Tag Archives: fantasy

Summer in Orcus

Unknown.jpegWhen I was looking through my ebooks and came across this one, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how I acquired it. Looking at the cover I thought it might be connected to Kathleen Jennings, but turns out it’s not her art – just similar. Then eventually I realised that it came in the Hugo packet, and I had run out of time to read it before voting was complete.

T. Kingfisher is, I discovered, a nomme de plume of Ursula Vernon. I’ve read some of Vernon’s short stories, but not enough to really have a sense of what her work is like. So I had no idea what I was getting myself in for with this story.

The answer is: whimsy, and delight.

Firstly, Summer is the main character, and that’s delightful. Secondly, she has a painful childhood, because her mother is needy and overly protective. I find this quite fascinating as a way of thinking about a parent in a fairytale-is story. Not absent, not careless, not hardhearted; but the sort of parent who makes their child feel bad for wanting independence, who needs constant reassurance, and who peculiarly demand their child to be more like the adult, offering comfort. So that’s an intriguing aspect that’s introduced immediately. Which is also something I like – this is aimed, I guess, at what Americans call ‘middle grade’ readers; Summer is 12 – and so there is little beating about the bush. The story proceeds at what would be well called a brisk pace. Indeed, and thirdly, Summer has met Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged house within three pages and is off on her adventure in Orcus in chapter 3, to find her heart’s desire. Summer’s not quite sure what her heart’s desire is, but assumes she’ll know it when she finds it.

Also, she has a talking weasel to accompany her.

I told you there was whimsy.

So there are talking animals and dryads and a land that’s kind of falling apart, dandy-ish birds and terrifying fortune-telling cheeses. People who are actively trying to destroy things and a wolf that’s not just a wolf, and Summer reflecting on whether her experience in Orcus will be like an experience in Narnia. And an antelope woman.

I loved it. A lot. Kingfisher’s prose is delightful, the characters are varied and only Reginald, the dandy bird, is faintly ridiculous. While it initially seems like it might be a relatively standard portal fantasy (which would have been fine), it reminded me more of Catherynne M Valente’s Fairyland books in their self-awareness than anything else. It’s also not completely standard in the way that Summer’s quest pans out, but no way am I spoiling that. Suffice to say it left me musing.

I really enjoyed the character interactions, and the places Summer visits. I liked that Summer wasn’t always sure what to do but that she was a resourceful and sensible girl – and sometimes that meant being quite scared, as was appropriate in some of the circumstances she found herself in. She deserves to have lots of people read about her adventures.

The Brink of Darkness

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It came out in August; $16.99.

I read the first book in this series, The Edge of Everything and according to my review I largely enjoyed it – I have to say I’d mostly forgotten the book by the time the sequel arrived. If you liked the first one you’re likely to enjoy this one, I think. If you’re not sure, then I have one word for you:

MELODRAMA.

Everything is DIRE and potentially life-altering and epic. X has gone; oh no! My friends are unhappy with me; oh no! etc. I did end up getting impatient with the book – mostly with the characters, but I wonder if it’s actually a pacing issue. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the time to roll my eyes at the melodrama if things had moved faster?

Spoilers for the first book

X is back in the Lowlands and of course things have changed because not only does he want to find his mother, but he also wants to be back with Zoe. Mild spoiler: I found the whole ‘searching for his mother’ thing overdone. There were definitely moments where I thought if he’d asked a different, obvious-to-me question, things would have been different. I also thought some of the revelations about the mother were a bit… meh. Unlikely, or unnecessary.

Zoe is still with her family but her house has been destroyed and she also has to be honest with her friends. I found some aspects of Zoe’s life believable but others not – there was veering between responsible and not that annoyed me.

Look, this isn’t a hard book to read, so it’s not like you’re devoting days of your life to it. I did end up skimming some sections because the conversations got a bit boring and I just wanted to find out how things resolved. But I am also not going to tell someone not to read it: it’s not terrible, it does have interesting and somewhat diverse characters (ish), and it has some interesting things to say about family and friendship that I largely liked. So I didn’t love it but I also didn’t loathe it. Ultimately it’s not really a book aimed at me – I am too old and have rarely enjoyed the sort of over-the-top drama this revels in, even when I was the age this is intended for – and that’s perfectly ok.

A Winter’s Promise

9781925603828.jpgThis book was sent to me by the Australian publisher, Text Publishing, at no cost. It’s out now; $22.99 for the paperback.

I’m torn. I really am. I read this in a Sunday, because it’s fairly well paced and most of the writing is quite lovely (which means kudos to Hildegarde Serle for the translation – there are a few clunky bits but I’m not sure whether that’s the translation or the translation, if you know what I mean). I really like the idea of the world – broken somehow, humans surviving on ‘arks’ that appear to floating (??) above the remnant of the Earth. And humans mostly have some sort of mind-powers, and there are ‘family spirits’ who appear to be the original settlers of these arks? or something, that’s not explored yet. (I haven’t read many reviews but I haven’t seen anyone compare it to NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth series yet – the books themselves are very different but there’s something of a parallel in what seems to have happened to the original Earth). I liked the main character, Ophelia – I’ve seen some dissing of her, and I get where most people are coming from, but I mostly enjoyed her and her flaws: her clumsiness has a cause, rather than being meant to be just an adorable trait, and she largely bears up under the weight of being pushed around by everyone. Yes, she’s often passive, but I sympathise with that in the context – she’s terrified, mostly alone, and kept ignorant. (There’s a similarity between her and Jupiter, from Jupiter Ascending.) Those things are others’ fault, not hers, and she does try some things to improve her situation. Also, she keeps regretfully thinking that she just doesn’t love her (arranged) fiancé, and I’m madly hoping she’ll be accepted as asexual and aromantic. There are some interesting other women in the book, but I can’t figure out how I feel about them mostly being various sorts of horrible, mostly revolving around being selfish.

So there are definitely good bits. But.

I do not agree with Elle, saying that this belongs on the same shelf as Harry Potter.

Firstly, pretty much everyone seems to have milky white skin. Not everyone’s skin tone is mentioned, so maaaaybe we’re meant to be that there’s not-white people? But that’s a pretty big stretch. And we’ve only been to two different arks so maaaaaybe there’s racial segregation? But that would also be problematic and it hasn’t been mentioned in this book and… yeh. It is disappointing to read this in a book today.

Then there’s the intended audience. This is being talked about as a YA but there’s a character who frankly declares his intention of seducing and ‘deflowering’ Ophelia because of being Thorn’s fiancé and… that’s not really called out. Sure, talk about sex in the book, and portray it as problematic even, but – that’s an adult man, a lot older than Ophelia, planning her seduction because that’s all he does with women. And that, friends, is gross.

On which topic: there is no romance in this book. Anyone who tells you otherwise read something quite different from what I did. I assume people are reading one of the characters as being a bit Mr Darcy, but… no.

I can’t help but wonder whether the people who are raving about this being something new, and unique, have read very much YA. The world is definitely lovely and intriguing but it’s not unique. The plot is a coming-of-age story – which I adore, but um is not unique. And so on. I’m not cautioning against reading this (unless the bit about the older man planning to seduce the young woman creeps you out which I would totally understand), but neither am I going to be seeking out the sequel.

Restoration: Angela Slatter

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Jo Fletcher Books, at no cost. It was launched just a week or so ago – hooray!

I’m going to be smug and say this is actually the second time I’ve read this, because Slatter sent me a very early version which, as I say, makes me feel very smug indeed. I’ve loved Verity since I first came across her many years ago in the Twelfth Planet Press anthology Sprawl; that short story, “Brisneyland by Night,” morphed into the first book in this trilogy.

This post will contain spoilers for Vigil and Corpselight (which apparently I didn’t review?? What even, PastMe??). If you like urban fantasy, if you like banter, if you like angels and sirens and Weyrd and weird things, you really should just go and get them. Also it’s set in Brisbane, and I don’t know Brisbane but it seems to make an excellent backdrop for these shenanigans.

So. Verity has made a deal with a broken angel in order to save her mother, newly back from the apparently dead, and the rest of her newly created family. She has had to give up her job working as the go-between for the Weyrd and the normal, there are several Weyrd who loathe her, and the angel has stuck her with a sidekick-cum-informant who has been responsible for several atrocities in Verity’s life. So we just know that it’s going to be a bumpy ride, and of course that’s the case. Not that I was able to predict any of the narrative beats; it all took weird and wonderful turns, for Verity and for Brisbane and for the whole set really.

I continue to adore McIntyre. Also her police sidekick. And Ziggi. Also the sirens in general. … ok, so I just really like this whole crew, and I want to eat the food served by the Norns. But I do not want to actually live with any of them because that just seems like a recipe for disaster.

This is a fine end to the trilogy, if it has to only be a trilogy. Because delightfully there are definitely signs that there could be a book four, which I HEARTILY APPROVE. Also there is looots of room for short stories to fill in a whole bunch of back story. JUST SAYING.

Highly, and happily, recommended.

The Girl with the Dragon Heart

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. I believe it comes out in Australia at the start of September; RRP $14.99.

I heard about this book from Tansy, who adored it, so when I got to a chance to review it I was pretty stoked. But a thing I did not realise: this is a sequel! When I read the first chapter or so I wasn’t sure whether Burgis was doing something quite ambitious for this middle grade/ YA book (the protagonist is 13: I don’t know how to classify books for younger readers) – that is, leaping right into the story and then adding a bit of background information. Then I found out that before this is The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, and it made a bit more sense. That said, I think that the narrators are different in the two books, and obviously I haven’t read the first but I still managed to read and love this book… so it does stand by itself.

Silke is 13 and determined to write her own story of her life, with herself as heroine not victim. She and her brother have been on their own since their parents were captured or killed as the family were fleeing their homeland some years ago. Most recently, Silke has been making herself useful to the chocolate makers at The Chocolate Heart, who have employed her best friend who is usually in human form but is actually a dragon (it’s complicated). She’s waitressing, and telling stories both orally and via broadsheet. But then she gets a job from the crown princess when the neighbouring fairy royalty, who have been living underground for a century, suddenly come for a visit. Silke has the chance to prove herself but of course things won’t go as smoothly as one might hope…

There’s a lot to like here. The action moves quickly, but there’s still lovely moments of character development. And the characters are great: mostly girls and women, with genuine diversity of character. The crown princess might be well loved, but/and she’s also a ruthless politician when necessary. The younger princess feels overshadowed; the chocolate apprentice is true to her dragon heritage; the adult women are sometimes compassionate, sometimes impatient, sometimes ignorant. The male characters are also diverse – Silke’s older brother is, basically, an older brother; sometimes the men are greedy, sometimes loving. Silke herself is basically creating herself as she goes along, which is probably her most intriguing characteristic: after early trauma she is determined not to have her life written for her. And so she puts on an act – which is sometimes a good thing, and sometimes not, and that’s acknowledged by the text.

As for the action: it’s clear from early on that the arrival of the fairies isn’t going to be the wondrous thing that the population might hope. It takes some unexpected turns, much like Silke learning the ins and outs of the servants’ passageways within the castle. The fairies have a bit less development than some other characters, but it does all work well as a narrative.

I really enjoyed this and look forward to giving it to the younger readers in my life.

Early Riser: Jasper Fforde

Unknown.jpegI received this book from the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now; RRP $29.99.

If you tried reading one of the Thursday Next books and you hated everything about the whimsy of Fforde’s alternate world, just stop reading now: this book won’t be for you.

If you quite liked the early Next books and got a bit sad as they got sillier, keep reading.

If you’ve never read a Fforde book, you can keep reading too.

And if you’re a hardcore Fforde fan who’s been waiting… and waiting… and waiting for the sequel to Shades of Grey… well, this isn’t it, but it does mark Fforde’s return to writing after a hiatus of a few years, so: maybe it will arrive at some point?

This book is immediately recognisable as part of Fforde’s very particular way of constructing alternate worlds. There’s just enough recognisable from our world – what else would a Welsh near-zombie play but a Tom Jones song – but with some completely and wildly different things thrown in. In the Thursday Next world, the Crimean War never ended, and genetic manipulation means people have dodos as pets. Here, humanity hibernates. The vast majority of the population packs on fat, grows a winter pelt, and sleeps away the winter. Except, in more modern times, for the Winter Consuls – and a few dangerously antisocial types. The Winter Consuls help to keep things running through the winter; like keeping the antisocial types under control.

Charlie is the focal character – he’s just joined the Winter Consuls and is, of course, discovering that everything is not as it seems (whatasurprise). Through Charlie as novice, the reader learns about the Winter and how to survive, as well as about Morphenox – the drug that helps with hibernation, preventing the previously hideous losses, although only if you can afford it – and the various criminal and/or mythical types who also stay awake through winter. Oh and this isn’t just the winter of our world; this is the sort of winter that means mammoths are still alive and well. And global warming will mean something rather different.

It’s a very silly book in a lot of ways. There are silly/amusing jokes riffing off contemporary culture, and for some reason a massive painting of Clytemnestra. But at the same time, Fforde touches on all sorts of intriguing social ideas that might come about because of the hibernation – or simply from different ways of doing things. Like mandating childbearing, but providing the option to pass that responsibility off – to the willing or the desperate. Loss of population from hibernation means that society has developed coping mechanisms such as requiring every citizen to have at least general capabilities, and significant infrastructure to be commensurately accessible to those with those capabilities. Which does interesting things to notions of mastery, I think, although that’s not a huge part of the story. There’s clearly different things going on in terms of international politics, too, but it’s barely touched on.

I feel that Fforde is quite a divisive author. Readers are either willing to go along with his particular method of looking at the world and enjoy the ride, or the first couple of pages will make you angry or annoyed or bored. In general, I really enjoy his work. I think that milking too much out of one of his worlds leads to problems like the later Next books where things went beyond my tolerances – but that’s true of a lot of sequels. Fforde is doing what the best SFF does: making tweaks to the world and showing the consequences, and making the reader think about how those things reflect the world in which we actually live. And if there are jokes about ‘Winter cutlets’ and Carmen Miranda along the way, I’m up for it.

The Black God’s Drums

image.pngThis novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be published on August 21.

As an Australian, I’m sure I only picked up the surface detail of what Clark is doing here in his alternative history of America. That was enough, though, to be both utterly intrigued by the world he’s imagined and to follow this awesome story that I really hope everyone goes out and grabs.

This is alternative history in two senses. One is that there’s airships and some other tech that doesn’t fit with what the nineteenth century actually had; a variation on steampunk I guess. The other is that, partly because of this technology, things went somewhat differently in Haiti after and during the slave revolt there, and when Napoleon tried to reimpose slavery; and, possibly connected to this although that’s unclear, things are also different in the USA: like it’s not the USA. This is post-Civil War, but instead of reconstruction, Confederates and the Union are still separate. Oh, and New Orleans is neutral, and basically seems to be operating as its own city-state.

There’s a lot going on here, and all of that is just background to understanding why our protagonist, Creeper, is trying to find someone to pass along some information to, and then ends up in an unexpected adventure.

This is a beautifully written novella, both fast-paced and with complex enough characters that I cared about them. Creeper is awesome, there are seriously odd nuns (I REALLY want a story about them please and thank you), and the captain of an airship who takes zero nonsense from anyone. Plus a scientist with dangerous knowledge in his head and… yeh, you get the picture. The characters are a multitude of colours and ethnicities and nationalities, as befits New Orleans as a neutral and open port; there’s really interesting discussion about old, African gods being brought to this new world, and what power they might have. This is alternative history that really works: it makes sense (see caveat above re: me and American history), and it challenges modern conservative white notions of what alternative history is; it also just straight-out challenges boring old racism pretty much just by its existence.

I loved it a lot and would be very happy to read more in this world.

Echoes of Understorey

Unknown.jpegI read and really enjoyed Crossroads of Canopy a while back, so when Thoraiya offered to send me a review copy of the sequel I was all YAASSSS GIMME. So yes, this is a review copy, and yes I know the author.

The world is Titan’s Forest, and there are classes within classes in this place. The population is divided in three: those who live in the Canopy, closest to the sunlight; those in the Understorey; and those on the Floor, who basically live in the dark. The first book was very focussed on the Canopy, even though a lot of it happened in the Understorey; this one is focussed on the Understorey, even though a lot of it happens in Canopy; I really hope that a) there’s a third book coming and b) it will give us more about Floor. But I said there are classes within classes: within each physical division, there are wealth divisions (I mean I assume this applies to Floor), too. This is one of the interesting things Dyer is doing: the books aren’t just about the lucky ones, easy as that would be, nor just about the lonely outsiders. Instead, it’s a mix, as life and society are, showing the uneasy ways in which people mingle across borders. In fact that’s the whole point of this second book: Imeris doesn’t feel like she fits either in Understorey or in Canopy, and the people around her are equally unsure. So she crosses between worlds, trying to find her place, as well as an existential threat to the societies more generally.

Imeris is a minor character in the first book, but the focus here; Unar, the protagonist of the first book, is significant but minor here. I like this a lot; it makes the society the overall focus, rather than just one character. It also means we get to see Unar as other people see her, which gives some of her actions in the first book different nuances. And honestly, much as I enjoyed Unar in general, Imeris is a generally easier character to read! She’s not quite as driven and proud and amoral… not that those things are inherently bad in a character, but I found Imeris more sympathetic in her desire to be normal, not heroic in the slightest. Unar’s ambition got… wearying… especially because of its toll on others.

At a macro level, Imeris is trying to deal with the problem of Kirrik, an issue left over from the end of the last book, basically as a way of getting everyone off her back so she can have a normal life. To do that she has to become an excellent warrior, even if she doesn’t especially want to. This leads to various clashes with people who don’t like or trust her, and she ends up being thrust into a difficult quest that’s not really something she wants to do. As so often happens. There’s setbacks and deaths and compromises and moments of happiness too. And there’s a lot about the the Canopian gods, too, who play a significant role in the organisation of Canopy, living as they do amongst their people. This book has some even more intriguing hints at what those gods have done to get their place in society, which is another reason why I’m reeaaallly hoping for a third book because I could not stand to be left not knowing what Dyer knows about those gods.

The book is beautifully written and deeply evocative of the natural environment. It made me happy every time I came across a plant that was clearly inspired by Australian flora – like tallowwood and quandong and floodgum.

I’m really happy these books exist.

The Descent of Monsters

image.pngI was sent this as a review copy by the publishers, Tor.com. It will be available on July 31.

I could have had a review copy of Yang’s double novellas, The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune, but they came through when I was feeling a bit rushed and… look, I didn’t click the link, and I regretted it, ok? Because then they exploded and everyone was raving and I thought, yes I will get those eventually. And then I got the opportunity to review this sequel, and someone mentioned that not having read the first two made this one make less sense… so I bought Black and Red, and read those, so I could read this. Which is a long way around to say that all three of these books are excellent and amazing and you should definitely go buy the first two and then read this when you can. I do think that this one requires knowledge of the first two to make the most sense.

On which: in theory you can read Black and Red in either order. I read Black first and I cannot imagine doing it the other way around, maybe because my historian brain really insists on chronology. Your mileage, etc.

Tor.com calls this “silkpunk fantasy” which I guess is because it’s Asian-inspired instead of European-inspired. I don’t really know the origin of silkpunk, although I’ve come across it before (and yes I know silk originated in China). Interestingly, while I would classify it as fantasy it also has some elements of science fiction – this one perhaps more than the previous two – because one of the chief problems is that a research facility has committed atrocities and has also, um, kinda been destroyed. I don’t tend to think of people writing about research into magic-y sorts of things. (If you’ve got more recommendations about such ideas, SEND THEM MY WAY. Turns out this is something I really, really dig.)

This novella is written from a few different perspectives, using different styles – straight narrative, letters, official reports. The official investigation is being stymied because it’s not in the interests of the government to have it all come out, but the investigator refuses to give in. And this leads to characters from the previous novellas being dragged in, and wraps up some of the ends that I didn’t even realise were loose, especially from The Red Threads of Fortune.

Yang’s work is just… different from a lot of other stuff I’ve come across. The world building is fantastic – both the world itself, and the way it’s described. The characters are complex and refuse to be pigeon-holed; ‘diverse’ has almost come to be a non-descriptor, but it’s so relevant and important here. Motivations are complex, relationships are complex… it’s just great, ok? Black Tides is on the Hugo ballot this year. I won’t be surprised to see this on the ballot next year.

Underwater Ballroom Society

The-Underwater-Ballroom-Society-cover-full-size-e1516877871941.jpgOn Galactic Suburbia a few weeks ago, Tansy mentioned that she was reading this anthology and that the first story had lots of references to rock and roll – much more my thing than hers. And then I saw Stephanie Burgis, one of the editors, talking about it on Twitter and, well, I managed to get myself a review copy. Whoo!

Over here at Book Smugglers you can find out how this anthology came together; basically, someone mentioned the underwater ballroom folly on Twitter, and BOOM.

Anyway, I quickly read the first story, and not only is it about rock music but it’s specifically about Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin, which is only my favourite band ever AND I was about to go see Plant actually perform with his new(er) band, the Sensational Space Shifters. So I was in delighted stitches at all of the Led Zeppelin references throughout the story and basically that one piece is worth this entire anthology happening. But maybe that’s my particular bias shining through. Whatever.

The rest of the stories are quite different, with some not even being set on Earth; sometimes there’s magic, sometimes not; some are romantic, some are crime-solving, some are coming-of-age. The underwater ballroom is used quite differently, as you would expect, although it is pretty much central in all of the stories. It’s an enormously fun set of stories. Sometimes a themed anthology gets wearisome; that doesn’t happen here. I can definitely recommend it; it’s got a fairly diverse set of characters, too, which I liked. Give it to the older teen in your life who is getting impatient with everyday fantasy and fairy stories. And read it yourself, of course.