Tuesday, 27 February 2018

#ReadShortStories (41 to 45)

This batch looks like a Yoon Ha Lee binge, and it is a bit, but I also had a pretty long break between stories here. Life stuff and my escaping the aforementioned through Zelda: Breath of the Wild (a video game) has lead to reduced reading. Whoops.

Anyway, <3 Yoon Ha Lee and his stories. The three included here are all set in the Machineries of Empire series (see also my reviews of Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem), and I really love that world and the characters. I can't wait for book three to come out, and hopefully there are more stories set in that world that I haven't read left for me to get to.

I would also like to highlight the last story, "The House That Creaks" by Elaine Cuyegkeng as a pretty great horror story (and not overly gory, as far as I'm concerned). The author is a relatively new discovery for me (yay reading a bunch of short stories) and I've been enjoying her work. Go have a read if horror is your thing.

Extracurricular Activities by Yoon Ha Lee — 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. Source: https://www.tor.com/2017/02/15/extracurricular-activities/

The Battle of Candle Arc by Yoon Ha Lee — Shuos Jedao leads a Kel army to victory against heretics. I had some memory of this particular battle being mentioned in the novels (Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem), but misremembered the context. In any case, an interesting read, even more so since it was published years before the novels. Clearly the authors has been living in this world for a long time. Also, the explanations of the factions and calendar were done particularly well, especially given how complicated they can get. This story is a good introduction to the world. Source: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/lee_10_12/

Yowie by Thoraiya Dyer — A story about being overwhelmed and lost. And yowies. A look at a dreary life amid a fantastical discovery. Not a bad story, but not exactly a pleasant read either. Source: Sprawl edited by Alisa Krasnostein

The Robot’s Math Lessons by Yoon Ha Lee — An adorable flash story about a robot making friends with a little girl (who I think is Cheris from Ninefox Gambit). Source: http://www.yoonhalee.com/?p=793

The House That Creaks by Elaine Cuyegkeng — The story of a haunted house told fro the house’s point of view. A really interesting take, but also pretty creepy since we learn about the (supernatural) rituals that made the house haunted, as well as it’s pre-haunted past in the Philippines. Source: http://thedarkmagazine.com/the-house-that-creaks/

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan

Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan is a near-future science fiction love story. When I picked it up, I had misremembered it being YA, but it's not. (The characters are in their late 20s.) The social world building is the most interesting aspect of this book, despite a few hiccups, and while the science was more or less OK for the most part, the author did hang some crucial plot points on some rubbish physics, which I will be ranting more about below.

Carys and Max have ninety minutes of air left.
None of this was supposed to happen.
But, perhaps this doesn’t need to be the end…

Adrift in space with nothing to hold on to but each other, Carys and Max can’t help but look back at the well-ordered world they have left behind – at the rules they couldn’t reconcile themselves to, and a life to which they might now never return. For in a world where love is banned, what happens when you find it?

Hold Back the Stars is a love story like no other.

This book has two timelines, the floating in space with ninety minutes of air left timeline and various flashbacks showing us how the characters got together as a couple and, to a lesser extent, how they ended up floating in space. The two timelines worked, but I think the linking and integration of the past storyline could have been more clever. It was fine as it was, but the flashbacks were all quite discrete for all that they were chronologically ordered. That aspect was mostly enjoyable but didn't exactly impress me. Also, most of the story focussed on the love story and I'm not completely convinced they were a perfect match so it was a bit meh.

What was interesting was the social aspect of the world building (for the physics aspect, see rant below). In this near future world, the EU has expanded to include large swathes of the world, notably not China, not sure about the rest of East Asia, and not the former US. (Bafflingly, Australia was welcomed into the system after Russia, which seems like a strangely out of touch take on the matter, from the perspective gained by living in the EU.) Now called Europia (Europe + utopia, sigh), they are aggressively anti-nationalism and pro-individualism and seem to be very socialist, although this isn't discussed in the story, it's just the only thing that makes sense. Their solution to nationalism is to have everyone on Rotation, moving to completely different parts of Europia every two years and encouraging them to learn lots of languages to be able to communicate with each other well. That part I found very interesting, if slightly dystopian when it mentioned a seven year old living on Rotation away from his parents (I was assuming children moved with their parents until a sensible age, which wouldn't have undermined the system). Of the two main characters, one comes from a fiercely pro-Rotation family and the other didn't enter Rotation until she was 18, which sets up a lot of interesting conflict between them.

The more pertinent and contrived conflict, however, comes from our main couple vs Europia's Couples Rule, which states that people can't settle down and have kids until 35 (because fertility problems have been solved). I thought Rotation was a really interesting idea, but the Couples Rule was taking things a bit bafflingly far, in a "How did society really thing this was a good idea?" way. (They should have just stuck to having parenting exams, in my opinion.) The main characters obviously want to challenge the rule and be together, but there's a lot of weird overreactions that aren't really fully addressed.

So the physics rant. For reasons unexplained, a shockingly dense asteroid field has settled in near-Earth orbit, which is stopping people from leaving Earth (by destroying stuff in space — miraculously not any communications satellites apparently because the future internet is doing quite well). Also there are frequent meteor showers, of the size to burn up in the atmosphere, which apparently terrifies people in places that have devolved to uncivilisation (like the former US). I don't see why shooting stars are so terrifying, but on the other hand it's not like the US school system was great before it was destroyed? Anyway, I was willing to let the magical appearance of an Earth-orbiting asteroid field pass, until the solution to getting of the planet was to try to fly through the asteroid field and find a path that way. What the actual fuck. That is just so mind-bogglingly not how it works. The first thing the space agency would have done when asteroids magically showed up is map and track them all using telescopes on Earth. That way no one would have been trapped (although it might still have been inconvenient to get past them). Also the whole mapping a path through the asteroid field makes it sound like they were magically hovering above the earth (actually, a lot of things sounded like that...) when, duh, they'd be in orbit and not all on the same trajectory if they weren't actually magically gravity defying. Speaking of magic gravity, the author manages to define Lagrange points correctly, then completely misunderstands practical implementations. (Mind you, I would have let that last one pass if it hadn't been repeated three times.)

A lot of the above became apparent near the end of the book, leaving an unpleasant taste in my mouth as I finished it off. There was one physics fail much earlier which annoyed me a lot because it also implied the author doesn't read much SF since it's something that seems to come up a lot (correctly) in other books/stories. Basically, at one point when the main characters are floating in space, their comms fail and they panic and try to mime at each other and stuff. These characters are tethered together and neither of them (not even the more astronaut-trained one!) think to touch their helmets together and talk that way. Sigh. Instead they end up using a torch in a slightly nonsensical way until they fix the radio. So that annoyed me, because it could have been a lovely moment too. (Disappointingly, in a short interview at the back of the book, the author cites the torch solution as one of her favourite parts of the story...)

As I said earlier, the social world building in this book is really interesting. I wouldn't mind reading another book about other people set in the same world to get more insight into other aspects of this future. There were a few contradictions between the idealised society and how things worked in practice that I would like to see explored more. But in the end, and because it was loaded towards the end, I couldn't see past the physics to properly enjoy the book overall. I didn't hate it, but those aspects were very frustrating. The author also did something unusual with the very end, which I don't want to spoil, which piqued my interest as I got to it, but there seemed to be a bit of magic to some of the insights the characters gained because of that writing device, which, well, didn't make sense. But it was still an interesting way to finish things off, even if it broke some narrative rules.

I would recommend this book to people who enjoy reading about future societies and characters getting together. It's definitely not a capital R-omance book, and I don't think it would satisfy a reader who went into it with those expectations. Read it for the social world building and do not expect any of the science to make sense.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: November 2017, Black Swan (Random House UK)
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Netgalley

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Short stories 36 to 40

Continuing the trend, another mix of short stories. My favourite in this batch is definitely the JY Yang, although the two flash pieces (Pinsker and Vo) were interesting, just not that meaty, what with being flash.

