Tag Archives: reviews

Rosebud, by Paul Cornell

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in April 2022.

Well that was… a ride.

Cornell’s novella follows in a trend from the last few years of exploring issues of humanity through the lens of AIs. I mean, I know that authors have pretty much always been exploring what it means to be human through the medium of the robot, right back to Metropolis; but I feel like it’s somehow become more pointed, or nuanced, or something, in the last 5 or so years. Maybe I’m just being shortsighted; maybe I can blame Murderbot for this perception.

Anyway, Rosebud is a spacecraft orbiting Saturn – a spacecraft about 1mm in diameter, crewed by five AIs of varying (and really very varying) provenance. They encounter an anomaly, and they investigate. In doing so, they are confronted both by their own identities, as memories are brought to the fore, and by the consequences of the anomaly – what it’s doing to them and what it might mean for the humans back on Earth. To investigate, the AIs are forced to be embodied – and as is generally the case, bodies have consequences.

I can’t quite describe the style this is written in. It’s present tense; it’s third person, but the POV favours one character, Haunt, in particular. It also feels more spoken, I think, than written; perhaps formalised internal monologue? For instance: “That’s how this is supposed to do. Doing it on their own is above their pay grades. Not that they’re paid. This is big people stuff” (p14). It’s certainly very readable – I powered through it in a sitting, despite some of their narrative weirdness that occurs thanks to the anomaly. There’s some amusing banter between the five characters – they are very different, with wildly different expectations and desires and perspectives, and they’re not always interested in cooperating with each other.

If you’re a fan of Paul Cornell, this will probably work very well for you. It’s not my favourite Cornell (that would be the Lychford series), but I’m certainly glad I got a chance to read it.

Kundo Wakes Up

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in March 2022.

Firstly, for those who have read The Ghurka and the Lord of Tuesday, this is set in the same universe but is not a sequel; so there’s no pistachio-cracking Gurung, no Melek Ahmar getting furious about the world. One blurb describes it as a “companion”; it is still a world in which the climate crisis has reached epic proportions; in which some cities are run by an AI called Karma (a different version in each city, it seems); and humans can basically only survive when they’re in sufficient numbers that the nanites they create are at such density that they can make the climate liveable. In Karma cities, there is no money; there’s just points for good deeds, which you can ‘spend’ to get what you want. And when there’s points, there’s always going to be people who have none – who are zeroes… Oh, and also there are djinn.

This time, the focus is Chittagong, Bangladesh. And things are not going particularly well – either for the city, or for Kundo, once a famous-enough artist, now a man whose wife has left and whose life is such a stretch of nothing that he easily loses track of days. The focus of the story is on Kundo looking for his wife; I have to admit that I was a bit worried about where the story would go – there are good reasons for wives to leave, and Kundo admits he was never a great husband – but I shouldn’t have been concerned; Hossain dealt with that aspect of the story skilfully. In the course of trying to find his wife, Kundo gets a team together – a struggling mum, a has-been underworld figure, and a junky coder. Together they try and figure out the world, and get enough to eat, and maybe some basic human dignity as well.

It’s another really great story from Hossain. He explores the variety of humanity: what they need – and what they want; frustrations and desires and ways of relating; what’s good for one but not for another… all in the context of quite a frightening view of the future, actually, that still manages to have some redemption and goodness in it.

I’m hoping that we get more stories from this world.

Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021)

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

As someone more au fait with anthologies than me pointed out, this anthology doesn’t have a introduction. So there’s no discussion of what speculative fiction is, let alone what African speculative fiction is. Which means that the answer to both of those questions is: These stories. All of them. These authors write that.

A few of these names – Sheree Renee Thomas, Tobias S Buckell – were familiar to me, but most were not. Part of this is that I don’t read a whole heap of short fiction these days, especially not the online magazines – it’s too hard – but it’s also partly about the speculative fiction scene that gets a lot of notice still being really white (I am not very wired into the whole scene these days anyway). Which makes an anthology like this excellent… because we’re a long way away from not needing such a thing, so don’t bring me the “but everyone’s work should be judged on merit” nonsense.

Anyway: the stories! This is a truly diverse set of fiction. There’s magic and there’s robots and there’s myths and there’s so-close-to-reality, and there’s horror (sometimes akin to the close-to-reality); there’s stories set in recognisable places and future places and past places and nowhere-places. Women and men and ungendered and who cares, families and not, hope and not,

I didn’t love every story, but I never do, with an anthology. And some of those were horror, which I pretty much always don’t enjoy. There was only one story that I got impatient with and skimmed over, which is a pretty good hit-rate in 360 pages.

This is great. I hope it’s the first in a long line of such volumes, as the cover page suggests.

Redshirts

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

I am very late to this Scalzi party, clearly.

I remember when Redshirts first came out and a lot of the discussion about it. But although I’d seen all the Star Trek movies to that point, I’d never watched any of the tv, and I didn’t feel that much affinity for the show – and given all the talk was of this book being a riff on that, I didn’t feel compelled to read it.

Now, though, I have watched all of Voyager; and all of Discovery and Picard to date; and even, perhaps most relevantly, most of Lower Decks. So really, for me, this is the right time to read this book.

I also, at the original publication, had read zero Scalzi. I know, this is kind of amazing for someone so into the genre. But he just never really came across my radar. And then I finally came across the Interdependency trilogy, and gave it ago, and fell very heavily in love with those books. So, now I can say that I like what I’ve read of his work. Again, this timing was good for me.

So, what of Redshirts? Having read Mary Robinette Kowal’s introduction, I was expecting this to be hilarious. And… it wasn’t. At least, not for me. That is, there were some funny bits, mostly in dealing with expectations and stereotypes, sometimes in the language, and such things. But I didn’t laugh out loud. So in that way I was a bit disappointed. As a narrative, though, it really is very clever and very well done; as Kowal also said, it takes an idea at the start – the lowly types of Star Trek etc who never get much screen time – and develops them into characters, and THEN completely turns what you’re expecting not only on its head, but sideways and inside out and into configurations I couldn’t imagine. So all of that was surprising, intriguing, and enjoyable. I will admit that the very end I found … not disappointing, exactly, but perhaps bewildering? That is, I didn’t feel like it added much, if anything, so I was left feeling blinking and a bit confused – there was a lack of resolution, because too much had been added on (perhaps this is the complaint about the “too many endings” of Return of the King…).

Is this a fun book to read? yes. Did I actually have to watch a lot of Star Trek to enjoy it? No; but I think a bit of knowledge does deepen the appreciation of what Scalzi is doing. Does my slight disappointment mean I’ll never read another Scalzi? Oh heck no. I don’t think he’ll ever be a “must buy now” author for me, but I will always be keeping an eye out for his work.

Inhibitor Phase

*high pitched keening noise*

New Alastair Reynolds. Set in the Revelation Space universe.

*high pitched keening noise*

I received this book from the publisher at no cost. Trade paperback available August 31, $32.99.

In case the above reaction wasn’t enough to give it away, I am a verrrry big fan of Alastair Reynolds. Which isn’t to say I love everything he’s written; I haven’t. However, Revelation Space continues to be one of my very favourite sequences of books, ever, so the idea of another in that universe… well. /fans self.

The preface suggests you could read this cold, and I guess you could – certainly enough other books ask you to work pretty hard, with random names like Conjoiner thrown at you with little explanation. There’s a joy in discovering what it’s all about! For me, though, a huge part of the joy came from remembering all the details of the Revelation Space universe, so I really have no idea what it would be like to go in with no knowledge.

This story is set later than almost all of the other Revelation Space stories. Humanity is on the brink thanks to an external threat – and there’s an interesting connection here to the Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past stories, with the idea of profligate species spewing out radio and other signals and just letting everyone who might be out there hear you… and that maybe that’s not a good idea.

Miguel de Ruyter is sheltering with a small band of humans on a very inhospitable rock. As always happens, a stranger comes to town… and things go very wrong very quickly.

People aren’t who you expect, mistakes are made, epic crises are experienced and occasionally averted, light years are travelled, planets are visited. Discoveries, chases, explosions; courage is found and choices are made.

I loved it. I loved it a lot. I love the way it talks about humanity (very broadly interpreted) in all its messy, confusing, loving, courageous, selfish and impossible character. I love the grand scope and the narrow detail and the insistence that there must be room for both. I love the writing and the characters and I’m so excited that it exists.

The Hood, by Lavie Tidhar

I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.

This was… completely bonkers.

Some context: I studied medieval history at bit at uni, and I also did a subject about medievalism in modern society; I did an essay on Robin Hood. I am by no means an expert, of course, but I have some awareness of the whole mythology. Which is why I was so excited to read this. I had loved what Tidhar did with the Arthurian stuff in By Force Alone, and I was wide-eyed at what he would do here. The Robin Hood stuff is so wide-ranging – in history and in modern incarnation (Disney’s version is still the best) – that there’s just so much to play with.

Fascinatingly, Tidhar begins with Maid Marian, and goes somewhere I didn’t expect at all. And then goes to Will Scarlett, and likewise. And then to Rebecca – riffing off Ivanhoe – and… well, there’s a very long section of the story that’s exploring things other than a man with a bow and arrow and Lincoln green. In fact, I would argue that “Robin Hood” is probably the least important main character in the entire narrative. Which is a very interesting choice and one I’m still chewing over. Many of the characters recognisable from old and new stories make an appearance – Guy of Gisborne, the sheriff of Nottingham, Sherwood Forest, Little John and Tuck and Much the miller’s son – although perhaps not as you would expect them (that aspect I’m completely happy with).

The different sections, especially in perhaps the first third, are almost like stand-alone ballads; and maybe that’s intentional, reflecting the structure of those early, medieval ‘Gestes’. But it is somewhat disconcerting if you come to this expecting a straightforward “Robin Hood story” – because it definitely isn’t. I have no problem with this idea; disjointed narratives can be brilliant. Many of the early ideas do eventually have their pay-off later in the narrative, and often in quite clever ways; but it often didn’t feel like enough of a pay-off given the set up. I think perhaps there’s not enough of a crescendo – I finished the book feeling a little flat, a little lost – surprised: “is that it?”

(For those having read By Force Alone: that too was somewhat chaotic, but to me it always seemed like a coherent chaos. In contrast, I think The Hood doesn’t always succeed in coherence, narrative or character wise.)

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the book. It’s a rollicking ride from the Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda’s civil war of the 1140s through to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th Crusades; Tidhar incorporates a surprising and unexpected amount of English history that’s usually not connected to the Robin Hood stories at all, commenting along the way. There’s an excellent range of characters, all stubbornly themselves and threatening to break away and live their own damned lives, thanks all the same. It’s not always easy to read – Tidhar clearly has a love of language and he likes playing with repetition and surprising slang – but it’s also not a slog.

I have no regrets about having read The Hood, and I will read whatever books Tidhar puts out in the Matter of Britain series (I think I heard it described as a quadrology, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what else will be included).

Assassin’s Orbit

I received this via NetGalley.

It’s described as “Golden Girls meets The Expanse with a side of Babylon 5”. I admit, that certainly grabbed my attention. I’ll come back to the tagline, because I’m going to assume that it was invented by a PR person, rather than the author.

The context: many humans fled Earth generations ago, and colonised various planets. The action here is split between a station above the planet Ileri, and the planet itself – which is about to decide whether to join a conglomeration of other planets, or stay neutral. The story opens with several murders, all of which seem to have happened to enable the assassination of one government minister. Investigating that crime kickstarts everything and introduces the key characters, in particular private investigator Noo Okereke. Political manoeuvring would make for a nicely complex story by itself but of course that’s not enough – there’s an even larger issue at play, which is gradually revealed.

I really enjoyed this novel. One of the key things that intrigued me were the characters: they’re overwhelming female, and many of them are “older”: they’re not just out of school, or starting in their first jobs. Instead, Noo is a seasoned investigator; you can basically hear her going all “I’m too old for this shit”. The spy is likewise an old hand, and the police chief is, well, just that – she’s worked her way up the ranks. It was fantastic to have people – and let’s be honest, women in particular – whose expertise makes sense because they’ve earned it, who can draw on experience and hard-won judgement, in order to make decisions. And who know when they’re making a probably bad decision but are willing to go do it because sometimes it’s the only choice you’ve got. And aside from affording them that expertise, their ages were largely irrelevant; it’s basically not commented on by anyone. They’re just… allowed to be competent.

The one thing that occasionally annoyed me was the pace – that it felt uneven. Sometimes it seemed to go slowly for no reason, and sometimes it sped up so that I’d (metaphorically) blink and huge things had happened. That made reading a bit of a chore sometimes.

OK. So. This tagline. Look, I can see why someone might think it was a good one – it’s catchy as heck. But it’s just not accurate. I can only assume that “Golden Girls” was the only example the person could think of that features “old” ladies actually doing stuff, which is a whole issue in and of itself. But GG was about four women living together, with some knowledge of each other, and it’s centred on that idea of sharing each other’s lives. That’s just not how this novel works. There are two women who have worked together for years – but they barely interact in the novel. Older women are the focus of the action, and many of them come together throughout the story to work together. But that’s not GG. The Expanse? Well, only insofar as humans are off Earth and hanging out on other planets. But… no other aspect of The Expanse is present. And Babylon Five? Well, it’s set on a space station, which this is also to a great extent; and there’s a threat of war, but it’s from other humans. So. Yeh. Tagline is deceptive.

This really is a fun and intriguing novel. Some clever ideas, generally fun characters, it doesn’t drag (usually), complexity of plot matched with chases and explosions. No regrets reading it.

The Scholars of Night

Read courtesy of NetGalley.

Well that was a completely bonkers read.

When I first asked to review this, I didn’t realise it was a reprinting; I’m not enough of a Ford fan to know that he’s passed on. Then I read Charles Stross’ introduction, in which he talks about this being published in 1988 and setting out the political context for the younger audience, and I wondered what this was going to be like.

Completely bonkers, is the answer.

