Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Illustrated Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling and Jim Kay

The Illustrated Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban written by JK Rowling and illustrated by Jim Kay is the third illustrated Harry Potter edition to be released yearly by Bloomsbury. I reviewed the illustrated Philosopher's Stone, but didn't write a proper review of Chamber of SecretsThis review will contain spoilers, because if you haven't read Harry Potter in the last twenty years you probably don't care (and probably aren't reading this review).

An extraordinary creative achievement by an extraordinary talent, Jim Kay’s inspired reimagining of J.K. Rowling’s classic series has captured a devoted following worldwide. This stunning new fully illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban brings more breathtaking scenes and unforgettable characters – including Sirius Black, Remus Lupin and Professor Trelawney. With paint, pencil and pixels, Kay conjures the wizarding world as we have never seen it before. Fizzing with magic and brimming with humour, this full-colour edition will captivate fans and new readers alike as Harry, now in his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, faces Dementors, death omens and – of course – danger.

I really enjoyed the illustrations (and story, of course) in this book. I wasn't as into the illustrated Chamber of Secrets because I felt like there were too many boring blank pages. This was not a problem in Prisoner of Azkaban which had a lot more minor illustrations between the bigger full- and half-page ones. For example, each chapter has a themed background that was used on the otherwise blank pages — things like forest or tablecloth or wallpaper. Nothing to distract from the text, but adding a bit more interest. There were also several illustrations that covered the bottom third of a double page spread, which were nice. And the pages on which each chapter started were illustrated in detail, with something emblematic of the events within the chapter. I really liked the detail.

Probably the most frequently illustrated character was Scabbers, who appeared several times by himself as well as part of other illustrations. Crookshanks and Sirius/the "Grim" came up a few times too. But I think my favourite illustration in the whole book was a very detailed background illustration of a Quidditch match.

I enjoyed revisiting the story of Harry Potter and experiencing the world with the new illustrations. I highly recommend the illustrated editions to fans of Harry Potter, especially those looking for a reason to reread a Harry Potter book a year. I look forward to Goblet of Fire, although I do worry about how thick and heavy it will be since Prisoner of Azkaban is already significantly heaver than Philosopher's Stone.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 1999 Bloomsbury, but 2017 for the illustrated edition
Series:b Harry Potter book 3 of 7
Format read: Hardcover
Source: Amazon, to my shame.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Brothers in Arms - The Vorkosigan Saga Project


Brothers in Arms is the latest novella we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It falls after Borders of Infinity (the novella), and before Mirror Dance. In this one we get to see what Earth is like in the far future when Miles and his Dendarii mercenaries stop off there for repairs.


You can read Katharine’s review of Brothers in Arms here, and Tsana’s review here.


Katharine: And so we get to see London up close and personal, pretty much from the word go. I would have loved to see more stuff, really. At the end I still only have a Futurama-style twist for the city and that’s about it. Does it still rain all the time there? It didn’t seem to!


Tsana: Yeah, they were in London for the whole book and it didn’t rain. Very unrealistic! And there can’t have been a climate apocalypse because the Thames barriers seem to be in more or less the same place as they are now. And yet we have passing mentions of Lake Los Angeles, and great dykes in New York. Very confusing!


Katharine: For the rest of it, Miles is on his ship as he splits his time down to the wire as Admiral Naismith. When we meet up with him he’s just finished his stint with the Dendarii and needs to cover their funds… something that turns into a bit of a drama.


Tsana: I was surprised at how closely Brothers in Arms followed on from Borders of Infinity. The repairs Miles is commissioning are the direct result of the prison escape in Borders of Infinity. And he’s still upset about those very recent events.


Katharine: He has to report in as his regular Miles self in order to get the approval for funds as part of the secret Denarii-are-really-working-for-Barrayar, and this means reporting to Galeni. Only Galeni is Komarran. Which means…


Tsana: It’s a complicated political situation for Miles on top of the usual complications of juggling his Vorkosigan and Naismith personae. All he wants is to get his Dendarii paid (and pay for the repairs) but because Earth isn’t a hugely important outpost for Barrayar (except for one aspect which we’ll get to later), Captain Duv Galeni, who is the senior military attaché for the Barrayaran Embassy, hasn’t ever been briefed on Miles’s two identities. And, to make things even more awkward, he greets Miles very coldly because of Miles’s father and Aral’s reputation as the Butcher of Komarr and his role in the invasion/annexation of Komarr. Which is one side of it, but since the trouble in Komarr was a while ago now, things have mostly settled down and Komarrans like Duv Galeni are allowed to enter the Imperial Service. But that calm was won through a lot of very careful balancing and politicking by Aral in his Prime Ministerial role. Since Duv Galeni is now suddenly in charge of Miles, if something bad happens to Miles then not only will he be blamed in the usual way for losing a Vor lordling, but it will be assumed that he had Komarran political motivations as well, which could restart conflict with and hence political unrest on Komarr. Phew, that wasn’t straightforward to explain!


Katharine: You did an excellent job! Galeni handles it all pretty well, considering the history of their fathers. He’s quite weary about the seemingly gold spoon life Miles has - thinking that the Dendarii are a little play thing for the little Vorling (as it sure does seem odd), but if anything he’s only a little bitter. He performs his job as dictated, and takes Miles’ instructions (that are certainly above his station) without much grumbling. That is, until the requested funds never seem to come, despite two requests, and ten days of waiting each time (due to the time the messages take to reach across space). Which I found quite interesting, really. As you’re the astrophysicist, do you want to explain to the people who it all works?


Tsana: It’s kind of interesting how the long-distance messaging works in the Vorkosigan universe. Since, in the normal course of events, radio waves and hence messages can’t travel faster than the speed of light, communicating without using wormholes world be very slow. All the planets that are mentioned in the Vorkosigan series are light years apart and so can only be reached using wormholes, which seem to be naturally occurring phenomena (not, as far as we know, in real life, however). Messages can’t be sent directly through wormholes, however, and must be sent to a ship, which jumps through the wormhole with the messages and then sends them on to the next ship/wormhole interchange until their reach their destinations. So messages can travel a bit faster than ships, because they cover the distance between wormholes at the speed of light, but they still have to wait for the ships doing the wormhole jumps, which presumably follow some sort of regular schedule.


