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 protégé 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 Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Saga Vol 6 written by Brian K Vaughn 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>

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Announcing the D Franklin Defying Doomsday Award!

We are very excited to announce the opening of nominations for The Defying Doomsday Award recognising work in disability advocacy in SFF literature.

As well as publishing SFF fiction that supports positive storytelling for disabled characters, we want to encourage and support advocacy for greater diversity in SFF fiction. As such, the Defying Doomsday Award is a special award for disability advocacy in SFF literature.

This award is possible thanks to D Franklin, our wonderful Patron of Diversity who pledged the top pledge in our Pozible campaign!

The Defying Doomsday Award is an annual shortlist and prize. The award jury comprises Twelfth Planet Press publisher, Alisa Krasnostein, and Defying Doomsday editors, Tsana Dolichva (me) and Holly Kench. The award will grant one winner per year a cash prize of $200 in recognition of their work in disability advocacy in SFF literature. Eligible works include non-fiction or related media exploring the subject of disability in SFF literature. Works must have been published in 2016.

We are now seeking nominations for the 2016 Defying Doomsday Award. Please submit your nominations to me and Holly by filling in this form.

Submissions will be open until 31st July 2017, and the winner/s will be announced in September 2017.

Thank you all for your nominations, and a big thanks to D Franklin for making this award possible!


Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold is a novella set in the Vorkosigan universe. I've re-read it as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project and, chronologically, it fits between The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game. It follows Miles when he is assigned one of his first duties as a Count's son and future Count, taking him into the poverty-stricken backwaters of his home county.

While being a space-faring empire, Barrayar still harbors deep-rooted prejudices and superstitions, including those against "mutants." When a Dendarii hill-woman comes before Aral Vorkosigan seeking justice for the murder of her infant baby who has been killed because of her physical defects, the Barrayaran Lord sends his son Miles to a remote mountain village to discover the truth and carry out Imperial justice and at the same time attack these long-held barbaric beliefs. And who better than Miles Vorkosigan, who has himself struggled with these prejudices all his life because of his own physical deformities.

This is probably the Miles story that deals most directly with the ableism we know Miles has faced since before he was born (well, you know it if you've read the earlier Vorkosigan books, anyway). We have already seen some of Miles personal physical limitations in The Warrior's Apprentice but the ableism from random strangers was more of a side thing. And by the time Mountains of Mourning starts, Miles's grandfather is a few years gone, although his shadow still very much hangs over Miles.

This story is partly a murder mystery and partly an exploration of just how backwards parts of Barrayar are. Miles sets out to fairly solve the murder and hopes to bring a little bit more of the present to the small community he visits. The infanticide of a baby with a cleft pallet — a trivial condition to fix in any hospital on Barrayar — is seen as tragic by Miles and the baby's mother, but a matter of course for the murderer and many other members of the community. Miles not only has to bring justice, but also show what justice even looks like in this situation.

Like all of Bujold, this was a good read, although not an especially happy one. The insight into what life is really like for the Barrayaran poor (or at least the poor in the Vorkosigan region, made worse by a Cetagandan nuclear blast) provides an interesting contrast to all the spacefaring and war which dominate a lot of the other books in the series. Being a novella, Mountains of Mourning is also not a very long read. I recommend it to fans of Miles and the Vorkosigan universe. Although it's possible to read the novella without having read any of the other books (there's nothing much which depends too heavily on prior knowledge), I expect it would be a little less interesting out of context.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 1989 in Analog
Series: Vorkosigan universe, falling between The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game
Format read: ePub
Source: Free from Baen several years ago

Friday, 5 May 2017

The Warrior's Apprentice - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

The Warrior’s Apprentice is the third book we are reading as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project. It sequentially follows on from Barrayar and is the first book (chronologically and in publication order) about Miles Vorkosigan, published before Barrayar was in 1986. Miles is the son of Cordelia and Aral and we join him as he tries (and fails) to gain admittance to the Imperial Military Academy and has to turn to other ideas.

You can read Tsana’s review of The Warrior’s Apprentice here, and Katharine’s review here.

Tsana: When I first read the Vorkosigan saga, this was the first book I started with. It seemed like a good place to start at the time — it introduced Miles, who everyone talked about as the main character, and it was one of the first books written and published. I didn’t read the first two Cordelia books, Shards of Honour and Barrayar, until the very end, which meant that the impact of some of the references to the past in The Warrior’s Apprentice was completely lost on me. I am very glad to be rereading the books again in this order. What were your impressions of The Warrior’s Apprentice, having picked it up for the first time?

Katharine: I honestly wonder what I would have thought of Miles for the first section of the book, without having being brought to him via his parents. From this journey I’m already protective of him because we saw the struggles his parents had… without that, I think he would have won me over when he first uses his crazy schemes to save Mayhew… but before then, I might have found him a little too… what’s the word… Fervent?

Tsana: Hah, fervent is certainly the word to describe him (and you haven’t even seen half of it yet)! But that’s understandable just from knowing about his disability and desire to prove himself in the militaristic and ableist society of Barrayar. That said, there wasn’t as much ableism in the book as there could have been. Miles spends most of it off-world where other people just think he’s a bit weird instead of making the sign of the devil against him like we see Barrayarans do. What were your impressions of this?

Katharine: I found it interesting that as soon as he drew any ire it was the first thing they went to - calling him awful things about his (lack of) height or crookedness. But overall I think the novel did a good job at introducing the reader to him - we start the novel off with him not being successful in gaining entry into the Imperial Military Academy on Barrayar because of his disability, and then for the rest of the novel we see him, more or less, in situations where it doesn’t hold him back at all.

Tsana: I remember someone somewhere (I think it might have been on Galactic Suburbia) saying that in zero-G his disabilities didn’t matter anymore. But we don’t really see that in this book. What we know about Miles’s limitations are that he has very brittle bones — he breaks both his legs in the opening scene — and that he’s short with a crooked spine. We also briefly learn that he’s allergic to some medication, but that doesn’t feature too much. While none of those things stop him doing anything other than passing the Imperial Military Academy physical exam, he’s also not put into any equalising situations, not really. Galactics (ie non-Barrayarans) might not care so much that he’s different, but he still has to prove himself in a normal fashion without any sudden advantages. The only advantage he had in his life was more time to read and study growing up due to being unable to play outside as much. The rest of his advantage is all personality and intelligence (the latter having nothing to do with his disabilities).

Katharine: And all thanks to his parents - there’s several references that show he knows what they would do or think in a situation and he seems to take their way as gospel - he uses what his mother would think in a situation to reassure Elena, for example.

Tsana: Yes, it definitely helps that his parents are good role-models. He probably wouldn’t have gotten nearly so far with his crazy schemes if not for his father’s military and political strategy rubbing off on him.

Katharine: And his mother’s ability as a warrior - he wouldn’t have got nearly as far in his schemes without being able to see women are equal from the very start - something that threw a few of his adversaries off. Should we lift the spoiler zone so we can get into the nitty gritty?

<spoilers start here>

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold is another book in the Vorkosigan saga, which I have been rereading this year. It's the second book published, the first (published and chronologically) about Miles Vorkosigan and the third chronologically in the main timeline (or the fourth if you count a very distant prequel). It was originally the first book I read of the saga and, while I enjoyed it immensely at the time, I actually found it more satisfying upon rereading after the two Cordelia books, Shards of Honour and Barrayar.

Between the seemingly impossible tasks of living up to his warrior-father's legend and surmounting his own physical limitations, Miles Vorkosigan faces some truly daunting challenges.

Shortly after his arrival on Beta Colony, Miles unexpectedly finds himself the owner of an obsolete freighter and in more debt than he ever thought possible. Propelled by his manic "forward momentum," the ever-inventive Miles creates a new identity for himself as the commander of his own mercenary fleet to obtain a lucrative cargo; a shipment of weapons destined for a dangerous warzone.

I enjoyed this book the first time I read it — I loved Miles and it made me want to read the rest of the series — but I feel like I got more out of it after rereading. The background/side plot regarding the events of Miles's parents generation was actually covered in Shards of Honour and Barrayar in much more detail and the scenes in The Warrior's Apprentice harking back to those events were much more impactful having just read about them. So while The Warrior's Apprentice seemed like a good place to start (and I don't blame people for suggesting it), I think starting with Shards of Honour is a much better idea.

Miles is only seventeen in this book, which is easy to forget, given the scale of his adventures. It all starts innocuously enough with Miles failing the physical part of the Imperial Military Academy exam. His holiday to take his mind off things and consider his future options kind of spirals out of control, however, when smuggling and a warzone become involved. Miles is clever and amusing, making this book quite engaging. Although I also enjoyed the two Cordelia books proceeding it, I loved this one even more. Cordelia is awesome but Miles is larger than life and I love reading about him.

As well as Miles, we get to properly meet Elena, Bothari's daughter, and follow the next (Mile-centric) chapter of Bothari's life, after the unfortunate events we see or learn about in the earlier two books. Miles's able-bodied age-mate cousin Ivan also makes an appearance. All of these characters know Miles well and provide a counterpoint to the various new people he encounters over the course of the story. Since most of the new people are Galactics (that is, not Barrayaran), there have significantly different cultural reactions to his appearance than the generally ableist random Barrayarans back home. It's interesting to see how this can be a kind of advantage to Miles, as opposed to the disadvantage it is back home.

The Warrior's Apprentice is an excellent read. It's an OK entry point to the Vorkosigan saga, but I recommend reading it after Shards of Honour and Barrayar to appreciate it most fully. And of course, I enjoyed it enough the first time to reread it, and enough the second time to (again) give it five stars. I am very excited to continue rereading Miles's adventures.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 1986, Baen
Series: Yes. Book 4 chronologically or 2 publication-order-ly of the Vorkosigan Saga
Format read: ePub
Source: Baen — I believe a free promotion several years ago, although I also purchased the book as part of the Young Miles omnibus

Monday, 1 May 2017

The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein


US cover
The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein is a prequel to her much-renowed Code Name Verity. Hence it is also set in the same universe of plausible World War II events as Rose Under Fire and Black Dove, White Raven, all of which I have read and enjoyed. None of those books are required reading before picking up The Pearl Thief, but I can attest to increased sentimentality while reading The Pearl Thief after having read Code Name Verity. I teared up almost every time roses were mentioned (and they were the same roses). 🥀

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scots Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

UK cover
Before I started reading, I had misremembered names (and the last line of the blurb didn't help) and was expecting The Pearl Thief to be about the other protagonist in Code Name Verity, Maddie. I was not emotionally prepared for it when I realised that, of course, Julie was the Scottish one, with the French grandmother and great aunt who had been sent to boarding school in Geneva. That said, if you haven't read Code Name Verity and the shadow of the future isn't hanging over Julie for you, then The Pearl Thief is a fun, coming-of-age, historical YA novel set in the 1930s with a surprisingly bisexual protagonist. Surely worth a read just for that.

The story is told from Julie's point of view, more or less in the tone of a diary, but with pretty normal prose formatting and dialogue. Other major characters are Julie's closest brother Jamie (who readers of Code Name Verity may remember) and a couple of her Scottish Traveller friends. The latter two provide a launching point for a key aspect of historical life explored in the book, namely the discrimination faced by Travellers from otherwise perfectly nice and reasonable people. Julie is a bit of a sheltered outsider who, over the course of the book's adventures and misadventures, experiences and gains a greater appreciation for the differences between her privileged life and the lives of the nomadic Travellers she befriends.

The overarching plot links the above ideas with a few mysteries and other historical details, as well as Scottish river pearls. For the most part, the events of the book aren't too dire (it's not all sunshine and roses — oh, the roses! — but the main point of comparison is World War II) although there are some tense moments. There are also injustices which can hardly be said to be cheerful. But overall this was a fun and enjoyable read that I had difficulty putting down. I highly recommend it to fans of historical YA and of Wein's other books (especially Code Name Verity). In many ways The Pearl Thief made me want to reread Code Name Verity, but it's probably just as well that I own it as a paperback residing on another continent since I don't quite need the heartbreak right now.

5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2017, Bloomsbury UK / Disney-Hyperion US
Series: Code Name Verity universe, first book so far chronologically, fourth to be published
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley