BooksOfTheMoon

Dogs of War

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 4 stars

Rex just wants to be a good dog. He wants to please his Master. If that involves using his seven-foot frame, razor-sharp teeth and attached machine guns to intimidate, maim and kill then that’s what he’ll do, leading his multi-form squad of Dragon (lizard), Honey (bear) and Bees (er, bees) in battle. Unfortunately, it turns out that Master is a war-criminal. What happens when Rex and his squad slip their leash and escape?

This book packs a huge number of ideas into a relatively small size. From the culpability of the enhanced animals, to slavery, to artificial and distributed intelligence, Tchaikovsky keeps the pace going, the ideas coming and the characters sympathetic. Not Master (aka Jonas Murry). He’s possibly the fictional character I’ve most wanted to see dead within a page of meeting. But Rex and his colleagues are just wonderful creations. Honey is over-engineered and gains far more intelligence that she was expected to. Rex comes to rely upon and trust her. The distributed intelligence that is Bees is a fascinating idea. And as for Rex himself, he’s absolutely adorable. All he ever wants to be is a Good Dog. Even when you realise that he’s killing civilians at the orders of Master, he retains your sympathy.

And a definite tip of the hat to Tchaikovsky here, as much of the book is first person from Rex’s perspective, and seeing Rex’s voice evolve over the course of the book is fantastic. When we first meet him, he’s got little vocabulary and limited cognitive capacity, which is reflected in his writing style. As the book goes on, and Rex is forced into more leadership decisions and has to evolve his thinking, his narrative and vocabulary become correspondingly more complex as well. It’s very well written.

Spoiler
I think the idea towards the end of the book of humans getting hierarchy chips was not entirely unexpected, but the horror for came in those who were arguing that they weren’t a bad idea; in effect arguing for the return of slavery. And the idea of the top of the hierarchy being the corporation, and not a single individual was inspired (and terrifying).

Don’t let anyone tell you any differently, Rex, you are the best boy!

Book details

ISBN: 9781786693907

The Raven Tower

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 4 stars

The country of Iraden has been protected by the god known as The Raven for centuries. Now war is coming to Iraden, the Raven’s Lease is dying and the Lease’s Heir returns to the capital to take his place. Alongside him comes his aide, Eolo, and their world will crumble and change around them.

This is a really interesting book. It’s told in a strange combination of the first and second person. I’m not normally a fan of the use of the second person, but because of the way the narrative is being told here, it’s not immediately the reader that is the “you”, but the narrator telling a story in the present tense to Eolo. It’s interesting and clever and I find it works. I also really like the narrator and their story – they are a god, one of many that roam this world. The magic system of the world is really interesting as well: the gods have magic in that they can only speak the truth. If they say something that wasn’t true before, their words will make it so (if they have the power, otherwise it could kill them).

The narrator weaves their own story with that of Eolo and his master; and, I must confess, that I found the epic story of gods across the ages more interesting than petty power-broking and politicking in the present. At least, until the two stories started to converge.

Because it’s Ann Leckie and it’s expected to be mentioned, there is some playing with gender, although it’s limited to Eolo being a trans man, and being pretty universally accepted as such.

I certainly enjoyed the book (I must confess I still don’t understand the implications of the turning of the stone) and would welcome an expansion of the universe, although it seems that the story here is pretty self-contained and complete.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356507026
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2019

Battle Angel Alita Deluxe Edition Volume 1

By Yukito Kishiro

Rating: 4 stars

While searching the Scrapyard in which he lives for cybernetic parts, Dr Ido finds the dormant, but still-living, head and torso of a young woman. He carries her home and installs her in a new cyborg body. The woman has lost her memory, so Ido names her Alita and she sets about learning more about the world that she finds herself, and the uncanny martial arts ability that she seems to have, even if she has no other memories.

I encountered Alita first in the form of the Hollywood film which I enjoyed enough to look for the manga it was based on. That led me to the beautiful box set of hard backs of which this is volume 1. The plot of the film more or less mirrors this first volume, with mysterious references to the leader of Zalem taken out. The art is very pretty and I really enjoyed the few colour pages at the start of each chapter (although those seemed to peter out towards the end). In saying that, though, sometimes, it isn’t always easy to follow the direction of an action sequence. And it’s very violent. When the only death that matters is brain death, the body is disposable, and treated as such, leading to various kinds of dismemberment, removal of spinal cords and worse.

We get almost nothing of Alita’s history before she falls into the Scrapyard in this volume. I assume that’s still to come. We also only get a tiny hint of Ido’s history. I look forward to finding out more about both.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632365989
Publisher: Kodansha Comics
Year of publication: 1990

Monstress, Vol. 4: The Chosen

By Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda

Rating: 4 stars

With the core group separated, Maika finds her way to her father and learns about his plans in the upcoming war, as well as about Zinn. Kippa has her own adventures and while it seems that her gifts are awakening, she has lost nothing of the sweetness and belief in others that make her my favourite character by a mile: “I can’t abandon people because they make mistakes – I would have to abandon myself” is an example of what makes her so. Despite all she’s been though, all the betrayal, this is still how she thinks, and I love her for it.

