BooksOfTheMoon

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

Sunspot Jungle: The Ever Expanding Universe of Fantasy and Science Fiction

By Bill Campbell

Rating: 4 stars

This is a pretty huge collection, and the range of stories is impressive as well. There’s no real theme to the collection, but it’s a set of well-told tales. The opening is as strong as you would expect from someone with the reputation of N. K. Jemisin, being a dystopia where the alien Masters control the earth, and the very bodies of its people. The tone of the stories varies up and down, but seems to get darker towards the end of the collection. That particular beat isn’t to my taste, but there’s enough else here to enjoy, and no story really outstays its welcome (the only story that I mostly skipped was Clifton Gachagua’s No Kissing the Dolls Unless Jimi Hendrix is Playing as I just found it impenetrable).

Some highlights for me include Sarah Pinsker’s A Song Transmuted about the power of music; Real Boys by Clara Kumagai, telling the story of one of the boys turned into donkeys in Pinocchio (that scene in the Disney film terrified me as a kid); Madeleine by Amal El-Mohtar, about a woman who may or may not be going mad; How to Piss Off a Failed Super Soldier by John Chu, about a super-powered person who needs help to learn how to live. I perhaps shouldn’t have read Hal Duncan’s A Pinch of Salt — tale of sex and blasphemy — while I was eating, but then knowing what I do about Duncan, that was my own fault.

So a strong collection, with a lot of variety, and contributions from all over the world. It’s nice to see an editor willing to pull contributions from beyond the usual anglophone sphere.

Book details

ISBN: 9780998705972
Publisher: Rosarium Publishing
Year of publication: 2018

Turning Darkness Into Light

By Marie Brennan

Rating: 4 stars

I’m always a little wary of sequels to books that don’t necessarily seem to need them, but I loved this. Audrey Camhurst is Isabella’s granddaughter and is struggling to overcome her famous family name and make her own mark on the world of philology, so she jumps at the chance to translate some recently uncovered ancient Draconean texts. Of course, it’s not as straightforward as that, and soon she, and her fellow scholar Kudshayn, are drawn into a conspiracy that could incite war.

We’ve jumped forward in time by a couple of generations, (maybe now the equivalent of our inter-war period?) and the technology and social mores have moved accordingly. There are now motor cars and telephones, and people willing to address each other by their first names!

The book is written in an epistolary format, with diary entries, newspaper articles and letters from a variety of different people, although Audrey is our main PoV, with the Draconean Kudshayn the secondary. What they find as they translate the tablets is the founding myth of the ancient Draconean people, and seeing how this shapes the thinking of these two individuals, especially the priest-scholar Kudshayn is fascinating, given that what he learns impacts on his faith.

The characters are all great. I had a soft spot for Cora, Audrey’s assistant, as being someone we would recognise as being on the spectrum. Even Audrey’s one-time beau, Aaron Mornett has depth, and both Audrey and Kudshayn are painted in some depth. Audrey is driven by her famous family. Unlike her sister, she doesn’t want to be involved with Society, she wants to be an academic, in a field which her family have basically created out of whole cloth. She especially worships her grandmother, although she doesn’t always take the right moral from her adventures. What Would Grandmama Do is often on her lips.

The keystone of the plot really lies along the lines of attempts to resist the changing of the world, and the ways in which “moderate” bigots can be as dangerous, if not moreso, than the sort who shout their opinions to the world. Very much a lesson for our time. But also a reminder that there will always be people willing to stand up to the bigots and show how we can, together, turn darkness into light.

Book details

ISBN: 9781789092516
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2019

The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1)

By S.A. Chakraborty

Rating: 4 stars

I’d heard some good buzz about this book but had known nothing about it when I picked it up. Nahri is a young woman who doesn’t believe in magic and makes a living conning the rich in 18th century Cairo. All she wants is to make enough money to get out of Cairo. Well, be careful what you wish for, because when she accidentally summons a djinn warrior to her side, she starts a journey that ends in the eponymous city of the title, and she learns about her family’s past and that her conning ways haven’t necessarily prepared her for court intrigues.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel of magic, politics and good old-fashioned trickery. Nahri thinks she’s world-wise, but she’s lost amongst the djinn of Daevabad, relying on her warrior Dara, and later on prince Ali who befriends her. She’s an interesting character, strong on the outside, but with the vulnerability of someone who’s never been able to rely on anyone or allow themselves to love.

