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.

Book details

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

Bear Head

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 2 stars

Jimmy Martin is a construction worker on Mars. He’s used to doing a bit of data smuggling in his head to feed his drugs habit, but he’s not used to the data talking back. Jimmy has a fully fledged bear in his mind, and one that wants to talk to the other colonisation effort on Mars. The one nobody wants to admit is there. And Jimmy’s got to along for the ride, whether he likes it or not.

I enjoyed Dogs of War a lot, but I struggled with its sequel. The themes of sanctity of thought and slavery are fully front and centre in this one even more so than its predecessor, this time with added rape. I really hated Jonas Murry, from the first book, but Warner Thomson leaves Murry in his dust. I mean, Tchaikovsky isn’t exactly being subtle here about Thomson’s model here: the empathy-less, narcissistic businessman turned politician, who jumps on whatever right-wing bandwagon is rolling. Every time he turned up, I felt my stress level go up in anticipation of what horror was going to happen to Carole, his PA (and whose PoV we see through in chapters featuring Thomson) and I just wanted to scrub my skin.

This book certainly doesn’t feel as fun as its predecessor. Partly it’s that we don’t get as many bioforms, most of the PoV characters are human (or, at least, humaniform, since the people sent to Mars have been heavily modded to help them survive). Honey, the bear from Dogs of War, is the only Bioform PoV that we get, and she’s older and more worn down than the young, idealistic bear of yesteryear. Jimmy, whose head Honey ends up living in, isn’t exactly a bundle of laughs either. He’s a washed-out, drug-addicted construction worker, mostly there to let other people spout exposition at him.

It’s a depressing, dystopian future that Tchaikovsky has created here, where hard-won freedoms are being eroded, and the Bioforms are finding themselves new targets of old racisms. But it’s the casual way that “Collaring” (basically slavery that makes you permanently loyal to a person or company) is being being promoted by the corporates of this world that depresses me the most. Sure, I can very much believe that rich and powerful people and corporations would jump at a return to slavery, but seeing such an imagined future spelled out is difficult to stomach.

I appreciate the writing and the plot, and the very clever use of the Prisoners’ Dilemma, but despite all that, I felt that this was a slog to read, and didn’t really enjoy the experience.

Book details

ISBN: 9781800241565

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.

Book details

The Godel Operation

By James L. Cambias

Rating: 4 stars

Another discovery from Scalzi’s Whatever, I thoroughly enjoyed this far-future space opera about a droid and his boy, as they gallivant around a solar system turned into a Dyson Swarm and filled with trillions of inhabitants, both meat and machine.

Zee is an inhabitant of a habitat in Uranus orbit who makes friends with Daslakh, a mech fellow inhabitant who is much older than it seems. (Aside: in Hindi, “daas lakh” means ten hundred thousand, aka one million. I wonder if that’s deliberate or just a coincidence?) Through a series of improbable events, Zee ends up chasing after, and then finding, an imaginary former lover, and then on the trail of, a legendary ancient weapon that could change the face of the solar system.

I loved the setting here, which Cambias calls The Billion Worlds, with uplifted animals, humans, cyborgs and frighteningly powerful AIs, all coexisting (relatively) peacefully. It’s a more or less post-scarcity society, with energy being the system-wide currency. I really liked Daslakh, who is the first person narrator of the story. It makes it clear early on that it’s an unreliable narrator but also takes the mickey out of itself by repeatedly claiming to be “old and cunning” and then doing something simple and obvious.

The flashbacks showing us the cat and mouse escapades of two rival AIs who were on opposite sides of a war in ancient System history span thousands of years, as they repeatedly try to out-manoeuvre each other, and you can see them changing over the millennia, as the story slowly ties together with the present. I especially liked the glimpse of the faded magnificence of Kasaleth habitat, and would love a story set there in its glory days. You could tell a really cool Agatha Christie-style murder mystery there.

This was a really fun story, with a setting that’s huge with lots of space for more stories. And, indeed, the author has said that he intends to write more in the setting. I look forward to reading them.

