BooksOfTheMoon

The March North

By Graydon Saunders

Rating: 3 stars

I got this book recommended to me by a friend as the opposite of grimdark fantasy. I enjoyed quite a lot of it, but I did have some trouble with it at times. For a start, I understand the book was self-published, which is all very well, but I do feel like the author could have done with an editor at times; many passages felt obtuse and I had to read them several times before I had a decent idea of what they meant. Something else that I found grating was the deliberate refusal to provide genders for characters. I have no problem with this in principle, but please use constructs like “they/them” or one of the other sets of adjectives. Repeatedly using the characters’ names in a sentence to avoid he/she just felt clunky. It also didn’t help that Saunders is very fond of archaic or jargonistic language. I’m really glad that I was reading on a Kindle, so I could consult the built-in dictionary (which I found myself doing more frequently than I would have liked). Expanding one’s vocabulary is all very well, but it did start to feel like hard work at times.

Speaking of hard work, Saunders really throws you in at the deep end and leaves you to sink or swim. There’s no hand-holding going on here. We start with a military man of some kind expecting (sorcerous) visitors to his area and rapidly go on from there to repealing a military invasion from another country. What the Commonweal is, what a Standard-Captain is, or the focus, or the Shape of Peace are things you’re left to figure out for yourself. There’s no harm in making the reader work for their story, but this, combined with the editing issues I mention above mean that it took a while for me to get through this book. I still don’t know if I’ll go on to the others in the series.

But despite that, my friend was right: I did enjoy the shape of this story, in which an egalitarian, democratic nation exists in the midst of its more traditional fantasy neighbours. Where extremely powerful (basically immortal) sorcerers, who used to behave like Dark Lords in the past, agree to bind themselves into the nation for the greater good. In a world filling up with strongmen and “leaders” whose only goal in power is to stay in power, it’s good to have examples to look up to.

Book details

ISBN: 9780993712609
Publisher: Tall Woods Books
Year of publication: 2014

A Pocketful of Crows

By Joanne M. Harris

Rating: 3 stars

I started this book back in the summer, but put it down for a long period because I could see what was coming and it felt “cringe-y”. I did eventually pick it up again, and I’m glad I did. As much as anything, the writing is poetic and beautiful to read, as much as for the story.

Our protagonist is a young woman of the travelling folk, who travels in all manner of birds and beasts, not tied to anyone or anything. Until she falls in love with a young prince. An inevitable betrayal and revenge follows, but it’s the journey that it takes that is worth staying for.

Based on some of the Child ballads, the story is simple enough, and Harris’s embellishments and feminist reading make for an interesting interpretation. As I say, the writing is a pleasure to read, and helps raise the fairly simple story to something greater. Also, the art, even in my Kindle edition, is gorgeous.

Book details

Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2017

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

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

Snow White Learns Witchcraft: Stories and Poems

By Theodora Goss

Rating: 4 stars

I picked this collection up after reading the Athena Club books by the same author, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This collection has a very different feel to it. While the Athena Club is set in Victorian London, these are retellings and reinterpretations of fairy tales, bringing the women in them to the fore.

Some worked better than others for me, and there were some that I enjoyed, but don’t know the underlying story. Goss is originally from Hungary, and I think several Eastern European tales or variants made their way in to the collection (for example, there were several stories referring to the bear’s wife, but my google-fu failed me on that one).

I often have trouble with poetry, but I’m pleased that the poetry presented here isn’t as dense as some and was often quite prose-like, so I was able to read it almost like a prose story. Of the stories, I think I enjoyed Blanchefleur the best. Again, I’m not sure I recognise the specific story that it came from, but it had the structure and feel of a fairy tale. And it was a love story, which I’m always a sucker for. The Other Thea is a lovely story about wholeness and belonging; while A Country Called Winter about a refugee who makes startling discoveries about her family and her home.

I enjoyed this collection a lot and will certainly look out for more of Goss’s short fiction (as well, of course, as the next ‘Athena Club’ book!)

