BooksOfTheMoon

Shades of Milk and Honey (The Glamourist Histories, #1)

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

Jane Ellsworth is an accomplished, but plain, young woman in Regency England. Her father has put aside enough money to ensure good dowries for her and her sister, but she isn’t sure that she’ll ever find a man to marry her, no matter her dowry, or how good her ability with glamour is.

This book wears its Jane Austen influences on its sleeve. From the very first page, it riffs on Pride and Prejudice, inviting the reader to note the similarities and differences. The biggest difference, of course, is the existence of magic in this world, in the form of glamour – the power of illusion, of drawing it from the ether and forming it into shapes, sounds and even smells. Jane’s ability at glamour incites jelousy in her sister, Melody, as much as Melody’s beauty does with Jane, although Melody, the younger sister, is more willing to show it.

I’m a great fan of Pride and Prejudice, and this homage to that world, while adding its own magical twist delighted me. It captured the spirit of Austen’s work very well, although at times the writing didn’t entirely feel authentic. Although that can be forgiven given that this is Kowal’s debut novel. Although the worldbuilding is broad, it’s done well and gives you the information you need.

We get everything we expect in a Regency novel, and then some – we get a ball, gossip, jealousy, a wayword younger sister and even a duel! Jane is a delightful protagonist (I mean, she’s no Elizabeth Bennett, but then, who is?). It’s fun trying to figure out which of the men in the novel will be the Mr Darcy to her Lizzy. Will it be the charming neighbour? Or the childhood friend? Or maybe the new glamourist hired by their aristocratic neighbour?

This was a lot of fun as a homage to Austen’s work and I’m really curious to see where it goes next. The world is really interesting, so now that we’ve had the homage, I look forward to something more off the beaten track.

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A Quiet Afternoon 2

By Liane Tsui

Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed the previous volume of Grace & Victory’s “low-fi” speculative fiction anthology, and am pleased to report the same for this second volume. This one is bigger, with twenty eight stories (although some of the stories are more like flash fiction, only a couple of pages long) where the stakes are low, and the peril is mild. It was definitely a good choice to read this alongside Bear Head, a book that made me pretty anxious and stressed.

Some of the stories are whimsical, like the opener, Sadedali and the Secret Life of Clouds, about a cat and her human making friends with clouds; or The Many Kidnappings of Princess Zania, about a princess who keeps getting kidnapped by a sorcerer, until she figures out what he wants. Some of the stories are melancholy, such as In Case of Emergency, Break Heart, where broken hearts can be replaced by mechanical ones, and if they stop you from feeling, well, that’s a feature, not a bug; or Wings of Memory which is a lovely story about identity, and self, and determination.

I favour the warm, sweet ones over the melancholy ones. Remembering Simulacra, for example, tells of a number of painted concrete dinosaurs who, every night, climb out of the amusement park where they live to a nearby hill to watch the skies in memory of the great fire that killed the creatures they were made in the image of. And I’m always up for a Glasgow story, and Brian Milton’s Rab the Giant Versus the Problem Neighbour is just lovely (full disclosure, I know Brian, and loved the previous story featuring Rab).

In general, a lovely idea for an anthology, with a lot of very pleasant stories; and with a donation from the profit from the book going to charity (as they say, “quiet afternoons are too often a privilege when they should be a right”), I heartily recommend it.

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ISBN: 9780994009760
Publisher: Grace&Victory
Year of publication: 2021

Doctor Who: At Childhood’s End

By Sophie Aldred

Rating: 4 stars

Ace was probably my favourite companion of the Classic Who era (nothing to do with me being a growing boy on the first approach to adolescence, no siree). She was no-nonsense, and rather than screaming, made her own explosives and attacked Daleks with baseball bats. It was only later, on rewatches as an adult, that I saw how the writers had been carefully crafting her story arc. This is something we take for granted now, but in that period, companions mostly just stood around to let the Doctor spout exposition, look pretty, and scream on demand.