Book details

Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries, #6)

By Martha Wells

Rating: 4 stars

There’s been a murder on Preservation station, and no, it wasn’t Murderbot, it would have hidden the body way better. But it reluctantly joins the team assigned to investigate, and has to spend valuable media time voluntarily talking to people.

I’ve loved every Murderbot story I’ve read to date, and this novella does nothing to change that. Against its better instinct, our favourite failed psychopathic killer is learning to interact with the people around it in the open, not pretending to be an augmented human or hiding behind a faceless helmet. In other words, learning to be a person itself.

The mystery here is as twisty as you’d expect from Wells with a number of satisfying twists and turns. We mostly get a new supporting cast here, particularly Indah, the senior investigating officer, and Special Investigator Aylen, and while some of the people we know already do make cameos, they’re mostly off-stage, or brief. Indah is interesting, as the senior officer who really doesn’t like the idea of a rogue SecUnit running around without anyone watching it. It’s classic buddy-cop, as the initially antagonistic relationship grows, on both sides, into grudging respect.

There are few big action scenes in this book, but it’s always special when we do get one, and Murderbot shows off what it can do. But mostly it’s a murder mystery, and follows those tropes. (There’s no “I expect you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here…”, but it would have been brilliant if there had been!)

I couldn’t quite figure out where this fit in the timeline of the series, but after a bit of thought, I think it comes after Exit Strategy and before Network Effect, since the events of the latter aren’t mentioned (and there was quite some fallout from that). It’s pretty standalone, so can nominally be read without any knowledge of the rest of the series, but I’d still suggest reading all the other novellas before reading this one. That way you’ll have have an idea of Murderbot’s character and care about it and the people that it has come to care for.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250765376
Year of publication: 2021

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

Network Effect (The Murderbot Diaries, #5)

By Martha Wells

Rating: 5 stars

Now living on Preservation and working security for Dr Mensah, Murderbot is currently assigned to a survey team. It successfully gets them away from pirates on the survey planet, but as they return home to Preservation, they’re attacked by an unknown vessel. Murderbot and Dr Mensah’s daughter Amena are captured and taken to an unknown system. Our friendly rogue SecUnit is miffed when it reboots after being knocked out, but that’s nothing compared to how it’ll feel once it finds out what ship it’s on.

I love the narrative voice that Wells uses for MurderBot. It’s self-assured, snarky, and vulnerable, all at once. It’s a joy to read, whether it’s describing violence against things that are trying to harm MurderBot’s humans, or trying, and often failing, to avoid having feelings that aren’t related to media.

This being a full novel rather than a novella, we have more space to let the characters develop. We get to spend a bit more time with Arada and Overse, as well as getting to meet new characters, like Amena, who has a knack of getting under MurderBot’s skin to some degree and understand its feelings. It also leads to a more complicated plot, including the welcome return of ART, from Artificial Condition. I did struggle at times to keep track of the various lost colonies and who was from what polity and what they all wanted. But it was totally worth it, and I’ll be reading it again at some point. Now that I know what happens, I can focus on the details on the next read (well, that’s the theory at least, Wells keeps the whole thing ticking over at a breakneck pace, without much in the way of chance to catch your breath, so I suspect I’ll be just as desperate to read the next chapter next time round too).

If you’re already a fan of MurderBot, you’ll love this. If you’re not, technically you could read this without reading the preceding novellas, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s best if you get to know MurderBot, Mensah and the other humans and it cares about, and, of course, ART. Then, by the time you get here, you’ll be a fan of MurderBot.

And now that I’m finally finished this review, I can go back to enjoying my media…

Book details

ISBN: 9781250229861
Year of publication: 2020

Queens and Pirates (Girl Genius The Second Journey of Agatha Heterodyne #5)

By Phil Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

The battle for Paris is over – the old Master is dead but his daughter has broken through and stepped into his place. Almost her first action is to exile Agatha and the others who recently came to her city, while she rebuilds its fortifications. Agatha finally accepts an invitation to come to England to try and study and discover what she can about the temporal stasis field that holds her own city in its grasp.