Book details

Publisher: Mythic Delirium Books
Year of publication: 2017

Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories

By Naomi Kritzer

Rating: 5 stars

I got this book as part of the Feminist Futures story bundle and it caught my eye because I’d read the title story when it was nominated for a Hugo award a few years ago. I loved the story then, and was pleased that it went on to win the Hugo for short story that year and was happy to revisit it as part of this collection.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t enjoyed a collection of short stories as much as this in a long time. There’s not a story here that didn’t connect with me in some way, although some moreso than others. I’m not going to go through every story in detail, but here are some of the highlights. Ace of Spades deals with themes of changes in modes of warfare, how the reduction in risk that technology brings affects decisions, and second chances, all with a sympathetic protagonist dealing with being dealt a crappy hand by fate. Wind is a story about extremes, about two girls who give up something that provides balance in their lives in exchange for something that they yearn for and then have to live with the consequences. Cleanout deals with three daughters clearing out their mother’s house, after she moves into a home and is a beautiful story of grief, loss and coping.

The Good Son had me in tears as a fey follows a human girl back to America and bewitches an old, childless couple, to think of him as their son, to provide camouflage while he chases the girl. Except he doesn’t realise the implications that creating a family will have for him. This is another beautiful story of what family means and the extents we will go to for those we love. Bits, on the other hand, is a hilarious story about alien refugees and the humans who fall in love with them and then need help to have a, er, full relationship. Sex toys. It’s a story about a firm that creates a line of sex toys to help alien/human couples have sex. And it’s brilliant. The final story in the collection, So Much Cooking is told as a series of blog entries in a cookery blog, at the start of an influenza pandemic and how the author and her family cope with not being able to leave the house (and it’s got some cracking recipes as well).

So having enjoyed this collection immensely, I very much look forward to reading more of Kritzer’s work.

Book details

Publisher: Fairwood Press
Year of publication: 2017

The Goodall Mutiny

By Gretchen Rix

Rating: 1 star

I did not enjoy this book at all. It’s about an officer and a bunch of her subordinates abandoned as half their spaceship is jettisoned by the captain. We’re introduced to Lieutenant Joan Chikage as she’s searching for escaped beetles, and it never starts making more sense after that. Chikage is neurotic, completely out of her depth, unable to command her crew and undermines her own authority all the time. Her internal monologue doesn’t exactly help the reader sympathise with her either.

There’s a huge amount left unexplained here, and stuff that just doesn’t make any sense. This should have been an intriguing mystery, but it’s left completely open at the end, with no sense of closure or any questions answered. There’s a sequel, which may answer some questions, but I just don’t care. It was just bloody-mindedness that kept me going through this book and I have no desire to read more about Chikage or her universe.

Book details

Publisher: Rix Cafe Texican
Year of publication: 2016

Queen of Roses

By Elizabeth McCoy

Rating: 3 stars

I got this book as part of the 2019 feminist future story bundle, and it was the excerpt from this book that honestly sold the whole bundle to me. Sarafina is an AI, until recently working for a bank, which has now gone into administration. Her tenure is sold to the owner of a cruise ship, and she finds herself installed as the main passenger interface AI on the Queen of Roses. Here she has to deal with people on a regular basis, including passengers, crew and a drunkard, intolerant captain. Add a bunch of stowaways into the mix and it’s not exactly an easy first cruise for her.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot, but looking back at it, I do think it could have done with another pass from an editor, especially towards the end, as the plot started to ramp up, and I’m not sure that McCoy kept hold of all the threads all properly. There were some minor things (such as the specifically mentioned handed salutes between two characters) and some less minor things (such as how did Mrs Selsda get hold of Sarafina’s programming key?), but in general I liked both Sarafina herself, and Pilot, the other AI on the ship. The “biologicals” were a mixed bunch, who mostly played to type: the drunkard captain; the roguish first officer; the competent engineer, but were all decent characters.

