Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold

I am sorry all the Bujold covers are dreadful. It was this or a 
small, blurry, non-English one. (I would have gone with 
non-English if they were less uniformly of low resolution.) 
Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold is chronologically the third novel about Miles Vorkosigan, though it was published ninth. Generally, I recommend reading it in chronological order after The Vor Game, which I recently reviewed. It almost stands alone — it's a complete story but many of the character implications and connections will be missed by someone who hasn't read the earlier books. It's also the source of some of the humour.

The latest installment in the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan. Miles and Cousin Ivan travel to Cetaganda to play the part of sprigs of nobility doing their diplomatic duty. But when the Empress of Cetaganda dies naturally, and her lifelong attendant dies unnaturally, Miles and Ivan finds themselves in the thick of it.

Cetaganda sees Miles and his cousin (That Idiot) Ivan sent on a diplomatic mission to attend the Dowager Empress of Cetaganda's funeral. It's not a complicated mission, but rather one that requires them to stand politely in the correct places, eat, and socialise. Miles has never been good and standing around, however, and trouble has a tendency to find him even when he doesn't go out of his way to seek it. And really, if he didn't take matters into his own hands, how could he prevent interplanetary war?

Apparently, last time I read Cetaganda I only gave it four stars (on Goodreads individually and on LibraryThing for the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus, although the latter could've been because Ethan of Athos came after it). I'm honestly not sure why since I laughed a lot reading it this time 'round and have thus promoted it to five stars. Only a small portion of that laughter was because I remembered how it ended.

I really enjoyed reading about Miles and Ivan. This is the most we've seen of Ivan in one book since I started rereading chronologically, so that was nice. It was also very interesting to see some of the details of the Cetagandan Empire which, until now (in the books, chronologically) has mainly been seen as a military threat. In Cetaganda we see a lot more of its art and culture. (The kitten tree, burned into my mind from the first read-through did not become more pleasant the second time around, however). Rereading, I think, also gave me more space to contemplate said culture rather than just rushing through to see what Miles would do or what would happen to Miles next.

I highly recommend this book to people who have read the earlier Vorkosigan books. If you haven't, then better to start with Shards of Honour or, at worst, The Warrior's Apprentice.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 1996, Baen
Series: Yes. Vorkosigan Saga. Book 5 chronologically out of 16 maybe, I think
Format read: ePub in Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus
Source: Bought from Baen several years ago.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire is the first book in the rather long (ten books and counting, not to mention a large pile of short fiction) October Daye series. I picked it up because the series has been shortlisted for the inaugural Best Series Hugo Award, and because I've been wanting to read more of McGuire's back catalogue.

October "Toby" Daye, a changeling who is half human and half fae, has been an outsider from birth. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the Faerie world, retreating to a "normal" life. Unfortunately for her, the Faerie world has other ideas...

The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening's dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby must resume her former position as knight errant and renew old alliances. As she steps back into fae society, dealing with a cast of characters not entirely good or evil, she realizes that more than her own life will be forfeited if she cannot find Evening's killer.

In many ways, this is a pretty standard kind of urban fantasy book; set in modern times, with a slightly but not too magical heroine who is (was) a private investigator and has to solve a supernatural murder. That doesn't mean it's a bad read and many of the details made this quite an enjoyable read for me. For one thing, there wasn't much of a romantic plot line, always a plus. (I still remember an urban fantasy I read where the hero apparently smelled of pine air-freshener and I am still not over the grossness.) It deals sensibly with themes of abuse and incorporates lots of different mythologies in the worldbuilding. I can see how there would be a lot of fodder for many more books in the series.

I also found it interesting that Toby isn't actually very young. It seems to me that these sorts of heroines often are, but although Toby looks relatively young, because of her half-faerie blood, she is past what would be middle-age for a human. That gives mer more scope in life experiences and allows her to take a more mature retrospective view of her past, and choices she made that other kids may now be making. She speaks frankly about negative aspects of her past, which I thought was good (introspection, etc) but which might also come off as heavy handed. I'm a little undecided, but I think it's ultimately better not to be too subtle about some of the issues involved.

Rosemary and Rue was a complete story but, of course, leaves the story open for Toby to have a lot more adventures because there will always be more problems in Faerie that need solving. I am keen to read more of the series but I expect I will end up spacing them out a bit due to too-many-books-too-little-time syndrome. (I have also been told by a couple of people that they really pick up from around book three, so hmm.)

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2009, DAW Books
Series: October Daye book 1 of ? (11 comes out later this year)
Format read: omnibus ePub
Source: Hugo voter packet

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson is a Hugo-shortlisted novella, which is why I picked it up. The last time I read a Kij Johnson story, it was "Spar", which was shortlisted for a Hugo Award in 2010, the year of Aussiecon 4. As you might guess from my referencing it seven years later, it was a little burned into my brain, and not in a good way. So I was a little wary approaching The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, but that turned out to have zero weird alien sex, so bonus!

Professor Vellitt Boe teaches at the prestigious Ulthar Women’s College. When one of her most gifted students elopes with a dreamer from the waking world, Vellitt must retrieve her.

But the journey sends her on a quest across the Dreamlands and into her own mysterious past, where some secrets were never meant to surface.

So I didn't enjoy this novella. The start was kind of interesting and the ending was OK. The middle mostly consisted of endless travel and descriptions of scenery, both somewhat surreal and completely weird. At one point I had some theories about twists we might see for the ending, but the gruelling middle pushed them out of my memory.

The thing is, the story isn't badly written (unless your definition of "well written" perforce encompasses "not boring") and there are several interesting elements like the main character — a mature university professor who had travelled in her youth and now finds herself on a quest to save her university and town — a cat that follows her, the concept of the dream world, and the prose is smooth. But so many words are spent on describing the lands Vellitt travels through, most of them not directly relevant to the interesting parts of the overall plot, that I had a lot of difficulty staying interested in the novella. I put it aside for a little while because of that and because I just kept falling asleep when I tried to read it in bed. The only reason I bothered finishing it was because I wanted to write as many reviews of Hugo shortlisted works as I could.

I was told, when I was around halfway through The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe that it was written in conversation with an HP Lovecraft novella. I haven't read any Lovecraft and have no intention of doing so, so that didn't really help. I will note that the afterword from the author explained this a little more; Johnson had loved the Lovecraft novella as a ten year old and wanted to reinterpret the original sexist and racist work as an adult.

I don't particularly recommend this novel except to people interested in comparing it with the original Lovecraft novella or who are interested in, er, stories about journeys, I suppose. While it wasn't as memorable as "Spar", it hasn't encouraged me to try further Kij Johnson stories in the future. I don't expect I'll be reading any unless they're shortlisted for future Hugo Awards I have voting rights for.

2.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Tor.com
Series: I don't think so
Format read: ePub
Source: Hugo voter packet

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold is the first fantasy novella (or story of any length) that I've read of the author's. Of course, if you've been following my blog you'll know that I've read most of her science fiction. I picked up this novella because it's sequel has been shortlisted for a Hugo Award this year, and someone suggested that I should read them in order.

On his way to his betrothal, young Lord Penric comes upon a riding accident with an elderly lady on the ground, her maidservant and guardsmen distraught. As he approaches to help, he discovers that the lady is a Temple divine, servant to the five gods of this world. Her avowed god is The Bastard, "master of all disasters out of season", and with her dying breath she bequeaths her mysterious powers to Penric. From that moment on, Penric's life is irreversibly changed, and his life is in danger from those who envy or fear him.

This was an amusing story. It didn't quite make me laugh out loud, but I was certainly entertained. Penric is a younger son of a minor noble who has unusual circumstances thrust upon him on his way to his betrothal. After encountering a sick woman on the road he acquired a demon; a kind of magical being which bestows sorcerous powers on. Usually only trained members of religious orders receive demons, so Penric's situation is a bit vexing for the people in charge of such things.

The story follows Penric as he adjusts and deals with his new situation and, basically, starts having adventures because of it. I found it entertaining even though I was unfamiliar with the world. There's enough worldbuilding in the novella to make sense of it and I didn't have any trouble following what was going on. I was perhaps a little less engaged with Penric than I've felt with Miles and Cordelia in the Vorkosigan books, but that's perhaps an unfair comparison since, so far, Penric has only had one novella to make an impression on me, rather than several novels.

I am looking forward to the next Penric novella (Penric and the Sharman, the Hugo-shortlisted on) and I think whether or not I bother seeking out more will depend on how much I like that one. The main reason I haven't gotten around to Bujold's fantasy books is because I have no shortage of fantasy books by authors whose fantasy works I know I like in my TBR, so I haven't especially felt the need. We'll see how it goes. Meanwhile, I do recommend Penric's Demon to fantasy fans looking for something short to read.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2015, Self-pub
Series: Yes. First of ongoing novella series and set in the World of Five Gods which also has a novel trilogy
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from iBooks

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire is a prequel novella to the wonderful Every Heart a Doorway, which I read last year. The two novellas stand alone entirely, aside from being set in the same world. Having read Every Heart a Doorway first, I had some notion of where the protagonists of Down Among the Sticks and Bones would end up, but not exactly how they got there.

Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

This is the story of what happened first…

Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.

Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you've got.

They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.

They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.

Part of the initial premise for this story, aside from the portal fantasy aspect, is that their parents decide, before getting to know them at all, what kind of children they'll be. Instead of allowing them to choose their interests, they have interests thrust upon them. And it is horrific. Horrific enough that when they find themselves in a world of vampires, necromancer science and werewolves, both of them would prefer to stay than go home.

I admit it took me a little bit of reading to really remember Jack and Jill from Every Heart a Doorway (and even now I'm still a little hazy, without having reread it), and before I remembered what I already knew of their story, I was half expecting this to be a trans narrative. It is not. It is a story about how to be a girl, and how there's no wrong way to do so.

Despite being about siblings called Jack and Jill, there's not much of the nursery rhyme in this portal fantasy. It's fantastical and bleak and grim and wonderful. This did not stop the nursery rhyme from running through my head every so often while I was reading, so beware. ;-p

I loved Every Heart a Doorway and I loved Down Among the Sticks and Bones almost as much. I will be happily reading any further stories McGuire writes in this world (a third novella has already been announced, whoo!). I highly recommend it to all fans of fantasy, especially portal fantasy.

5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2017, Tor.com
Series: Wayward Children, second published but standalone
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Netgalley

Monday, 12 June 2017

Ditmar Awards

The Ditmar Awards were announced on Sunday night in Melbourne at Continuum 13. The full shortlist/ballot can be found at this link and I will copy the final results into the end of this post. First I want to share some specific excitement from the results.

Defying Doomsday won in the Best Collected Work category!!!, along with Dreaming the Dark by Jack Dann.

๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰

Furthermore, "Did We Break the End of the World?" by Tansy Rayner Roberts won in the Best Novella or Novelette category.

๐Ÿพ๐Ÿฅ‚๐ŸŽ‰

ALSO, the 2016 Australian SF Snapshot — the interviewing project that I (and many others) were a part of — won in the Best Fan Publication in Any Medium category.

๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰

Thank you to everyone who voted for us, and voted in the awards in general!

And now, with that squeeing out of the way, for the full results:


Best Novel: The Grief Hole, Kaaron Warren, IFWG Publishing Australia.
Best Novella or Novelette:  “Did We Break the End of the World?”, Tansy Rayner Roberts, in Defying Doomsday, Twelfth Planet Press.
Best Short Story: “No Fat Chicks”, Cat Sparks, in In Your Face, FableCroft Publishing.
Best Collected Work: (tie) Defying Doomsday, Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, Twelfth Planet Press & Dreaming in the Dark, Jack Dann, PS Publishing.
Best Artwork: illustration, Shauna O’Meara, for Lackington’s 12.
Best Fan Publication in Any Medium: 2016 Australian SF Snapshot, Greg Chapman, Tehani Croft, Tsana Dolichva, Marisol Dunham, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Stephanie Gunn, Ju Landรฉesse, David McDonald, Belle McQuattie, Matthew Morrison, Alex Pierce, Rivqa Rafael, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Helen Stubbs, Katharine Stubbs and Matthew Summers.
Best Fan Writer: Foz Meadows, for body of work.
Best New Talent:Marlee Jane Ward
William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review: Kate Forsyth, for The Rebirth of Rapunzel: a mythic biography of the maiden in the tower, FableCroft Publishing.
(No award was given out for Best Fan Artist as the only nominee, Kathleen Jennings, withdrew.)

Sunday, 11 June 2017

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson is a Hugo shortlisted novella and, I believe, the first I've read of the author's work (I have Sorcerer of the Wildeeps waiting in my TBR). I went into it with no particular expectations.

Long after the Towers left the world but before the dragons came to Daluรงa, the emperor brought his delegation of gods and diplomats to Olorum. As the royalty negotiates over trade routes and public services, the divinity seeks arcane assistance among the local gods.

Aqib bgm Sadiqi, fourth-cousin to the royal family and son of the Master of Beasts, has more mortal and pressing concerns. His heart has been captured for the first time by a handsome Daluรงan soldier named Lucrio. In defiance of Saintly Canon, gossiping servants, and the furious disapproval of his father and brother, Aqib finds himself swept up in a whirlwind romance. But neither Aqib nor Lucrio know whether their love can survive all the hardships the world has to throw at them.

This novella was consistently not what I expected. First it seemed like it would be a gay love story set in a Romanesque fantasy world — and it was — but then there was talk of quantum mechanics and holograms — women's work — and then... well, I don't want to spoil the ending. Suffice to say it was unexpected. The narrative structure also contributed to some of the unexpected turns. From our starting point, it jumps forward in time, then back to the next day. So we think we know what happens and we slowly find out why it happens. And it turns out there's good reason for telling the story in this way.

I enjoyed this story and only found it occasionally confusing. Not all our questions are answered (there's one I'm deeply curious about, but it's not something that matters in the end), but the ending is satisfactory, if bordering on bittersweet. I am interested in reading more stories set in this world, because it seemed like there was a lot more world than just that which was explored in A Taste of Honey, but not additional reading is necessary to enjoy or understand this novella. I will be keeping an eye out for more stories from Kai Ashante Wilson. I recommend A Taste of Honey to most fantasy fans.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Tor.com
Series: No, but there are other stories set in the same world (eg Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, I believe)
Format read: ePub
Source: Hugo voter packet

Friday, 9 June 2017

The Vision Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta

The Vision Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man written by Tom King, illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta is the the first collected trade of an ongoing comic book series about Vision, one of the Avengers who is sort of an AI/synthetic being (it's complicated). I wasn't especially interested in reading this comic when I heard about it (although the premise and cover art were tempting) and I only read it now because it was shortlisted for a Hugo Award.

The Vision wants to be human, and what's more human than family? So he heads back to the beginning, to the laboratory where Ultron created him and molded him into a weapon. The place where he first rebelled against his given destiny and imagined that he could be more -that he could be a man. There, he builds them. A wife, Virginia. Two teenage twins, Viv and Vin. They look like him. They have his powers. They share his grandest ambition (or is that obsession?) the unrelenting need to be ordinary.

Behold the Visions! They’re the family next door, and they have the power to kill us all. What could possibly go wrong? Artificial hearts will be broken, bodies will not stay buried, the truth will not remain hidden, and the Vision will never be the same.

Overall, my reaction to this comic is "meh". It wasn't terrible, but I didn't love it either. It was fine. It was a bit wanky and probably should have been more gothic, if that's the direction it's going, as it seemed to be from the first volume. It also inevitably suffers from being the opening volume in an ongoing series. Very little is resolved and a lot of hints are dropped for things to come — this, in fact, seems to be the adopted story-telling style — which do not yet come. The foreboding air it builds up is certainly interesting, and we do get a sense of how things are going pear-shaped, but I've been burned too many times by ominous and intriguing pronouncements overhyping themselves. So meh. I will admit the tone of the comic wasn't quite what I expected and I suspect that's what got it the Hugo nomination, but to me that wasn't enough to place it above any of the other Hugo-shortlisted graphic novels I've read.

The story basically follows Vision's family members as they attempt to be a suburban US family. Quite why is unclear and we do not learn many details as to why Vision created such a family for himself. The story is as much about things going wrong as it is about the family trying to fit in. That said, as far as twists on "pretending to be a normal suburban family" go, it was a welcome one. Also, I liked the art and the choice of colour for the background scenery, which gave it an American gothic kind of vibe, or something along those lines.

I'd recommend The Vision to fans of Marvel Comics, I guess? I don't think I will go and bother buying the sequel, but I wouldn't throw it away if someone handed it to me. Overall, I'll still with my female-led books, thanks. Although, actually, this was more about Vision's family than the titular character himself, but he was still a looming presence.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Marvel
Series: Yes. Ongoing, this first trade collects comic issues #1–6
Format read: watermarked PDF
Source: Hugo voter packet

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Vor Game - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

The Vor Game is the latest novel that we read as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project. It sequentially falls, after the novel The Warrior’s Apprentice and the novella Mountains of Mourning, and before the novel Cetaganda. It’s about Miles Vorkosigan again and was first published in 1990. Miles is given his first mission after graduating from the Imperial Military Academy and it is not what he expected or hoped for.

You can read Katharine’s review of The Vor Game here, and Tsana’s review here.

Tsana: After skipping over the academy years, we meet Miles again as he gets his first assignment as a freshly-graduated ensign. To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed we missed out on Miles’s inevitable Academy hijinks, but this book does deliver plenty of hijinks to make up for it.

Katharine: Do we get to see any in flashbacks?

Tsana: Not that I remember. Certainly nothing major.

Katharine: Well that’s a dang shame. Bujold is still writing though, so perhaps we could get some further short stories… doubtful, but maybe if she’s reading our discussions… :p
In all seriousness, I do mostly appreciate that we jump from action to action - we know enough about their human nature to assume what went on in those years - he manages to outwit most of their exercises and instructors and gets bullied but mostly copes with it all. We meet him again when he receives his first actual mission… and it’s pretty disappointing.

Tsana: Yep. After hoping for ship duty, Miles is assigned to a polar weather station. Cold, miserable and occasionally filled with infantry cadets. Not at all in space. I think the only reason he doesn’t kick up a fuss is because it’s suggested that if he manages not to stir up trouble for six months he might be rewarded with a shiny new ship assignment. But Miles is bad at not stirring up trouble…

Katharine: Basically as soon as he gets there he’s overwhelmed with how poorly it’s run. The chap doing his job and supposed to be handling his handover is a drunk, many of the other workers don’t seem to care for the standard of their work, and of course Miles has a whole new range of people to be bullied by. It doesn’t take him long to be almost killed by a hazing attempt.

Tsana: All of which was almost expected, but… well, before we get into spoilers, should we briefly talk about how there are two very distinct parts to The Vor Game? The first part, set on the miserable polar island, and then a very distinct second part set elsewhere.

Katharine: Yup - by the end of the book it seems like a lifetime ago we read about the polar station - they don’t feel connected in the slightest. It isn’t a bad thing, or jarring in any way… if anything, it just shows how chaotic Miles’ life is. I’m not sure how much else we can say without the spoiler klaxon?

Tsana: *klaxon sound effects*
<spoilers below>

Monday, 5 June 2017

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders is a Hugo Award shortlisted novel that I remember hearing a lot about when it first came out, but which I didn't bother reading at that time because I wasn't entirely sure I'd like it. I am very glad that lots of other people liked it and nominated it for a Hugo, because it means I finally did read it and it was great.

Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn't expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one's peers and families.

But now they're both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who's working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention into the changing global climate. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world's magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world's ever-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together--to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.

One of the great things about this book is that it is genuinely both science fiction and fantasy. (And not in the space fantasy way that annoys me.) Of the two main characters, one is a witch and one is a mad scientist making crazy gadgets. The story alternates their points of view and tells their story on sweeping scales, starting from their childhoods and running up to their mid-twenties. There are talking birds, time machines, sentient trees, and artificial intelligence. Really, this book has everything, including a writing style that draws you in and keeps you turning pages.

And including compelling characters. Patricia and Laurence start off as social outcasts with crappy parents — actually, Patricia's parents put me in mind of the Dursleys — who end up friends because they don't have anyone else. Various aspects of their painful childhoods are the real low point of the book. Their middle school years take place in roughly our present, I think, and so a ten year jump forward in time places the story in a science fictional near future. With Patricia being a witch and Laurence a mad genius, they are both star-crossed and fated to know each other. And suffering a lot of angst from both possibilities.

All the Birds in the Sky also pits science/technology and magic against each other and does so in a way that, astoundingly, doesn't piss me off. (Because usually when these things come up the message from the author is science/technology = bad, magic/nature = good.) We are shown the flaws and strengths of both and, in the privileged position of the reader, we get to see the way both misunderstand the other. The resolution of the science versus magic conflict is also awesome. For a book that started off quirky and entertaining and mostly almost fun and focussing on the small scale of Patricia and Laurence's friendship and their personal situations, it ends up on a surprisingly epic scale.

