Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Chatting with my friend Katharine, who also runs a book blog, Ventureadlaxre, it came out that she'd been meaning to read Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga and I had been meaning to re-read it, since I read most of them before I started blogging. And so, an idea for a blogging project was born.

Katharine and I will both read a Vorkosigan book a month, going through them in internal chronological order, more or less, and then, as well as any ordinary reviews, we will write a discussion-type blog post about each book. She will bring the "reading for the first time" perspective and I will bring the "re-reading and what it adds" perspective. These posts will be cross-posted to both our blogs.

I haven't re-read anything since I started blogging except Harry Potter (because of the illustrated editions) and books I was actively working on (Defying Doomsday, science checking stuff), so this will be interesting.

Now get ready for a monthly parade of horrible covers as I re-read some of the best science fiction books around.

Baen has the worst covers, mainly because of their font choices.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis is a children's novel (the main character is 12ish) about a young dragon that gets turned into a human girl and has to make it on her own in a strange new city. And also chocolate.

Aventurine is the fiercest, bravest dragon there is. And she's ready to prove it to her family by leaving the safety of their mountain cave and capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human. But when the human she finds tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, Aventurine is transformed into a puny human girl with tiny blunt teeth, no fire, and not one single claw.

But she's still the fiercest creature in the mountains -- and now she's found her true passion: chocolate! All she has to do is get herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she'll be conquering new territory in no time...won't she?

This was a delightful read. Sometimes I, as an adult, find books for younger readers a bit too condescending or talking-down to the reader too much, in a way that probably wouldn't have bothered me when I was closer to the intended age bracket. This is absolutely not the case with Dragon with a Chocolate Heart. It's a lovely book that will be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

The story follows Aventurine, a young dragon who's sick of being stuck in her family cave, waiting to  grow up so she can safely hunt and fly around outside. One day she decides to experiment with going outside and the first human she meets transforms her from a dragon into a human girl. As well as being traumatic, the transformation, which hinged on an enchanted hot chocolate, awakens Aventurine's love of chocolate. As well as working out how to live as a human, Aventurine becomes fixated on tasting chocolate again.

This book has a lot of delicious chocolate descriptions in it, which made me a bit sad not to be having any chocolate when I read the book. Recommendation for reading: consume with hot chocolate. The setting is a vague Germanic medieval fantasy world, which we don't see much of beyond the city and the mountains. We hear a bit about a few other cities too. The main focus is definitely on the characters: Aventurine and her friends, family and other people she encounters.

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart was the kind of story in which the bad guys are merely annoying rather than actually evil, which was refreshing, especially coming out of having read a few more dire books. It's not that everything always goes well for Aventurine, but nothing especially dire happens and overall this was a very feel-good book. Highly recommended for people looking for a heartwarming read.

I highly recommend this book to all fans of fantasy, dragons and books for younger readers. It is, like I said, written for a younger age group than YA usually is, and I'm not sure that all teens will necessarily enjoy reading about a twelve-year-old. But I think it can be enjoyed equally as much (if not more) but adults (and maybe teens who are less self-conscious).

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2016, Bloomsbury (UK/ANZ)
Series: No.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor is a sequel novella to Binti, which I reviewed here and which went on to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novella. The sequel follows on from the original story, showing us the next chapter of Binti's life, and focussing on a very different set of experiences. This review will contain some spoilers for the first novella.

The thrilling sequel to the Nebula-nominated Binti.

It’s been a year since Binti and Okwu enrolled at Oomza University. A year since Binti was declared a hero for uniting two warring planets. A year since she left her family to pursue her dream.

And now she must return home to her people, with her friend Okwu by her side, to face her family and face her elders.

But Okwu will be the first of his race to set foot on Earth in over a hundred years, and the first ever to come in peace.

After generations of conflict can human and Meduse ever learn to truly live in harmony?

The first Binti novella followed Binti on her eventful and ultimately traumatic journey from her home on Earth to the prestigious Oomza University. Binti: Home opens on Oomza University and follows Binti as she makes the decision to go home for a visit. Rather than focussing on the journey this time, the story focusses on what happens after Binti gets home.

The novella deals a lot with change and belonging. Binti was changed by her time at Oomza, from learning new things and living in a different environment with a diverse assortment of people. She was also changed, both emotionally and physically, by the events en route to Oomza. How does she then go about fitting in back home? In a culture where no one leaves (usually) the very act of going away and coming back is subversive in itself, but the added changes of the journey are revolutionary. The scenes with Binti's family were the most upsetting, I thought, and although some of their reactions are understandable I, as the reader sympathising with Binti, couldn't help but be outraged at how unfair they were.

If you enjoyed Binti, I definitely recommend reading Binti: Home. It's the next part of Binti's story and, as the ending strongly implied, it's not the last part either. I hope there will be a third story because Binti: Home ended on more of a cliffhanger than I was expecting. I turned the page expecting more story and was met with "About the Author"! I need to know what happens next! Argh! If you haven't read Binti, I recommend picking that up first, since Home builds a lot on what came before. If you're a fan of thoughtful science fiction, I highly recommend this series of novellas.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2017, Tor.com
Series: Yes, Binti book 2 or 2 so far
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred by Greg Egan

The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred by Greg Egan is a science fiction novella set on two large asteroids out in the asteroid belt: Vesta and Ceres. It is a quick and compelling read more about morality than technology, although of course there is technology in it.

Camille is desperate to escape her home on colonized asteroid Vesta, journeying through space in a small cocoon pod covertly and precariously attached to a cargo ship. Anna is a newly appointed port director on asteroid Ceres, intrigued by the causes that have led so-called riders like Camille to show up at her post in search of asylum.

Conditions on Vesta are quickly deteriorating—for one group of people in particular. The original founders agreed to split profits equally, but the Sivadier syndicate contributed intellectual property rather than more valued tangible goods. Now the rest of the populace wants payback. As Camille travels closer to Ceres, it seems ever more likely that Vesta will demand the other asteroid stop harboring its fugitives.

I enjoyed this book and found it interesting, but I wouldn’t call it a happy read. The story follows a few characters on Vesta where something akin to racial tensions are coming to a head. Of the founding families, one has been singled out as having not pulled their weight (because they contributed intellectual property rather than physical technology to the settlement) and their descendants are being are now targeted. The main characters on Vesta are some of these descendants and their friends/sympathisers mounting a resistance against the bigotry targeting them.

The Ceres sections of the novella are set a few years later than the Vestan parts and mainly follow the Director of the Ceres colony as she interacts with Vestan refugees. In both settings there is discussion of morality, from different perspectives, and a few different moral questions are faced by the characters. The story doesn’t really resolve these questions — mostly because there are no right answers, I suspect — and leaves us only with a chapter in the characters’ lives closing. We do not know all the details of what happens next.

I enjoyed The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred and found it a compelling read, especially after I got past the first chapter and got a better idea of what the story was about. I recommend it to fans of science fiction and political stories. As I mentioned, aside from being set on asteroids and taking the relevant environmental factors into account in the background, there isn’t very much science (or, well, technobabble) in this story. If that’s something that often puts you off SF, then I still recommend giving The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred a shot.

4 / 5 stars

First published: November 2016, Subterranean Press
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff is the second book in the Illuminae Files trilogy. I previously reviewed the first book, Illuminae, here. The sequel maintains the found footage/documents format of the first book and is a relatively quick read because of it, despite clocking in at 659 pages in my edition. I should also mention that I checked the science for this book so this wasn't my first read through, although it was my first experience of the final copy in all its artistic glory.

Moving to a space station at the edge of the galaxy was always going to be the death of Hanna’s social life. Nobody said it might actually get her killed.

The saga that began with Illuminae continues on board the space station Heimdall, where two new characters will confront the next wave of BeiTech’s assault. Hanna is the station captain’s pampered daughter, Nik the reluctant member of a notorious crime family. But while the pair are struggling with the realities of life aboard the galaxy’s most boring space station, little do they know that Kady Grant and the Hypatia are headed right toward Heimdall, carrying news of the Kerenza invasion.

When an elite BeiTech team invades the station, Hanna and Nik are thrown together to defend their home. But alien predators are picking off the station residents one by one, and a malfunction in the station’s wormhole means the space-time continuum may be ripped in two before dinner. Soon Hanna and Nik aren’t just fighting for their own survival. The fate of everyone on the Hypatia—and possibly the known universe—is in their hands.

But relax. They’ve totally got this. They hope.

I enjoyed Gemina more than Illuminae. I think partly because now, with the second book, the authors and the production team have really gotten into their stride with the found documents format. Also, I just liked parts of the storyline more (no space zombies, for example). Also, a lot more of the overarching plot becomes apparent in this book. While there is still some mystery about exactly what's going on and why, we are much less in the dark by the end of this book than we were by the end of the first. (Which is how it should be, obviously.)