Although I read Girl Genius online, I often struggle to keep the story straight in my head, since we’re only getting three pages a week. Here, we have nearly a year’s output in one place, and I can read it in an afternoon, making it much easier to keep track.

In the Foglios’ imagination, England is a wondrous, sunken island (is it even still an island if it’s under water?), ruled by an incredibly powerful, undying god-queen, who has had her own reasons for forging England into an empire that almost rivals that of the Wulfenbachs (although from a parochial point of view, I wonder what happened to Scotland and Ireland).

As the title nods to, this volume focusses on the queens (Albia and her mostly lost equals) and pirates. Most prominent amongst the latter is the always-wonderful Bangladesh Dupree. Here she gets to face off against an uber-assassin and help kidnap her own boss. She’s nearly as much fun as the Jagermonsters – high praise indeed.

Even after 18 volumes, the story is fresh and engaging. Agatha and her entourage are so much fun, and it’s funny enough that I was laughing out loud on multiple occasions. Roll on the next one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856694

The Best of C.L. Moore

By C.L. Moore

Rating: 4 stars

Although I knew the name CL Moore, I was unfamiliar with her work and thought she was a New Wave writer, not Golden Age, so it’s been interesting to read these stories, all written in the 1930s and 40s. We think of much of the work of that era to be very plot-oriented, with little in the way of emotional underpinning or characterisation. I don’t think that can be said of Moore’s work, judging by this sample. Although the characters perhaps aren’t emotionally developed in the modern sense, they are much more vividly drawn than in much of the work of Moore’s peers of the era.

Shambleau is the work that made Moore’s name, introducing the character of Northwest Smith and the woman that he saves from an angry mob who turns out to be more dangerous than he thought. My favourite story in the collection is probably the final one, Vintage Season, in which a man rents out his house to a group of strange foreigners. This story is based around a trope that modern readers will readily identify, but which was startlingly original at the time (the author notes in the afterword that she thinks it may be have been the first story use this particular trope). It’s handled well, with a little sting in the tail.

There’s a surprising (to me, at least) amount of theology in the book. Not only is there the very direct Fruit of Knowledge about those first days in the Garden of Eden, but Daemon discusses the concept of the soul and The Bright Illusion has two gods fighting on an alien world, and a man who wonders about an afterlife.

So a fascinating look back into a different era of the genre, and to see how Moore’s writing contrasted with that of the men around her. She brought emotion into a genre that was, at that time, staid and with mostly cardboard characters. The stories themselves, while coloured by their time, are well worth reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345247520
Publisher: Random House Inc
Year of publication: 1976

Gunnerkrigg Court Volume 8: Catalysis

By Thomas Siddell

Rating: 5 stars

Gunnerkrigg Court continues to be, as far as I’m concerned, the best comic on the web. Volume 8 of the collected series collects chapters 69 to 77 and deals with Annie’s return from the forest after her meeting with Loup, only to be confronted with, well herself. It covers the two Annies having to get to grips with each other and their relationship with others around them, as well as Kat’s ongoing work (the robots and their growing religion, with Kat the centre of it continues to be intriguing and not a little creepy).

Reading Anthony’s interactions with Forest-Annie after her return is so much more poignant in light of current events in the comic. I hated Anthony so much when he first came back into Annie’s life, but we’ve had windows into his soul since then and now I pity him more than anything.

I love the characters in this series, and I love the way that the two Annies start to have their own distinct personalities and how they work out the problems between themselves and become stronger. And Kat, dear Katerina, bending time itself to her will to save her friend, but not able to talk to Annie about her own doubts and fears. The characterisation is so good, but Siddell keeps the balance between plot, character and humour perfect, sometimes using no more than a glance or a single panel to convey so much.

Also, wow, showing the Tick-Tock birds, right back in volume one, and then dealing with the resolution of that seventy-odd chapters — and fourteen years — later! That’s some impressive planning going on there.

So yeah, a great ongoing story, loveable characters (gossipy Cvet is my favourite new character in this volume) and constantly maturing art. Absolute brilliance.

Book details

ISBN: 9781684156658
Publisher: Archaia
Year of publication: 2021

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress