Thursday, 24 May 2018

Paper Girls Volume 2 by Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

Paper Girls Volume 2 written by Brian K Vaughan and illustrated by Cliff Chiang continues the story begun in Volume 1, which I read after it was shortlisted for a Hugo Award last year. I really enjoyed the first volume, so I took the opportunity to pick up volumes 2 and 3 when visiting a comic book shop recently. This review contains spoilers for volume 1.

After surviving the strangest night of their lives in the Cleveland suburb of Stony Stream, intrepid young newspaper deliverers Erin, Mac, and Tiffany find themselves launched from 1988 to a distant and terrifying future... the year 2016.

What would you do if you were suddenly confronted by your 12-year-old self? 40-year-old newspaper reporter Erin Tieng is about to find out in this action-packed story about identity, mortality, and growing older in the 21st century.

This picked up the story right where it left off and, even though it's been a while since I read the first volume, I didn't have trouble getting back into the story, even if I didn't remember all the details. This is an ongoing story so this volume just covers the next arc of story rather than coming to any final conclusions. I think it did a good job containing a linked story with obvious entry and exit points.

The story is set mainly in 2016 and follows the twelve-year-old paper girls from 1988 as they try to work out what's happening and navigate the unfamiliar world of their future. Meanwhile, for reasons related to their time travelling, a lot of bad stuff is also going on, which forms the backdrop to their story. (Why does all the pop culture love giant tardigrades, btw?) This instalment doesn't raise as many questions as the first one did, but that's partly because we have some grounding in the world now and also because some of the same questions come up again.

I am continuing to really enjoy Paper Girls and I am definitely invested in the story. I've already got Volume 3 in hand and I plan to keep on reading as long as the comics keep on coming. If you enjoyed Stranger Things but would have liked more science fiction rather than horror, this may be the comic for you. That said, I didn't actually like Stranger Things at all, and I love this series, so the similarities may end at the part where the 80s are involved. I can't think what else it's comparable to though.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Image Comics
Series: Paper Girls volume 2 (of 4 so far), containing issues #6–10
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Real life comic book shop

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The Flowers of Vashnoi — The Vorkosigan Saga Project

The Flowers of Vashnoi is the latest story we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project and the most recently published, with the ebook having dropped only days ago. This novella follows Ekaterin and takes place after Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance and before Cryoburn.


You can read Katharine’s review of The Flowers of Vashnoi here, and Tsana’s review here.


Tsana: Such perfect timing to have a new novella come out that fits perfectly into our chronological read-through!


Katharine: I’m actually here for a new book! It’s a weird feeling to be one of the first to read it and see how few reviews/chatter there is out there (I mean, still tons as heaps bought and devoured it first day of course) but it’s still all so fresh!


Tsana: And, OK, it wasn’t a super long novella, but still, yay. And it’s a story that’s all Ekaterin’s own, instead of alternating chapters with Miles like in the novels she’s featured in.


Katharine: And she was really able to hold her own. Not that there was any doubt on either her or Bujold’s ability, but it’s so excellent to see Ekaterin so relaxed and confident in her not-so-new life, when you think to how she was when she barely thought she deserved any kind of happiness.


Tsana: Right? This is the first time we’ve seen her properly after she’s had a chance to get used to her new life with Miles and of course she kicks arse because that’s basically a prerequisite for being around Miles.


Katharine: And I love how she’s so easily able to be loving and exasperated with both him and their kids (and the battle tactics on the poor cats). It’s almost as if it’s a realistic portrayal of a decent marriage - shock, horror!


We also see the return of our favourite (well, only) scientist, Enrique Borgos. And the bugs.


Tsana: Yep. Although there’s two books that happen in between, The Flowers of Vashnoi seems to be a successor to A Civil Campaign, which introduces Enrique and the butterbugs (to much hilarity) and sets up the possibility for The Flowers of Vashnoi. I don’t think this new novella has as much impact without having read A Civil Campaign first (but I still hope people nominate it for a Hugo next year…)


Katharine: Agreed. So in this we see that the bugs have now been engineered to be able to assist with fixing the bit of land that’s still radioactive. It’ll be pretty incredible if it is possible, which does seem hopeful after their first visit to the area. However, they also find that some of the bugs, once again, have escaped the confines of their new habitat much to Miles’ disgust.


Tsana: Spoiler tag time!
<shields up!>

Sunday, 20 May 2018

The Flowers of Vashnoi by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Flowers of Vashnoi by Lois McMaster Bujold is a brand new novella in the Vorkosigan universe that dropped just last week. Very conveniently, the timing perfectly matched my and Katharine's chronological read-through of the series. The Flowers of Vashnoi takes place shortly after Captain Vorpatril's Alliance (the summer after that book, according to the author's blog) and before the events of Cryoburn. It closely follows Ekaterin Vorkosigan, Miles's wife.