It’s a spy novel,
It has a possibly-undiscovered Christopher Marlowe play.
It has scholars and spies and disaffected patriots and mercenaries and… just a most remarkable cast, and a complicated narrative that eventually makes sense, and PhDs playing Diplomacy and people making Marlowe jokes and war game simulations and BONKERS.

It’s awesome. The only downside is that some bits (eg who knew who was who) got a bit complicated so reading it over a few days, I wasn’t always sure of exactly what was known to various people. But it all came good in the end. Basically.

Huge fun.

The Nile: A New History of the World’s Greatest River

I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.

I should start by saying that this book is not quite the book I expected. Given it’s the Nile, and given the blurb, I expected the book to be much more about the swathes of history involved in that region of the world. There is, of course, discussion about the role of the Nile in the grand sweep of ancient Egyptian history, and what might be called “medieval” history for want of a better term. There’s mention of ancient Nubia, and some commentary on “medieval” Ethiopia, as well as the Rift Valley and the Olduvai Gorge. However, the reality is that the vast majority of this book is focused on European, and in particular British, colonialism – efforts to control the various parts of the Nile for their own purposes. So I was surprised by that, and occasionally disappointed that it was so modern in focus.

This is also not “just” a history book, and in general this is a good thing. It has aspects of a travel memoir; the author has travelled to every country he mentions, I think, and to most of the parts of the Nile and its tributaries discussed. So there are sections where Tvedt is quite personal in his writing, reflecting on his own experiences and how this matches – or doesn’t – with historical or literary representations of the places. This aspect I enjoyed a lot.

As well, there are aspects of historical theorising that I found quite intriguing. The author challenges Edward Said’s theories about ‘orientalism’ and whether it’s appropriate for this challenge to apply to all aspects of European writing; and challenges most historians in their refusal to consider the very solid, material, and geographic nature of a river like the Nile. I don’t know that much about the theories he’s challenging so I can’t say with full confidence whether he makes perfect sense; but certainly many of the ideas he raises seem fair.

But overall, the book is indeed about the Nile: as something that has shaped geography, as something that has shaped the civilisations that exist along its banks and those of its tributaries, as something that has contributed hugely to political tensions over the last 150 years or so. I had no idea there was a 1929 Agreement that basically said upstream countries could do nothing with the Nile unless Egypt agreed! And of course for most of those upstream countries, this was signed by the imperialist powers then in control… so since the 1960s there’s been argument about whether those powers had the right to sign on behalf of these now-existing countries. Nor had I ever considered the notion of the Nile as a weapon (withhold water, or release too much if you’ve got a dam); or the idea that the Suez Canal crisis can also be linked to control of the Nile.

I learned a lot about the realities of European colonialism and imperialism in the Nile basin – primarily the British, but also German and Italian (I didn’t learn anything new about Belgium, and Leopold). The machinations made me sick all over again: water for Egypt so Egypt can grow cotton to supply to England for the cotton mills…

In terms of structure, the book basically flows from the Nile Delta (seriously under pressure thanks to climate change) to the various sources of the Blue and White Niles (hello, Stanley and others). So it’s not chronological; I quite liked this geographical perspective, though, and it certainly makes sense in the context. Each chapter is broken into what are basically vignettes. It means the author doesn’t have to make one solid narrative for each geographical area, but instead takes various different issues and treats them in sometimes one, sometimes five, pages.

This is a thoroughly researched, detailed, meticulous and very clever story of the Nile.

A Master of Djinn

Fatma: an Egyptian woman dressing in smart (dapper, even) Englishman’s suits; a woman in the still male-dominated world of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities; someone with the tenacity, determination, and bull-headedness that characterises the best (fictional, I suspect) investigative types. I love her madly.

Fatma lives in an alternative Cairo: it’s 1912 and thanks to a man living several decades earlier, djinn and other such ‘supernatural entities’ walk the streets not only of Egypt but elsewhere in the world. They’ve added art and craft and technology, as well as opportunities for crime and political scheming to the world. Egypt has become the sort of world player that it didn’t manage until probably the 1950s in our world (thanks to imperialism etc). And I love this, too: I love Clark’s evocative descriptions of Cairo – by which I do not mean that it’s all “exotic” or whatever; I mean that his descriptions bring the streets and palaces and people to life in the ways that the best literature does.

Everything about this novel is marvellous. I love the characters; I love the setting. I love the exploration of how humans might interact with the supernatural when it becomes basically mundane, and I love the police investigation aspect (a lot). I love that it’s set in Egypt and deals sensibly, sometimes snarkily, with the imperialism issues that would still have been present despite the magical changes (the patronising ‘exotic’ comments from the white mouths are just… so on point). I love the language and the pacing and the revealing of important clues and… Look. Everyone should read this.