Ali is interesting in a different way. He is sympathetic to those without pure djinn blood in Daevabad (the shafit), who are treated as second class citizens at best, and this sympathy leads him down paths that his more politically astute brother would never sanction. He’s also the most religiously devout character in the book, which can sometimes have him seeming like a wet blanket, as he refuses the wine and women that surround the rest of the nobility. This rigidity can sometimes make him difficult, especially in his dealings with the religion of Nahri’s people, but his actions, to both the shafit and to Nahri, keep him sympathetic.

The warrior, Dara, is probably the least developed character, falling into the cliche of the mysterious warrior with a troubled past. He is devoted to Nahri from early in their relationship but inflexible in his thinking.

There’s a lot going on here, and keeping tribes, races and the various politics clear in my head wasn’t always easy. It’s going to be some time before the next book is out in paperback, so I imagine I’ll have forgotten most of it by the time that comes around, and the same for the final book in the series. This is very much the end of an act though, and not a fully contained story in itself. It’s a great story though, and with plenty to hold interest and many hooks for future books.

Book details

ISBN: 9780008239428
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Year of publication: 2017

Noumenon

By Marina J. Lostetter

Rating: 4 stars

A macguffin is discovered in space at just the right time: the world is increasingly united and peaceful. So with resources to spare, a convoy of nine ships, collectively known as Noumenon, is launched to investigate. Even with FTL, this mission will take several generations to complete, so the crew is carefully chosen and then cloned for the duration of the mission to preserve skills and abilities over the duration.

I really enjoyed this story. We start on Earth, after the discovery of the macguffin (a weird star) and the planning phase of the mission. From then on, we revisit the convoy at various points in its history, as the the society changes in ways both envisioned by its designers and ways that weren’t. Throughout, the Inter Convoy Computer (ICC) watches over the crew, and several of the segments in the book are from ICC’s point of view.

One thing that I think the book never fully addressed was the idea that we are defined by our genes. This is patently untrue: two identical twins can have very different personalities. The idea that a clone of a person will have their aptitudes and skills, even with education and training being bent in a specific direction, seems dodgy to me. And then we get to a point where several gene lines are discontinued entirely, because one of the clones of the line has done something that the convoy society disapproves of (whether that’s mental health issues or attempted mutiny). This seems an odd decision given that there’s a closed gene pool to start with, with specifically defined roles, and, as I say, an individual is more than their genes. I do wish the book had addressed this more.

But that’s one issue in an otherwise excellent book that spans many human lifespans but still spends enough time at each stop to make us care about each individual, as well as the society of the convoy as a whole.

Book details

ISBN: 9780008223397
Publisher: HarperVoyager
Year of publication: 2017

Goblin Quest (Jig the Goblin, Book 1)

By Jim C. Hines

Rating: 4 stars

This a fun wee story about a Goblin just minding his own business, doing his Goblin-y things (mostly involving being picked on by other Goblins) when a group of adventurers come into his mountain, kill the other members of the scouting party and capture him to be their guide further into the mountain.

As other reviewers have noted, there’s a strong influence from D&D-style roleplaying involved here (it was, actually, one of the reasons I picked it up – in one of my group’s RPGs, we encountered a stray Goblin child and adopted him as our mascot for the party). Jig here is a fun character, a Goblin who is actually competent and refuses to just barge in and try and kill things, while also stabbing his own colleagues in the back (something his fellows despise him for). He grows as a character a lot during his time with his captives and even bonds with one of them. Not being particularly strong or fast, he has to think his way out of situations, and he does so with flair.

A fun wee fantasy story, with a heavy D&D influence that’s easy to read, with a sympathetic protagonist. It certainly makes me re-evaluate my actions as a PC in our D&D campaign!

Book details

Year of publication: 2004

Doomsday Book (Oxford Time Travel, #1)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

In 2050s Oxford, time travel is used to send historians back to observe the past first-hand, confident that they can’t alter history. Kivrin is to be sent further back than ever before, to the Medieval period. But a combination of bad luck and disease means that she’s stranded there for longer than she had intended, and she’s not in the 1320s, as she expected, but in Black Death-ridden 1348.

In a quirk of coincidence, I had just finished Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death just before starting this, which gave me some background and understanding of the disease and made me appreciate Willis’ research.

This is a big book. It’s nearly 600 pages long, and it runs at a sedate pace for most of that. Split into three parts internally, the first two are really all about getting to know the characters, from Kivrin in the past, along with the villagers that she comes to live amongst, to Dunworthy in the future, as he runs himself ragged trying to sort out the mistake that stranded her. This slow build up is worth it as in the final part, Willis carefully and clinically starts to use the threads that she’s painstakingly created in the previous four hundred odd pages to take a hatchet to your heart.

The future Oxford that Willis imagines feels closer to the Oxford of the 1950s, not the 2050s, with quaint independent colleges, fussy secretaries and political bickering and point-scoring that sometimes extends into full-blown warfare. It’s also interesting to see how self-absorbed everyone in Oxford is, with Gilchrist’s ambition, the Americans’ bell-ringing, Finch’s obsession with lavatory paper and even Dunworthy’s attempts to get someone to read the time travel machine logs after his tech, Badri, fell ill. They all feel myopic, which is ironic, given the nature of what they’re doing: travelling in time to understand the broad sweep of history.

Kivrin’s adventures are of the small-scale, domestic variety, as she comes to live amongst a family who have been sent away from the city. We get to know them as she does and we get to care for them as she does. And through it all, you’ve got in the back of your mind where and when she is and you hope, as she does, once she finds out the truth, that the plague will pass her village by and spare those whom she cares about.

And as the plague does hit her village, each death is a blow. We find ourselves counting them along with Kivrin, relying on the statistics, that each death is “enough”. And as they keep falling, towards the inevitable, we find ourselves as ragged as Kivrin becomes, raging against fate and any deity that would allow this to happen. The clinical description of Agnes’ death and the final blow of Father Roche in particular are heartbreaking.

A slow but powerful novel that draws out its characters and doesn’t flinch from the brutality of the era.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575131095
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1992

The Black Death

By Philip Ziegler

Rating: 4 stars

This book charts the arrival and spread of the black death of the 14th century in Europe, and particularly England. This isn’t a subject I really knew anything about, so I was coming in with a pretty blank slate. The book doesn’t really cover the plague’s origins in Asia other than to note that it probably arrived in Europe along trade routes into Italy, and spread throughout the continent from there.

It’s a good overview book, pulling together academic research from multiple different sources, and synthesising an overview, pitched at the interested layman, rather than the academic world.

Possibly the most interesting notion that came out of the book for me was the psychological state of the population into which the plague spread. The idea that medieval man was conditioned to just accept what was happening as a punishment from God, and so didn’t make any serious efforts to learning what caused it and steps to mitigate it. This is fascinating, and alien. Another reminder that the past really is another country.

Beyond that, I learned something about the Flagellants (who I’d never heard of) and the persecution of the Jews (not that Christian Europe needed any additional excuse for that) as well as the state of medicine during the period.

The least interesting part, for me, was the region by region description of how the plague spread across England (and, as I said, it is mostly England, with Wales, Ireland and Scotland getting one chapter between them – and even that is shared with the Welsh border counties in England). As Ziegler himself says, the pattern was fairly similar across the country, as it spread from county to county and region to region.

More interesting was the analysis towards the end, regarding the long-term consequences of the plague and the arguments for and against it being the catalyst for long-term political and economic changes across Europe.

I’ve come away feeling more informed about the period, which is the best case after reading a history book aimed at a general audience. Recommended as an historical overview of a grisly period.

Book details

ISBN: 9780750932028
Publisher: Sutton
Year of publication: 1969

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