The Sewell Home for the Temporally Displaced by Sarah Pinsker — A cute flash story about inadvertent time travel and lesbians. Source: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/the-sewell-home-for-the-temporally-displaced/

One Saturday Night, with Angel by Peter Ball — Angels are walking the Earth and, while know one knows much about them, it doesn’t look good. The protagonist of this story is being stalked by one, which has a very strong, caustic smell. OK story but didn’t grab me. Source: Sprawl edited by Alisa Krasnostein

Auspicium Melioris Aevi by JY Yang — A really interesting look at cloning and extensive training as a means of duplicating past wisdom to sell. I guessed the shape of the ending but the choice of historical figure to clone (in the case of the main character — there were multiple sets) and the attendant historical details were fascinating. As was the brief interrogation of some of his life choices. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/auspicium-melioris-aevi/

The Psychology Game by Xia Jia — An interesting concept but the way it’s explored is a bit too pedagogical/preachy for my taste. I would have enjoyed a more plotted take. But not a bad exploration of AI and where we would (or wouldn’t) draw the line at giving them tasks. Source: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/xia_10_17/

Twelve Pictures From a Second World War by Nghi Vo — Snapshots from a WWII in which various fairytale/folk/mythical beings took part alongside the ordinary humans. An entertaining but very short story. Source: http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/twelve-pictures-from-a-second-world-war/

Friday, 16 February 2018

Aurealis Award shortlists announced

The Aurealis Award shortlists were announced yesterday and there's a very interesting mix of works on the lists this year. You can read the full announcement at the Aurealis Awards website, here. I'm also reproducing the actual shortlists below with links to the books/stories that I've reviewed — which isn't very many of them this time around. Looks like I have some homework reading.