This novel, (co-)written by Ace actress Sophie Aldred, has us catch up with Ace, sorry, Dorothy, thirty years after her travels with the Doctor ended. She’s now a middle-aged lady, who throws herself into her work directing a disaster aid charity, when she gets wind of others who have been having the same sorts of nightmares that she does: of being irresistibly drawn towards a strange structure, menaced by something that she never quite manages to see. Then an alien spaceship appears in orbit around the moon, and Dorothy wangles her way up there, only to run into the Thirteenth Doctor, with Yaz, Graham and Ryan in tow.

I was really impressed with how much this felt like a Doctor Who story. The structure and pacing felt just right. Aldred is obviously comfortable with Ace, even after so many years and her voice feels right, a combination of that teenager from thirty years ago, tempered with age, and maybe wisdom. Not that that stops her from still making her own home-made explosives.

She gets the Doctor’s voice right too, both the Thirteenth, and the Seventh, who we encounter in flashbacks, when Ace still travelled with him. The current companions don’t get a huge amount to do, other than run around and sometimes get kidnapped (some things never change), but she does hone in on Yaz, and how she feels, finding this possibly older version of herself – someone who loved travelling with the Doctor as much as she, but gave it up. There’s something of the meeting between Rose and Sarah Jane around it, but neither of them are willing to talk about it properly.

There are centaur-like aliens, rat-people and more. The plot, involving kidnapping the young and disenfranchised, people that probably won’t be missed is mostly secondary to Ace getting catharsis for the way that she and the Doctor parted. There’s loads of Easter eggs too, mostly to Old Who, but I suspect you’d enjoy it just as much without getting them.

A fun story with a good heart that captures the essence of Doctor Who very well.

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A Quiet Afternoon

By Liane Tsui

Rating: 4 stars

I heard about this collection because a friend of mine has a story in its sequel, and when I went to have a look, I was intrigued by the idea of “low-fi” speculative fiction, something low-stakes and gentle, compared to the grandeur and world-threatening nature of much of the genre. And I’m really glad I picked it up.

The collection starts strongly, with The Baker’s Cat, about a girl who really wants to be a baker, but just isn’t very good at it, and the small acts of kindness that lead to her getting the help she needs. Other highlights include The Dragon Peddler about a boy who can see dragons and Tomorrow’s Friend about getting the friend you need, when you need them. Hollow is a nice twist on the magic quest, and the final story, Of Buckwheat and Garlic Braids (not garlic bread, as I first read it as) is a lovely little tale of travel and belonging.

As in most collections, there’s some that didn’t work as well. I didn’t really get Ink Stains, or 12 Attempts at Telling About the Flower Shop Man (New York, New York). Both pleasant enough, but I didn’t really grok them.

But overall, it’s a pretty good collection. It’s one that you sit and pick a story almost at random to read if you’re feeling a bit down, and you’re pretty sure that it’ll be okay in the end.

I’ve already pre-ordered the sequel.

Book details

ISBN: 9780994009746
Publisher: Grace&Victory
Year of publication: 2020

Refined: Supervillain Rehabilitation Project

By H.L. Burke

Rating: 3 stars

The fourth, and final, book in the Supervillain Rehabilitation Project series takes place some months after the last – with Prism still unable to properly access her light-based powers, and Aidan still struggling to adapt to having returned from effectively being dead. A villain has found out that Fade is the son of a long-disappeared sable hitman named Syphon, and repercussions for Prism, Fade and the whole team follow. And they’re not helped by a new SVR recruit foisted upon them by the powers that be.

It felt like there was more melodrama in this book than in previous ones – a long-lost father; someone struggling to admit their feelings for a colleague; someone keeping a secret that could put others in danger – but it was still an enjoyable read. The new recruit – Voidling – was initially someone I thought who wasn’t going to be hugely interesting, but her story arc surprised me by not going where I thought it would at all.