I liked how McCoy showed us how Sarafina split her attention amongst her myriad tasks, something that can’t be easy to imagine or describe given that humans can’t split our attention amongst more than a handful of tasks. I thought the world-building could have been improved. We didn’t get any real impression of how the galaxy is organised, or about the Xanadu system or why it was a threat, not to mention more about Keevey and Keelin. And most importantly for me, no real discussion of the ethics of (even temporary) enslavement of sentient creatures. Yes, the AIs can work their way out of debt, but it still feels icky to me. We don’t make our children pay back the cost of their creation and raising, after all, why should we do that for an AI? I can totally believe that it would happen, but it would have been nice to get at treatment of it in the book.

The prejudice against AIs, on the other hand, requires no leap of the imagination to believe, but I’m glad that the opposite was there as well. The relationship between the free AI Loren and Mr Corvhey was quite sweet.

An enjoyable, if flawed, romp with a very likeable lead character, and bonus points for that lead being very both female and very believably non-human.

Book details

ISBN: 9781476412122
Publisher: Smashwords
Year of publication: 2012

The Tea Master and the Detective

By Aliette de Bodard

Rating: 4 stars

I’d heard a lot of good things about this gender-swapped Holmes and Watson in space. However, in amongst that, nobody thought to mention that “Watson” is actually a mindship; a biological person, but wrapped into a starship shell close to birth and genetically engineered to live longer and fit into that system. It sort of reminded me of Anne McCaffrey’s Brain/Brawn books. Like Watson, The Shadow’s Child is traumatised, although moreso than Watson ever was, and Long Chau, the consulting detective that she partners with, is more abrasive (and drug addicted) than Holmes (even the Benedict Cumberbatch version) ever was.

I enjoyed the story a lot. I’ve read other short fiction set in the same universe, but this grabbed me more than any of them. While I found Long Chau extremely irritating, as a character she’s marvellous, and I really want to read more about her and about The Shadow’s Child. The universe is very interesting as well, and although I didn’t really understand the “deep space” that left The Shadow’s Child so traumatised, I want to find out more.

The fact that it’s a novella means that the story is pared back, and I would love to see a longer piece, to let the protagonists just be for a bit, and give a bit of space to the background as well. (Also, being a novella, the paper versions are priced around the same as a full-length novel, although the ebook version is cheaper).

So can we get a full-length novel? Pretty please? With sugar on top?

Book details

Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency
Year of publication: 2018

Magic for Beginners

By Kelly Link

Rating: 2 stars

I’m afraid I really didn’t enjoy this book much, and what’s worse is that I feel bad for not enjoying it. The author is obviously very familiar with story and storytelling, and the stories in this collection reflect that familiarity and her playing with it and twisting it. Unfortunately, what we ended up with was something well out of my comfort zone and into the surreal. Now I don’t mind a certain level of surrealism (I’m very fond of Robert Sheckley, who didn’t object to going down strange narrative roads at times) but this was too much for me.

I got the book as part of a Humble Bundle and it took me literally years to get past the first story. Having managed that in the end, I struggled with the rest of it. Sometimes the story was just bizarre from the start, without much in the way of structure or plot (The Hortlak, The Cannon) but others start off interesting, or at least hinting that there’s a plot but spiral into strangeness (The Lull, Stone Animals). The one I found most disappointing, possibly because it was the one I enjoyed the most, right up until the last page, was Some Zombie Contingency Plans about a guy who’s not long out of prison and drives around, with a painting in the boot of his car, crashing parties. I was enjoying the slow pace and the actual structure of this. I just don’t like where it went in the end (assuming that I’m reading it right).

So a strong collection if you like works that know the limits of story and are happy to go beyond that, or works with a strong streak of surrealism running through them. Unfortunately, I like neither of those, so I’m afraid this is not for me.

Book details

Publisher: Small Beer Press
Year of publication: 2005

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress