Tag Archives: reviews

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.

Too Big to Walk

Unknown.jpegBuy this book, my beloved said. You love dinosaur science, he said! It’ll be great, he said.

I do love dinosaurs. I was intrigued by the ideas that Brian Ford presented. But I did not love this book. This book is at least three books, maybe more, in one. I’m not sure Ford realised that.

The blurb says that the book “reviews the latest scientific evidence” about dinosaurs to suggest that a lot of things palaeontologists are presenting “are no more than convent fictions.” Whoo, way to go with the controversy. And I would have loved the heck out of a well-argued, well-presented, scientific book about that. In fact, I did love those 80 or 100 pages of this 450-odd page book. But that leaves another 350 or so pages.

In those pages, Ford is doing something completely different. For a start, he’s presenting a history of how humans have interacted with dinosaurs – that is, a history of palaeontology, complete with the theories about some bones belonging to giant humans of the past and so on. Fascinating! but so totally irrelevant to a scientific book about dinosaurs that, to use an in-joke, it’s not even wrong. And then there’s the section on the discovery of continental drift and tectonic plates and so on. Also fascinating. In fact, I think I’ve read a book about that already. This time, not quite so irrelevant to a book about dinosaurs – Ford’s theory is that dinosaurs lived by wading in shallow lakes, and they went extinct with Pangea breaking up and the climate changing and the lakes evaporating – but it didn’t need 50 or so pages on the topic. It definitely didn’t need the entire history lesson on the topic; just a page or two on the facts would have been quite sufficient.

Lastly, there’s also an irritated article for a science journal lurking in here: one which details the ways in which Ford has been ignored and calumniated by the scientific world (in his view). I think that calling out established science, when you have a solid theory that fits the evidence, is a necessary and reasonable thing to do. Maybe it would even fit into a book about that new and exciting but controversial theory. (I’m no palaeontologist but Ford presents a compelling case that should surely actually be considered. But I don’t think it’s presented well here – in that I think it should have been more clearly separated out from a discussion of the science.

So. The theory is really interesting, and if what he says is true – like the astounding energy required to pump blood up to the head of one of those enormous herbivores with super long necks – then I’m not going to be surprised if in a couple decades it’s the standard, or at least viable, way of talking about dinosaurs. But this book was incredibly frustrating because it just didn’t know what it wanted to be.

The Buried Ark

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Pan Macmillan Australia, at no cost. It’s out now.

This is the sequel to The Silent Invasion, which I’ve previously reviewed. It was excellent, which is why I was excited about getting this to review, and it lived up to expectations – in terms of suspense and character, anyway. I had no idea, and no expectations, about where the plot would go; as it turned out, I wouldn’t have been able to predict it even if I’d tried.

If you haven’t read The Silent Invasion, you should go off and do that. All you need to know is that it’s set in a very familiar Australia, except that spores from Somewhere Else have been infecting and affecting regions of the globe – starting in the tropics and moving to the temperate zones. Flora and fauna are being Changed, and so are humans. In response, in Australia, there are no-go zones and suspicions of people who might be affected. The central character, Callie, is trying to look after her little sister Gracie, who has somehow been infected. The book ends on an epic cliffhanger, hence my excitement about getting this book to resolve it. You really don’t want to read this without reading the first book; but it’s only around 250 pages, and it’s YA so it’s super fast-paced, and it’s definitely worthwhile.

 

Spoilers for those who’ve read The Silent Invasion

So, that cliffhanger! I’d forgotten exactly what had happened, at the end, so I re-read the last chapter before starting this sequel – which was an excellent idea because the first page is basically the next second after the last page of the first. Which I quite like, except it does make me curious about why they are separate books. I guess 500 pages are harder to sell to a YA market? Anyway: briefly things seem like they might be okay for Callie, even though she’s lost Gracie and Matt, but – as I’m sure you kinda expect – things do not eventuate into a happy garden of joy. Whatasurprise. Callie ends up heading back out of the Zone, which then becomes a ‘from frying pan into fire’ scenario. And then… well, it’s a little spoiler, but it’s a frying pan to fire to slowly boiling pot of water scenario: you know, where you don’t realise initially that things aren’t great until the water starts really heating up around you? Yeh. That. Callie meets new people, learns of new ways of trying to deal with the Change, briefly feels like life may actually go ok. Poor Callie.

There are more women in this novel than I remember from the first, but that may just be my memory; certainly Callie was moving relatively quickly, so she met a lot of people but they haven’t all stuck in my mind. She doesn’t meet that many of her own age, but that makes sense in the context of where she is. There’s one person that really sticks with me, because of his name: Dr Omelas. If you know Ursula Le Guin’s work, that may give you a slight idea about the sort of thing he’s involved with… if you have no idea what I’m referring to, don’t worry, it won’t affect your enjoyment of the story!

If you enjoyed The Silent Invasion, you definitely want to keep reading the trilogy. Go grab this! Support Australian authors!