Katharine: So, as Miles does happen to be in hiding for his life after all, he starts to suspect Galeni may be up to something. If only hiding the funds for himself, but then what could he be doing with the money? It’s not like he’s run off to their equivalent of the Bahamas… (or I guess it could be the real Bahamas considering they’re on Earth…)


Tsana: Haha, yeah. Well, Miles has a lot of pressures on him, as per usual (though not quite the usual set of pressures). The Cetagandans are angry about the events of Borders of Infinity and have put a hit on Miles. The Dendarii need to not go bankrupt and some of them manage to get into trouble while on R&R. The fact that the pay from Barrayar is late or has been stolen is an additional complication Miles really doesn’t need. He doesn’t want to suspect Duv Galeni, partly because of the political ramifications, but being suspicious in this situation is kind of necessary for his survival. On the other hand, his suspicions of Galeni don’t really fit together…


We should probably engage the spoiler shields now…


Monday, 9 October 2017

Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho is a collection of short fiction by the author of Sorcerer to the Crown and several other works of fiction that I've enjoyed. I bought the book some time ago, when I read Cho's other work, but only just got around to reading it, mostly thanks to challenging myself to read more short stories. I'm a bit disappointed in myself for putting it off for so long.

"If you live near the jungle, you will realise that what is real and what is not real is not always clear. In the forest there is not a big gap between the two."

A Datin recalls her romance with an orang bunian. A teenage pontianak struggles to balance homework, bossy aunties, first love, and eating people. An earth spirit gets entangled in protracted negotiations with an annoying landlord, and Chang E spins off into outer space, the ultimate metaphor for the Chinese diaspora.

The ebook edition of Campbell-nominated author Zen Cho's short story collection SPIRITS ABROAD features 15 speculative short stories, author commentary, and an ebook-only cover by artist Likhain (likhain.net).

Overall, I loved this book. Of course, I didn't love every single story, but I thought most of them were great and there were only a few stories that didn't click with me. The collection is divided into three sections: Here, There, Elsewhere, and Going Back, which is an interesting thematic grouping of stories. The "Here" stories were mostly set in Malaysia, the "There" stories were mostly set in the UK, the "Elsewhere" stories were either set in non-Earthly or non-specific locations, and the "Going Back" stories were mostly set in Malaysia but perhaps not quite. All the stories had some sort of fantasy element to them. For the most part this structure worked well. Out of fifteen stories, there were only four I didn't love, which is a pretty good hit rate. I also liked how the stories had author's notes which could be read after the story or skipped entirely and the ebook was set up with handy links to take you between story and notes and back to the next story with minimal effort.

The stories all (I think?) have some Malaysian elements to them, which Cho does not shy away from. We are treated to Manglish and mythology/folklore and a good dose of humour (although I should note that not all of the stories are funny — some are a bit depressing). There were a few stories that were linked by being about some of the same people, including two set in a contemporary version of the Sorcerer to the Crown world, which I would love to read more of.

If you've been following my short story reading challenge, you will have seen some of my comments on the individual stories in this collection. I am still including my usual story-by-story commentary, but it might feel a bit repetitive. Sorry about that.

~

Here

The First Witch of Damansara — A delightful story about a Malaysian woman living in the West who goes home to KL for her grandmother’s funeral. An excellent and very entertaining read that reminded me how much I love Cho’s writing.

First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia — This story had a bit of a slow start before the spec fic element came to the fore. It was interesting, but it was a bit sad and less inherently amusing by its nature. 

House of Aunts — a longer story about a teenage girl with a surfeit of aunts, all of them undead. Being sixteen and undead is not so bad when you have so many aunts looking after you, but not being allowed to have friends at your new school is a bit harder. An excellent story on the longer side (novelette range by Hugo definitions) that’s slightly gory (people are eaten) but otherwise a fun read. 

There

One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland — Malaysian (and other nationalities) girls at an English boarding school in the present-day countryside come up against fairies, the malicious kind. An amusing and quick read.

狮,行礼 (Rising Lion — The Lion Bows) — A lovely story about a lion dance troupe and the ghost they’re paid to get rid of. 

七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum) — Another lion dance story which, I was delighted to learn, has some crossover characters with the previous story. It also conveyed the main character’s love for the lion very well. 

The Mystery of the Suet Swain — A story about boys being creepy and a stalker and female friendship, set at university.

Prudence and the Dragon — A hilarious story set in a present day version of the Sorcerer to the Crown London. I think the most I’ve laughed in this collection so far and there were heaps of delightful background/worldbuilding details that really made the story.

The Perseverance of Angela's Past Life — Sort of a sequel/companion story to the previous, focussing on Prudence’s best friend Angela. Unlike Prudence, Angela is very sensitive to magic and close proximity to a dragon caused some of her issues to physically manifest. Another amusing story. I would be more than happy to read a novel set in this time period of this world.

Elsewhere

The Earth Spirit’s Favourite Anecdote — the story of finding a hole in the forest and dealing with a forest spirit, told by an earth spirit. Not my favourite story in this collection.

Liyana — a depressing but really fascinating story. A class of folklore idea that I don’t think I’ve come across before. But also, more than metaphorically about women’s sacrifice for the family.

The Four Generations of Chang E — A story about being the child of immigrants and fitting in or not. Also aliens on the moon. And from the authors notes, some mythological subtext that went over my head.

Going Back

The Many Deaths is Hang Jebat — was a bit confusing and I was a bit lost as to where it was going until I read the author’s notes and saw that it was based on mythology I had no knowledge of. The summary in the author’s notes made yet a bit clearer and I can now see what the author was trying to do, but the story doesn’t work that well on its own.

The Fish Bowl — a dawning horror story about the pressure to do well in school and a concerning bargain with a magic fish. Harrowing. I quite liked the story, but I wanted a bit more from the end than we got, I think.

Balik Kampung — a story about a ghost returning to earth for the Hungry Ghost Festival and, in the course of events, finding out how she died. A good story to end the collection on. Some humour, some sadness.
~

In general, I want to read more of Cho's writing and look forward to getting my hands on the short stories not included in Spirits Abroad while I wait for the sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown to come out. I highly recommend Spirits Abroad to fans of short fiction and spec fic. There's a lot to like about this collection and I think more people should experience it.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 2014, Buku Fixi
Series: No (except two stories were set in the Sorcerer to the Crown world, I think)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Smashwords

Friday, 6 October 2017

100 Short Story Challenge: Stories 11 to 20

See? The second ten came much more quickly than the first. In large part this is because I started reading Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho and remembered how much I love her writing. I will do a proper review of the whole book when I'm done. I considered omitting my comments on her stories from this round-up post, but that seemed unhelpful so I've left them in for completion.

  1. Reading Lists by Seanan McGuire — a heartwarming tale about a library room with causality issues and the power of reading. Source: Temporally Out of Order edited by Joshua Palmatier & Patricia Bray
  2. Salamander Bites by Elektra Hammond — a meh story about a chef and a time-slipping oven thing. Source: Temporally Out of Order edited by Joshua Palmatier & Patricia Bray
  3. The First Witch of Damansara by Zen Cho — A delightful story about a Malaysian woman living in the West who goes home to KL for her grandmother’s funeral. An excellent and very entertaining read that reminded me how much I love Cho’s writing. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  4. First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia by Zen Cho — This story had a bit of a slow start before the spec fic element came to the fore. It was interesting, but it was a bit sad and less inherently amusing by its nature. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  5. House of Aunts by Zen Cho — a longer story about a teenage girl with a surfeit of aunts, all of them undead. Being sixteen and undead is not so bad when you have so many aunts looking after you, but not being allowed to have friends at your new school is a bit harder. An excellent story on the longer side (novelette range by Hugo definitions) that’s slightly gory (people are eaten) but otherwise a fun read. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  6. One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland by Zen Cho — Malaysian (and other nationalities) girls at an English boarding school in the present-day countryside come up against fairies, the malicious kind. An amusing and quick read. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  7. 狮,行礼 (Rising Lion — The Lion Bows) by Zen Cho — A lovely story about a lion dance troupe and the ghost they’re paid to get rid of.  Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  8. 七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum) by Zen Cho — Another lion dance story which, I was delighted to learn, has some crossover characters with the previous story. It also conveyed the main character’s love for the lion very well. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  9. The Mystery of the Suet Swain by Zen Cho — A story about boys being creepy and a stalker and female friendship.  Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  10. Prudence and the Dragon by Zen Cho — A hilarious story set in a present day version of the Sorcerer to the Crown London (I think). I think the most I’ve laughed in this collection so far and there were heaps of delightful background/worldbuilding details that really made the story. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho



I expect I will be finishing the Zen Cho stories before I move on to other sources (they're just so dang good!), but I have also been making an effort to add various authors I like and so forth to Pocket for easy access later. 


As for Temporally Out of Order, which I started reading before putting it aside for Spirits Abroad, I'm not feeling especially keen to keep reading. I'm considering picking out the stories by authors I like or something, but that feels a bit unfair to the anthology as a whole (and the carefully chosen story order). I did back it on Kickstarter, so I probably should give it another try.



Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang

The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang is one of a pair of debut novellas released concurrently (the other being The Black Tides of Heaven, which I intend to read soon), both of which are standalone entry points into the author's Tensorate universe. I gather there will be another two novellas coming next year, and I must admit the setup of these releases is one of the reasons I was interested in reading this series. The other, more relevant, reason was what the blurbs told me about the setting.

Fallen prophet, master of the elements, and daughter of the supreme Protector, Sanao Mokoya has abandoned the life that once bound her. Once her visions shaped the lives of citizens across the land, but no matter what tragedy Mokoya foresaw, she could never reshape the future. Broken by the loss of her young daughter, she now hunts deadly, sky-obscuring naga in the harsh outer reaches of the kingdom with packs of dinosaurs at her side, far from everything she used to love.

On the trail of a massive naga that threatens the rebellious mining city of Bataanar, Mokoya meets the mysterious and alluring Rider. But all is not as it seems: the beast they both hunt harbors a secret that could ignite war throughout the Protectorate. As she is drawn into a conspiracy of magic and betrayal, Mokoya must come to terms with her extraordinary and dangerous gifts, or risk losing the little she has left to hold dear.

The first aspect of this book that really grabbed my attention was the worldbuilding. Amidst learning about the characters and situation, we are casually told about the Quarterlands which have lower gravity, which really caught my attention. Between that and the more mundane parts of the world that we actually see characters interacting with, I was intrigued. This is a story mainly about a particular situation that the characters have to deal with and, as such, I felt that it only began to scratch the surface of the world. I definitely want to know more and the worldbuilding is one of my motivations for wanting to read more stories set in this world.

The characters, without whom there wouldn’t have been an actual story, were interestingly written. Especially in the case of Mokoya and Rider, who are most central to the story, they had many layers for us to learn about as we read. That said, I found Mokoya’s developing relationship with Rider a bit sudden, however her own reaction to it and the supportive reactions of her friends went a long way towards grounding it for me. In the topic of Rider, there aren’t too many non-binary central characters around, so it was nice to see.

At first the magic in this novella reminded me of Avatar: the Last Airbender and the more technologically advanced Legend of Korra, but as Mokoya learnt a more about the Slack and how her magic was affecting it and vice versa, the similarity was reduced.

As advertised, this was an entirely standalone story. I want to read more in this world, as I’ve said, but that’s because I found the world interesting, bit because I felt the story was unfinished. There’s a lot more left to explore in the world and, I’m sure, more interesting characters to introduce us to.

I recommend The Red Threads of Heaven to fans of fantasy, especially those interested in non-Europe-inspired secondary worlds. I will definitely be picking up the companion novella, Black Tides of Heaven. I especially look forward to reading more of Yang’s colourful similes.