Still new to her duties as Lady Vorkosigan, Ekaterin is working together with expatriate scientist Enrique Borgos on a radical scheme to recover the lands of the Vashnoi exclusion zone, lingering radioactive legacy of the Cetagandan invasion of the planet Barrayar. When Enrique’s experimental bioengineered creatures go missing, the pair discover that the zone still conceals deadly old secrets. 

It was very exciting to have a new Vorkosigan book to read but I admit that I was a little apprehensive at the prospect of reading a new book in the series after having spent quite some time re-reading the other books. (Not that that kind of situation hasn't arisen before with other series by other authors.) Happily, there was a very short gap between Bujold announcing the book on her blog and it being available to read. And of course, I needn't have worried about the enjoyability of the book. It was great.

The story follows Ekaterin as she and Enrique (who you may remember as the creator of the butterbugs in A Civil Campaign) work on introducing radiation-processing bugs to the radioactive wasteland that was once the capital, Vashnoi, in the Vorkosigan District (until the Cetagandans nuked it 80 years ago). When some of the bugs disappear, Ekaterin and Enrique end up having an unexpected encounter with some of the poorest District residents. Among other things, this story touches on some of the themes in The Mountains of Mourning, but this time seen from Ekatarin's perspective.

While we have had stories from Ekaterin's point of view before (generally split with chapters Miles's point of view), this is the first time we've been inside her head since she got married. I liked the glimpse we got of her attitude towards Miles now that he's a normal part of her life and not someone she just met or someone being (badly) courted by him. It was also nice to see Ekaterin focusing on work she feels passionate about and moved on so completely from her previous marriage.

I definitely recommend this novella to fans of Bujold's work. On the other hand, I don't especially recommend it as an entry point into the series. I'd say A Civil Campaign is somewhat required reading before picking this one up, but then one needs to also read at least Komarr before A Civil Campaign. But if you're already familiar with the series, The Flowers of Vashnoi should be a fun, quick read.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2018, self-published
Series: Vorkosigan saga, latest book published, chronologically 20th if you count the novellas as individual entries
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from iBooks

Thursday, 17 May 2018

#ReadShortStories that are flashy (87 to 90)


A bit of a jump in numbering this batch because I didn't want to repeat the stories that appeared for the first time in my Hugo posts and my final review of The Underwater Ballroom Society. If you missed reading my Hugo posts, you can see my thoughts and reviews of the short story ballot here and the novelette ballot here. (For completion, my novella discussion is here.) If you want to check out my reviews of the last few stories in The Underwater Ballroom Society — and my review of the whole anthology, you can find the final and complete review here.

This batch, which brings the total number of stories I've read this year to 90, contains some flash, a poem and the first story in the next anthology I've started reading: Not So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore. This anthology attempts to decolonise stories in the vein of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories and make them relevant to the modern age. With stories written by culturally diverse writers, of course. So far, it seems to be off to a good start.


How the Andan Court by Yoon Ha Lee — A flash piece that is more of a love letter explaining the absence of roses. Source: http://www.yoonhalee.com/?p=235

Ships in the Night by S B Divya — A flash story about a girl who can see futures and the changes everyone and everything will go through, who meets a girl who is unchanging. Source: http://dailysciencefiction.com/hither-and-yon/slipstream/s-b-divya/ships-in-the-night

Persephone in Hades by Theodora Goss — A narrative poem (is that the right term?) about Persephone missing winter while held prisoner by Hades. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/persephone-in-hades/

How the Spider Got Her Legs by Cassandra Khaw — Probably my favourite Khaw story so far. Told in the style of Kipling/traditional children's cosmology stories as suggested by the title. It was also a bit longer and more complicated than I might have expected with a few acts to the story rather than just one simple origin explanation of how the spider got her legs. Anyway, I rather liked it. Source: Not So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent

The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent is a themed novella anthology in which every story features some sort of underwater ballroom. It might sound like an oddly specific idea to pin an anthology on, but it works well, with the wide variety of underwater ballrooms dreamt up by the authors.

Would you rather dance beneath the waves or hide your smuggled magic there? Welcome to a world of sparkling adult fantasy and science fiction stories edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent and featuring underwater ballrooms of one sort or another, from a 1920s ballroom to a Martian hotel to a grand rock 'n roll ball held in the heart of Faery itself.

This is a long book and it took me a while to get through it (with a few minor breaks). For all that it contains only ten stories, most of them are quite long (hence novella anthology) and the book is quite weighty overall. The stories take us from fairyland, to steampunk Mars with a variety of secondary and primary world fantasies in between.

Of course, I enjoyed some stories more than others, for all that the anthology as a whole was of high quality. I started listing my favourite stories, just now, and stopped when I realised that list would be more than half the book. You can certainly get the gist from my reviews of individual stories below. By the way, if you've been following my blog, you'll have seen some of those reviews before, but the last few have not appeared before, so don't accidentally skip over them.

This was a fun read and I enjoyed being introduced to several new authors whose other work I am now interested in tracking down. If the idea of underwater ballrooms intrigues you, this is absolutely the book you should be reading. If you are ambivalent about underwater ballrooms (as I admit I was) then this is still an excellent anthology of fantastical tales.

~

The Queen of Life by Ysabeau S Wilce
A novella about rockstars and fairyland, death and fame. I found the opening a little too slow, as it took a while to set the scene and establish sufficient backstory so that what felt like the “real” story could start. When that came, it was an interesting journey into fairyland filled with deception, glamour and a corgi steed (sort of). I enjoyed the second half of it more than the first.

Twelve Sisters by Y S Lee
I like subverted fairytales and sequels to fairytales, as this one is. After the events in The Twelve Dancing Princesses (which I haven’t read and that made no difference to my enjoyment of this story), the youngest princess endeavours to save her oldest sister from an abusive relationship and also, as their father lies on his deathbed, to save the country from a malicious king. A great read.

Penhallow Amid Passing Things by Iona Datt Sharma
This story took a little bit to get into its stride, but I enjoyed it once it did. Smuggling, a brief lesbian romance, and fading magic are the elements that make up this story. The world was well constructed, for all that we only saw a small part of it. I find myself wondering whether there are other stories set there.

Mermaids, Singing by Tiffany Trent
I really enjoyed this novella. It’s set in Victorian London and follows a weredog from another world and a half-Chinese British girl from this one. The depth of world building is excellent and the story balances the weird fantasy elements with the more mundane well.

A Brand New Thing by Jenny Moss
A story set in the late 1920s about a neuroatypical girl, her disapproving family, books and something magical. I really enjoyed it and was delighted by the book references and metaphors. I was also pleased with the happy ending.

Four Revelations from the Rusalka Ball by Cassandra Khaw
Not a novella; actually a fairly short story. Much shorter than I expected. But on the other hand, about the level of surreal that I’ve come to expect from Cassandra Khaw. The title pretty much says it all.

Spellswept by Stephanie Burgis
This novella is one of the longer stories included in The Underwater Ballroom Society and is a prequel to Snowspelled, which I read as an individual volume last year. It’s set in a world where politics are run by women and men — as the more emotional sex — are left to deal with learning and using magic. My first impression of this world was that it wasn’t sufficiently gender-flipped enough, particularly with women still wearing dresses. However, in Spellswept we see more clearly that the balance in society is quite delicate and men have more power that it might seem on the surface (and certainly more than most women in the real-world Regency period did). Anyway, I enjoyed this novella a lot and found the story and continued exploration of the characters delightful. Spellswept and Snowspelled both stand alone and can be read in either order. I enjoyed knowing what would happen to some of the characters in the future (and hence some of what had to happen in Spellswept) but that certainly wasn’t a requirement for enjoyment.

The River Always Wins by Laura Anne Gilman
An underwater club dance floor more than a ballroom per se. Humanoid supernatural creatures going to the club of their youth one last time on its final opening night. It didn’t really work for me from the start and certainly the revelation at the climax didn’t pack enough punch, for all that the lead up was done well.

The Amethyst Deceiver by Shveta Thakrar
A secondary world, Victorian-flavoured story, featuring racism, magic fungus and something like a heist. I liked it, particularly the protagonist and the concept.

A Spy in the Deep by Patrick Samphire
This novella was clearly a sequel to something, but, aside from a few reminders of a past adventure (which tipped me off), stood alone quite well. The setting was a steampunk Mars during distant Napoleonic wars. If you think that sounds like something I’d hate because it’s so implausible, fear not the setting was sufficiently divorced from reality to amuse me rather than annoy. (There’s really no other way to put an underwater ballroom on Mars.)
The protagonist, Harriet, is a member of British Mars Intelligence and in this story has been set her final practical exam. She is to retrieve a package under cover of a distant and socially significant ball. Her mission is complicated by the presence of her policeman brother in law and a murder. It was an enjoyable read and has made me curious about the other books/stories with the same setting. There is a prequel about Harriet and apparently a few other stories about other characters with the same steampunk Martian setting.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2018, Five Fathoms Press
Series: No, although some stories are individually parts of series
Format read: ePub
Source: Review copy provided by editor

Friday, 11 May 2018

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance — The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is the latest book we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. For the first time we get to focus on Ivan, Miles’s cousin. Chronologically, this story takes place after Diplomatic Immunity and, for all that Ivan frequently appears in Miles’s stories, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance contains very little Miles...