I was also quite fond of both protagonists in Gemina: Hanna, the daughter of the station chief and a girl who can kick anyone's arse; and Nik, the drug-dealing scion of a big organised crime family from space-Russia. And they already knew each other before the book started, which adds some layers to their story. Also, I can't write a review without mentioning Nik's cousin Ella, one of the most prominent secondary characters. She's an awesome hacker who contributes significantly to the story and is also pretty decent disability representation. Yes, she has/had a fictional disease but the mobility and respiratory consequences of it have real-world counterparts. The best thing is she's allowed to do her thing without much of a big deal being made of her physical limitations.

I recommend Gemina to fans of science fiction and YA SF. If you enjoyed Illuminae then I definitely recommend continuing on to Gemina, which I enjoyed more. Gemina almost stands alone but I don't suggest reading it on its own because the bits that tie in with the overarching plot and the events of the earlier book won't make much sense. And will kind of spoil the effect. I am definitely keen to read the last book and find out how everything is resolved.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2016, Knopf (US) and Allen & Unwin (Aus)
Series: Illuminae Files book 2 of 3
Format read: US hardcover
Source: Authors
Disclaimer: I did some science-checking for the authors (and hence also read an earlier version of the MS)
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Aussie SF Reading Challenge

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire is a novella with a difficult-to-remember title until you realise the list is chronological. I didn't actually realise it was a novella at first, only checking to make sure it wasn't a sequel to something I hadn't read when I requested it. I also hadn't really paid attention to the blurb, which made the opening prologue especially powerful for me.

When her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself. When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. Living or dead, every soul is promised a certain amount of time, and when Jenna passed she found a heavy debt of time in her record. Unwilling to simply steal that time from the living, Jenna earns every day she leeches with volunteer work at a suicide prevention hotline.

But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope; something that can bind ghosts to mirrors and make them do its bidding. Only Jenna stands in its way.

From the title and cover, I kind of thought this book would be more creepy horror than it was. I wouldn't actually call it horror at all. It's about ghosts, but from the point of view of the main character being a ghost herself and integrating into society without most being being any the wiser. It also contains the investigation of weird shenanigans and some heroics, as most fantasy books do. It also deals quite a bit with suicide, which is how the protagonist's sister died, suicide prevention, and what it means to die when it's "your time" or not (the latter through a fantastical lens).

The opening hit me hard and the rest of the novella kept me eagerly turning pages through my jetlag. Jenna is a compelling first person narrator, taking us through her day-to-night life, her perceptions of New York — including the New York only people like her can see — and some of the realities of being a ghost. I greatly enjoyed the alternate vision of New York McGuire painted in this book, as well as her vision of ghost life.

I really enjoyed Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day and highly recommend it to fans of ghosts, othered or liminal cities, novellas and Seanan McGuire.  I would recommend this to readers who enjoyed Every Heart a Doorway (although I will note I didn't like Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day quite as much as the other novella). This novella also sold me on the soft goal of trying to make my way through McGuire's back catalogue, so expect to see more of her books on this blog in the future.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2016, Tor.com novella series
Series: No.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Bitten by Amanda Pillar

Bitten by Amanda Pillar is the second novel set in the Graced universe. I have previously reviewed the other novel, Graced, and one of the novellas, Captive. Although Bitten is set after Graced, they can be read in any order and the novellas aren't necessary to follow the stories in the novels.

The city of Pinton has never been safe…and now a serial killer is on the loose.

Doctor Alice Reive is the city’s coroner, and she’s determined to help find the murderer. Enlisting the assistance of the Honorable Dante Kipling and city guard Elle Brown, they race to track down the killer, before another victim dies.

Hannah Romanov – Dante’s missing twin sister – has spent hundreds of years living on an isolated mountain. But her quiet life is thrown into chaos after she discovers a baby left in the wilds to die. Hannah will do anything to ensure the infant’s survival, even if it means travelling to the worst place in the world for her – Pinton.

Bitten is a little bit of a lot of things. It has some romance in it (basically all of the key characters get paired off) but isn't a capital-R romance novel. There are murders to solve and a serial killer to catch, but it's not exactly a mystery novel or a police procedural either, despite one of the characters being a coroner. Really it's the story of a group people and how their lives intertwine during a certain period of time, which happens to also involve some murders. Because of all that, it doesn't follow any well-worn genre beats but the story threads all come together towards the end, which was the part I enjoyed most.