How to Bee, Bren MacDibble (Allen & Unwin)
The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, Jaclyn Moriarty (Allen & Unwin)
The Shop at Hoopers Bend, Emily Rodda (HarperCollins Australia)
The Exile, Jo Sandhu (Penguin Random House Australia)
Accidental Heroes, Lian Tanner (Allen & Unwin)
Nevermoor, Jessica Townsend (Hachette Australia)
Action Tank, Mike Barry (Mike Barry Was Here)
Changing Ways book 3, Justin Randall (Gestalt)
Dungzilla, James Foley (Fremantle Press)
Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts, Craig Phillips (Allen & Unwin)
Home Time, Campbell Whyte (Penguin Random House Australia)
Tintinnabula, Margo Lanagan & Rovina Cai (ill.) (Little Hare)
“One Small Step”, Amie Kaufman (Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology,HarperCollins Australia)
“I Can See the Ending”, Will Kostakis (Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology, HarperCollins Australia)
“Competition Entry #349”, Jaclyn Moriarty (Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology, HarperCollins Australia)
“First Casualty” Michael Pryor (Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology, HarperCollins Australia)
Girl Reporter, Tansy Rayner Roberts (Book Smugglers)
“Oona Underground”, Lili Wilkinson (Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology, HarperCollins Australia)
“Reef”, Kat Clay (SQ Mag 31, IFWG Publishing Australia) 
“Outside, a Drifter”, Lisa L Hannett (Looming Low, Dim Shores)
“Angel Hair”, Deborah Sheldon (Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories, IFWG Publishing Australia)
“The Endless Below”, Alfie Simpson (Breach Issue #02)
“Old Growth”, J Ashley Smith (SQ Mag 31, IFWG Publishing Australia)
“On the Line”, J Ashley Smith (Midnight Echo 12, Australasian Horror Writers Association)
The Mailman, Jeremy Bates (Ghillinnein Books)
Hope and Walker, Andrew Cull (Vermillion Press)
“Grind”, Michael Grey (Pacific Monsters, Fox Spirit Books)
“The Stairwell”, Chris Mason (Below The Stairs – Tales from the Cellar, Things In The Well)
“No Good Deed”, Angela Slatter (New Fears 1, Titan Books)
“Furtherest”, Kaaron Warren (Dark Screams Volume 7, Cemetery Dance)
“Hamelin’s Graves”, Freya Marske (Andromeda Spaceways Magazine #69)
“The Curse is Come Upon Me, Cried”, Tansy Rayner Roberts (Please Look After This Angel & Other Winged Stories, self-published)
“The Little Mermaid, in Passing”, Angela Slatter (Review of Australian Fiction Vol 22 Issue 1)
“Duplicity”, J Ashley Smith (Dimension6 #11)
“The Rainmaker Goddess, Hallowed Shaz”, Marlee Jane Ward (Feminartsy)
“Oona Underground”, Lili Wilkinson (Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology, HarperCollins Australia).
The Book Club, Alan Baxter (PS Publishing)
“Remnants”, Nathan Burrage (Dimension6 #11, Coer de Lion)
“The Cunning Woman’s Daughter”, Kate Forsyth & Kim Wilkins (The Silver Well, Ticonderoga Publications)
In Shadows We Fall, Devin Madson (self-published)
“Braid”, Kirstyn McDermott (Review of Australian Fiction Vol 24 Issue 1)
Humanity for Beginners, Faith Mudge (Less Than Three Press)
“The Missing Years”, Lyn Battersby (Andromeda Spaceways Magazine #66)
“A Little Faith”, Aiki Flinthart (Like a Woman, Mirren Hogan)
“Cards and Steel Hearts”, Pamela Jeffs (Lawless Lands: Tales from the Weird Frontier, Falstaff Books)
“One Small Step”, Amie Kaufman (Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology,HarperCollins Australia)
“Conversations with an Armoury” Garth Nix (Infinity Wars, Solaris)
“Hurk + Dav”, Alfie Simpson (Breach Issue #01)
“This Silent Sea”, Stephanie Gunn (Review of Australian Fiction Vol 24 Issue 6)
“I Can See the Ending”, Will Kostakis (Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology, HarperCollins Australia)
“The Wandering Library”, DK Mok (Ecopunk!, Ticonderoga Publications)
“Island Green”, Shauna O’Meara (Ecopunk!, Ticonderoga Publications)
The Birdcage Heart & Other Strange Tales, Peter M Ball (Brain Jar Press) 
The Silver Well, Kate Forsyth & Kim Wilkins (Ticonderoga Publications)
Beneath the Floating City, Donna Maree Hanson (self-published)
Singing My Sister Down and Other Stories, Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)
Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories, Deborah Sheldon (IFWG Publishing Australia)
Midnight Echo #12, Shane Jiraiya Cummings & Anthony Ferguson (eds.) (Australasian Horror Writers Association)
The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2015, Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene (eds.) (Ticonderoga Publications)
Dimension6: Annual Collection 2017, Keith Stevenson (ed.) (coeur de lion publishing)
Infinity Wars, Jonathan Strahan (ed.) (Rebellion/Solaris)
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 11, Jonathan Strahan (ed.) (Rebellion/Solaris)
In The Dark Spaces, Cally Black (Hardie Grant Egmont)
Ida, Alison Evans (Echo, Bonnier Publishing Australia)
Frogkisser!, Garth Nix (Allen & Unwin)
This Mortal Coil, Emily Suvada (Puffin UK)
Psynode, Marlee Jane Ward (Seizure)
The Undercurrent, Paula Weston (Text Publishing)
Aletheia, J S Breukelaar (Crystal Lake Publishing)
Who’s Afraid Too?, Maria Lewis (Hachette Australia)
Soon, Lois Murphy (Transit Lounge)
Gwen, Goldie Goldbloom (Fremantle Press)
Cassandra, Kathryn Gossow (Odyssey Books)
Godsgrave, Jay Kristoff (HarperCollins Publishers)
Gap Year In Ghost Town, Michael Pryor (Allen & Unwin)
Wellside, Robin Shortt (Candlemark & Gleam)
Closing Down, Sally Abbott (Hachette Australia)
Year of the Orphan, Daniel Findlay (Penguin Random House Australia)
An Uncertain Grace, Krissy Kneen (Text Publishing)
From the Wreck, Jane Rawson (Transit Lounge)
Lotus Blue, Cat Sparks (Skyhorse)


So, what books or stories has this added to YOUR reading list?

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Winterfair Gifts — The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Winterfair Gifts is the latest story we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It follows on after the novel A Civil Campaign and before the novel Diplomatic Immunity. In Winterfair Gifts we get a glimpse of the Vorkosigan household in the lead up to a wedding from the point of view of Roic, a junior Vorkosigan Armsman.