4 / 5 stars

First published: September 2017, Tor.com publishing
Series: Yes. Tensorate universe, a viable entry point
Format read: ePub
Source: pre-ordered on iBooks and then also got the ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Monday, 2 October 2017

Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman

Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman is a book I picked up because of the Australian Women Writers Challenge. A few people had reviewed it and, from how they were alluding to the spec fic element without giving it away made me intrigued. I downloaded the sample chapters off iBooks and, finding the writing to be very good ended up buying the whole book. Regular readers will know I don't like to give away spoilers willy-nilly but in this case, I find it necessary to properly be able to discuss the book (I was also frustrated by those allusive reviews). I will keep the actual spoilers under a spoiler shield, so if you don't want to read them, don't hover your mouse over them or highlight them.

Jacky was running. There was no thought in his head, only an intense drive to run. There was no sense he was getting anywhere, no plan, no destination, no future. All he had was a sense of what was behind, what he was running from. Jacky was running.

The Natives of the Colony are restless. The Settlers are eager to have a nation of peace, and to bring the savages into line. Families are torn apart, reeducation is enforced. This rich land will provide for all.

This is not Australia as we know it. This is not the Australia of our history.

The opening of this book was very well-written. There's a lot of set up of different characters and although the direction of the plot is not entirely clear from the beginning, I found it compelling reading. I also found myself spending the first 41% of the book trying to guess what the big reveal would be (the blurb ☝️ and other reviews I'd read made it clear there was one). This was also especially well done since Coleman does not so much drop hints as studiously avoids anything explicit. I did pick up on one thing, but even then I wasn't entirely sure if it was relevant until I hit the actual reveal.

My issues with Terra Nullius arose once I actually got to the reveal and the book became more distinctly science fiction. Now for a spoilery discussion. Skip the next paragraph (do not hover or highlight the grey/purple section) if you do not want to be spoiled.

My first issue, post-reveal, was the abrupt change in quality of the epigraphs. In this case, they were fictional quotes at the start of each chapter. Pre-reveal, they mostly just set the tone and highlighted the general horribleness of colonialism. After the reveal there were several which were more along the lines of "look at my clever comparison of the British with aliens, let me explain it in too much detail" which made me feel bashed over the head with obviousness. They were entirely unnecessary and would have been better replaced with something more subtle. Towards the end they settled down a bit, and there were some which explained the background of the aliens, which I found less blatantly obvious and more useful. I suspect that these are a product of insufficient science fictional research/reading (let's face it, this is not an original trope, only the intense Australian-ness of it brings something new to the table). Those quotes were definitely my biggest problem in terms of how the aliens were presented. Everything else more or less worked well, albeit there were a few (less annoying) infodumps in the main text as well.

If poorly written quotes were my only issue, I would have given this book an additional half-star rating. As it is, only the high quality of (most of) the prose pushes it up to four stars. The other issue I had was that I was expecting the plot to pick up after the reveal and gain a clearer direction. It did not. Individual characters had goals and/or motivations but these did not come together as one would expect from a genre book. My guess is that this was intentional, and I think I see what the author was trying to achieve, but I found it disappointing and insufficiently rewarding for pushing through to the end.

Ultimately, I don't think this book was aimed at science fiction readers. That said, other SF fans might be less annoyed than I was and enjoy it more. It certainly brings a lot of colonial context to the story, particularly from an indigenous perspective, and a strong Australian setting, which I enjoyed.

4 / 5 stars

First published: August 2017, Hachette
Series: No
Format read: ePub
Source: iBooks
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Saturday, 30 September 2017

100 Short Stories Challenge: Stories 1 to 10

Here is an overview of the first ten stories I read as part of my short story reading challenge. Remember, I've also been tweeting them under #ReadShortStories and anyone who wants to join in — even if they don't want to commit to reading as many stories — is more than welcome. The more the merrier.


  1. Dummies by Hon Lai-Chu, translated by Karen Curtis — a story of a city without facial expressions and dummies for matchmaking. Apparently this story was from a themed collection about different fictional cities and I can see how it would slot in well in that context. Source: https://paper-republic.org/pubs/read/dummies/ 
  2. You, an Accidental Astronaut by Sonja Natasha — lesbians and space travel. Flash. Source: http://mothershipzeta.org/2016/04/04/you-an-accidental-astronaut-by-sonja-natasha/
  3. Please Look After This Angel by Tansy Rayner Roberts — A story about an ordinary life which happens to intersect with an angel a few times. Source: Please Look After This Angel: and other winged stories by Tansy Rayner Roberts (available free to newsletter subscribers)
  4. The Raven & Her Victory by Tansy Rayner Roberts — a creepy, magical, Poe-inspired story about lesbians. Source: Please Look After This Angel: and other winged stories by Tansy Rayner Roberts (available free to newsletter subscribers)
  5. The Curse Is Come Upon Me Cried by Tansy Rayner Roberts — a weird story. A blend of fairytale, the modern world, Arthurian themes and horror. Source: Please Look After This Angel: and other winged stories by Tansy Rayner Roberts (available free to newsletter subscribers)
  6. Of War & Wings by Tansy Rayner Roberts — steampunk angel women fighting off alien invaders in a Blitz-like London (but set earlier than WWII). My favourite story of the collection. Gorgeous and terribly sad. Source: Please Look After This Angel: and other winged stories by Tansy Rayner Roberts (available free to newsletter subscribers)
  7. Dance, Princes, Dance by Tansy Rayner Roberts — fairytales and reporters and a lot of queer characters. Source: Sheep Might Fly podcast.
  8. Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers by Alyssa Wong — The story of a woman who eats dark thoughts and some of her relationships. Source: http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/hungry-daughters-of-starving-mothers/ 
  9. This is Not a Wardrobe Door by A. Merc Rustad — The perils of growing up on Earth in the context of traditional portal fantasies. Short and sweet and queer. Source: https://firesidefiction.com/issue29/chapter/this-is-not-a-wardrobe-door/
  10. Paradox by Naomi Kritzer — an amusing and entertaining, er, rant by a time traveller at the reader, or, I suppose, someone in a bar. Published this year, so I must remember to nominate it for a Hugo next year. Source: http://uncannymagazine.com/article/paradox/ (May/June 2017 Uncanny)

So I might be a little behind, but I'm not too worried about not meeting my goal yet. There's three months left and, well, short stories are short. It'll be fine *blasé hand wave*


Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold

Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold is my latest re-read of the Vorkosigan Saga. Chronologically it follows on directly from the novella "Borders of Infinity" and I think it would be really weird not to read them in that order.