Being set in the same universe, the main characters from Graced do make an appearance but reading the earlier book isn't necessary for understanding Bitten. The only issue I can see with reading them out of order is being "spoiled" for who pairs off with whom in Graced, but from memory it was pretty obvious and not supposed to be a surprise. Also, there is definitely a heavier focus on the new characters introduced in Bitten, and I generally enjoyed reading their stories the most — particularly Alice the coroner, Hannah the Graced vampire and Byrne and werebear — even when I wasn't sure how they were going to intersect. They all had interesting pasts which tied the story together nicely.

I would recommend this books to fans of vampires, werepeople (not just werewolves) and magic/psychic powers. Also to fans of urban fantasy, particularly the kind set in a low-tech future.

4 / 5 stars

First published: January 2016, self-published
Series: Graced Series book 2 of 2 so far
Format read: eARC
Source: Review copy from author
Disclaimer: Amanda is a friend but I have tried to not let this influence the content of this review.
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Monday, 9 January 2017

After Atlas by Emma Newman

After Atlas by Emma Newman is a companion novel to Planetfall, which I previously reviewed here. You don't have to have read Planetfall to read After Atlas — both books stand alone entirely — but some background/historical context for After Atlas will be clearer sooner if you've read the other book first. Even if you spend most of After Atlas trying to remember the names of the Planetfall characters before caving and checking when you're near the end, as I did. Also, it should be possible to read the two books in either order.

Gov-corp detective Carlos Moreno was only a baby when Atlas left Earth to seek truth among the stars. But in that moment, the course of Carlos’s entire life changed. Atlas is what took his mother away; what made his father lose hope; what led Alejandro Casales, leader of the religious cult known as the Circle, to his door. And now, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Atlas’s departure, it’s got something to do why Casales was found dead in his hotel room—and why Carlos is the man in charge of the investigation.

To figure out who killed one of the most powerful men on Earth, Carlos is supposed to put aside his personal history. But the deeper he delves into the case, the more he realizes that escaping the past is not so easy. There’s more to Casales’s death than meets the eye, and something much more sinister to the legacy of Atlas than anyone realizes…

Planetfall wasn't exactly a cheerful book, so I picked up After Atlas because I was in the mood for a depressing read. Boy, did it deliver in that regard! Set on a dystopian Earth forty years after the colony ship in Planetfall left, After Atlas follows a detective assigned to a murder case. Carlos the detective, also the first person narrator, is owned and enslaved by the Ministry of Justice and contractually forbidden from revealing that fact. Because of the NDA included in his contract, most free people don't believe slaves like him exist, which makes for some interesting social interplays (and bitterness).

A large part of After Atlas is a murder mystery, with the victim the leader of a cult Carlos escaped when he was sixteen. The cult insist on having Carlos be the investigator and, of course, the situation brings up a lot of difficult memories for him which also serve to fill in the reader on his backstory. The story of the cult and of Carlos's connection to the departed spaceship end up being key components of the story, along with the murder itself.

Newman paints a pretty bleak picture of humanity in this series and especially in this book. Honestly, I was surprised at how bleak some parts were and I recognise that's not for everyone. But I really enjoyed the book and the story and the issues it raised. I will definitely read any more books that come out in this series, although I'm not sure more are planned. I recommend After Atlas to fans of dark SF (I wouldn't call it horror, though) and to anyone who enjoyed Planetfall, although it's a pretty different read in many respects. I've enjoyed all of Newman's books that I've read, but I should warn you that if you've only read the Split Worlds series, this series is very different, so be warned.

5 / 5 stars

First published: November 2016,
Series: Planetfall series, book 2 of 2 so far (but both stand alone)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, 7 January 2017

An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows

An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows is the first book of the Manifold Worlds series and, as the series title kind of suggests, is a portal fantasy novel. It, loosely speaking, follows the story of a teenaged Australian girl when she follows someone through a portal and into a world of magic.

When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole in reality, she finds herself trapped in Kena, a magical realm on the brink of civil war.

There, her fate becomes intertwined with that of three very different women: Zech, the fast-thinking acolyte of a cunning, powerful exile; Viya, the spoiled, runaway consort of the empire-building ruler, Vex Leoden; and Gwen, an Earth-born worldwalker whose greatest regret is putting Leoden on the throne. But Leoden has allies, too, chief among them the Vex’Mara Kadeja, a dangerous ex-priestess who shares his dreams of conquest.

Pursued by Leoden and aided by the Shavaktiin, a secretive order of storytellers and mystics, the rebels flee to Veksh, a neighboring matriarchy ruled by the fearsome Council of Queens. Saffron is out of her world and out of her depth, but the further she travels, the more she finds herself bound to her friends with ties of blood and magic.

