Tag Archives: fantasy

The Best Thing you can steal

I received this book from the publisher at no cost, via NetGalley.

If you have read any of Simon R Green’s Nightsider books, or his Hawk and Fisher, then you already have a sense of what this book is like. Whether you enjoy that or not is a different matter – Green has a definite style, and it’s on display here. (There’s a level to which it’s true of the Deathstalker books, too, although they have a whole other thing going on as well.)

Green’s style happens to work very well for me, as a rule, now that I know what to expect. Witty banter, cheerful playing with tropes, a courteous if shallow nod to the notion of substance, with a narrative that’s mostly flash and style in a “I’m fabulous and loving it” way. It’s not quite textual candy floss – there’s a bit more substance than that – but maybe it’s… candied peanuts. Tasty, some nutrition, pretty sweet, and even I can’t eat toooo many of them at a time. But I love it when I do have them. (And some people hate them.)

This book is a heist story and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Characters literally call it a heist and the section headings do too. So you know what you’re getting, and it delivers. The first part, therefore, is getting the team together, which is often my favourite part of such stories. Our narrator is now called Gideon Sable – we don’t know who he used to be. His first recruit is Annie Anybody, master of disguise (who, I now realise, is therefore much like Face in the A-Team) who is also Sable’s ex, which of course is going to lead to some tension. Then there’s a Ghost – who is actually a ghost; the Damned (… who, I now realise, is something like BA… in the A-Team…), who is damned for a dreadful misdeed but is spending his remaining time on earth killing bad people just to stick it to Hell; and Johnny Wilde (…who is… a lot… like Murdoch…), aka the Wild Card, who does terrifying things to reality.

(I’ll just stop here and think about the A-Team similarity. Sable doesn’t smoke a cigar and there’s no tanks; I don’t think this is actually deliberate. It’s just that those tropes – disguise, muscle, the spanner in the works – are exactly that; tropes, and useful ones at that.)

Team gets together, team plans heist, team attempts heist, hijinks ensue. The fun thing with a relatively standard narrative is knowing what to expect, AND the ways the author gets to spin expectations – and with Green, have fun and do ridiculous things along the way. Because, as this is Green, it is of course no ordinary setting: this is the magical side of London (a well-traveled path, I know), which means objects that defy reality and people with terrifying abilities and a ball point pen that can stop time (only briefly though).

This is a fun book. At times silly, always fast-paced, it’s also short at about 160 pages in my e-copy – so there’s no mucking around.

Across the Green Grass Fields

I have loved every book of the Wayward Children series to date. Some more (Down Among the Sticks and Bones), some a bit less (In An Absent Dream), but all together they’re just… a marvellous addition to my literary world.

Across the Green Grass Fields continues this. It’s not what I expected: it’s a standalone story, certainly fitting into the overall idea of the series but not into the narrative structure – there are no familiar characters or settings, although I hope they will recur. So that was a surprise, but also I shouldn’t have been that surprised at McGuire doing something different. It also means that a reader who hasn’t come across the series before can read it with no hesitation.

As a girl, I was convinced that the girl-world was largely divided between the horse-girls and the dolphin-girls. Neither was necessarily better, but it felt like they were distinct groups. (I was a dolphin-girl. Ask me how bitter I was to discover that marine biologists spend most of their time looking at plankton, not swimming with cetaceans.) Regan Lewis is a horse-girl, through and through. She loves horses more than she likes most people. She’s happy when she’s with them. Which is good, because like many girls she has to deal with unhappiness when she’s around so-called friends.

Reading that part of the story was a bit uncomfortable. I didn’t experience the total drama and tragedy that Regan does, but aspects were definitely familiar from my childhood, and I’m not at all interested in going back there thankyouverymuch. Anyone who says your school days are the best days is a liar or has a very bad memory. Or possibly a very lucky boy.

