Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Reviews: Recent Sci-Fi Reads

Today, I’m reviewing two adult science fiction novels I’ve read recently! Both are new releases; one is a new installment in a well-loved series and one an introspective futuristic novel translated from Chinese.


52381770._sx318_sy475_I first decided to read Network Effect because of the hype. I know, I know, that kind of thing usually doesn’t end well, but while I love Murderbot, I don’t think one character is ever enough to carry a whole novel – not when I hadn’t felt anything about any other character in the last two novellas. However, since I know this will probably be a Hugo nominee next year, and since I had just read Exit Strategy (of which I won’t post a full review just because I found it that uninteresting), this seemed like a good idea.

And at first, it didn’t go well. I was kind of bored for the first 30% and I considered DNFing the book, because none of the human characters were that interesting (as usual for this series, and to a degree I think this is a deliberate choice) and there was that weird alien contamination plotline I wasn’t a fan of. However, I like the narration and I do care about Murderbot (also, these books are funny), so I continued.

And, once ART/Perihelion was in action, I couldn’t stop screaming internally. I’m understanding just how much it wasn’t a case that Artificial Condition was my favorite of the novellas. ART and Murderbot have Feelings about each other! Which they’d never want to admit! And it’s so funny to see two characters be dragged by all the humans around them because they won’t admit they’re friends – and the effect is strengthened by Murderbot’s organic and inorganic parts running almost completely on denial.

Also, the way Amena (Mensah’s teenage daughter) ends up being the middleman of the situation? Perfect, best character dynamic of the year, award-deserving

I still didn’t strongly care about the plot, or the world; while I like the commentary around the existence of corporations and their profit-driven way of life being inherently tied to AIs (an certain people’s) lack of rights, I just don’t find this universe to be that interesting! It’s very straightforward, which I guess makes it accessible, but it doesn’t do much more than throw acronyms at you without much context. Why write sci-fi if you won’t even try to use the Cool Factor!

I might read the recently-announced Fugitive Telemetry next year, because Network Effect finally gave me the feeling that the plot is going to branch out from the repetitive outline of the novellas, which all kind of felt like remixes of each other – we’ll see. This was overall a fun time, and I wouldn’t mind rereading it someday (…though I’d probably be skimming the first 30%)

My rating: ★★★¾


Vagabonds is a Chinese science-fiction novel by Hugo-Award winning author Hao Jingfang, translated into English by Ken Liu, and I listened to an audiobook narrated by Emily Woo Zeller. This was a buddy read with Silvia, and if you’re interested in reading this book, I really recommend reading it with a friend. It will give you the motivation to get through what’s a 640-page-tome/21-hour-audiobook, and discussing it – because there will be a lot to discuss – is half the fun. (All of the fun? This was many things but it wasn’t fun.)

“This is the tale of the fall of the last utopia.”
Vagabonds, prologue.

48593538._sy475_Don’t let the prologue fool you: Vagabonds is not that kind of sci-fi. It’s not a war story, even though the possibility and memory of war are ever-present shadows; it’s not a story about an apocalypse. It is a slow-paced, introspective novel about a group of young Martians returning to their planet after having spent years studying on Earth, where they started to question everything about their way of life. This is a tale about the fall of the very concept of utopia in the characters’ mind; a story about loss of faith accompanied by gain of insight. A story about how a society came close to becoming the very thing it swore to never be.

While it follows many characters, the closest thing to a main character Vagabonds has is Louying, the granddaughter of the Martian consul and one of the eighteen-year-olds returning from Earth. We follow her journey in discovering the history of her family and some ugly truths tied to it; we follow her as she asks questions and tries to find answers that work for her, and a place that might fit her after the way her experience in with living on two very different planets shaped her.

Louying has been taught she lives in an utopia, while the citizens of Earth believe her grandfather is a dictator; the truth is much more complicated than either statement. This book navigates these questions – what makes an utopia; what is freedom; what it means to be a dictator – while exploring many different points of views. It compares Martian collectivism against the individualism of Earth, digs into each society’s failing, and it never gives you definitive answers, but it still exposes the dangers of cultural exceptionalism, supremacy and close-mindedness. At its heart, Vagabonds is a story about the importance of communication between different viewpoints, how we can all learn a lot from each other.

I’m always here for stories that talk about what utopia might mean. I find the very concept of utopia as we usually conceive it inherently disturbing because stasis seems encoded in its very foundation, when that’s antithetical to human nature, or nature in general. (If ecological stability in an ecosystem is always is a dynamic equilibrium, I don’t have reasons to believe the situation is much different for human societies.) This book gets how every generation perceives its society in a different way and always strives for change, as it’s natural, but sometimes doesn’t understand the impact it may have.