The complex storyline does make it difficult to keep track of who’s who, who’s currently allied with who and who’s in the middle of betraying who. I look forward to the story being completed, so that I can go back and read the whole thing in one go.

Takeda’s art is still utterly delightful. The manga-inspired style fits the story well and brings the whole thing alive. Roll on the next volume!

Book details

ISBN: 9781534313361
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2019

The Amazing Maurice & His Educated Rodents (Discworld, #28)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

Riffing off the story of the Pied Piper, here Pratchett has more animals become intelligent after hanging around Unseen University too long. First it’s the rats, and then Maurice, a cat. The rats may be clever, but Maurice is streetwise. They band together, along with a stupid-looking-kid™ to do the old plague of rats trick on unsuspecting towns, but in Bad Blintz, they find something very unexpected, and very dark.

Maurice is a fun character. While I’m not their biggest fan, Pratchett really gets cats and he writes a good one. The rat Dangerous Beans, on the other hand, is at least partially well named. As Darktan realises, he makes maps of the earth, while Dangerous Beans makes maps for the mind. He thinks the thoughts that the others don’t. He’s an idealist, and a visionary and a naive young thing. He’s a wonderful creation.

In the character of Malicia, Pratchett takes another swipe at those who get too carried away by stories and storytelling. This was a central theme of Witches Abroad and while it’s somewhat less subtle here than it was in that book, the point is well made, and the character is very fun to read.

I think this was the first Discworld novel “for younger readers”, preceding the Tiffany Aching books. I’ve put ‘for younger readers’ in quotes since at times this book can feel very dark, covering, as it does, topics including faith, its gaining and loss, ageing, hate and man’s inhumanity to anything it considers ‘other’. Despite this, it retains Pratchett’s trademark lightness of touch and humour. An older (or less sensitive younger) child will devour this, as will adults.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552546935
Publisher: Corgi Books
Year of publication: 2001

The Testament of Loki

By Joanne M. Harris

Rating: 4 stars

Ragnarok has come and gone. The Aesir, including the trickster Loki, aren’t dead, but are trapped in the Netherworld. It wouldn’t make for much of a story if Loki didn’t escape, of course, and he duly does, straight into the body of a 17 year old girl. Not his ideal body, but it’s something to work with, even if his host is neurotic and full of emotions – i.e. a typical teenage girl. The thing is, Loki isn’t the only one to escape, and he’ll need all his guile and cunning to survive.

I had enjoyed The Gospel of Loki some time ago, which retold the Norse mythology from Loki’s point of view. This continues the story after the end of the world, which, it turns out, isn’t the end of the Worlds. Jump, the girl that Loki, er, jumps into is a sympathetic character and the rapport that develops between her and Loki is pleasurable to read.

The plot was pretty slow to get going, with a lot crammed into the third act, which sometimes made it a bit difficult to keep up towards the end. I would have liked to see more of the interactions between Loki, Jump and Meg, but the latter was there more to drive the plot than provide character depth.

The book is very readable, with short chapters and Loki is a compelling narrator, if entirely unreliable. There are plenty of hooks for a sequel and I’d certainly be up for more his adventures.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473202412
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2018

Neverwhere

By Neil Gaiman

Rating: 4 stars

Richard Mayhew is just an average guy who performs an act of kindness, and, in return, finds himself thrown out of the life he knew, and deep into an underworld, beneath and around his London. He has to help the girl Door to find out who killed her family and perhaps in doing so, can get his life back.

I think this may have been one of the first books I encountered in the “magical London” subgenre. Back then, just after having seen the TV series that it was written alongside, it was new and fresh. It still retains some of that power, although I’m more worldweary of that particular subgenre now (I am totally there, however, for magical Glasgow, of which there is far too little literature). I must confess that I mostly visualise the book through the TV series. In particular, the Beast of London always makes me giggle a bit, as it’s a highland coo in cosplay. Croup and Vandemar, on the other hand, are truly chilling, as portrayed by Hywel Bennett and Clive Russell respectively.

Richard, is our everyman protagonist, and we explore London Below through his eyes, as he first tries desperately to find his way home, and later, as he starts to become accustomed to this new life. What mostly strikes me about Richard is that he is kind, not necessarily a survival trait in this world (or, one might say, if feeling cynical, for a Londoner in general). He got sucked into the world because he couldn’t leave a young woman to bleed out on the street, and all his later actions are also to be seen in this light (when he’s not doing his best Arthur Dent impression of confused bewilderment; at least Richard can get a decent cup of tea).

Door is more a macguffin than a character, although I like both Hunter and the Marquis de Carabas. I’ve already mentioned Croup and Vandemar, who feel like the best characters in the whole book, at times; their somewhat comic exteriors never distracting from the terror that they beget.

It’s not a hugely complex book (certainly nothing compared to, say, Sandman or American Gods) but it’s good old-fashioned hero’s journey, and Richard is a hero you’ll be happy to trod alongside.

Book details

Publisher: Headline Feature
Year of publication: 1996

This is How You Lose the Time War

By Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone

Rating: 4 stars

I read this novella immediately after finishing The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With her Mind and the contrast couldn’t be more extreme. From the short, clean prose and breathless action of the former to the leisurely pace and beautifully crafted letters of this, about the only thing the two have in common is the short chapters.

Red and Blue are agents on opposing sides of a war that rages through time. Against orders and, indeed, common sense, they strike up a correspondence that slowly turns into something more.

The time war is very much a background to the evolving relationship between Red and blue. In the early chapters they taunt each other after after thwarting the other’s plans, but the tone of the letters shifts as the backgrounds do and the reader comes to care for these two extraordinary individuals as they come to care for each other.

I loved reading this book. The language is beautiful and is something to savour. Short as it is, it took a while to read it first time round, partially because of a lack of time, and partially because I was reading it slowly. After finishing it, I went back and read it again, much more quickly, which gave me a stronger overall view of it, and the references which had passed me by the first time (as I’d forgotten the details of the earlier chapter by the time I got to the payoff later).

The two sides in the war are mostly stereotypical views of opposing SF worldviews: the technological Agency vs the Garden of bioengineering. While I would love to know more about them and the war, that’s not this book. This book is all about Red and Blue and paints them as a microcosm for the wider conflict. If you accept that, this is a very rewarding read.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529405231
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2019

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind

By Jackson Ford

Rating: 4 stars

Unlike a lot of reviewers here, I didn’t pick up this book because of the (admittedly rather eye-catching) title. I’d seen a positive review of it in a magazine and was browsing a bookshop looking for something to cheer me up after a visit to the dentist. This caught my eye and I picked it up, and I’m rather glad that I did. It’s a lot of fun. Our protagonist, Teagan Frost, is the eponymous girl, and she’s working for a shady government agency as the only alternative to being vivisected by said government. She’s got a team around her, but as the story goes on, it becomes apparent that everybody in that team has their own secret. She has to navigate that whilst also being framed for a murder that could only be done by someone with her powers. And she’s the only one who can do that… isn’t she?

This book rarely lets up the pace, with almost every one of the (very short) chapters ending on a cliffhanger, urging you on to see what ridiculous situation Teagan has found herself in now. Teagan’s chapters are narrated in the first person, but there is another viewpoint as well, that of Jake – the other psychokinetic[1]. You start off being sympathetic to Jake, who’s had a rough life and doesn’t know where he came from. But you very quickly see him doing horrible things, all to find out more about his history. He displays a complete lack of any empathy and has no self-awareness. I’m very glad that his chapters are in the third person. I don’t think I could bear to spend time closer to him than that.

The team around Teagan get more characterisation than I was expecting in a novel of this nature, although her love-interest doesn’t fare quite as well. Teagan herself has a fun narrative voice and is enjoyable to spend time with. I look forward to reading more of her adventures.

[1] the book always calls it psychokinesis, not telekinesis, even correcting someone who uses the latter term, but never explains the difference; and the Wikipedia article suggests what Teagan does is closer to the latter than the former

Book details

ISBN: 9780356510446
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2019

The Wrath of an Emperor (Krishnavatara – 2)

By K.M. Munshi

Rating: 4 stars

The second volume in K. M. Munshi’s interpretation of Sri Krishna’s story sees his (mostly) indirect battle with the emperor Jarasandha, whose son-in-law he killed at the end of the first volume, and whose empire is now threatened. In between, Krishna and his brother Balarama have many adventures, make many friends, and forge the weapons that they would become known for.

I mostly knew the structure of the story in The Magic Flute, but this book tells stories of Krishna that I was completely unaware of. That he boards a pirate ship and displaces the captain; his sailing to a city of snake-goddess-worshipping women and freeing his tutor’s son from captivity as the princess’s husband; his joining the Garuda people and curing the paralysis of their prince. These are rip-roaring adventures and I’m really surprised that I haven’t heard of them.

There’s also quite deep political dealings, as he has to deal with Jarasandha’s attempts to strengthen his alliance and destroy the Yadava people and their city. This mostly has to do with various arranged marriages of princesses, and the desire of Princess Rukmini to marry Krishna, rather than be a tool of her brother and the emperor.

Following on from the first volume, Munshi continues to take a rather naturalistic line with his story, playing down the supernatural elements in other variations of the myth. His Rakshasas are barbarians who don’t respect Dharma, rather than literal demons. And his Garuda people are people who claim descent from a giant eagle, but who are just people who wear bird masks. This is an interesting interpretation of a myth that can sometimes be presented as much larger than life.

The treatment of women is sort of mixed. For every Revati (a giantess warrior princess whose country Balarama helps liberate), there are others who are there purely to be symbols of lust and desire and the path away from Dharma. Perhaps not unexpected in a myth this old, but still not pleasant.

If one can leave that aside, however, this is an exciting tale of adventure and politics, with the path of Dharma at the centre of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9788172764753
Publisher: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan
Year of publication: 1966

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