I really enjoyed All the Birds in the Sky and I'm really glad the Hugo awards pushed me into reading it. I highly recommend it to all fans of fantasy and science fiction, especially in contemporary or near-future settings. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for Anders's other work. All the Birds in the Sky is a dizzying and awesome story.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Tor
Series: No, don't think so
Format read: ePub
Source: from the Hugo packet

Friday, 2 June 2017

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold is the fourth chronological about the Vorkosigan family, excluding novellas. I have recently been rereading these and my last two reviews were of The Warrior's Apprentice and Mountains of Mourning. There have also been a series of discussion posts, which you can find here. This review will contain some spoilers for the earlier books, but nothing too major since this is a series of standalones. The blurb below is a bit spoilery though. :-/

Miles Vorkosigan graduates from the Barrayaran Military Academy with expectations of ship command, so he is disappointed with the assignment of meteorologist to an arctic training camp. But his tenure in the snow-covered north is cut short when he narrowly averts a massacre between the trigger-happy base commander and mutinous recruits. Miles is reassigned to investigate a suspicious military buildup near a wormhole nexus. Reviving his undercover persona as mercenary Admiral Miles Naismith, he expands his routine information-gathering duty into a rescue mission when the Emperor of Barrayar disappears. Miles must use his negotiating skills to avoid a showdown between powers competing for control of the wormhole, while searching for the Emperor and watching his back for the arctic base commander seeking bloody vengeance.

This is a book very definitely divided into two parts. They are linked and they are not equal halves, but the tone and setting and many of the secondary characters are different between them. The first half of the book takes place at Camp Permafrost, a crappy arctic training base that Miles is assigned to after he graduates from the military academy. I started reading The Vor game needing a laugh and while the opening section isn't maudlin, it's also not laugh-out-loud funny. It was compelling nonetheless and set up the second part of the novel. I can see why it was also published as a standalone story before the book's publication (in the afterword Bujold talks about the welcome fee from selling it to Analog as "Weatherman", but I found myself wondering how the ending would have worked...).

The latter two thirds or so of the novel takes place in space after Miles is transferred to ImpSec, the more covert branch of the Barrayaran military. The theme of Miles's insubordination continues as a somewhat dull mission becomes more exciting after a chance encounter and with the return of Admiral Naismith. This second part of the book was much funnier, with a lot of the humour coming from the reader (and Miles) knowing more about various social contexts than the characters in them. Much hilarity ensued, especially near the end.

This book stands alone quite well and I wouldn't ban someone from reading it out of order. That said, it does build on what has come before it, especially The Warrior's Apprentice, which sets up the Dendarii mercenaries, so I recommend reading at least that book first. In fact, my copy of The Vor Game is nestled inside the Young Miles omnibus, containing The Warrior's Apprentice, the novella Mountains of Mourning and then The Vor Game and a sizeable afterword, a worthy edition if you don't already own the novels.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: Baen, 1990
Series: Yes. The Vorkosigan Saga, sort of book 4. At any rate, read after The Warrior's Apprentice.
Format read: ePub in the Young Miles omnibus
Source: Purchased from Baen several years ago

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Hugo Novelette Reading

Reading the novelette category of the Hugo shortlist is a little bit less simple than reading the novellas because two of the stories are not available for free online (the Stix Hiscock and the Fran Wilde). I'm going to wait until the Hugo packet comes out for the Wilde and I'm not sure that I'll get through/bother with all of the Hiscock when it comes. I'll probably glance at the opening. We'll see.

Luckily the Hugo packet arrived promptly. The stories below are listed in the order I read them.


“The Art of Space Travel”, by Nina Allan (Tor.com, July 2016)

This story is about a woman who works in a hotel near Heathrow, which happens to be the hotel the group of astronauts going to Mars will stay at before departing. The bulk of the story deals with her feelings surrounding space travel, which is inextricably tied up with her family history, especially her mother. The major emotional journeys for the protagonist, Emily, are her search for her father — whose identity she doesn't know — and her mother's illness, caused by proximity to space travel.

It's not a bad story, but nothing very much happens in it. We get a bit of a sense for a future in which a large mission is being attempted for the second time, but not much else about the future world is revealed. Emily's emotional journey isn't boring, but neither is it thrilling. The most interesting bits, for me, were about what happened to her mother. Mind you, part of the point there is that no one really understands her illness in full, so it's not really a plot thread with a resolution. I enjoyed "The Art of Space Travel", but I didn't love it. I am hoping that I will enjoy some of the other novelettes more.



The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde (Tor.com, May 2016)

My first impress of of this novelette was that it had too much world building for a relatively short story. In retrospect, if someone had told me up front that it was a novella, I probably would not have felt that way. This is a story about the fall of a royal family and the gem-based magic they used to keep their people safe and maintain peace. The story opens with a coup and mass murder, which should have been exciting but was bogged down a little with the explanation of how the gems worn by the Jewels and controlled by lapidaries works. I found myself rereading part of the opening, trying to get it straight.

That said, "The Jewel and Her Lapidary" wasn't bad, but it didn't grab me very strongly and it didn't wow me. I did feel affected by the ending, but it took me several days to read this not very long story, a sign of my generally lukewarm interest. I expect that others might feel differently (and obviously enough people loved this story to nominate it), so your mileage may vary.


