Tales from a Magical Teashop: Stories of the Tea Princess Chronicles

By Casey Blair

Rating: 3 stars

This is a collection of little fluff pieces from the Tea Princess Chronicles. The stories are all just flash pieces, no more than a couple of pages long, mostly featuring adventures in the tea shop that Miyara works in. To be honest, I sort of expected the main series to involve more time spent in the actual teashop serving tea, so this scratches that itch but the pieces are very definitely fluff. It’s a nice way to spend more time in the world, but you really only need to read it if you enjoy customers being put in their place (and, let’s be honest, if you’ve ever worked in the service industry, you probably do) or being helped. Enjoyable but inessential.

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Publisher: Casey Blair
Year of publication: 2022

The Elephant and Macaw Banner

By Christopher Kastensmidt

Rating: 4 stars

This fix-up novel collects a number of short stories and novellas that the author has written in the same setting, featuring van Oost and Oludara. It starts with Dutchman Gerard van Oost travelling to Brazil and freeing Oludara from slavery. Together they form a “banner” and aim to travel the country killing monsters and gaining glory. The stories tell of their adventures battling creatures of Brazilian folklore and the friends and enemies they make along the way.

The stories are generally fun and interweave Brazilian folklore into them quite well. It’s a good introduction to the sorts of strange creatures and mythical beings from that culture. I don’t know the culture well enough to know how accurate these are and what are pure inventions of Kastensmidt, but it’s nice to see something different from the monsters of classical European tradition.

An enjoyable read with characters that you grow to admire and care for. It’s especially nice to see van Oost’s religious prejudices repeatedly challenged and to see him grow as a person throughout.

Book details

ISBN: 9781911486312
Publisher: Guardbridge Books
Year of publication: 2018

Galaxies and Fantasies

By Andy McKell

Rating: 4 stars

This was a find at a dealers’ room at a small con, where I was trying to collect at least one book from each table. For a small press, where you don’t necessarily know the authors, I thought you can’t go wrong with a collection of short stories. And I was mostly right. This collection has twenty seven stories, many of which are flash pieces, with a twist at the end. The collection is pretty varied, ranging from space opera and dystopian near futures, to high fantasy and ghost stories. Let the Children Sleep is a lovely example of the latter, while Why do Robots Shave? is a lovely horror-tinged dystopia involving a “bio-robot” needing maintenance. A Dying Craft brought a lump to my throat while Waiting for Ragnarök is a nice take on a classic theme.

There were some misses too (inevitable with any collection), but with a good number of stories, and none too long, if you’re not enjoying a story, another will be along shortly.

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ISBN: 9781915304063

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters / The Compass Rose

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4 stars

This is a big book, containing a fair sample of Le Guin’s writing from the 1960s and 70s, into the early 80s. The first volume, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters covers the earlier period from 1963 to 1974 and the second from 1974 to 1982. Personally, I think I mostly preferred the stories in the earlier volume, which are, for want of a better word, more traditional. The author is experimenting, but still working in a traditional storytelling format here. In the latter volume, there’s a number of more experimental works, that I’d call part of the New Wave of science fiction. I’ve never really got on with the New Wave, and struggle with its forms and functions, so stories like Schrödinger’s Cat or Intracom didn’t really work for me. The first volume also has author prefaces to each story, which I always enjoy, since it helps put them in context and give you an idea of what the author was thinking when a story was written. These are missing from the second volume.

But there’s a huge amount to like, from the classic The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, to the humorous Direction of the Road and several set in established worlds, whether that be Ekumen stories or the ones set in Earthsea. Le Guin was a very versatile storyteller, turning her hand to many different genres and styles, but more often than not, with her well-honed anthropologist’s eye. If you’re not familiar with Le Guin’s work, this is a great place to start, and if you already are, you’ll find lots to enjoy.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473205765
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2015

Biggles Pioneer Air Fighter

By W.E. Johns

Rating: 3 stars

This was an enjoyable enough collection of short stories featuring Captain James “Biggles” Bigglesworth, a fighter pilot in the First World War. The stories are all short, plainly told and exciting. There are dogfights, rookies, spies, and even a love interest. It’s all very gung-ho, although there’s a lot of respect for the fighters of the opposition, but still feels too close to propaganda for my tastes.

I read it mostly because I’ve never read any, and because my brother-in-law has been enthusing about them recently, so I borrowed this one to have a go. It was a fun, and quick read, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to read any more.

