience does develop, but is mind-bogglingly rare, and worth shattering moons to preserve. Where billions of people live, work, and die on ships really too big to imagine. We could spend a whole series just exploring the arks and their inhabitants, seeing what sort of societies that they’ve made. How would religion, for example, change in these circumstances? We find out that most of the fleet runs on “godless space communism” but that there is a rump of people who have congregated on a minority of ships that insist on maintaining the old order, and have recreated a form of capitalism.

But there’s a plot to be had, so I reluctantly tear myself away from the world-building to the threat facing the Continuance. This goes through several stages, with a number of different genres represented. There’s an Alien-like “it’s in the ducts” stage; body horror; disaster porn; right up to unstoppable galaxy-threatening menace (not to mention deus ex machina). The one thing that I did sort of struggle with was the scale of destruction here. It’s really hard to get your head around arks that hold over a hundred million people in relative comfort, so when a disaster threatens whole ships, it doesn’t have the impact that it should. There was also an issue where people would be introduced to the story, even get PoV chapters, and then be bumped off before we got much feel for them, leaving Eryn the only character who get any real depth.

But the plot really does fly by, throwing so many ideas at you that it doesn’t matter that some of the characterisation is sometimes thin and that not all the ideas stick. From giant arks with networks of wormholes as public transit; to navigators dream-linked to their AI-governed ships; to Dyson spheres; to “a world-swallowing hurricane with the soul of a librarian and the casual supremacy of a god” (such a good line!). Anyone who enjoys strongly plot-driven SF with lots of big ideas will have a great time.

Book details

ISBN: 9781789094282
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2022

Station Eternity (The Midsolar Murders, #1)

By Mur Lafferty

Rating: 4 stars

Mallory Viridian is tired of being a murder magnet – wherever she goes people are killed, and she can’t help but solve them. Trying to get away from it all, following first contact, the sentient space station Eternity agrees to take her in, and she becomes one of only three humans allowed on the station. Until the day that Eternity decides to allow more humans to visit. And then the murders start.

This was a mystery that was a lot of fun, with some great world-building. Humans (i.e. the military), newly introduced to galactic society, are, as usual, terrified and want weapons that will “protect them” from the aliens. The aliens are really interesting, and this is a universe where most races can form symbiotic bonds with other sentients, something that humans don’t seem to be able to do. That symbiosis is important throughout the novel in different ways. The different species are all interesting in their own way, from the rock-like Gneiss, to the insect-like hivemind of the Sundry.

As well as Mallory, our secondary PoV character is Xan, a former soldier who’s been granted sanctuary on Eternity. How his story intersects with Mallory’s is an important facet of the story. And then we have the aliens. They’ve got translator bugs, like the Babel Fish, but more painful (for humans) to have implanted which seem to translate their names to innocuous human names, which is a lovely little touch. And then there’s the point that a universal translator would only translate spoken words – our humans still really struggle on Eternity because they can’t read any of the signs. In all my years of reading science fiction, this is something that I’ve never even considered, but is a really neat touch.

I enjoyed spending time with Mallory and would definitely want to watch her solve another case (although, maybe from afar!).

Book details

ISBN: 9780593098110
Publisher: Ace
Year of publication: 2022

Winter’s Orbit

By Everina Maxwell

Rating: 4 stars

The Iskat Empire is at the heart of a solar system where they rule several of the terraformed planets through a system of treaties and intermarriages. An important renewal event is coming up that will rebind them to the wider galaxy, but Prince Taam has died in a flyer crash, so his widower, Jainan, is quickly rushed into a political marriage with one of the emperor’s more disreputable grandchildren, Kiem, in a bid to keep things running. But then it turns out that Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and Jainan is a possible suspect. The newlyweds must solve the murder and prevent interplanetary war.

This was a fun story of an interplanetary empire in crisis, with a strong romance at its heart. Kiem is thrown right into the arranged marriage on the first page, with no warning and he and Jainan spend the first half of the book circling each other warily. Kiem because he feels Jainan must be grieving, and Jainan because he wants to fulfil his duty but thinks he’s not good enough for Kiem. It’s a punch the air moment when they finally fall into each others’ arms.

The story is told from both Kiem and Jainan’s points of view. We, the audience, are seeing inside Jainan’s head and slowly coming to the realisation that Jainan’s former marriage may not have been as perfect as it seemed, and screaming that Kiem should be able to see this. But, of course, he doesn’t have our luxury of being able to follow his partner’s thoughts on the written page.

Maxwell teases the conspiracy at the heart of the novel for quite some time, and it’s fun to see it slowly be exposed, along with the wider galactic civilisation and how Iskat and its empire fits into that.

A lot of fun, with some great secondary characters as well, particularly Kiem’s aide, Bel, who’s properly of the non-nonsense, hyper-organised variety. There’s a lot to enjoy here, even though I did find myself repeatedly rolling my eyes and yelling “just talk to each other” at the book.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356515885
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2021

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