“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny Magazine, May 2016)

This was a gothic western, I think is the best way to describe it. In terms of feel, it reminded me of the Pretty Deadly comics, although the actual story is quite different. "You'll..." is about a darkly magical orphan boy, his best friend, and the crappy situation the both of them live in. And death and the desert.

It's written in second person, but not jarringly so. I am, however, curious as to why the author made that choice — it didn't seem integral to the story like the use of second person does in John Chu's "Selected Afterimages of the Fading" (in Defying Doomsday), for example. Westerns aren't really my thing, but this story didn't bore me or feel like it was dragging, so I expect it will ultimately rank well on my ballot.


“The Tomato Thief”, by Ursula Vernon (Apex Magazine, January 2016)

This is another story set in the American west, which is really very coincidental of my reading order. The protagonist of this one is an old lady, not entirely human or unmagical, who is very keen on her tomato plants. And then someone steals her nice tomatoes and she acquires a mission.

"The Tomato Thief" is much more plainly written than the other Hugo stories I've read so far. I wasn't a huge fan of the style, but it didn't grate or offend me either. The story itself wasn't bad but, as with all the novelettes so far, I didn't love it either. My guess is it will rank in the middle somewhere for me.


“Touring with the Alien”, by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2016)

Another disappointing story. It had promise, from the first few sentences, but the main premise is no longer that original (except, why did the aliens only visit the US? This fact is stated but never addressed) and the secondary premise was interesting but not explored in enough depth. A shockingly egregious quarantine violation near the end really annoyed me and wasn't even used to show something interesting about character, like I half-expected.

The story wasn't badly written aside from the lack of depth mentioned above. But it clearly annoyed me too much for me to vote it very highly. Alas. I suspect I was also disappointed that the tour with the alien took place on Earth rather than in space.


Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, by Stix Hiscock (self-published)

Pass, after some indecision.

~

A disappointing novelette shortlist, all in all. The short stories were a stronger category. I didn't hate any of these either, and actually I found them all to be of similar quality which does make ranking harder. That said, “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” was my top contender since it was well-written and so forth, even if I didn't love the subject matter. Then it's close between "The Art of Space Travel" and "The Tomato Thief", followed by "The Jewel and Her Lapidary", then "Touring with the Alien". But this category really did feel like much of a muchness.





Monday, 29 May 2017

Assassin's Fate by Robin Hobb

Assassin's Fate by Robin Hobb is the final book in The Fitz and the Fool trilogy, itself the third trilogy of trilogies about Fitz. It's book nine, is what I'm saying, or book twelve or sixteen if you count the Liveship books and the Dragon books, which aren't about Fitz but are related. Those two series aren't strictly necessary to understand the events of Assassin's Fate, but I dare say they help, which was not the case for Fool's Assassin or Fool's Quest. I haven't read any of the dragon books nor the final Liveship book and I felt a very small lack. On the other hand, the previous Fitz books — The Farseer Trilogy and the Tawny Man Trilogy as well as the preceding volumes of the Fitz and the Fool trilogy — are definitely necessary to make sense of the assassin's fate. This review will contain spoilers for the earlier Fitz books. The blurb also contains spoilers for the earlier books in this series.

Prince FitzChivalry Farseer’s daughter Bee was violently abducted from Withywoods by Servants of the Four in their search for the Unexpected Son, foretold to wield great power. With Fitz in pursuit, the Servants fled through a Skill-pillar, leaving no trace. It seems certain that they and their young hostage have perished in the Skill-river.

Clerres, where White Prophets were trained by the Servants to set the world on a better path, has been corrupted by greed. Fitz is determined to reach the city and take vengeance on the Four, not only for the loss of Bee but also for their torture of the Fool. Accompanied by FitzVigilant, son of the assassin Chade, Chade’s protรฉgรฉ Spark and the stableboy Perseverance, Bee's only friend, their journey will take them from the Elderling city of Kelsingra, down the perilous Rain Wild River, and on to the Pirate Isles.

Their mission for revenge will become a voyage of discovery, as well as of reunions, transformations and heartrending shocks. Startling answers to old mysteries are revealed. What became of the liveships Paragon and Vivacia and their crews? What is the origin of the Others and their eerie beach? How are liveships and dragons connected?

But Fitz and his followers are not the only ones with a deadly grudge against the Four. An ancient wrong will bring them unlikely and dangerous allies in their quest. And if the corrupt society of Clerres is to be brought down, Fitz and the Fool will have to make a series of profound and fateful sacrifices.

When I started reading Assassin's Fate, my recollections of the previous book were a little vague. I remembered the gist but not the precise ending, which turned out to be a little bit of a problem since Assassin's Fate picks up very soon after Fool's Quest left off, especially from Bee's point of view. It is took me longer than I think it should have to work out why Fitz was so convinced Bee was dead because I'd forgotten the events at the very end of Fool's Quest. I don't think this would be an issue if I'd read them closer together. This contributed to me not getting into the book as quickly as I would have liked. The start of the book felt a bit slow and while I wasn't bored I also wasn't as gripped as I am accustomed to being by Hobb books. As a result, it took me about three weeks to get through it, since I got distracted by several Hugo-shortlisted things (mainly short fiction) along the way. On the other hand, it took me only a couple of days to read the second half of the book, in large part because that's when things got really interesting and difficult to step away from. So I suppose it's fair to say the pacing is a little bit off. This is a pretty long book (around 850 pages according to Goodreads for both the US and UK editions) and, in my opinion, that means it can't afford to waste too many pages on less exciting events, even if they needed to happen.

One of the things I really liked about this book was how it tied together all the other series set in the same Realm of the Elderlings universe. As I mentioned at the start, it's not completely necessary to read the Liveship books before reading Assassin's Fate, but we do get a kind of extra Liveship-centric epilogue,  which I think fans of that series will appreciate (and those who haven't read any Liveship books will feel as confused by as Fitz was). I also think Hobb ended Fitz's story in a nice way, although the ending took a bit of time to process and gave me rather a lot of feelings. Not to mention, the book is called Assassin's Fate, which should give you some hints about what might happen in it, but by golly Fitz sure has a lot of fates. The latter parts of the book were a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. The end was an ending for all the Fitz and Fool books.

It's hard to say anything very concrete because of wanting to avoid spoilers, but Bee's story was interesting — although she got more than her share of slow bits before the story picked up. I enjoyed learning more about Cleres and where the Fool came from. I also enjoyed reading the start-of-chapter extracts from Bee's dreams, especially once they started happening and we were able to retrospectively join the dots to the events they predicted. There were a few parallels between Bee's life and Fitz's which, towards the end, really emphasised how she was his child more so than Nettle had been, and not just because Fitz was more present in Bee's childhood. But I don't want to venture into spoiler territory.

So, if you've read the other Fitz books, then I strongly recommend finishing off the story with Assassin's Fate. If you haven't also read the Liveship books, then I recommend doing so before Assassin's Fate, especially if you had any general plans to read them at some point. Assassin's Fate contains some critical spoilers for those books and also contributes to their story in its own right. If you haven't read anything by Robin Hobb before, this is pretty much the worst possible place to start. Go back and start with Assassin's Apprentice. This is one of my favourite fantasy series and has been with me for a significant chunk of my life. It was bittersweet to say a final goodbye to the characters and the world.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2017, Del Rey (US) / Harper Voyager (UKANZ)
Series: Fitz and the Fool book 3 of 3
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Saga Vol 6 by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Saga Vol 6 written by Brian K Vaughan and illustrated Fiona Staples is the sixth volume in the ongoing space opera comic book series, Saga. I have reviewed all of the previous volumes: Volume OneVolume TwoVolume ThreeVolume Four and Volume Five. The story picks up more or less where the previous volume left off, with a bit of a jump forward in time (I think of a few years, but I'm not entirely sure).

After a dramatic time jump, the three-time Eisner Award winner for Best Continuing Series continues to evolve, as Hazel begins the most exciting adventure of her life: kindergarten. Meanwhile, her starcrossed family learns hard lessons of their own.

To be honest, after waiting more than a year and a half since reading Vol 5, my recollection of where the plot was up to was vague at best. And yet, I found it really easy to get back into the story. I was only slightly confused about some of the details, and that was more with regards to the secondary storylines.

Overall, I quite enjoyed reading this volume. However, since it's volume six in an ongoing series, I am again lost for what to say about it. It's not a self-contained story; it's a continuation of what's come before. Obviously, this isn't going to work very well as a standalone (I don't like it's odds for the Hugo for that reason). But if you've been reading and enjoying Saga, then definitely continue reading with this volume. If you haven't read any Saga before and the idea of a cross-species war-time love story space opera appeals to you, then go start with volume one and catch up to six (or seven, which is also out). Highly recommended.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Image Comics
Series: Saga, volume 6 out of 7 so far in the ongoing series, containing issues #31–36
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: A shop. I bought it last year and I don't remember in which country.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Monstress Vol 1: Awakening by Majorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress Vol 1: Awakening written by Majorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda is the first collected volume in the ongoing comic book series. It's set in a dark steampunk magic world, and is a very female-centric story.

Set in an alternate world of art deco beauty and steampunk horror, Monstress tells the epic story of Maika Halfwolf, a teenage survivor of a cataclysmic war between humans and their hated enemies, the Arcanics. In the face of oppression and terrible danger, Maika is bother hunter and hunted, searching for answers about her mysterious past as those who seek to use her remain just one step behind… and all the while, the monster within begins to awaken… 

My first impression of Monstress was one of violence. The beginning doesn't pull any punches and was very dark and violent with torture and death up front. I found it a bit off-putting, since I wasn't prepared for it. But the further I read, the more I enjoyed it. A large part of that, I think, is the world building which was revealed gradually throughout the volume — partly told through the medium of a cat professor — and my growing interest in the mystery of Maika's past.

As we learn more of the story world, we learn that there are different races (exactly what makes some of them different confused me at first, as did the names of races versus groups within them), including a race of cats and of immortals. (And who doesn't like cats, right?) The main character is on  a mission that we don't know all the details of, she picks up a stray fox-girl and meets up with a cat. And also something monstrous lives inside her. Hence the title.

I think if I had only read one issue of Monstress I might not have kept going. I mainly did because I had the ARC and I wanted to get through it for Hugo-voting purposes. I'm glad I did because after a reluctant first half, I got into it. It reminded me a little bit of Saga, but more fantasy and less SF, and more violence and fewer penises. And fewer men. In fact, most of the cast is female, the evil, the innocent and the deeply morally questionable. There are only a few men and they're not very important. Even random guards — many of whom die — are mostly female, which is great to see.

I would recommend this volume to fans of dark fantasy and steampunk who don't mind reading about a lot of violence and (supernatural) death. It's a bit heavy and not for everyone but I'm glad I finished the volume. I wasn't sure while I was reading whether I'd be picking up the next volume, but I am interested in seeing what happens next.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Image Comics
Series: Volume 1 of ongoing series, containing issues #1–6
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss (although it was also in the Hugo packet)

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Hugo Short Story Reading

Since I am attending Worldcon 75 in Helsinki in August, I am eligible to vote in the Hugo awards and hence am starting to read my way through the shortlist. Happily, I've already read two of the novels, which lessens the word pile a little.

For now, I decided to start with short stories. Because they're short. Also because they're all available to read for free online (even the one originally published in an anthology) so there's no need to wait for the Hugo packet. Very convenient!

My reviews are in my reading order, which is semi-random. Publication info links go to the story itself. Final impressions of the stories as a whole are at the end.


“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016)

A gloriously angry story about revenge. I started with this one because it was the shortest, but it packed a lot of emotional punch in a short space. A supernatural being (a siren?) was brutally attacked by a human and she did not rest in peace. A scathing commentary of the media response to rape and murder, both real and fictional. Not a warm, fuzzy read.


“That Game We Played During the War”, by Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com, March 2016)

A very different kind of story to the above. Longer, more drawn out, a gentler read. In the aftermath of war (or during a ceasefire, anyway) a nurse from one side goes to visit a soldier from the other, telepathic, side. Full of reminiscences about the war during which they were each other's prisoners at various times, the story culminates in a game of chess... and we learn how one can play chess against a telepath.


“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, by Alyssa Wong (Tor.com, March 2016)

Another powerful story about desperation and helplessness and that even magic can't fix everything. Not if it's too late, not if it's been too late for too long. The narrator tells us about the world ending as she tries to use her weather-working powers to save her sister, also a weather-worker. The story begins with powerful imagery and continues in that emotional vein.


I am sensing a theme.


“The City Born Great”, by N. K. Jemisin (Tor.com, September 2016)

This one is a story about the gestation and birth of cities and the people who help them through it and protect them. Another fantasy story that felt more fantasy-ish (as opposed to science fiction-y) than "A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers". It was well written, but the concept didn't grab me as much as the previous stories have and I felt like it dragged a little. Also, I don't care that much about New York, which might have contributed. Not a bad story, but not one that stands out.


“Seasons of Glass and Iron”, by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press, reprinted in Uncanny)

A gorgeous story. I left the author I had read before to last (which is not to say I haven't been meaning to read the other authors for some time) and it seems I also left my favourite story to last. This is a story about how cruel fairytales can be to women, who suffer punishments while their male peers are given boons. Two women with magical burdens meet and give each other comfort. It's a seemingly gentle story that nevertheless gives the finger to the patriarchy. It also contains some lovely wry turns of phrase that I would share if this were a different style of review. Instead, I urge you to go read it for free online where it has been reprinted in Uncanny.

How do they rate overall?


The story I unequivocally loved best was "Seasons of Glass and Iron", which I will be ranking first. The remaining stories all rate pretty similarly to me and are tricky to order. I may change my mind, but I think "A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers" will come next, then "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies", "The Game We Played During the War" and finally "The City Born Great" before No Award.

You might have noticed that I omitted one shortlisted story from the above. Well it's my blog and I can ignore puppies if I want to.

Overall, this shortlist has been a rewarding read. I haven't read all that many short stories of late (slush is a bit of a drawn-out burn out) and this experience reminded me of what I love about the form as well as the variety possible within our genres.

Onward to the next category!

Monday, 15 May 2017

The Mountains of Mourning - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

The Mountains of Mourning is a novella that we are reading as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project. It sequentially falls, more or less, between the novels The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game. It is about Miles Vorkosigan and was published in 1986. Miles is back home on holiday after graduating from the Imperial Military Academy and is given an official task by his father the Count.

You can read Katharine’s review of The Mountains of Mourning here, and Tsana’s review here.

Katharine: So we left Miles just as he gains entry to the Imperial Military Academy and we join him again just as he’s graduated - he’s on home leave, ten days out from his first assignment… very seamlessly done! Do we get any or many flashbacks to his time in the academy? I’m glad we didn’t have to see it all but I wouldn’t have minded seeing some!

Tsana: I think there might be a bit about it in The Vor Game? I’m not entirely sure, so we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, The Mountains of Mourning had a very different tone to The Warrior’s Apprentice, although the setting did remind me a little of what Cordelia sees in Barrayar. What were your impressions of it?

Katharine: It was good - it didn’t treat the reader like an idiot. There are quite a few changes, such as his new bodyguard, and it doesn’t take pages upon pages to labouriously introduce the reader and really hammer home how weird Miles felt or still feels about it. We’re just given the new bodyguard’s name and then we learn of him as the story goes on. Excellent!

Tsana: And there are some memories on Miles’s part to remind us that Bothari existed and that Miles still thinks of him. In terms of the actual story, I think this is the one that deals most directly with ableism and the attitudes of Joe Poor Barrayaran towards Miles and other people with “mutations”.

Katharine: Yeah, the term ‘Mutie’ is a bit confronting. I wonder how Miles got by in the Academy with this hostile and antiquated view… should we raise the spoiler shield so we can jump right into specifics?

Tsana: WHOOOOP WHOOOP SPOILERS ENGAGED

<spoilers start here>