BooksOfTheMoon

Witch Hat Atelier, Vol. 2

By Kamome Shirahama

Rating: 4 stars

The second volume of this delightful manga picks up directly from where the first left off: with the four apprentices having been teleported to an unknown destination and facing a dragon. They have combine their skills (which Coco is painfully aware that she’s lacking) to escape.

We learn more about Coco’s fellow apprentice, Agott, in this volume, and what drives her, and we learn more about the world that Coco inhabits. The book is a lot of fun, even if it doesn’t seem all that substantial. It’s an intriguing world with some great characters. I look forward to reading more of Coco’s adventures.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632368041
Publisher: Kodansha Comics
Year of publication: 2019

Witch Hat Atelier, Vol. 1

By Kamome Shirahama

Rating: 4 stars

Coco has been obsessed with magic ever since she was given a picture book on it as a child. But witches are born, not made, so she’s resigned to a life without wonder, until a series of accidents brings the witch Qifrey into her circle and she sees something that changes her life forever.

I’m not really familiar with the manga canon; it was a friend introduced me to Witch Hat Atelier, and I’m rather glad that he did, because I’ve really enjoyed this charming little manga. Coco is a delightful protagonist, bubbling over with enthusiasm and her joy at everything in the magical world is infectious. I’ll definitely look forward to reading more about Coco and her world.

Apart from a few pages right at the start of the book, the art is mostly black and white, but is beautifully drawn. It’s got that distinctive manga feel to it and is great fun to read. There were one or two scenes where I found the action hard to follow, but for the most part it’s pretty clear.

Also, from now on, I’m going to refer to my bedroom (aka my home office) as my atelier for as long as I’m in lockdown!

Book details

ISBN: 9781632367709
Publisher: Kodansha Comics
Year of publication: 2019

False Value (Rivers of London #8)

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

Following the dramatic events at the end of the last book, Peter is nominally still suspended, but with fatherhood impending, he needs a job, so he joins security for the Serious Cybernetics Corporation, a new startup by one of the less-flashy silicon valley tech bros. Peter settles down fairly quickly, but soon realises that there’s something strange, and possibly magical, going on up on the top floor of the building.

It’s odd seeing Peter outwith the support network of the Met, but he’s still got his informal network to rely on, and he’s now moved in with Beverley. The police are still very much involved, and Nightingale, Guleed et al make their appearances.

Spoiler
And, of course, it only lasts long enough to tell us that Peter’s currently working under cover.

As others have noted, there’s an awful lot of Hitchhikers’ references in this book, but while others found it irritating, it seems to me that it’s appropriately over the top for a silicon valley tech startup that’s wanting to appear to be “hip” and “cool” (for nerdy values of “hip” and “cool”).

This book finds Peter more aware of Beverley’s status as a goddess, and getting a bit worried by things that happen around her, and the actions that she feels she needs to take. Maksim, for example, until now, has mostly been played for humour, but Peter’s now worrying about free will and whether it’s ethical for Bev to put her influence over him, and others she comes into contact with. It’s not easy dating a deity, and it’ll be interesting to see where this goes in future volumes.

No Lesley May in this one, but the magical world has been expanded again, this time with more details of American magic, and especially the Librarians (no, not those Librarians). There’s also been some seeds planted for the future, and possibly a new nemesis coming up.

All in all, a worthy entry to the canon. But you can’t just drop in the suggestion that the London Underground possible has its own genius loci and then walk away like that. I’m outraged. Outraged, I tell you!

Book details

ISBN: 9781473229761

How Long ’til Black Future Month?

By N.K. Jemisin

Rating: 4 stars

I approach every NK Jemisin story I read with trepidation that is mostly undeserved. The reputation of the Broken Earth books casts a long shadow, and to me, the author has the kind of reputation that meeting her would lead to me cowering, in the submission position, while backing away as politely as possible. This reputation, if it exists outwith my head, is undeserved, if this collection is anything to go by. Yes, it has the (deserved) anger of a black woman who has finally found a voice, but there’s joy and playfulness in there too. Stories such as L’Achimista, about a chef given a chance to prove her greatness, after a fall from grace; and The City Born Great, telling of the birth of the soul of the city of New York are beautiful and joyful.

There’s conversation within the genre, with responses to Heinlein and Le Guin and there’s dread, pain, death (and other anthropomorphic personifications) and, of course, hope.

I wish that Jemisin had provided a few words on each of the stories. I always enjoy hearing the context in a which a story was written, to help foster a deeper appreciation, but although it’s something Asimov did a lot, and did well, I’m not sure how common it is these days.

I’ve encountered a few stories before in other forms (often in audio form on Escape Pod and its siblings), but there was only one story which I skipped entirely because it was difficult enough first time round (Walking Awake, where alien Masters possess human bodies like puppets, if you’re wondering). And despite my memory, Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters is a fantastic story and a great way to round off the collection. Oh, and this story also has the most memorable metaphor in the whole book: “blue sky hard a cop’s eyes”. Ouch.

So 4.5 stars, rounded down. A fantastic collection, with just one or two stories that just didn’t gel for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356512549
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2018

Runemarks (Runemarks, #1)

By Joanne Harris

Rating: 4 stars

I read and enjoyed Joanne Harris‘s Loki books, and this more or less picks up from those. It’s five hundred years after Ragnarok and Maddy Smith is a teenage girl with a ‘ruinmark’ on her hand. All knowledge and stories of the old world are forbidden by the Order, but such things are far away from Maddy’s valley. She leads a normal life until something happens that changes it forever, and she finds herself entangled with the old gods, order, chaos and everything changes.

Maddy is an engaging character, and it’s fun to watch her learn about the gods and demons and how to use the power within her. I also enjoyed the wider world-building, especially the idea that Ragnarok isn’t the end of days, but is something that is cyclical and just repeats in different forms.

The Order is sort of interesting, although they initially seem to be just your typical totalitarian government, controlling the population by controlling knowledge and through fear. But they also have the Word; something even the gods fear.

The chapters here are short and punchy. The dialogue is engaging and each character feels different, with even the secondary ones getting something to do, and feeling important in their own way. There’s a lot to enjoy here, and the story feels complete in itself as well. You could certainly read this on its own without having read the Loki books, and although I know there’s a sequel, you could leave this book quite happy without actually reading it (although I probably will).

Book details

ISBN: 9781473217065
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2017

Asimov’s Mysteries

By Isaac Asimov

Rating: 4 stars

This book is science fiction of the old school: where characters are there purely to drive the plot, but the plot hinges on some extrapolation of actual science. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy this sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve really started to appreciate more sociological and character-driven SF, but this is the stuff I grew up on, with all its strengths and flaws.

Asimov presents thirteen of his science fiction short stories, all with a mystery theme to them. Several of them feature Wendell Urth, an “extraterrologist” with extreme agoraphobia, who has never travelled further than he can walk. And yet, he has a detailed knowledge of the worlds outside of Earth and uses this to help the police solve crimes from around the solar system. Some of the stories are funny (a two page shaggy dog story that was there purely to set up a pun had me cackling), some are serious. There’s a spy story that seems like it’s inspired by James Bond, except that the author says he wrote it before he’d heard of Bond. And the final story in the collection: The Billiard Ball is the only whodunnit I’ve read in which the key to the mystery involves general relativity!

As ever, Asimov’s own words on his stories are part of the fun. He provides fore- and/or afterwords on each story, with a bit of history or context, and his authorial voice is charming. I do wish I could have met the man.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, but, as ever with SF of this era, YMMV. There are almost no women to speak of and there’s not much in the way of depth of characterisation. But if you want a set of solid whodunnits, in an SF context, you can’t go far wrong with this.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586029299
Publisher: Panther
Year of publication: 1969

Battle Angel Alita Deluxe Edition 3

By Yukito Kishiro

Rating: 4 stars

At the start of this volume of Alita’s story, she’s given up the motorball arena and is enjoying having family and friends, as she continues her hunter-warrior work. But the hunter Zapan can’t forgive past slights, and returns to wipe out everything she holds dear. The second arc sees Alita being given a new life as an agent of Zalem and on a private mission to search out her lost father-figure, Ido.

I think there’s a quite intelligent story questioning what it means to be human at the core of Battle Angel Alita. This was mostly buried under sport and angst in the last volume, but it’s closer to the surface here (although the huge amounts of violence do distract from it). In the first arc, Alita has earned a family, and this is torn away from her, while she struggles to retain her humanity. At her weakest point, she’s offered a deal with the devil and gives in to it, leading to the second arc, where she tries to abandoned all thought and revel in killing. But this isn’t her either, as her encounter with Figure Four shows. The larger story is also foregrounded more here, especially in the second arc, as Zalem starts to play more of a part in the affairs of the surface.

The art style is pretty consistent with what has come before, with all that that implies, including the fact that fight scenes aren’t always easy to follow.

So an enjoyable story in and of itself, and also expanding the world for the future as well.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632366009

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

Rating: 4 stars

I’m not really a huge fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, nor do I think it’s a good idea to be reading a book about the end of civilisation caused by a global flu pandemic, just when we may be seeing the start of a global flu pandemic. And yet. I very much enjoyed this book: it’s beautifully written, compelling and, above all, perhaps, hopeful. I was talking with a friend when I was mulling over the book in a bookshop and the phrase that tipped me into buying it was that many (most?) post-apocalyptic stories focus on the worst of humanity; this one focuses on the best.

And it mostly does. It doesn’t gloss over the fact that awful things will happen during the collapse of civilisation and that people will use it for their own purposes, whether that’s just their own selfish desires, or a twisted ideology that rationalises their own position at the top. But our PoV character after the collapse is Kirsten, an actress in a travelling company whose motto is “Survival is insufficient” (incidentally nicked from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager), making clear to both their fellow survivors and to the audience that civilisation is about more than just warm bodies. It’s our art, our stories, our history, our desire to come together and form things greater than the sum of their parts.

The portions of the story pre-apocalypse were interesting for a different reason: they mostly followed the actor Arthur Leander, and it’s striking how everyday they are. Arthur falls in and out of love; deals with his work; and tries to manage friendships (some more successfully than others). All while unaware that his death and the end of the world are coming.

There is a conversation near the end of the book about whether it is unkind to teach children born into the new world about the old one, about all the things that there used to be, but which they will never see. I think it is extremely necessary; as a reminder of what we can be and to never stop striving. One of the characters maintains a “museum of civilisation” for, I feel, much the same sort of reason. And with the note of hope at the end, remembering the past in order to make a better future is more important than ever.

Definitely recommended (but do wash your hands first, and remember to sneeze into a tissue).

Book details

ISBN: 9781447268970
Publisher: Picador
Year of publication: 2015

Travel Light

By Naomi Mitchison

Rating: 4 stars

Baby Halla’s stepmother, the new queen, wants her gotten rid of. Her nurse takes a bear’s form and escapes to the forest with her, where young Halla is first raised by bears and later by dragons. When she loses her dragon benefactor she must choose between dragon-ish hoarding and travelling light. She makes her choice and travels to human lands where she has many adventures.

I’ve not read much Naomi Mitchison, although I very much enjoyed her Memoirs of a Spacewoman. This is a very different book, but it has the same somewhat gentle, and slow-paced feel to it. I enjoyed it quite a lot reading it now, I think I would have enjoyed it more reading it in my youth, and I think I would enjoy it even more if I were a young woman.

Despite the suggested interference in her fate by the Norns and by the All-Father, Halla is still a spirited young woman who is active in controlling her own life. This is a lovely, if short, fantasy novel, with an active female protagonist that deserves to be better-known.

Book details

ISBN: 9781931520140
Publisher: Peapod Classics
Year of publication: 2005

Noumenon Infinity

By Marina J. Lostetter

Rating: 4 stars

This follow up to Noumenon follows two different plot streams: on the one hand, it follows the fortunes of convoy seven (Noumenon) back to the Web and onwards after its completion; and on the other, it follows the smallest of the convoys, convoy twelve, which was never even supposed to leave the solar system, but a malfunctioning SD drive in an experiment sends it far from home.

This book covers a lot of ideas, and a lot of time. From multiple alien megastructures to a new religion amongst the convey seven crew. Even with a generous page count of over 500 pages, there’s a lot to pack in, with our time being split between the two conveys. The time jumps when we’re following Noumenon also become huge, although we don’t see the major sociological disruptions that we saw in the first book. The changes here are more driven by outside events.

In the first book, I wasn’t convinced by the treatment of genetics as being the overriding factor in personality. This book doesn’t really change that, but doesn’t lean into much either (other than through the new religion, but that’s religion so it gets a free pass in not needing to make sense).

The chapters following convoy twelve occur on a much shorter timespan (months and years, rather than centuries) and start off with an intriguing mystery surrounding Dr Vahni Kapoor, who has a bad habit of disappearing and reappearing sometime later, always near a sundial that contains her AI assistant C.

There are a lot of mysteries that surround both convoys and eventually draw them together, in unexpected ways. One thing that I found disappointing was the lack of resolution on the alien megastructures that both seven and twelve encounter. There’s a throwaway comment/explanation towards the end of the book, but it doesn’t feel appropriate for Big Dumb Objects as impressive as these.

The old-fashioned SF “sensawunda” is here in spades. If you’ve been wanting very large scale space opera, covering huge swathes of time, including Dyson spheres, clones, mysterious missing aliens, mysterious present aliens and more, this is your series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780008223403

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