You can read Tsana’s review of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance here, and Katharine’s review here.


Katharine: Wooo Ivan! (That is the tl;dr of my review.)


Tsana: In which we learn that Ivan is quite capable of having strange things happen to him even when Miles is safely on another planet. Despite what we’ve seen in snakes?earlier books, it’s not all Miles’s fault.


Katharine: And when it does happen, he’s quite adept at coming up with suitable scenarios and resources for saving the day. All while being quite considerate, too. Line right up for your Ivan fan club badge, people!


Tsana: When what does happen?


Katharine: Strange things. Such as By appearing from nowhere and asking Ivan to keep an eye on a woman who seems to have some trouble after her.


They’re out on Komarr - neither Miles or Ivan are on Barrayar - with Captain Ivan Vorpatril playing secretary to an admiral. Cousin By who we met in A Civil Campaign appears out of nowhere and doesn’t leave much information at all… which is probably why Ivan quickly winds up being tied to a chair and foiling an attempted kidnaping. Which is one way to win the trust of the woman he’s been asked to protect, at least…


Tsana: It’s a continuation of the general trend of “no one ever tells Ivan anything”. But the absence of anyone to hide behind does bring out the best in Ivan and shows the reader just how competent he really is, despite trying to hide it and not draw attention to himself. In the earlier books we got glimpses suggesting that there was more to Ivan than just “that idiot”, but now we really get a chance to see it.


Katharine: Such as being able to run on very little sleep, handle questioning from local authorities, and sure, he may seem to ‘just’ be a secretary however doing such a job well shows just how much intuition and greater understanding of everything as a whole is needed in order to keep your boss afloat. We often see Ivan referring to snakes, as in, what does the admiral need to see sooner rather than later - something his eventual replacement doesn’t seem to get right at all. But now I’m really jumping too far ahead.


Tsana: We see Ivan being good at his job, which doesn’t contradict anything we’ve seen earlier but which also isn’t something we’ve witnessed either way. His job was always relatively peripheral to Miles’s stories. Ivan’s General likes him and that puts Ivan in quite a senior position, even though he is still only a captain. And Ops is also not the same can of worms/snakes as the ImpSec we have frequently seen through the eyes of the other characters (and continue to see in this book).


Katharine: Ivan got promoted before Miles did, didn’t he? Way back when Miles was ‘just a courier?’


Tsana: Yep. Miles was very jealous and got himself retrospectively captain-ed during/despite his medical discharge.


Katharine: Thankfully they’ve both matured quite a bit since then. So, the woman By has asked Ivan to keep an eye on is a woman called Tej. Who happens to have a hidden half-sister, Rish. Hidden because she’s bright blue and stands out quite a bit. Half-sister because they’re from Jackson’s Whole. Tsana, care to explain their family (I certainly don’t really understand the older members very well), and why they’re on the run?


Tsana: It does get a bit complicated, doesn’t it? I think if I’m going to explain it all in detail, we have to put the spoiler shields up.


<spoilers below!>

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells is the second novella in the Murderbot Diaries series. I previously read, reviewed and loved the first novella, All Systems Red. I do generally recommend reading the first book before starting Artificial Condition, although Artificial Condition does a good job of reminding the reader what happened in the previous book.

It has a dark past – one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”.

But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

In this instalment, we follow Murderbot as it makes its way to the site of a severe malfunction that caused it to kill a bunch of people and after which its memory was wiped. On the way it makes a friend — who is also awesome and I hope we get to read about again — and finds some humans to temporarily guard. Also, the overarching plot thickens (but no spoilers).

I loved this book! After a stressful few weeks, getting back into Muderbot's head was exactly what I needed to relax and make me laugh. I love Murderbot. I love the voice and the sarcasm and the way it understands humans better by watching endless entertainment dramas than interacting with them directly. I also liked the different perspective on humans that we got from ART and Muderbot's take on ART's different taste in dramas. Everything I loved from the first book appears again in this one, including the exasperation at humans doing stupid things likely to get them killed.

This series is gold and if you don't hate non-human sentients they why aren't you reading it already? Hands down this is one of my favourite series ever and I foresee myself rereading it several times. (But for now I'm going to wait until all four novellas are out before I start re-reading — that way lies sadness at having to wait for future books.) I cannot wait until the next book, Rogue Protocol, comes out (due August).

5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2018, Tor.com
Series: The Murderbot Diaries book 2 of 4
Format read: ePub
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley with my official iBooks preorder hot on its heals. I read the purchased copy since it had the cover.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Hugo Ballot Discussion: Novelettes

It's actually been several days since I finished reading the Hugo shortlisted novelettes, but I hadn't been in the right headspace to write a considered blog post, hence the delay.

Links in the story title go to my original reviews (not all of which exist). You can see the full Hugo Ballot at the official website. Venue links go to the page where you can read each story online. The discussion follows the shortlist and mini-reviews.

Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny, July-August 2017)

In this story we follow Thuan and his friend as they attempt to infiltrate one of the Houses of the Fallen in an alternate reality Paris. During the standard examination for entry into the House (as servants), something unusual goes wrong and everyone has to evacuate a wing of the house.

From what I remember, this story has a minor spoiler for House of Shattered Wings, but definitely doesn't require reading the second novel, House of Binding Thorns (I haven't yet). That said, my reading of the story was influenced by my prior knowledge of the world building and I suspect it wouldn't stand alone as a story as well as it does part of a whole. I believe it was intended to promote interest in House of Binding Thorns, which it does reasonably well. I am definitely interested in reading the sequel now that I've been reminded of the world again (if only I wasn't already so far behind on my reading...).

Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, February 15, 2017)

Set in the same universe as Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, this story follows Jedao while he is still young. He goes on an undercover mission to extract a friend from academy. I really enjoyed this story. It was funny with serious moments. A good read for both readers of the novels and new comers to the world.

The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017)

A delightful story about an ageing maintenance bot on an ageing spaceship that has been pulled out of a scrap yard for a last desperate mission. This story strikes a perfect balance between informing the reader of the human-centred happenings and the struggles faced by the bots.

A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld, January 2017)

An excellent story about 3D printing forgeries of beef. It was a delightful read that made me giggle and also marvel at the level of details included. If the author wasn’t already on my list of short story writers I like, this story would have put her there.

“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May/June 2017)

A drunk trans guy gets illegally bitten and turned by a vampire. In a society that has flying cars and socially integrated vampires, but still treats trans people similarly to ours, Finley bumps up against problems unique trans vampires (who aren’t legally supposed to exist). A really good, thoughtful story.

“Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, September/October 2017)

I didn’t hate this story but it’s hard to articulate why I didn’t particularly like it. It’s competently written and all that, it’s more the subject matter that didn’t do it for me, I think. On the surface, a story about a generation ship mid-flight and a musical historian/school teacher should be interesting. And indeed, the opening was more appealing, talking about the myth of her grandmother playing her fiddle during a spacewalk (completely nonsensical, but that fact was acknowledged). But a lot of the story focussed on a large string-centric folk music playing group, which didn’t do it for me. (Once upon a time, the string section was the bane of my existence, so I’m not pretending objectivity or anything on that point.) As an exploration of how a generation ship society might cope — years down the track — with having once lost all their cultural databases, I didn’t feel it went far enough. Partly this could be explained by how closely the story followed the protagonist, but I still feel there were more interesting issues to explore than just those the author focussed on. So it’s not a bad story, but I didn’t love it.

~

This is a very strong category and I find my favourite stories very difficult to rank. The four middle stories (in the order listed above) all absolutely delighted me and I don't know how to choose! The other two didn't grab me as much, which is not to say that they aren't good stories, just that they aren't my favourites in this batch. I actually nominated both "Extracurricular Activities" and "The Secret Life of Bots" but if I had read "A Series of Steaks" before nominations closed, I would have added it to my ballot.

"Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time" is probably the most interesting take on vampires interacting with elements of modern or future society that I've read. "Extracurricular Activities" was a very accessible introduction to the world of Ninefox Gambit — more so than the actual first novel — and followed a very charismatic character that I will always be happy to read more about. Then it comes to a showdown between a story about an ageing and sentient maintenance robot and a story about 3D printing fraudulent beef. The stories are so different it's hard to compare them and I absolutely loved both of them. Good thing we have preferential voting in the Hugos (yay, democracy)... but it's still too hard to choose.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

#ReadShortStories... about underwater ballrooms and bloody revolutions (76 to 80)


This batch mostly, but not solely, contains stories from The Underwater Ballroom Society, an anthology edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent that I’ve been reading (as you may have noticed if you regularly follow my blog posts). I kind of expected that I’d break them up a bit more, but things worked out this way when the stories were hard to put down.

Penhallow Amid Passing Things by Iona Datt Sharma — This story took a little bit to get into its stride, but I enjoyed it once it did. Smuggling, a brief lesbian romance, and fading magic are the elements that make up this story. The world was well constructed, for all that we only saw a small part of it. I find myself wondering whether there are other stories set there. Source: The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent

Mermaids, Singing by Tiffany Trent — I really enjoyed this novella. It’s set in Victorian London and follows a weredog from another world and a half-Chinese British girl from this one. The depth of world building is excellent and the story balances the weird fantasy elements with the more mundane well. Source: The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent

After a Revolution by Dimas Ilaw — An angry story about resistance in the real world and the horror of various revolutions in the Phillipines. The second I’ve read from this author in a similar vein and I continue to be unsure how I should feel about the story as a story (aside from outraged at the content). Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/after-a-revolution/

A Brand New Thing by Jenny Moss — A story set in the late 1920s about a neuroatypical girl, her disapproving family, books and something magical. I really enjoyed it and was delighted by the book references and metaphors. I was also pleased with the happy ending. Source: The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent

Four Revelations from the Rusalka Ball by Cassandra Khaw — Not a novella; actually a fairly short story. Much shorter than I expected. But on the other hand, about the level of surreal that I’ve come to expect from Cassandra Khaw. The title pretty much says it all. Source: The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent

Thursday, 26 April 2018

#ReadShortStories (71 to 75)

This batch is characterised by a bit of random reading and a hankering for some flash after reading some longer things. I am continuing to read my review copy of The Underwater Ballroom Society, so I expect those longer stories (it's a novella anthology) will continue to inspire me to read shorter stories in between.

Notable in this batch, "A Series of Steaks" has become one of my favourite stories that I've read this year (it was published last year though) and I particularly enjoyed "Astrofuturist 419" as well.


A Series Of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad  — An excellent story about 3D printing forgeries of beef. It was a delightful read that made me giggle and also marvel at the level of details included. If the author wasn’t already on my list of short story writers I like, this story would have put her there. Source: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/prasad_01_17/

Twelve Sisters by Y S Lee — I like subverted fairytales and sequels to fairytales, as this one is. After the events in The Twelve Dancing Princesses (which I haven’t read and that made no difference to my enjoyment of this story), the youngest princess endeavours to save her oldest sister from an abusive relationship and also, as their father lies on his deathbed, to save the country from a malicious king. A great read. Source: The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent

Murdering Miss Deboo by Sean Williams — An story featuring the d-mat (replicator/teleport) technology that has featured in some of Williams’ other stories and novels. An interesting premise for a very short story, but I felt like it could have been a slightly smoother read. I’ve enjoyed some of his other stories more. Source: https://cosmosmagazine.com/the-future/murdering-miss-deboo

Shovelware  by Bogi Takács — Flash. Lucid dreaming games as a quick way of generating art assets is a cool idea. The depressing Hungarian art aspect could have done with a slightly meatier exploration. Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/531268a

Astrofuturist 419 by Nnedi Okorafor  — A “Nigerian scam” that wasn’t a scam: a Nigerian astronaut really was left stranded in space for 14 years and now his family is trying to get him home. Flash. I liked it a lot. Source: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/okorafor_11_16/

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard is a standalone novella set in the Xuya universe. I have previously read On a Red Station Drifting and some miscellaneous short stories set in this Dai Viet future (and one set in the alternate history present of the same world). You do not have to have read anything else to enjoy The Tea Master and the Detective, however.

Welcome to the Scattered Pearls Belt, a collection of ring habitats and orbitals ruled by exiled human scholars and powerful families, and held together by living mindships who carry people and freight between the stars. In this fluid society, human and mindship avatars mingle in corridors and in function rooms, and physical and virtual realities overlap, the appareance of environments easily modified and adapted to interlocutors or current mood.

A transport ship discharged from military service after a traumatic injury, The Shadow's Child now ekes out a precarious living as a brewer of mind-altering drugs for the comfort of space-travellers. Meanwhile, abrasive and eccentric scholar Long Chau wants to find a corpse for a scientific study. When Long Chau walks into her office, The Shadow's Child expects an unpleasant but easy assignment. When the corpse turns out to have been murdered, Long Chau feels compelled to investigate, dragging The Shadow's Child with her.

As they dig deep into the victim's past, The Shadow's Child realises that the investigation points to Long Chau's own murky past--and, ultimately, to the dark and unbearable void that lies between the stars...

This was an excellent read. I've enjoyed all the Xuya universe stories I've read and this one was no exception. The story most closely follows The Shadow's Child, a shipmind whose entire crew died in a war which also left the ship damaged and stranded until rescue eventually came. In this story we see the crew-less (and almost family-less) shipmind interacting with humans that aren't riding inside her and with other shipminds. It was an interesting and different take on how these sorts of sentient non-humans would fit into society. Turns out the answer is partly by acting human — they project avatars into human spaces — and the shipmind equivalents of human activities such as eating are really cool.

The characters in The Tea Master and the Detective are modelled after gender-flipped Sherlock and Watson, with Long Chau, the former tutor, taking on the role of Sherlock and The Shadow's Child, a traumatised battle-scarred shipmind, playing the role of Watson. You don't have to be an avid Sherlock fan to enjoy it — I myself am relatively neutral on Sherlock and retellings. I haven't read any of the books, I've been enjoying Elementary, I liked House MD, I've seen a few movies and I've suffered through Moffat's BBC series. I, somewhat inevitably, found myself comparing the character interactions with Elementary, but I think that's partly because that's the rendition that brought the drug-addict aspect of Sherlock to my attention, which was also prominent in The Tea Master and the Detective. Or it could have been something to do with de Bodard mentioning in the afterword that Elementary is her favourite version of Sherlock.

Whether or not you've read other Xuya books, I highly recommend The Tea Master and the Detective. You also don't have to have any strong feelings about the Sherlock cannon, although I gather strong pro-Sherlock feelings may enhance your enjoyment of what is already a very strong novella. If you haven't read any of de Bodard's science fiction before, this is an excellent place to start. If you have, this is an excellent book to continue with. I am definitely going to keep reading Xuya stories.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2018, JABerwocky Literary Agency (Rest of World) / Subterranean Press (US/Canada)
Series: Xuya universe, but standalone
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Kobo

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Hugo Ballot Discussion: Short Stories

Hugo Award logo; a stylised rocket ship
I've been making good progress on my Hugo reading, especially given that the voter packet is not out yet. Of course, having been focussing on reading more short stories over the past sixish months has helped a lot there. Nevertheless, I had only read two of the shortlisted short stories before the ballot came out.

Since linking to a bunch of short story reviews is kind of annoying, I'm just going to reproduce them for you below, to augment the short story ballot. You can, by the way, see the full Hugo Ballot at the official website, if you feel so inclined. Venue links go to the page where you can read each story online. The discussion follows the shortlist and mini-reviews.


Best Short Story


“Carnival Nine,” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)

A lovely story about mechanical toy people who live out their lives based on the number of “turns” they get. A metaphor for energy and disability/chronic illness that, I suppose, makes more sense than spoon theory — and in fact for that very reason I’d actually heard of this story before I got to reading it. The main character has more turns than average and the story follows her life from childhood through adulthood, partnering up, and having a child. And focuses on how many turns the people around her have or don’t have.

“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, September 2017)

Not a terrible story but not to my taste. (I say this in light of it’s Hugo nomination.) It had an interesting vibe and the second person narration worked well but I didn’t think the end came with sufficient pay-off (for a Hugo nomination...).

“Fandom for Robots,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)

An adorable story about the world’s only sentient robot who was created in the 1950s and now lives in a museum. One day, someone recommends and anime to him and things spiral out from there. Such an adorable and fun read.

“The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017)

A story about hubris and hope in a post apocalyptic world. I found the main premise, of instructing AIs to build an obelisk on Mars, a bit odd, for all that it made sense in the context. The story didn’t completely grab me, however, which is unfortunate because I think the ending would have had more impact if I’d connected more with the protagonist.

“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, (Uncanny, May/June 2017)

A cute story about a man who inherits a magic sword from his warrior grandmother, inhabited by spirits that can train him to fight. But all he wants to do is farm potatoes. I enjoyed the subversion of the magic sword trope, the goat and the tentative queer love story.

“Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017)

An eerie story that starts out as one type of science fiction, exploring (Native American) race through a commercialised lens... then turns into a different sort of horrific story. I enjoyed it and didn’t see the second half coming from the vantage point of the first half. Certainly an interesting read and I can see why it made the Hugo shortlist.


Brief Discussion 


It's an interesting mix of stories, half of which directly engage with disability or racism, which is great to see coming out of the Sad Puppy years. They're all strong stories, even if they're not all for me.

For me the clear winner is the story I've loved the longest: "Fandom For Robots" by Vina Jie-Min Prasad. I have a soft spot for adorable AIs. After that, the stories rank themselves rather easily, from my point of view. “Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim was very good and just pips "Sun, Moon, Dust" by Ursula Vernon by being a little meatier. "Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™" by Rebecca Roanhorse is also a strong contender while "The Martian Obelisk" by Linda Nagata and "Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand" by Fran Wilde didn't really work for me.

Friday, 20 April 2018

#ReadShortStories (65 to 70)

It's been slower short story reading of late, for me, since I've gotten myself hooked on a few novels. This batch, among other things, finishes off my Hugo short story reading. I will do a separate post soon focussing on just that shortlist and talking about how I would vote. I also started reading the novella anthology The Underwater Ballroom Society and it's first fairytale rock opera rock star and fairyland story.


Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand by Fran Wilde — Not a terrible story but not to my taste. (I say this in light of it’s Hugo nomination.) It had an interesting vibe and the second person narration worked well but I didn’t think the end came with sufficient pay-off (for a Hugo nomination...). Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/clearly-lettered-mostly-steady-hand/

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™ by Rebecca Roanhorse — An eerie story that starts out as one type of science fiction, exploring (Native American) race through a commercialised lens... then turns into a different sort of horrific story. I enjoyed it and didn’t see the second half coming from the vantage point of the first half. Certainly an interesting read and I can see why it made the Hugo shortlist. Source: https://www.apex-magazine.com/welcome-to-your-authentic-indian-experience/

The Queen of Life by Ysabeau S Wilce — A novella about rockstars and fairyland, death and fame. I found the opening a little too slow, as it took a while to set the scene and establish sufficient backstory so that what felt like the “real” story could start. When that came, it was an interesting journey into fairyland filled with deception, glamour and a corgi steed (sort of). I enjoyed the second half of it more than the first. Source: The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent

Sun, Moon, Dust by Ursula Vernon — A cute story about a man who inherits a magic sword from his warrior grandmother, inhabited by spirits that can train him to fight. But all he wants to do is farm potatoes. I enjoyed the subversion of the magic sword trope, the goat and the tentative queer love story. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/sun-moon-dust/

Carnival Nine by Caroline M. Yoachim — A lovely story about mechanical toy people who live out their lives based on the number of “turns” they get. A metaphor for energy and disability/chronic illness that, I suppose, makes more sense than spoon theory — and in fact for that very reason I’d actually heard of this story before I got to reading it. The main character has more turns than average and the story follows her life from childhood through adulthood, partnering up, and having a child. And focuses on how many turns the people around her have or don’t have. Source: http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/carnival-nine/

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Poppy War by R F Kuang

The Poppy War by R F Kuang is the author's debut novel and, I have just learned, the first in a trilogy. It's a fantasy book set in an Asian-inspired part of its world (compared with the multitude of fantasy books set in European-inspired parts of their worlds), and follows a teenage girl as she goes from being a poor rural shop girl to playing a prominent role in the titular war.

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

This book is many things, and long enough to fit them all in. It starts out with Rin, our main character, working hard to escape a crappy life of being married off to some old guy by her foster parents. Once her hard work pays off, the book takes on the feel of a boarding school story while she trains at the prestigious military academy and butts heads with other students — and, of course, stands out for being the poor girl from a southern province. The school part of the book was probably my favourite. It sets up a lot of relationships for Rin, builds up the world and some of its history, and introduces the shamanic aspects that become so central to Rin’s story. This section and what preceded it made me love this book. 

Rin’s time at school culminates in the outbreak of war. For all that it happens around the halfway mark, I don’t think talking a bit about it is a spoiler, given the book’s title. The war heralds another change of fortune for Rin and the story shifts from boarding school yarn to a) being about a ragtag band of misfits and b) a brutal war. (And who doesn’t live ragtag bands of misfits?) The brutality of the war sort of snuck up on me, although perhaps it shouldn’t have since the signs were there. I don’t want to get spoiler-specific, but I do want to give a massive trigger/content warning for pretty much all the wartime atrocities you can think of, many of which are described in horrifying detail. I was not fully prepared, and it took me some time to process enough to keep reading and to write this review when I was done.

The thing is, because this book ends in war — especially war that isn’t fully resolved because there’s a sequel to come — it’s easy to focus on that aspect and overlook the earlier and more general aspects of the book. For example the world building was excellent. It’s clear that the main setting is based on China and the nation they are at war with is based on Japan. However, there isn’t an obvious/specific real-world analogue for everything, the geography is quite different to that of China (looking at the map, there is, for example a west coast) and of course magic plays a significant role in the story. It felt a lot less artificially “and here is what not-Japan did next” than other books I have read (The Tiger’s Daughter immediately springs to mind). Instead, for a lot of the book, it felt like the Asian version of non-specific European fantasy books, which I really appreciated. That said, I do have to note that some events towards the end of the book clearly were inspired by real-world events, which kind of undermines my point, but whatever.

The important things to take away from this review are that this is a really good book and that it contains a brutal account of war. It grapples with class divides (until these suddenly matter much less), drug use (which is also entwined with the magic system), and vengeance. Rin's conversations and internal monologue are interspersed with dry/dark humour, which I enjoyed and which made me snort out loud several times. I highly recommend this book to all fans of fantasy, especially those that enjoy the elements I mentioned above (poor girl does great things, military boarding school, asian setting, horrifying war, etc). Although it's the first in a trilogy (according to the author — it's really not made clear elsewhere), it does wrap up a lot of the story at the end. There are a few loose ends and a strong sense of "well, here's what we need to do next" but it doesn't feel unfinished. No need to fear cliff hangers or put off reading until the rest of the series is out. Personally, I'm glad of the gap so I can finish processing before moving on to the next in the series, which I will definitely be reading.

5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2018, Harper Voyager
Series: Apparently the first book of a trilogy, no series name as yet
Format read: eARC
Source: HarperVoyager UK on NetGalley