This is a Wayward Children story. I knew Regan would eventually find herself confronted with a door, and she would go through that door, and there would be an astonishing world on the other side. Given Regan’s passions, it’s unsurprising that her world is the Hooflands. Every mythological creature you can think of with variations of hooves: they live there. And everyone in Hooflands knows what humans are for…

One of the things that always makes McGuire’s writing powerful is the way she writes about “diverse characters”, and look I feel stupid even pointing to this because it should just be obvious that people with a variety of genders/ physical appearances/ sexualities/ etc etc etc should be represented in fiction, and presented as humans, but of course that’s still not the case. So knowing that McGuire does do that, and treats all of her protagonists the same, is refreshing.

This was not quite what I was expecting – I hadn’t realised it would be so standalone. I might have been a little less eager had I known that, to be honest. But it’s still a Wayward Children story: it’s beautifully written, it’s an engaging narrative, and the characters are ones I want to keep coming back to.

Hollow Empire

The author sent me a copy of this book at no cost. It comes out on December 1.

I read City of Lies last year, but I didn’t review it because it was for the Norma K Hemming Award, and reviewing when judging feels wrong. It should be noted that this is definitely a sequel – don’t come to it without the first book – and honestly that’s no hardship, since the first book is excellent and I highly recommend it.

In one sense, you could describe these books in a way that makes them seem like well-written but run of the mill secondary world stories: small country beset with difficulties, strange magic system not entirely approved by the powers that be, fights enemies. That would, however, be to entirely miss what makes this series (trilogy, I assume) stand out. The dual-protagonist structure does that: brother and sister, connected to power but not really wielding it, sharing narrative duty. But again, multiple perspectives isn’t all that unusual. Aspects of these siblings, though, is still highly unusual: she has what seems to be something like chronic fatigue, while he has anxiety and the sometimes-awkward coping mechanisms to deal with it. They’re often in the public eye and people sometimes look on these ‘conditions’ with a dubious eye. And they are also both entirely competent at their jobs (diplomacy, and poison-tester) and at managing their health… issues? complications? The two of them are immensely real and relatable, not defined by what others see as (potentially) disability and also not ignoring it. These two, Jovan and Kalina, make Poison Wars unusual and excellent.

Also excellent is the writing; Hawke conjures a fascinating world, with political and commercial intrigue, malice, and cooperation interlaced throughout the different countries and their interactions. Different societies have different belief systems and social mores, and navigating those is a big part of this second book, in particular, as Silasta recovers from its civil war and the problems revealed by that. Silasta must confront its own history, and oppressed people, while also being wary of external threats. I feel that there’s a particular nuance to a story touching on colonialism and empire when it’s written by an Australia (maybe this can also be true of other colonial settings, too, but I find it easiest to see in Australians). Hawke deals with the lived reality of this sort of situation for colonised and colonisers, and I (as a white Australian) think she does so well.

There is excitement here, given its focus on intrigue and discovering whether someone is indeed trying to kill the Chancellor; but there’s not a whole lot of set-piece battles, so if that’s what you’re after, you need to go elsewhere. I really like that the focus is on the people trying to stop an assassination, rather than perpetrate it; in general, the reader gets to be on the morally right side (or at least, I assume we are…) rather than cheering for a person actively trying to kill another, as in those stories focussed on the assassin themself!

Highly enjoyable; read the first book first; definitely one worth throwing yourself into.

The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea

I’m really sad that I didn’t enjoy this more. In theory, the ideas are all great: mermaids as an extension of the Sea; the Sea as a larger-than-humans entity with real awareness; witches who tell stories; pirates; a feisty young noblewoman; genderfluid characters and multiple races and discussion of imperialism and colonialism!

Sadly, the execution does not quite match the ambition.

It felt like there were too many ellipses. Too many gaps where it seemed like the author skipped a step in the narrative – it was in her head but it didn’t make it to paper. I’m pretty sure there was at least one mention of the storm having passed, with no prior mention of the storm. And this applied to some of the characters and relationships, too. Evelyn and Flora are both pretty well-developed characters, but their relationship really isn’t. Mermaids are explained – how they exist – and this is probably my favourite part of the whole book; but witches aren’t, nor how their magic works (is it innate? can anyone learn? no idea).

Moving between Evelyn and Flora as POV characters was fine – it made the narrative much more interesting than just one perspective, given the context. But all of a sudden introducing new perspectives quite late in the story was just weird, and put me quite off balance; and not in a good way. One of them made sense, narratively; it could have been added much earlier and would have added interesting complexity to the whole thing. The other, though, felt utterly superfluous.

On a positive note, the issues brought up in the story are dealt with well, and that’s something I was impressed by. This is a world dominated by a Japanese-influenced culture (kimonos, etc); they have largely taken over the known world (this is another problem: there are these portentous ‘oooh, the Red Shore‘ comments, without much explanation of what that place is). The brutality of colonisation and imperialism are bluntly on display and are an essential part of the world – not gratuitously, but as reality.

Excellent ideas; I was engaged enough that I kept reading the whole thing; ultimately, not very satisfying.

Thor: The Dark World (MCU 8)

Some thoughts:

Any movie that requires such an extensive prologue to set up the premise of the film is… already heading into dubious territory. It’s barely even framed as “dad telling a story” which would have been better – the first one has Thor and Loki as kids, so why couldn’t this have been a bedtime story for them growing up? This would also have given a little more context to Odin and/or Frigga as parents, which would have been good, too.

Slapping is never ok. Ever. Not even if it’s a wee lady slapping a large gentleman. It’s not funny and it’s not ok.

Darcy, though, does continue to be both funny and ok. Happily, we also get more Rene Russo as Frigga in this one than the first, and she was great! with a sword and all! Christopher Eccleston, however, was utterly wasted. It could have been anyone in that makeup and with the dialogue. What an utterly lacklustre villain.

And speaking of lacklustre: Natalie Portman was fine, but Jane was… well, basically a sexy lampshade. For a film that purports to revolve around her, she has essentially no agency; she is an object, not a subject. The ether infects her; Thor takes her to Asgard; Odin dismisses her; Frigga protects, Sif steals, and Thor and Loki con Malekith into taking it out of her. What does she do? Um… freak out at a lunch date… actually she does do some Science Stuff at the end. But not much else. Which is disappointing.

As with the first Thor, I was interested to see how much more of a fantasy this feels, rather than SF which the other films do. Basically it’s a portal fantasy, with the Bifrost – and then Consequences of the Amazing Convergence – as the portals. For all it’s designed on a more epic scale, the narrative itself somehow… doesn’t feel it. I think I just don’t care that much about the nine worlds, because although we are introduced to them in the film, I have no emotional connection. I barely care about Asgard.

Two final things that are good about this film: it begins a commentary on genocide that is continued in the third Thor, and I had forgotten it was already here. Honestly, you could blink and miss it… but it is there. And certainly Odin isn’t a great and magnanimous ruler, here, which I think the first one tried to convince viewers of.

And then there’s Selvig. Whose running around in the nudes is played for laughs, basically, right up until he points out that he had a god in his head, and maybe it’s not so unreasonable that he’s having trouble adjusting to ordinary society.

Thor (MCU 5)

This is one of the films that I wasn’t sure of, going back. It’s been a while since I saw it, and I just wondered…

Everything about this film is fine. Hemsworth is pretty good (although gosh a decade is a long time); Portman is great, actually; Hiddleston is fine. Idris Elba is always wonderful, as is Jamie Alexander. And Kat Dennings as Darcy and Stellan Skarsgaard can help me with my research any time. Also the criminally underused Rene Russo.

There’s just something about the film that feels … odd. Or off. Especially coming on the heels of Iron Man.

I think that, compared to those (internally) earlier movies, Thor – and Thor – feel… naive, somehow. Matched against the cynical, world-weary but still philanthropic Stark, Thor feels… young. Arrogant – or proud? – although at least theoretically committed to doing what’s right; and naive, even innocent. And still so much in his father’s shadow (which, actually, is very much a Tony thing too. OMG how much of the MCU is actually about fathers?? Wait, I don’t want to think about that too much or I might get really sad). The film itself is an example of how the MCU films are allowed to have their own aesthetic, matching the different aesthetics of the comics (I assume); and I think this more fantasy-oriented feel does feel jarring, coming after the very-high-tech, very modern, Iron Man – and even Captain Marvel.

The plot is nothing exceptional; it’s fine as an introduction to Thor and his world. I had forgotten what we learn about Loki and his relationship with Thor; it felt simultaneously like a lot and too little. The one thing I did notice and appreciate greatly is that right from the start, it’s unclear whether Loki is being devious for the sake of evil, or because it’s his nature to be a trickster. Does he know that he’s revving Thor up about their father, and is he doing it for nefarious purposes, or… not? There’s so much about Loki that is vital to however many films, and I think some aspects of him remain unknowable. At the same time: it is clear he loved Odin and Frigga, and that his world being shown to be a lie is the catalyst for most of his later actions.

The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday

I have a question. And that question is, what the heck was I doing this time last year that I didn’t rush out to get myself a copy of this novella? Because it really can’t have been that important. I didn’t even know what it was about! I just can’t quite get my head around that; what a failing on my part. Still, thanks to WorldCon and whoever mentioned it on a panel, I finally got my act together and I inhaled it pretty damn quickly.

At some unspecified point in the future – definitely a ways into the future, but not so far that humans are off colonising the far reaches of the galaxy – Melek Ahmar, the Lord of Mars, the Red King, the Lord of Tuesday, Most August Rajah of Djinn, wakes up. Turns out he has been asleep for a rather long time, and things have changed. Wandering through the Himalayas trying to figure out what’s going on, he comes across Bhan Gurung, a Gurkha living fairly contentedly, it seems, by himself in a cave. Melek Ahmar is disconcerted by Gurung’s lack of servility but makes use of his knowledge about the modern world – like the existence of nanobots, and that there is a city nearby, Kathmandu, which might be ripe for him to take over; after all, a great king like him needs subjects. Melek Ahmar and Gurung go to Kathmandu and… things progress from there. Poorly, for some people; certainly sideways for a number of them. It turns out Gurung has ulterior motives; and things aren’t quite what they seem in Kathmandu – although the fact that it is run by an AI, allocating karma rather than money as currency, isn’t a secret.

There’s a lot going on here. Melek Ahmar, the Lord of Tuesday, himself has a lot going on; all sorts of references to Greek and Egyptian and I think Hindu? mythology/ ancient history that make me long for a prequel story about the dastardly deeds of Ahmar’s youth. The slow unravelling of the story behind Kathmandu, and why the world runs with nanobots, is superbly paced and very exactly revealed, until it all finally slots into place. The same with Gurung and the revelation of his character, his story. And the story overall is a joy to read; a variety of characters and their interactions, a setting that’s sketched more than detailed but nonetheless brought to life, and a pace that keeps it all rolling along.

This is one heck of a story. I’ll be getting hold of the two other novels Hossain has out, and looking out for more.

Flyaway

Bettina lives in a very small town with her mother somewhere in the outback. It’s an area of farmers and hard scrabble and everyone being in everyone else’s business; they’re a long way from everyone else. Her father and brothers have been missing for some time, but Bettina’s life seems to be going its own quiet, easy way, until something comes along that starts a disruption. And then she chooses to follow where that disruption leads, becomes (re)acquainted with two of her peers, and goes on the sort of literal and figurative journey that means you can never properly go home again.

Like most Australians, I am a city/suburbs person. Like slightly fewer Australians I have spent some time “in the bush” although never for especially extended periods (days and weeks, never years). For all that much of the (white) Australian apparently has this romantic notion of, or attachment to, “the outback”, that’s not the reality for most people – who’ve never spent long periods outside of a large town, never worked on a farm (I’ve visited but not worked), don’t really know what it’s like away from streetlights.

All of that is, I think, an interesting backdrop for coming to this novel. I definitely think Australian audiences will come at it differently from, in particular, an American one. For Australians, the fact that Jennings did in fact grow up in a rural area will be an important part of trusting her insight and the way she sets her story up; it certainly was for me. Not that someone like me couldn’t write a story about an outback town and have it work – but I trust Jennings and her observations because I assume she is writing at least partly from experience.

Jennings calls this an “Australian gothic.” I did not study the gothic genre at uni, when most of my friends did; it has never especially appealed to me as a genre. I think, in my head, it comes too close to the aspects of horror that I dislike; I don’t enjoy being made to feel uncomfortable. So I can’t speak to the accuracy of the gothic label – although there were definitely bits where I felt uneasy, and was put in mind of the stories we used to tell each other as kids, about things like the Min Min lights and other such things.

There are many things to love about this book. Firstly, the structure. The narrative proper is interrupted every second chapter by the insertion of a story-within-a-story. These might be told by someone who’s present, or be second or third-hand. Their connection to present events isn’t always obvious, but always becomes so. And they’re generally linked to some piece of folklore, or apparently superstitious warning, that might be straightforward to ignore during daylight but becomes less so at twilight. This was an intriguing way to flesh out the story, and also contributed to a sense of … disconnect; of things not working exactly as they should, because the narrative isn’t straightforward. It left me feeling unbalanced, like I wasn’t sure things were happened as I expected.

Secondly, the art. Jennings is probably most well known in Australia, and indeed overseas, for her art – which isn’t entirely fair since she’s written and had published any number of short stories; but her book covers, in particular, have had a fair bit of notice, and justifiably so. It’s her own artwork on the cover, which is awesome; there are also fantastic pieces at the start of every chapter, and on the folded covers. They make me particularly happy to own this in hard copy.

And thirdly, of course, the writing and the story itself. Publishers Weekly describes it as “spellbinding, lyrical prose”, Kelly Link says that her prose “dazzles”, Holly Black that it is “exquisitely rendered.” All of that. Jennings evokes a particular feeling of Australia – the space, the dust, the sun, the trees, the oppressive expanse – that made me glad I was reading this in my nice suburban house (even if it is during lockdown), and not while out camping, because I think that being in the bush while reading it might have been just too much. It would have made it too… real. So the setting works brilliantly; and the people do, too. My nan moved to a small town after marriage when she was 20 years old; into her 70s some of her peers still treated her as new to the place. Small towns can have delineations that strangers don’t see – I’ve heard the stories of Catholic and Protestant areas in teeny little Victorians towns – and that’s brought to the fore here, too. And then there’s the folklore, and the uncomfortable sense that maybe more is going on beneath the surface than is immediately obvious…

I really hope Flyaway gets a lot of notice, and from a wide-ranging audience. A lot of Australians will enjoy it for the way it plays with notions of “The Australian outback” – and frankly it’s just gorgeous.

The Space between Worlds

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette Australia, at no cost. It’s due out on August 11; RRP $32.99 (trade paperback).

This is a debut novel – which doesn’t mean Johnson has never written a novel before, of course, just that this is the first one to be published. And it’s pretty great.

It is unclear to me exactly when this is set; some time in the future, but not unimaginably so. It’s also unclear where this is set – I just assume it’s meant to be America because as an Australian, I assume most novels are set in America unless they’re evidently in the UK somewhere. (Realising the setting is Australia, or somewhere other than the US or UK, is often a very surprising moment, unless I’ve gone in knowing the story is deliberately set in, say, Nigeria.)

Anyway. Both the when and the where are basically irrelevant to the story, because the most important where is that most of the action is on Earth Zero. This is a world where not only have parallel universes been discovered to be real, but someone has discovered how a person can travel between them.

These sorts of stories have happened before (says the fan of Fringe) but the particularly clever thing that Johnson does is the caveat that you can only survive traveling to a world where your dop (doppelgänger) is dead.

Barring unfortunate accidents, you know who makes the most valuable traversers, therefore? who are the people able to access the most worlds? It’s the people whose survival to adulthood is unlikely. For wealth, ethnic, gender, location, and other systemic reasons. Those who grow up in areas with a lot of violence. Those from families or suburbs or countries with widespread violence. Those who, in the general course of a capitalist world, are seen to have little real value.

This is a brilliant twist, and I love it. And I also love that Johnson doesn’t present this as meaning that those people suddenly get great lives. Instead, the protagonist – Cara – is always aware of the fact that she could be replaced by robots when that tech works; that the people who were born in the nice town, as opposed to where she grew up (very much not-the-nice town), look down on her or fear her. Her existence is precarious despite her value to the company.

So partly the narrative is about Cara and her navigation of the two worlds – the rich and the poor, in brutal essence – that she straddles. It’s also, of course, about literally moving between worlds, and seeing how different choices have led to different outcomes – on a societal level or an individual one. Unsurprisingly Cara ends up being more involved in one of these other worlds than is appropriate by company standards, and that has knock-on effects for that world as well as her own, which is the bulk of the story.

The novel has little interest in explaining how moving between the worlds works; the science and technology are irrelevant to the story. Instead, Johnson is interested in the people: what secrets are kept and why; how relationships work; why certain decisions are made, and how they change human interactions. I enjoyed this focus a lot.

One aspect didn’t quite work for me; there’s an undercurrent of science v religion, especially in the way that Cara talks about the experience of moving between worlds – as a goddess allowing her to do so. I didn’t feel like this really fit the rest of the story. However, this does not detract from the rest of the story; it just felt undeveloped, like there could have been a bit more discussion of the possible mysticism of moving between worlds; it’s just not there as much as I think I expected.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable book, and I hope that Johnson is able to write many more in a similar vein.

Middlegame

Received as part of the Hugo packet for 2020; Middlegame is up for Best Novel.

When a book is written with just enough information that I get a sense of where the plot’s going, and/or when the book is written beautifully, and I trust the author: then I really love a non-linear tale. This is not as non-linear as something like Kameron Hurley’s Light Brigade but it’s not exactly straightforward. I had absolutely no idea what it was about before charging on in, and that was quite a fun way to do it actually.

Alchemy in the 20th century; attempts to make universal forces incarnate in human children; somewhat gruesome violence, because the people doing the former two things are immoral and ruthless. Our central evil alchemist wants particularly to incarnate the ‘Doctrine of Ethos’, in two people – twins: one will be language, and the other will be maths. Which… there’s a lot in that. And the idea is that essentially those people will BE those things… eventually. When they are fully embodied.

Some of the novel is about the alchemists and their dastardly actions and what they want to achieve. Much of the novel, though, is about Roger and Dodger (yes there’s a reason for the names), and them growing up and how they interact with each other – or not. McGuire has said that it’s like a superhero origin story, which I can see; it’s a bildungsroman. How do you cope when you’re solving impossible maths problems at 9? When there’s a voice in your head that you’re pretty sure shouldn’t be there? And that’s on top of everything else about being a kid and being adopted and being a smart kid. Don’t even get me started about being a smart girl-kid whose smarts are in maths.

McGuire has said it took her a decade to get to the point where she felt capable of doing this story justice, and I can appreciate that. I’ve only read her InCryptid and Wayward Children series, which I adore – but they’re not as narratively complex as this, and I don’t get the sense that Toby Daye or the various Mira books are, either. To be able to hold all of what’s happening here in your head and make it actually make sense on paper would have to require a lot of work. And I think the prose is more wonderful, too. This is not to say that the other books are poorly written – not at all. This is more like Wayward Children than InCrytpid because that’s what the story calls for. There’s a… mythic? not-21st-century, perhaps more formal or timeless, feel to this story than the F1-paced InCrytpids.

The thing I really don’t get is why the Hand of Glory was chosen for the cover. Yes they make several appearances, but I wouldn’t have said that they are symbolic of the plot or even that they’re especially central to the narrative. It is, in fact, one reason why I hadn’t read the book before now; the cover really didn’t appeal – and when there are so many other books in the world, covers do actually make a difference sometimes.

I really enjoyed this. However, it’s up against Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire, and Light Brigade, and that’s just horrific competition.