The main arc of the story is about redemption and forgiveness, as Syphon tries to atone for his past. He’s also not the character that I was expecting from a supervillain hitman, but that’s for the best. If anything, I think he was maybe too sympathetic and his past whitewashed a bit.

I was surprised by the lack of consequences from some of Fade’s actions from the last book. They were briefly mentioned at the start but then disappear from the story. That’s a bit disappointing, but Fade’s over-protectiveness/controlling thing from the last book has also been toned down, which is something.

There was more Tanvi in the book than the last one, which is always cheering, as she’s such a fun character, if a bit angsty here. There was less Bob, alas, but we can’t have everything.

It’s been a fun series, steeped in superhero tropes but happily playing around with them. The end of the book (and the series) sees a lot of change, and it felt like a good ending.

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Year of publication: 2021

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

By Mary Ann Shaffer

Rating: 5 stars

My sister recommended this short epistolary novel to me, and while I’m not usually a reader of historical fiction, I absolutely devoured it. Set just after the end of the Second World War, author Juliet Ashton has just finished a tour for her last book and is now casting about for what to do next. Serendipitously, she gets a letter from a stranger on the Isle of Guernsey, which leads to a correspondence and an introduction to the eponymous Society.

Guernsey was the only part of the UK that was occupied by the Germans during the war, and the correspondence between Juliet and the members of the Society teases out the complexities of the occupation and the relationship. It was a terrible time, and there were many atrocities, but there were kindnesses and love as well, and the book balances that well.

The members of the Society are well-drawn, and, interestingly, one of the clearest is someone who doesn’t write any letters of their own but is a prominent figure in many of the others. To say any more would be a spoiler. Possibly my favourite character is Isole, a hedge witch and keen practitioner of phrenology. She’s an awful lot of fun and I love her voice when she’s writing. A delightful romance also develops later in the book which is lovely to read.

The epistolary form through an entire novel is unusual and, I imagine, hard work to do. I did enjoy it though. The voice for the period is mostly well done as well.

I had all the feels while reading this book, I loved it.

Book details

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Year of publication: 2009

Reborn: Supervillain Rehabilitation Project

By H.L. Burke

Rating: 4 stars

Reborn picks up the Supervillain Rehabilitation Project story about a year after the last book finished, with Prism heavily pregnant but as busy as ever. The driving force of this book is that Aiden, Prism’s brother, is alive (following the revelation for the reader at the end of the last book). Now on the one hand, it’s an long-established trope that superheroes rarely stay dead for long, but on the other, I had thought the treatment of Prism’s grief and growing acceptance of Aiden’s death in Redeemed was very well done, and this revelation felt like it undermined it a bit.

Still, the book does deal with the consequences of finding that Aiden is alive. Prism will stop at nothing to get him back, and she finds her mental balance thrown, as it’s repeatedly pointed out to her that there might not be enough left of him to save.

It’s Fade that’s most interesting here though. He’s someone who’s never had anything to lose in the past, and now he has not only a wife, but a child as well. This leads to some… dubious decisions. We didn’t see much in the way of consequences of that this time, but I expect chickens coming home to roost at some point. It also led Fade becoming over-protective to the point of being on the edge of being controlling. It’ll be interesting to see if that goes anywhere, or if I’m just being overly sensitive.

As always, there’s not enough Keeper (and Yui) – but then I’m biased towards there being more Scots in media – nor enough Tanvi, who’s probably my favourite character at this point. We got cameo appearances from some of the teens from the last book, along with their adopted parents, which was nice to see.

As with the rest of the series, the book is extremely readable. I enjoy the superhero world writ large, and this series scratches that itch admirably. Intrigued by the hook in the epilogue and already looking forward to the next one.

Note: I received an ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an unbiased review.

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Year of publication: 2020

Redeemed: Supervillain Rehabilitation Project

By H.L. Burke

Rating: 4 stars

This book picks up a few months after the events of Reformed, with the whole team still reeling over the shock of Aiden’s death in the previous book, but with Prism and Fade a strong couple. Tanvi injures a sable who she sees breaking into a house and is shocked to find that it’s a just a teenage girl. She persuades Prism to recruit the girl, Alma, as the next recruit for the Supervillian Rehabilitation Project. But Alma has secrets of her own and is running from her past.

I enjoyed this short book a lot. Prism and Fade being an established couple works much better for me than bringing them together, and the interpersonal problems of a devoted Christian and a hand-waving theist make for surprisingly real drama.

I liked that we got to see much of both Tanvi and Bob this time round, although they’re still not PoV characters, and Yui also played a much more active role in the plot. Sidenote: I really liked the idea of Bob’s wife always being around, but nobody has any idea about it. It’s a neat little idea that tickled my fancy.

The true villain of the piece, Handler, was one that made me want to shower every time he was on the page. I really hate the idea of mind control, so his powers (not to mention his ruthlessness) made him an effective villain in my eyes.

Unlike the previous book, this one definitely ends on a cliffhanger, and I look forward to reading the next two books in the series, as they come out.

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Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries, #4)

By Martha Wells

Rating: 4 stars

Murderbot is on its way back to Dr Mensah, with additional evidence against the shady-to-full-blown-evil GrayCris corporation when it discovers that she’s been kidnapped. So, once again ignoring its Risk Assessment Module, it immediately goes off to rescue her. En route, it runs into some old acquaintances (friends, Murderbot, they’re your friends) and has more Feelings that aren’t about entertainment media.

Like the rest of the Murderbot books, this is fun, pacy, and with more emotional punch than you would expect from a sarcastic, misanthropic killbot. Despite its best efforts, Murderbot really does care. It wants to protect those who were kind to it and who treat it like a person, and it wants to beat (in both senses of the word) those who are trying to harm them.

It’s not world-shattering stuff. It’s pretty lightweight, and popcorn reading, but it’s good at what it does and is highly entertaining. Recommended.

Like the others in the series, this is short, easily readable in a couple of hours. I got given the middle two volumes in the series as a birthday present, which is what then pushed me to pick up this final novella, as otherwise I probably wouldn’t have bothered, given that they’re priced close to full-sized novels. If Tor releases the novellas as a pretty omnibus on paper, they’ll have a built-in market (I’d certainly buy it, despite now owning all of them in electronic format). Come on Tor, why won’t you take my money?!

Book details

Publisher: Tor.com
Year of publication: 2018

Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries, #3)

By Martha Wells

Rating: 5 stars

The third Murderbot novella sees M leave his pal ART and aim for an abandoned terraforming project that was carried out by GreyCris, the ever-more-evil corporation that tried to kill it and its humans in the first book. It’s looking for evidence that there were more shady dealings going on here, that it can feed back to help shore up the case against them, and totally not because it feels guilty at how harried his favourite human from that group looks since it disappeared.

This book widens the world a bit as it introduces Miki, a bot that is integrated into the group trying to take over the abandoned terraforming project and who is treated like a person. Murderbot treats Miki somewhere between contempt and envy as it, once again, poses as a security consultant to try and get what it needs, and finds itself unable to abandon its charges when things go pear-shaped, as they inevitably do around our favourite soap-addicted, murdering, wannabe-misanthrope.

Despite Murderbot’s disdain, I really liked Miki and the relationships it had obviously formed with those around it, including its nominal owner, Don Abene. Miki has led a sheltered life (up to this point) without even knowing what a SecUnit is and has an open, trusting nature that contrasts pleasingly with Murderbot’s cynicism.

I must confess that I didn’t see the twist coming (plus ça change), but it worked well. And this one made me Have Feelings by the end of it! And ending on a (sort of) cliffhanger! I shall be moving swiftly on to the next, and final, novella in the sequence.

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