You can read Tsana’s review of Winterfair Gifts here, and Katharine’s review here.

Tsana: Well. I had only vague memories of this one before re-reading. I think I probably just inhaled it on my first read through without stopping to think about it very much.

Katharine: It kept me up so late on a work night. I thought to myself ‘I’ll just get started for now and then hopefully finish it this weekend…’ and zip. Got to 90% past midnight and tore myself away.

Tsana: Lol, you managed NOT to finish it in one go when you got that close? That’s extremely impressive. I read it in one sitting in the middle of a weekend day. I had forgotten why we should care about Roic too, but as the novella quickly reminded me, he was the one that ended up covered in bug butter in A Civil Campaign.

Katharine: I was so tired and stressed about work that I figured I should keep something to look forward to. How old do we think Roic is in this one?

Tsana: He has to be in his 20s, I think? Upper limit of 25 at a guess? Which, on a slight tangent, isn’t it convenient how everyone counts time in Earth units? Even though Barrayar has longer days, I don’t remember them saying anything about different year lengths and hence different ways of calculating ages…

Katharine: It’s a bit sad that’s seemingly been thrown in the ‘too hard’ basket and they don’t care to explore that into something interesting. They could have said age doesn’t matter for that reason and yet they do rely on it for all their Vor quirks.

Tsana: I mean, it makes sense to have a galactic standard, so that part’s fine. But I do wonder about what happened with it in the Time of Isolation. Perhaps we’ll never know… :-( (Although, as someone who has devised a different time system in fiction, it is a pain in the arse to explain and keep track of, so I can understand the reluctance.)

Katharine: Maybe it’s something we can ask if we ever happen to go to the same Worldcon (or other con) as Bujold. So, Roic tells the story from his POV - guests are coming back to Barrayar for another wedding. Presents and messages are arriving for the happy couple and being put on display. And one of the guests just so happens to be Taura.

Tsana: And Elena with husband plus baby in tow. But perhaps this is the moment for the spoiler shields.


Monday, 12 February 2018

Short Stories 30 to 35

Another mix of stories this batch. The first two finished of Seanan McGuire's first collection of superhero stories, Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots, so you may have already seen my reviews of those two.

I found the middle two stories particularly powerful and I definitely recommend those to fans of horror, in the case of "The First of Her Name" and adorable robots in the case of "The Secret Life of Bots". Both were excellent reads.

Velveteen vs Patrol by Seanan McGuire — A first look at Velma’s new life superheroing for Oregon. Mostly a pleasant read about her working out her new life, with and additional dollop of foreshadowing doom thrown in. Source: http://seananmcguire.com/velvs8.php

Velveteen vs the Blind Date by Seanan McGuire — Velveteen is set up on a blind date with another freelance superhero. It seems like a terrible idea at first, but they have complementary powers and hit it off. Another entertaining read. Source: http://seananmcguire.com/velvs9.php

The First of Her Name by Elaine Cuyegkeng — A pretty horrifying story told from the point of view of a young insect in a colony. I mean, the horrifying part isn’t the insects but rather what happens to some of them. And the tone. It was chilling. Source: https://lackingtons.com/2017/02/09/the-first-of-her-name-by-elaine-cuyegkeng/

The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer — 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. Source: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/palmer_09_17/ 

The Ouroboros Bakery by Octavia Cade — An interesting idea and I liked several aspects (who doesn't like magical bakers?) but I found the story a bit too wordy overall. Source: http://www.kaleidotrope.net/archives/autumn-2017/the-ouroboros-bakery-by-octavia-cade/

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Taste of Marrow by Sarah Gailey

Taste of Marrow by Sarah Gailey is a novella about hippos, and the people that interact with them, set in an alternative 1890s US South. It is the sequel to River of Teeth, which I previously reviewed and which I found contained a bit too much hippo violence for my hippo-loving sensibilities.

A few months ago, Winslow Houndstooth put together the damnedest crew of outlaws, assassins, cons, and saboteurs on either side of the Harriet for a history-changing caper. Together they conspired to blow the damn that choked the Mississippi and funnel the hordes of feral hippos contained within downriver, to finally give America back its greatest waterway.

Songs are sung of their exploits, many with a haunting refrain: "And not a soul escaped alive."

In the aftermath of the Harriet catastrophe, that crew has scattered to the winds. Some hunt the missing lovers they refuse to believe have died. Others band together to protect a precious infant and a peaceful future. All of them struggle with who they've become after a long life of theft, murder, deception, and general disinterest in the strictures of the law.

In my review of River of Teeth I said that I probably wouldn't read the sequel because of all the hippo violence. So why did I? Well, I was told the second book had less hippo violence (true), I was invested in the characters and wanted to know what happened to them and I got a review copy of it. I started reading it near the end of a series of long-haul flights and continued while jetlagged, which probably wasn't the best way to enjoy it.

This novella picked up a few months after the previous one left off and followed two groups of characters that had become separated due to the events of the previous book. The plot centres on the characters trying to find each other again, with a bit of tying up of loose ends. There are less hippos in this one and less page time spent on their riding. Ferals do show up and meet untimely ends but on a smaller scale than in the first book. I found the hippo violence easier to overlook in this one.

I enjoyed this book but I didn’t love it. I kind of glad the series is over so I don’t have to make difficult decisions about whether to read more. Balancing my love for hippos (and my desire not to see them hurt) with the less upsetting aspects such as th diverse characters. And, for all that I’m not a fan of westerns, this one works for me (despite being set it the South, it does take a lot of queues from westerns).

I recommend Taste of Marrow to fans of River of Teeth. It doesn’t really stand alone, so if the notion of hippo-riding takes your fancy, start with the first book. If you’re indifferent to hippos but on the look out for stories with a variety of diverse characters, then I strongly suggest giving this series a go.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, Tor.com publishing
Series: Yes. River of Teeth book 2 of 2
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Netgalley

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Velveteen vs. The Junior Super Patriots by Seanan McGuire

Velveteen vs. The Junior Super Patriots by Seanan McGuire is the first collection of the Velveteen vs stories. It's out of print in ebook so I wasn't actually able to get the book, but the stories themselves are all available to read on the author's website, so I'm counting it as having read the book. Because of how I've been reading and posting mini-reviews of short stories, you might have already seen my comments on some of the stories, but I still think it's nice to collect them all in one place.

Velveteen: How dare you? I never asked for you to hunt me down!

No, Velma Martinez hadn't. But when you had once been Velveteen, child super-heroine and one of The Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division, you were never going to be free, even if your only power was to bring toys to life. The Marketing Department would be sure of that.

So it all came down to this. One young woman and an army of misfit toys vs. the assembled might of the nine members of The Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division who had come to take her down.

They never had a chance.

Velveteen lives in a world of super-heroes and magic, where men can fly and where young girls can be abducted to the Autumn Land to save Halloween. Velma lives from paycheck to paycheck and copes with her broken-down car as she tries to escape from her old life.

It's all the same world. It's all real. And figuring out how to be both Velveteen and Velma is the biggest challenge of her life, because being super-human means you’re still human in the end.

The stories in this collection are set in a world with superheroes and, more importantly, organisations managing the licensing and public appearances of superheroes. It's also set in the US, which gives it a pretty different vibe to Girl Reporter and the preceding stories by Tansy Rayner Roberts, even while it deals with some of the same themes. (For the record, I like the Roberts series more, mainly for its Australian-ness and humour, but that's not to say I'm disliking the McGuire which, as I said, is a very different take.)

The Velveteen stories deal with Vel's life as an adult after having been a child hero and after quitting the life before turning eighteen and hence avoiding some legal troubles. However, as an adult, she's not allowed to be a superhero without going back to the organisation she's escaped and wants nothing to do with. Her only hope in escaping them is to make it to Oregon, which has different state laws and  where she can be safe. Meanwhile, she's been working minimum-wage jobs and living pay-check to pay-check, so life hasn't been super fun. The stories in this collection follow her journey and eventual arrival in Oregon with a few detours for world-saving and flashbacks.

Overall these stories had a bit of bleakness to them, especially when the Junior Super Patriots were juxtaposed with Vel's adult life. Some of the stories felt more like chapters or instalments in a bigger story, which was fine since I was reading them in order (although not all in a row). For others looking to dip into the series, many of the stories work fine out of order, but some don't quite stand alone, in my opinion (as noted below). In general, I recommend these stories and this collection to fans of superheroes, especially more cynical takes on the superhero genre.

And now the stories:

Velveteen vs the Isley Crayfish Festival — A quick, fun introduction to a retired (for now?) superheroine, who features in several more stories. Recommended for fans of Tansy Rayner Roberts superhero stories and vice versa.

Velveteen vs. The Coffee Freaks — A fun superhero story about a retired child hero that just wants to get to her job interview in Portland.

Velveteen vs the Flashback Sequence — More of a chapter establishing character than a properly stand-alone story in its own right. Nevertheless, an enjoyable read.

Velveteen vs the Old Flame — A less fun read that dredges up some unfortunate back story from Velma’s time as a junior superhero. As with the previous story in this sequence, it feels a bit more like a chapter than a self-contained short story.

Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots West Coast Division — The plot thickens as Velma, our retired superheroine, faces off against the new generation of her former child hero team. New characters with interesting back stories are introduced and Velma’s road trip comes to an end.

Velveteen vs the Eternal Halloween — A story set entirely during Velveteen’s teenage years and featuring a Groundhog Day-like Halloween and the world of Halloween. A solid story. It inadvertently had me wondering how the world of Halloween would fit in with the Wayward Children, but this story was, of course, written much earlier. It was also kind of more fun (less cynical) than adult Velveteen.

Velveteen vs the Ordinary Day — Another chapter in adult Velveteen’s life. Having made it to Oregon, Velma reunites with some friends. An entertaining read.

Velveteen vs Patrol — A first look at Velma’s new life superheroing for Oregon. Mostly a pleasant read about her working out her new life, with and additional dollop of foreshadowing doom thrown in.

Velveteen vs the Blind Date — Velveteen is set up on a blind date with another freelance superhero. It seems like a terrible idea at first, but they have complementary powers and hit it off. Another entertaining read.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2012, ISFiC
Series: Yes. First collected volume of 3 so far
Format read: Individual stories online on the author's website
Source: Author's website

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor is the third and final book in the Binti trilogy of novellas. I have previously read and reviewed the first two books, Binti and Binti: Home. This book picks up right where Home left off, which is just as well since that one ended on a bit of a cliffhanger.

Binti has returned to her home planet, believing that the violence of the Meduse has been left behind. Unfortunately, although her people are peaceful on the whole, the same cannot be said for the Khoush, who fan the flames of their ancient rivalry with the Meduse.

Far from her village when the conflicts start, Binti hurries home, but anger and resentment has already claimed the lives of many close to her.

Once again it is up to Binti, and her intriguing new friend Mwinyi, to intervene--though the elders of her people do not entirely trust her motives--and try to prevent a war that could wipe out her people, once and for all.

Well. This book was an emotional roller coaster that I was in no way prepared for. It started more or less how I expected (which was dramatic enough) and then really ramped up... which I suppose I should have expected based on the earlier books. I also feel like I can’t talk about the plot at all because of spoilers. So this was a more emotional read than I was expecting, and I’m not sure that reading it on the plane was a good strategy because I think it would have had an even stronger impact if I hadn’t been a bit sleep deprived for most of it.

A while ago I saw the author describe the three books of the Binti series like this: “Girl  leaves home / Girl comes home / Girl becomes home.” And honestly, keeping that in mind while I was reading made certain events more impactful, even in light of what came next (spoilers redacted). Also, it’s a fair summary of the themes of each book.

I recommend Binti: The Night Masquerade to fans of the earlier books. This isn’t a series you can read out of order since it is more or less one continuous story broken into three parts. If you’re thinking about picking up this space opera, then definitely start with the first book, Binti. I am a bit sad the series is over, but it was a great ride and one day I’d like to reread all three novellas in quick succession, so there’s still that to look forward to.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2018, Tor.com publishing
Series: Binti book 3 of 3
Format read: ePub on Kobo
Source: Bought from Kobo

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Short Stories 26 to 30

This batch of stories brought to you by me being really into the Velveteen vs series by Seanan McGuire and also thinking that I had a short wait at the physio which turned out to be long enough for three flash stories PLUS their mini reviews. Oh well.

Velveteen vs the Eternal Halloween by Seanan McGuire — A story set entirely during Velveteen’s teenage years and featuring a Groundhog Day-like Halloween and the world of Halloween. A solid story. It inadvertently had me wondering how the world of Halloween would fit in with the Wayward Children, but this story was, of course, written much earlier. It was also kind of more fun (less cynical) than adult Velveteen. Source: http://seananmcguire.com/velvs6.php

Velveteen vs the Ordinary Day by Seanan McGuire — Another chapter in adult Velveteen’s life. Having made it to Oregon, Velma reunites with some friends. An entertaining read. Source: http://seananmcguire.com/velvs7.php

Kai Ling's Tree by Joyce Chng — A short vignette of a story, illustrating a piece of life on a Mars being terraformed. It was a nice glimpse into a possible future. Source: https://jolantru.dreamwidth.org/16009.html

Unterminator by Zen Cho — A touching flash piece about a robot sent from the future to avert an apocalypse. (Also, just first thought was that the title referred to the night/day divide kind of terminator, so, um, that was briefly confusing.) Source: http://zencho.org/unterminator/

See DANGEROUS EARTH-POSSIBLES! by Tina Connolly — A short/flash story about travelling to parallel universes where fighting monsters can be more appealing than what’s happening at home. A solid read. Source: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/see-dangerous-earth-possibles/

Friday, 2 February 2018

Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer is an epic fantasy novel set in a world built on trees in a mighty, magical forest. It’s her debut novel and the first of the Titan's Forest series. Until the release of this book last year, Dyer was primarily known as an award-winning short story writer and I have read several of her short stories in the past.

At the highest level of a giant forest, thirteen kingdoms fit seamlessly together to form the great city of Canopy. Thirteen goddesses and gods rule this realm and are continuously reincarnated into human bodies. Canopy’s position in the sun, however, is not without its dark side. The nation’s opulence comes from the labor of slaves, and below its fruitful boughs are two other realms: Understorey and Floor, whose deprived citizens yearn for Canopy’s splendor.

Unar, a determined but destitute young woman, escapes her parents’ plot to sell her into slavery by being selected to serve in the Garden under the goddess Audblayin, ruler of growth and fertility. As a Gardener, she yearns to become Audblayin’s next Bodyguard while also growing sympathetic towards Canopy's slaves.

When Audblayin dies, Unar sees her opportunity for glory – at the risk of descending into the unknown dangers of Understorey to look for a newborn god. In its depths, she discovers new forms of magic, lost family connections, and murmurs of a revolution that could cost Unar her chance…or grant it by destroying the home she loves.

The setting and world building in this book were great, but it was the characterisation of the protagonist, Unar, that really sold it for me. Unar first comes to a goddess’s magical garden to avoid being sold as a slave by her parents. She quickly takes to learning magic and becomes convinced that she is destined for great things. And she is, that’s why she’s the protagonist, they’re just not quite the great things she was hoping for. Her arrogance leads her into a lot of trouble and a lot of things go wrong for her.

There were quite a few cringe-worthy occurrences — horrible things happening to not-horrible people — and occasionally I got annoyed at Unar doing something stupid, but for the most part this was a very enjoyable read. (And if Unar never did anything stupid, what room would there be for her to grow?)

Back to the world building, this isn’t a world living on a single giant tree, as I had first expected before I started reading. This is a whole forest made up of a wide variety of trees. A lot of them are distinctly Australian in flavour, which was a nice touch. The better-off people live in the canopy with the gods, while others eke out a less prosperous existence lower down, where there’s less sun and scary predators. There is also clearly a lot more to the god and magic stuff than has been revealed in this first book. I look forward to learning more about it in the sequel.

This was a very good read and I highly recommend it to all fans of fantasy. Readers looking for a different setting, that is very much not Medieval European, will find much to appreciate here. I am definitely planning to read the sequel very soon and I look forward to learning more about the world as we discover what comes next for the characters.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, Tor
Series: Titan's Forest
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from iBooks