In the wake of unexpected planetary peace and the disappearance of the Dendarii payroll, mercenary captain Miles Naismith attempts to discover the link between the insufferable Captain Galeni and the Komarran rebel expatriates.

The events in this book take place over about a week on Earth, in London. With no rain. Miles and his Dendarii fleet stop by for repairs and to continue avoiding the Cetagandans who have a hit out on Miles. While there, he gets embroiled in events centred around the Barrayaran embassy, because there is always trouble wherever Miles is.

While I remembered the most crucial development in this book from my first read through, I had completely forgotten that this was the first time we met Duv Galeni and also that Ivan was in it. Furthermore, because I knew what happened later, there were some extra hilarious bits, mostly near the start. Excellent and seemingly innocent foreshadowing on Bujold's part.

This book made me laugh more than I expected, which was pretty much what I wanted from it. As far as recommendations go, any regular readers of my blog will know that I recommend reading Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga generally. In this specific case, I'd say Brothers in Arms stands alone well, but I would still recommend reading the earlier books in the series to better enjoy the series as a whole. There's also a little bit of background knowledge from earlier books that places this one into better context — although Bujold does a reasonable job of explaining it to the reader anyway.

5 / 5 stars

First published: Baen, 1989
Series: Vorkosigan Saga, chronologically after Borders of Infinity (the novella) and before Mirror Dance
Format read: ePub, as part of the Miles Errant omnibus
Source: Purchased from Baen several years ago

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Please Look After This Angel: and other winged stories by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Please Look After This Angel: and other winged stories by Tansy Rayner Roberts is a short collection of four short stories that was originally given away to her newsletter subscribers (which is how I got it), then Patreon supporters, and soon will be available for general sale.

Even the most ordinary lives have extraordinary moments.
A breath of frozen time.
A shabby angel spotted in a bookshop, or at a party.
An ex-girfriend turned famous poet, who wants to trap you as her muse.
A lonely prisoner, weaving a tangled web to pass the time when her lover wil actually notice her.
A soldier, exhausted from the War Effort against the aliens, making an emotional connection with her enemy.

These stories have wings.

I picked this up partly because of my challenge to myself to read 100 short stories by the end of the year, and this little collection happened to be near the top of my iBooks pile of short fiction. It also lured me in by being fairly short, and hence feeling like a less daunting time investment when I'm also in the middle of a novel I don't want to put down for long (stay tuned). As usual, I have written some comments on each story as I've gone along. Because I've been partly using the comments to tweet about the stories as I read them, they may be briefer than usual (but generally longer than the tweeted versions.

~

Please Look After This Angel — A story about an ordinary life which happens to intersect with an angel a few times.

The Raven & Her Victory — A creepy, magical, Poe-inspired story about lesbians. I enjoyed it, but wow was the ending creepy and kind of surreal.

The Curse Is Come Upon Me, Cried — A weird story. A blend of fairytale, the modern world, Arthurian themes and horror. Probably my least favourite, although I liked the imps and the idea of maintaining a sense of self when you're invisible.

Of War & Wings — Steampunk angel women fighting off alien invaders in a Blitz-like London (but set earlier than WWII). My absolute favourite story of the collection. Gorgeous and terribly sad. I suspect it's an excellent fit for fans of Roberts' Creature Court trilogy.

~

I really enjoyed this collection and I recommend it to all fans of the author's work and to fans of spec fic (more on the fantasy side) stories generally. I especially loved "Of War & Wings" which had a lot of depth in worldbuilding, to make it all the more heartbreaking. I highly recommend picking up a copy of the collection when it shortly becomes available.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2017, self-published
Series: No
Format read: ePub
Source: freebie from newsletter subscription and also Patreon
Disclaimer: Although Tansy is a friend, I have endeavoured to give an unbiased review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Tiger's Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

The Tiger's Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera is the first in a new and debut secondary World Series. It's set in a mostly historical Japanese- and Mongolian-inspired secondary world with magic and supernatural beings.

The Hokkaran empire has conquered every land within their bold reach―but failed to notice a lurking darkness festering within the people. Now, their border walls begin to crumble, and villages fall to demons swarming out of the forests.

Away on the silver steppes, the remaining tribes of nomadic Qorin retreat and protect their own, having bartered a treaty with the empire, exchanging inheritance through the dynasties. It is up to two young warriors, raised together across borders since their prophesied birth, to save the world from the encroaching demons.

This is the story of an infamous Qorin warrior, Barsalayaa Shefali, a spoiled divine warrior empress, O-Shizuka, and a power that can reach through time and space to save a land from a truly insidious evil.

The Tiger's Daughter is told through a very long letter from one main character, Shefali, to the other, Shizuka, with the framing narrative occasionally showing us what Shizuka is doing while reading the book-length letter over a few days. Shefali is, to over-summarise, the daughter of the leader of the nomadic Qorin and intended to eventually take her mother's place as ruler (spoilery events notwithstanding). Shizuka is the niece of the Hokkaran Emperor and by the time of the framing narrative has already become Empress. The main story (of the letter) follows a large chunk of their childhood, from Shefali's point of view, and culminates in some significant events in their late teens. The conclusion sets up what I assume will be the second book so well I am kind of annoyed at how much I want to read it (and how long I'll have to wait).

This book was a good read overall but I had a few minor(ish) issues with it. The first was that my copy — a very early ARC, so this might not be the case in the final version — did not come with a map. I wouldn't usually think of this as a problem, but since the fantasy realms were very clearly based on the Japanese Empire and the inhabitants of the Mongolian steppes, my mind naturally jumped to something approximating the real-world geography of historical Asia. About halfway through the book someone mentioned that the Hokkaran empire lay to the west, and the steppes to the east and I realised the geography wasn't at all how I'd assumed, distinctly marking it as a secondary world rather than an alternate reality. I had some hints of this from the inferred relationship between the Hokkaran empire and the conquered Xianese based on the etymology of people and place names, but that aspect also wasn't made entirely clear until near the end of the book (and isn't really relevant to the story, for all that I was curious). Having the pseudo-Japanese empire be dominant in pseudo-Asia, including ruling over the pseudo-Chinese, is a potentially interesting choice, but not one which is explored in very much detail.

On the topic of the different races and so forth in the book, I should mention that there is a lot of casual racism on the part of the characters, particularly in terms of slurs thrown at other races. The main characters aren't racist, but they do encounter it often. Especially Shefali since she looks different to the dominant/ruling Hokkarans and also is mixed race. Although the various slurs are likely to upset some readers, I thought it was clear that it was various peripheral characters being racist, not the protagonists or the narrative itself.

There is also a bit of interesting discussion of language, which was examined a little. Shefali speaks Hokkaran as well as Qorin, but she cannot read Hokkaran script, only Qorin letters. The weird thing there was the way Shefali's failure to learn Hokkaran writing sounded a lot like dyslexia — with the characters moving around in her eyes — but then she had no issue with Qorin script. Shizuka, on the other hand, doesn't speak Qorin and, while she does learn the Qorin letters to better communicate with Shefali, she's never criticised for not bothering to learn the language despite how much time she spends among the Qorin. It was clear that a general Hokkaran haughtiness towards lesser peoples was why most Hokkarans didn't bother learning Qorin, but that doesn't at all explain why Shizuka never learnt. Something I would have expected Shefali to be at least a little bit critical of.

Another thing that bothered me was some of the descriptions of lesbian sex. There were altogether too many long nails, some mentioned during the sex scene, which made me cringe. There was also an issue with <spoiler redacted> which must have made it even harder/slasherier to have sex, and yet? *sigh* I spent a lot of time wondering whether <spoiler redacted> was a "not all the time" thing, and from unrelated scenes I don't think so but I couldn't be sure. I also don't think this is a letter I should've been forced to wonder about. So if you're only interested in good lesbian sex scenes, this is not the book for you (also, there was only one particularly explicit scene, FYI).

Back to the main aspects of the narrative. This is not a short book and it is a little on the slow side. I was never bored while reading, but there were only a few sections that made me want to keep reading instead of sleeping. Because the story spans such a long space of time, I was often not really sure where it was going to go next. Having gotten to the end, I think I know what the next book will be about — and I will be disappointed if I'm wrong — but I can't be sure.

For all that my review contains several criticism, I did ultimately enjoy The Tiger's Daughter and after the ending I definitely want to read the sequel. I recommend it to fans of BFF (big fat fantasy), especially people looking for non-European fantasy worlds. It's nice to have so many prominent and empowered female characters with a lot of agency, and while the story isn't cheerful by a long shot, it isn't tragic in the fridged lesbian sense either. (I don't want to spoil the end, but I feel that's important. There's also the part where you know both characters have to live long enough to a) write the book and b) be reading it.) As I said, I intend to read the sequel, whenever it comes out.

4 / 5 stars

First published: October 2017, Tor Books
Series: Yes, book 1 of 3 in the series: Their Bright Ascendency
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Thursday, 14 September 2017

My 100 stories challenge — care to join me?

Contemplating the number of short stories I have piling up in various TBR locations, I decided to do something more proactive about getting around to them. My solution is also a challenge; I want to try to read 100 short stories in what remains of the year.

I am planning to track the stories I read here every so often (every ten stories, maybe?) and tweet about them as I read them, using the hashtag #ReadShortStories. If this sounds like something you want to get in on, join me! Even if you just want to talk about short stories you've read without feeling the need to challenge yourself. The more the merrier!

A hundred stories is a pretty arbitrary number that I've chosen partly because of its roundness (or squareness) and partly because it seems like a feasible task in the three and a half months left of 2017. Maybe I won't get there, but either way I want to try. If you want to join in, feel free to set yourself whatever goal you want.

What stories?


Personally, aside from anthologies and collections on my physical and virtual shelves that I haven't gotten to read yet, I also have a bunch of stories that have built up from Patreon rewards and from various online venues. In fact, even I didn't pick up any anthologies or collections (although I really should), it would not be hard to find 100 short stories just from various free online venues like Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Uncanny, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and many more.

As I come across promising stories or they are recommended to me, I add them to Pocket for reading later, which I can do on web, phone or Kobo. I'm hoping to empty out my Pocket reading list and knock over a few anthologies.

Also, for the purposes of this challenge, novellas don't count as "short".



So. Who's in?




Tuesday, 12 September 2017

False Hearts by Laura Lam

False Hearts by Laura Lam is the first science fiction novel from the author that brought us the Micah Grey fantasy YA trilogy, which started with Pantomime. In further contrast with her earlier books, False Hearts is also not YA. (I would be fine giving in to a teen to read, however — I certainly read "worse" in my teens.)

One night Tila stumbles home, terrified and covered in blood.

She’s arrested for murder, the first by a civilian in decades. The San Francisco police suspect involvement with Verve, a powerful drug, and offer her twin sister Taema a chilling deal. Taema must assume Tila’s identity and gather information – then if she brings down the drug syndicate, the police may let her sister live. But Taema’s investigation raises ghosts from the twins’ past.

The sisters were raised by a cult, which banned modern medicine. But as conjoined twins, they needed surgery to divide their shared heart – and escaped. Taema now finds Tila discovered links between the cult and the city’s underground. Once unable to keep secrets, the sisters will discover the true cost of lies.

This is a moderately dark book although this is not because of a dystopian setting. At least, not what I would call a straightforward dystopian setting. It's more of a utopia gone slightly awry. The government seems a little bit questionable, but it's mainly the obvious bad guys — drug cartel, cult leader — who are up to no good. Since the story deals directly with these people, it's falls firmly on the darker side of neutral.

I enjoyed this book, which was told from the points of view of both formerly conjoined twins. I think of Taema as the main character and the central story follows her as she tries to work out what happened to her sister and why Taking on her sister's identity and going undercover forces her to question who she is and what her limits really are, which is an interesting journey for the readers to follow her on. Meanwhile, Tila writes about the twins' youth in the cult of the Hearth and their escape to San Francisco.

Overall, this book is a science fiction thriller and I think it would make an excellent movie. Taema's encounters with the drug cartel are exciting, dangerous and drive the story forward. Meanwhile, the twins' origin story has both happy and sinister moments. Get on it, Hollywood.

I recommend False Hearts to fans of science fiction, especially near-future science fiction. Readers of thrillers will hopefully also enjoy it. There is another book, Shattered Minds, set in the same world but with different protagonists, which I am now keen to read when I can find time in my reading schedule.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Macmillan
Series: Sort of? There is another standalone novel set in the same world
Format read: ePub on Kobo
Source: Purchased from Kobo store

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Borders of Infinity - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Borders of Infinity is the latest novella we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It falls after Labyrinth, and before Brothers in Arms. It’s another example of Miles being very clever, but is a lot bleaker than most of the stories that came before it, without as much humour, dark or otherwise.


You can read Katharine’s review of Borders of Infinity here, and Tsana’s review here.

Tsana: So this was pretty much the most memorable of the Miles novellas for me. What I specifically remembered was slightly wrong though. What stuck in my head most was how clever Miles was at his rescue scheme, going into an ice-moon prison. Turns out it wasn’t quite an ice-moon prison, though, (just a normal, slightly-crappy-planet prison) and the second reading of it left me with a different impression, probably because I stopped to think about it a bit more.


Katharine: It was certainly able to get my attention fairly quickly. Basically from the first page Miles is thrown into a prison for prisoners of war, barely has any belongings to his name (what he's wearing, a sleep mat, and a single cup) and is promptly beaten and robbed of everything. Including his clothes.


Tsana: I don’t think he’d really thought through how crappy a PoW camp would be until he found himself in out, either. Miles is very smart, but I think he sometimes walks into beatings a little too easily, especially given how fragile his bones are. (Interesting to note that by this story his leg bones have been replaced with stronger artificial ones, although the same cannot be said for his arms or wrists.


Katharine: Agreed, I think he is very much ‘eye on the prize’ and kind of flails his way through the beginning and middle of the plans until he gets what he wants. Mostly through perseverance. He IS super clever with getting people to do what he wants, but my goodness just how many beatings does he experience in this short novella?!


Tsana: A lot! And that’s before he even gets a chance to start putting his plan into motion. It’s a very clever plan too, but it should probably go under the spoiler shield…


<spoilers ahoy!>

Friday, 8 September 2017

Trees Vol 2: Two Forests by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard

Trees Vol 2: Two Forests written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Jason Howard follows on from the first volume, titled In Shadow, which was one of my favourite comic trades ever. After waiting for a long time for Two Forests to come out, I then left it on my shelf for rather a while before I got around to reading it... but at least that means I'm now closer to the eventual (hopefully) release of volume 3?

A survivor of the Blindhail Event looks for signs of imminent global disaster among the megaliths and relics of Orkney, while the new mayor of New York plans to extract his revenge for the awful thing that happened the day the Tree landed on Manhattan.

The first volume had a lot of point of view characters but, due to events, there are fewer in this second volume. The two main story lines follow a biologist who was close to the action in the first volume, and the soon-to-be mayor of New York. We only get a small hint at the end of what some of the other characters are up to (and we don't hear from all of them) and the overall story remains incomplete, as is expected for an ongoing series.

I enjoyed the opportunity to delve into some of the story lines in more depth. It was nice to get a larger chunk of two stories rather than smaller chunks of more stories, which are harder to keep track of when the volumes are so spaced out. (There is currently no anticipated release date for Vol 3 due to the creators spending time on a TV pilot of Trees.) What we are presented with develops both personal stories and the overarching story of the Trees, and what they might be doing — not that any key questions about them are really answered.

I enjoyed this instalment but don't have quite as much to say about it as the first volume — mainly because all the background and basis for awesomeness has already been covered. If you haven't read Trees before, I highly recommend that you do and that you start with Vol 1: In Shadow. This isn't the kind of series you can pick up mid-way and expect to make full sense of. I recommend the series to fans of darker science fiction and comics/graphic novels.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Image Comics
Series: Trees vol 2 of ongoing series (with two volumes out so far), collecting issues #9–14
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Some sort bricks and mortar comic book shop (I have forgotten which country it was in though)

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Proof of Concept by Gwyneth Jones

Proof of Concept by Gwyneth Jones is a science fictional novella put out by Tor.com. I picked it up based on a recommendation from a friend, and the vague belief that maybe I'd like Gwyneth Jones more now that I was older.

On a desperately overcrowded future Earth, crippled by climate change, the most unlikely hope is better than none. Governments turn to Big Science to provide them with the dreams that will keep the masses compliant. The Needle is one such dream, an installation where the most abstruse theoretical science is being tested: science that might make human travel to a habitable exoplanet distantly feasible.

When the Needle’s director offers her underground compound as a training base, Kir is thrilled to be invited to join the team, even though she knows it’s only because her brain is host to a quantum artificial intelligence called Altair.

But Altair knows something he can’t tell.

Kir, like all humans, is programmed to ignore future dangers. Between the artificial blocks in his mind, and the blocks evolution has built into his host, how is he going to convince her the sky is falling?

Proof of Concept had some interesting ideas in it but they did not overall make up for certain less interesting aspects of the writing and story. To start off, I found the start difficult to follow. The actual opening scene was OK, as far as these things go, but the subsequent section which, more or less, explained the point of the story was hard to follow. Especially since I was tired when I was reading it. I actually ended up going back and rereading a section because I realised I had no idea what was going on. I will note, however, that further into the book things pick up a bit and I found myself more interested in returning to reading it than I was nearer to the start.

I mentioned giving this story a chance based on a recommendation. The reason I needed a friend's recommendation to give it a try is because the only other Gwyneth Jones book I've read is Bold As Love, back in my early teens. Back then, I picked that book up because it had a pretty cover (so pretty, more so in real life than online) but didn't enjoy it. I thought at the time it was because I was too young to get some of the references (true but not the whole issue) but reading Proof of Concept I noticed a few parallels in character choices, mostly of background characters that bothered me the same way. So I think I'm just not a fan of Gwyneth Jones's writing and probably never will be.

That said, the middle and end of Proof of Concept were interesting enough to have me turning pages for reasons beyond wanting to get it over with. The plot centres around an isolation mission, with people sealed into a large underground cavern on a not-spaceship. The idea is that the scientists will perform experiments in a giant Faraday cage (or something, the basis was wishy-washy with intention) and the other half of the inhabitants were something to do with the media. I may have missed something, but I think it was a reality TV kind of thing, to be released after they all came back from the mission. (See what I mean about being confused? I only really managed to get my head around the science half of the premise.) Unexpected stuff starts to happen though, making the plot more interesting and culminating in a satisfying ending. I should be clear that I found the ending satisfying because it fit with my headcannon, but others might find the degree of uncertainty frustrating.

I would recommend Proof of Concept to fans of hard SF who don't mind a significant character-driven component to their stories. On the other hand, I wouldn't recommend it to fans of character-driven stories. I liked the main character, who is also a host for a quantum computer, but I didn't feel that she was enough to save the story. Not that she was a bad choice of point of view character, just that we could have gotten to know her even more that we did. Personally, I don't think I'll bother picking up anything by Gwyneth Jones in the future, but this is a very subjective analysis and you definitely shouldn't let me put you off if you haven't given her a shot (and being a novella, Proof of Concept isn't a terrible way to sample her writing).

3 / 5 stars

First published: April 2017, Tor.com
Series: No
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from iBooks

Monday, 28 August 2017

Contamination by Patty Jansen

Contamination by Patty Jansen is a novella in a new series of novellas. It stands alone well enough, but I can also see how it's a good set up for an ongoing episodic series. It's near-/mid-future SF, set on  a space station in orbit around Earth.

Jonathan Bartell is a young man, just out of university, when he signs up for the position of Quarantine Officer at the Orbital Launch Station.

He is part of a crop of students who flocked to study exo-biology when bacteria were discovered on Mars, and who are now all making their living flipping burgers, because the jobs are few and hard to get. He is lucky to get a job in space, no matter how mundane.

Or so he thinks...

Gaby Larsen is a doctor at the tiny hospital at the space station, and she keeps secrets, not because she wants to keep them, but because she is too scared to share them.

Because out in space, your worst enemies are your fellow travellers.

Contamination follows Jonathan, who has just gotten a job on the Orbital Launch Station as a quarantine officer. He quickly learns that not only is space less glamorous than he expected, but that his job is even less so. He doesn't immediately hit it off with other people on the station and a few innocent missteps lead to more antagonism than he planned for. But Jonathan is determined to do his job, and that leads him down a more interesting path than he bargained for.

This was a quick read and satisfyingly scratched the itch I wanted it to. It's hard SF that deals with some social issues and sticks go near-future plausible developments. (Although how near in the future we're really going to be exploring the solar system is up for debate.) It was interesting but not especially shocking as far as plot development went. That said, there were some interesting hints of other aspects of the world, which were not at all resolved and which I expect will come up again in future instalments. I should stress that the main story was completely resolved, however.

I enjoyed Contamination and I look forward to reading the next book in the series when it comes out. I recommend it to fans of science fiction, especially realistic and solar system-based science fiction. Since it's a novella, it's also an ideal quick read for people looking for a short foray into a science fiction world between other reads.

4 / 5 stars

First published: May 2017, self-published
Series: Yes, book 1 of ? which looks to be a series of standalones
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from SmashWords
Disclaimer: Although I am friends with Patty, I have endeavoured to give an impartial review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian SF Reading Challenge

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold is a novella about Miles Vorkosigan and chronologically comes after Labyrinth, another novella. I first read it about five years ago and have now reread it as part of the ongoing Vorkosigan Saga reread you might have noticed if you're a regular reader of this blog.

Miles infiltrates a prison camp at Dagoola IV, where he plots from within to free the prisoners.

This was one of the more memorable novellas in the Vorkosigan Saga, I thought. My memories of it turned out to not be entirely reliable — it's not set on an ice moon prison, just a normal crappy but almost habitable planet. What I remembered liking most about the story was Miles being clever, but of course I couldn't remember his actual plan when I was rereading. In any case, Miles being clever is hardly something new for readers familiar with the character.

The most notable aspect of this story is that it is not really funny like most of the Vorkosigan stories are. Miles is in a crappy PoW camp, surrounded by death and brutality, and outside of the camp watching Cetagandans have total control over their lives. Even Miles can't remain indefinitely upbeat in such a situation, even when he has faith that rescue is coming. Bujold uses the opportunity to show us another side of war, which has at most only been hinted at in previous books. We saw wartime prisoners of the Barrayarans in Shards of Honour, but what we saw there wasn't nearly as bleak as the situation in The Borders of Infinity (which is not to say it couldn't have been as bad in a Barrayaran rather than Cetagandan PoW camp, just that Cordelia and Aral didn't allow it to be so).

Overall, this is a solid instalment in the Vorkosigan Saga and one that works pretty well as a standalone story. You don't have to know anything much about Miles's past to make sense of this present and there are only a few oblique references to external events, the missing of which wouldn't diminish the story, in my opinion. I recommend it to fans of Bujold and the other Vorkosigan stories and suggest that it is a reasonable sample of the same with the caveat that they are usually a bit more cheerful (albeit sometimes darkly so).

4 / 5 stars

First published: 1987 in Free Lancers, a Baen novella anthology
Series: Vorkosigan Saga, chronologically falling after Labyrinth and before Brothers in Arms
Format read: ePub as part of the Miles Errant omnibus
Source: Purchased from Baen several years ago