Can one girl – an accidental worldwalker – really be the key to saving Kena? Or will she just die trying?

The most interesting thing about An Accident of Stars was the way in which the story is told both from the perspective of the teenaged Saffron going through a portal for the first time (and, of course, not finding what books like Narnia and Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz promised) and from the perspective of Gwen, a woman in her fifties who is now a veteran of "worldwalking" and people who travel between worlds are known in the book. On the one hand, Saffron has an almost standard reaction to being in a fantasy world, although her thoughts are more culturally sensitive than some of the older works would have been. On the other hand, Gwen understands what Saffron is going through but from a standing of "been there, done that" as well as a standing of much greater maturity and world experience, tells the story from a different view. If Saffron is the main character, Gwen is watching the story and putting things into context that Saffron can't (immediately).

That said, Gwen is certainly still one of the protagonists, watching the story while being a part of it. Which is ironic given the religious sect based around doing just that. And is kind of meta when you start to think about things which are spoilers.

The third protagonist is Zech, a girl more or less both Kenan and Vekshi (details being spoilers) who gets involved first with Saffron when the Earth girl is lost and alone in a strange world, and then in larger world events. Zech was cool and I liked that despite her being 14 and two years younger than Saffron, the two were able to be friends without age mattering too much (except for spoilers).

This was a very enjoyable read. I'm not sure I'd call it fun because a lot of bad things happen to Saffron. Bad things which are pretty par for the course in fantasy books, but which become extreme trauma when put into the context of happening to an average contemporary Earthling teenager. I liked the way the book highlighted how horrible some fantasy tropes are when not normalised by all the characters they're happening to. Like how traumatic a short battle can be, for example. Overall, I didn't have any complaints except maybe that sometimes Saffron's inner thoughts were more socially aware than I would have expected, but not implausibly so.

The book ended a little abruptly and with very little having been resolved. I am very keen to read the next book and I'm hoping I won't have to wait too long. The publisher's website indicates that it's coming in May, so not too long away. I highly recommend An Accident of Stars to fans of portal fantasy and to any readers looking for a feminist fantasy read.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Angry Robot
Series: The Manifold Worlds book 1 of ?
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Mars Evacuees by Sofia McDougall

Mars Evacuees by Sofia McDougall is a fast-paced YA or younger (the main characters are 12) book about kids being evacuated to Mars during a war with aliens. I picked it up not realising the characters and target age group were younger than the YA I usually enjoy, but I ended up enjoying it a lot. It was also a good book to read on a plane and while jetlagged.

The fact that someone had decided I would be safer on Mars, where you could still only SORT OF breathe the air and SORT OF not get sunburned to death, was a sign that the war with the aliens was not going fantastically well.

I’d been worried I was about to be told that my mother’s spacefighter had been shot down, so when I found out that I was being evacuated to Mars, I was pretty calm.

And despite everything that happened to me and my friends afterwards, I’d do it all again. because until you’ve been shot at, pursued by terrifying aliens, taught maths by a laser-shooting robot goldfish and tried to save the galaxy, I don’t think you can say that you’ve really lived.

If the same thing happens to you, this is my advice: ALWAYS CARRY DUCT TAPE.

What made Mars Evacuees such an enjoyable and fun read was the voice of the first person protagonist, Alice. Her narration is full of snide and sarcastic remarks and seeing everything through her eyes brought the story to life. The mostly likely problem I am to have with younger reader (middle grade for you yanks) books is being talked down to by the narration, which was absolutely not the case here.

Another thing I appreciated about Mars Evacuees was the pretty accurate science/physics of space travel and stuff on Mars. There were only a few small bits that raised my eyebrow, but they were also glossed over by the author with no details, making it easier to ignore and harder to pinpoint actual sciencefails (if that's what they were). Much as I generally appreciate accurate science in my science fiction, I think it's even more important when it comes to kids books that can be quite formative.

Overall I really enjoyed Mars Evacuees. The characters were fun, the story was exciting and the resolution felt finished. This is the first book in a series but it certainly doesn't feel like the story is unfinished. I am interested in picking up the next book, but I don't feel like it's necessary.

I highly recommend Mars Evacuees to science fiction fans, especially those that enjoy YA books or books for younger readers. That said, I think this is a fun read that most adult fans will also enjoy. And while I said the science was accurate, it's not dwelt upon enough to make it hard SF, if science overpowering the story is something you prefer to avoid.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2014, Egmont
Series: Mars Evacuees book 1 of 2 so far
Format read: ePub
Source: purchased from Google Play