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.

Rogue Protocol

9781250191786_FC.jpgYeh. So. Soon after I admitted I was slack about reviewing Artificial Condition, I received the ARC from Tor.com for Rogue Protocol… the third in the Murderbot series. So now I am being A BETTER REVIEWER. But also it doesn’t come out until August 7, sooo… sorry about that. Honest.

If you haven’t read the first two, you really want to. Don’t read this unless you have. SERIOUSLY a former Security bot whose hacked their governance system and is trying to figure out how to live in society and not get shut down or have humans run away from them: WHY HAVEN’T YOU READ THIS YET. Also, the first novella in the series won a Nebula on the weekend, so it’s not just me in love with the whole concept.

Murderbot has managed to get away from the annoying humans whom they ended up helping in their possibly pointless search for justice. Now Murderbot is on their own search for justice, hoping that getting evidence of Evil Deeds to help the person who helped emancipate them will… do some good. Or something. Unsurprisingly, Murderbot ends up having to help more hapless humans in difficult situations. Because Murderbot just can’t help it. I’m a history teacher; I will teach you history if the occasion calls for it. My mother will join committees. Lois Lane will look for the angle, Batman will growl, Han Solo will make a quip. Murderbot will help you in your possibly doomed quest for safety and/or justice. It’s just the way it goes.

A super superficial reading of this series would suggest that Murderbot is searching for their humanity. But that, as I said, is superficial and does Murderbot a disservice: they are not human and are not looking to be human. They are, though, searching for a meaning to their identity, and possibly a way to interact with humans on their own terms. Which may or may not involve compassion, using their skills in useful ways, or killing the people who get in their way.

I love Murderbot and, increasingly, I love the interactions they have with other AIs. I mean the humans are fine and all but it’s the AIs who are really interesting. In the last story, we had ART, as Murderbot termed them; ART was more than they appeared, and had very definite ideas about some things. Here… well. The situation is very different. Miki is a whole other level of difficult to deal with: I think reading this immediately after Artificial Condition is really fascinating in terms of what AI identity means. I can’t wait to see how Murderbot develops after these interactions.

Wells is doing a marvellous job of reinvigorating the entire AI genre. I welcome it.

Artificial Condition

9781250186928_FC.jpgaka Murderbot Diaries part 2.

This novella was actually sent to me by the publisher um, quite a while ago. I read it then and I’ve talked about it on Galactic Suburbia but… my mind just hasn’t been in reviewing mode in the way it needs to be. So I feel bad. And now I’m reviewing it when it’s just come out. So at least if it sounds like your sort of thing, you can just go and buy it immediately?

Anyway, this follows directly on from All Systems Red, which is generally just known as Murderbot, after the character telling the story. If you haven’t read that, I don’t recommend reading this… but I DO recommend going and getting the first one, and THEN coming to this one, because what’s not to love about a robot that’s self-aware and knows that if the humans find out about that there’s going to be trouble, but maybe not as much trouble as if there’s not enough soap/space opera to watch in their downtime?

I might love Murderbot a lot.

Interestingly, I didn’t love this one quite as much as the first one. Don’t get me wrong, I devoured it and am very excited that there are more to come. But it wasn’t quite the same revelation as the first one – which is only to be expected.

Basically this is following Murderbot as they go off into the world (galaxy) alone, trying to figure out how not to be compromised, and also trying to figure out a bit of their past. For me, I think the best parts were Murderbot interacting with other AIs, and figuring out their limitations and how to interact with them without revealing too much. That whole negotiating yourself and others who are kind of like you and kind of really not.

It’s really, really great, even if it’s not quite peak swoon-worthy-ness like the first one. I can’t wait to read more of Murderbot as they figure out how to be what they want to be.

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.

Time Was

image.png

This novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It’s available from April 24.

I generally love Ian McDonald so when I found out Tor.com had bought one of his novellas I was pretty excited… and it is indeed excellent. It’s different from what I expected, although I don’t know what I expected, since Luna: New Moon is very different from The Dervish House, for instance.

The blurb calls it “A love story stitched across time and war, shaped by the power of books, and ultimately destroyed by it” and really I think you shouldn’t find out any more than that. The gradual unravelling of the mystery is part of the charm.

The story opens with a book collector and seller finding a letter pressed between the pages of a volume of poetry, and proceeds in fits and starts across time from there. It’s partly his story – of love and obsession and books – and partly that of the letter-writer. It’s about war and loss and love and obsession, and time. You’ll be a bit confused at first as the story skips to different times but it’s worth it.

I enjoyed the story that Emmett uncovered but I also really liked the way McDonald makes Emmett not just the finder of the story but gives him a story of his own – one that’s subservient to the mystery he’s unravelling not just for the sake of McDonald’s story but because he, Emmett, is obsessed. And has to deal with the consequences of that.

Definitely worth picking up when it’s available. A lovely story and beautifully written.