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ISBN: 9780603034053
Publisher: Dean & Son
Year of publication: 1977

The Draco Tavern

By Larry Niven

Rating: 3 stars

I love a good sci-fi pub, whether that’s Callahan’s place, the White Hart, or the Ur bar. So I was glad to add another one to the list (thanks to the good people at File 770 for the recommendation). The Draco Tavern is run by Rick Schumann, and caters to the aliens who visit Earth after first contact and the humans who want to talk to them. While it’s perhaps not as cosy as Callahan’s, or the White Hart, it’s certainly an interesting place, where many tall tales are told. Whether that’s the the one where an alien gives Rick the secret to building an artificial intelligence; or the one where a priest engages two of them in a discussion about god; or the one where a human makes a wish off an alien bioscientist.

The stories are very short, more vignettes than anything else, but Niven is great at the form, and he’s able to sketch a great little idea in that short space and he’s great at spinning stories out of the cultural conflict that inevitably arises when two (or more) very different cultures collide.

It might not have the heart of Callahan’s, or the shaggy dog stories of the White Hart, but it’s still a great collection for dipping in and out of. I wouldn’t mind popping in to Draco’s for a drink and to eavesdrop in on some conversations.

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All the Names They Used for God: Stories

By Anjali Sachdeva

Rating: 3 stars

I honestly can’t remember where I heard about this collection of short stories, but I’d heard good things and decided to give it a go. There was certainly a lot of quotes at the front of the book praising it – eleven pages worth, in fact, which made me raise an eyebrow and wonder if the lady doth protest too much.

Of the nine stories, over half have some tinge of SFF to them, whether it’s an alien invasion, a mermaid, or mind control. But the genre element is rarely to the fore. It’s usually something to force the characters to think or act in some way. Like the mermaid in Robert Greenman and the Mermaid, where it acts as the (somewhat traditional) siren that lures the sailor from his wife and his happiness, as he becomes obsessed with her. Or the alien overlords in Manus with their ridiculous accents and their insistence of the taking of human hands and replacing them with artificial ones, and what resistance looks like in such a society.

I suspect you might get on with Killer of Kings much better if you know who the “John” who’s the protagonist is. I had to wade about half way through before I had enough clues to be able to google it and come up with John Milton, of Paradise Lost fame.

Mostly, I felt that this collection was worthy. I could see the author trying very hard to Make A Point and I’m sure that a lot of people react well to that. I like plots and light, fluffy stories. These were generally quite melancholy, open-ended and more interested in characters than plots. And generally characters that I didn’t necessarily feel much engagement with, at that.

So, worthy, character-driven fiction. I was hoping for fiction that made my mind explode (really, I was hoping for another Ted Chiang, but that sort of lightning doesn’t strike more than once), but I don’t begrudge the time I spent with the collection.

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ISBN: 9780525508687

The Birthday of the World and Other Stories

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4 stars

This volume collects eight of Le Guin’s longer short stories, most of them set in the Ekuman shared universe. Most of the stories share an anthropological theme, with an outsider’s eye on the societies we encounter.

Coming of Age in Karhide explores adolescence in Gethen, the world of her novel The Left Hand of Darkness and ins and outs of sexuality in a world where gender-fluidity is part of their biology. There’s not much of a plot, but Le Guin is just having fun exploring the world through the eyes of its natives, rather than a rather biased Terran.

The Matter of Seggri has a number of Ekumen mobiles across time visiting the world of Seggri, where there is a very unbalanced ratio of male to female births, and the males are sequestered away in their own “castles” and brought out by the dominant female population to provide sex and stud services, and it follows how the society changes after first contact. It’s a fascinating study into the ethics of first contact (different Ekumen visitors make different decisions on whether or not to reveal their origins) and into such an unbalanced society and one way that it could possibly develop.

Unchosen Love and Mountain Ways are both set of the world of O, where the population have (by our standards) very complicated four-way marriages. The former involves a man of the country who falls in love with a man from a craggy oceanside fastness but who struggles to make his way in the village, questioning if love is enough to survive. While the latter involves a remote, mountain village and bending the customs to breaking point for the sake of love.

The world of Solitude is a difficult one. It’s another society where men and women are split along gender lines, with women forming communities, and when boys reach adolescence they’re expelled and have to live off the land, fighting rather than working communally. An Ekumen observer comes to this world to try and understand it, bringing her children with her. Unfortunately for her, her daughter fits in rather too well.

Old Music and the Slave Women is one that I skipped here, because I’ve read it before and found it hard going. I’m not really interested in exploring the horrors of slave-driven societies. If memory serves, it’s a good and powerful story, but not one that I want to re-read.

The title story, The Birthday of the World is one that Le Guin says she doesn’t know if it’s in the Ekumen or not. I could go either way on it. It’s an interesting society where the rulers are literally regarded as gods, with an added dose of incest. There’s prophecy and a military coup and a lot of interest.

The final story, Paradises Lost, is definitely not Ekumen. It’s a generation ship story of the middle generations who are destined to live and die on the ship having never seen Earth and who will be old when the ship reaches its destination. It shows us how the society is constructed and designed to be entirely stable, and how religious influence was controlled, but how a new religion eventually subverts this.

Le Guin is a master at constructing interesting and quirky societies, and she never forgets the place minorities within them, whether those are ethnic, religious or sexual in nature. This is a great collection from a master of the form, with a keen eye for anthropology.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575074798
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2003

The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Ghost Stories

By Rudyard Kipling

Rating: 3 stars

I was listening to the rather good Empire podcast when one of the hosts, the historian William Dalrymple, mentioned in passing the short ghost story The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes as one of the best short stories he’d ever read. This piqued my interest and I googled it, to find it in this collection, which was also available for free on Gutenberg. Now, ghost stories aren’t my favourite genre by a long way, and that, combined with Kipling’s attitude towards India and the Indians, meant that this book received a lukewarm reception at best.

There’s only five stories in the collection, of which, four are set in India, with the last being set in London, which an Indian connection. The first two stories didn’t do an awful lot for me at all. The title story has an unpleasant man who has an affair with a married woman and when he breaks it off, she dies of a broken heart, but comes back to haunt him. The second, My Own True Ghost Story sees the narrator starting off by complaining that he’s never had a ghostly experience of his own, before promptly having one.

The third story is the one that brought the book to my attention – The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes. I found this one pretty unengaging to be honest. The Indians are carictures and the narrator is unsympathetic. Maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind when I read it, but I’m amazed by Dalrymple’s praise.

It’s the last two stories that redeemed this collection for me. I’m not sure what The Man Who Would be King is doing in a collection of ghost stories, but it’s a great story of hubris and downfall, while “The Finest Story in the World” has a writer being given a glimpse of history, which he has to try to cultivate to let him write the eponymous story. This one, I enjoyed quite a lot, as the narrator’s young friend is revealed to be unconsciously in touch with his previous lives, which the narrator tries to use to write his story, all without letting him know what’s going on, and being subjected to his bad poetry. It’s tongue in cheek and shows some levity that is otherwise absent from this collection.

I’ve read some Kipling that I’ve enjoyed, but my agnosticism towards ghost stories in general, and Kipling’s attitude towards Indians means that the stories here mostly didn’t work for me. The last two really helped pull up the average though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781406923988
Publisher: Hard Press
Year of publication: 2006

Hexarchate Stories

By Yoon Ha Lee

Rating: 4 stars

Upon opening this collection, I was surprised by how long the table of contents was, for such a slim volume. The was explained once I got into it by the number of short and flash pieces that there are. Starting the volume, a few years since I last read the Machineries of Empire trilogy, I did have to do some googling to remind myself of the big outline of the story and of the threads that stories here touch on.

There’s a handful of stories here not related to the cast of Machineries of Empire, including one set before the formation of the Heptarchate, but mostly this is the Shuos Jedao show, with special guest star Kel Cheris. The big draw here, is Glass Cannon, which is, by the far, the longest piece in the book, taking up nearly a third of the page count. This is set a couple of years after Revenant Gun and features the second Jedao coming in search of Cheris, in the hope that he can get his (or rather, his original’s) memories back. It’s a great story and disrupts the fragile equilibrium that has settled over the Hexarchate in interesting (and spoilerific) ways.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. The shorter pieces are character studies, or historical fragments, or fluff, but they still fill in the world of the H*archate, and the author’s notes that follow each story provide more context. To be honest, the collection is worth it for Glass Cannon alone, but the others definitely complement it. Recommended for fans of the series (definitely not one to read before Machineries of Empire, as there are many spoilers for the series).

Book details

ISBN: 9781781085646
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2019

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