I liked the lack of answers paired to a very well-defined, resonant character arc. At the same time, my usual bookish habitat is western queer SFF, so I kept thinking that Mars is a dystopia without considering any of these things just for its treatment of women – all people involved in politics are men and so are most people this book shows being involved in the sciences (all the relevant female characters are artists); you can also see the reflection of this in how the men around Louying treat her. I recognize this as the simplistic take it is, and yet it’s not something I can brush off. Maybe it’s because it isn’t an element of comparison – I don’t have any reason to believe book-Earth is any better in this – so the book chose not to engage with that. I don’t know; I’ll just say that it kept jumping up at me. Especially considering how multifaceted the worldbuilding is, how the book manages to talk in detail about the role of art, architecture, history, revolutions and innovation in a society, also going into the details of physics and engineering on Mars.

In an American categorization, this book would probably be seen as something standing on the line between genre and literary fiction, with the premise of the first and the mood and aim of the second. As I’m only familiar with the first, I can say that compared to the average sci-fi, is significantly slower, descriptive and meandering, with an almost dreamlike atmosphere. The characters are wonderfully crafted but you’re not reading the story for them (for the most part, I say, thinking about Dr. Reini), and there are some beautiful parts involving space exploration on the surface of Mars, but they’re again not the point. I ended up liking this book for what it was, but I think it’s important to know all of this before going into it – it’s not what you usually get from a sci-fi Saga Press tome. As for the translation, this is possibly the best translation I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of them. It probably helps that the translator is an author himself.

My rating: ★★★★


Have you read or want to read any of these? Can you tell I wrote one of these in a hurry because conjunctivitis means I can’t look at a screen for too long? I say it shows

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

40815235._sy475_I almost didn’t read The City of the Middle of the Night because my previous experiences with Charlie Jane Anders – both with short fiction and with her novel All the Birds in the Sky – weren’t positive. Then I decided to challenge myself to read all the Hugo Award finalists in the Best Novel category, and I’m so glad I did; this book has some of the most interesting worldbuilding I’ve read in a while, character dynamics that deeply appeal to me, and writing so beautiful I could cry.

At its heart, this is a story about a toxic relationship between two women, the kind of toxic relationship queer women in a heteronormative society are intimately familiar with: the love for the popular, Straight best friend who claims to love you (though how is always left to interpretation, deliberately) but actually sees you as a pawn, as means to an end more than anything. It’s not a case that this book ended where it did, and the final confrontation wasn’t about the revolution or what will happen to Xiosphant. The City in the Middle of the Night is about Sophie and Bianca, what they feel for each other, why they are drawn to each other and why they chafe, always chafe in the end.
It’s a story about the importance of open-mindedness and acceptance, about how for some fighting for change is a way to help people thrive, while for others is only important as far as it gives them privilege, attention, power over others. It’s the negative of a love story, and yet there’s so much love in its pages, in the questions it raises, in the ending it chose.

Sophie and Bianca aren’t the only main characters. Half of this book is told in Mouth’s PoV, and I found those parts to be less compelling for a variety of reasons, the main one being how the supporting characters in it weren’t as well-drawn. Mouth’s and Alyssa’s relationship was an interesting foil to Sophie and Bianca’s, strained for different reasons but born from similarities between the two characters (though again, I didn’t feel it was as well-developed), and Mouth’s arc was a foil to Sophie’s. Sophie’s story is about knowledge as a bridge over misunderstanding, the importance of learning about the past, while Mouth’s was about knowledge as something that drags you down, and the need to let go of the past. I live for foils, and I thought this was really clever, because it’s true that a core part of being human is wondering how much of the past one can forgive or understand or let go. It’s often not easy to understand which between forgetting or deepening one’s understanding would help.
And, of course, Gelet society is a foil to humanity in that! It only makes sense for a book set on a tidally locked planet, half day and half night, to exist in mirrors and explore the gray between the ends of binaries, after all.

Now, let’s talk about the worldbuilding. Setting a book on a tidally locked planet is an incredibly cool concept to begin with, and the details made it even better, made it feel real, while never making anything difficult to grasp. We start the story in Xiosphant, the city in which Time has become a way to control the people through the idea of Circadianism: everyone has to do the same things at the same time. Everything is designed to make you feel like you’re running out of time, to make not wonder about the past so that you can’t talk about privilege and power being concentrated in certain groups, to make you not talk about what’s outside because the solutions that work for other countries could never work for Xiosphant, Xiosphant is special (this has a quote that is basically a parody American exceptionalism and that was my favorite moment). This book isn’t exactly subtle, but sometimes one needs to go for the throat. And this might be a horrible place, but the details about the many different kinds of currency, the shutters and the farmwheels… it was so fascinating to read.

Xiosphant’s foil is Argelo, the city that never sleeps, in which there’s always some kind of party going on, some kind of battle, sometimes both things at the same time, and everything is based on “freedom”, the freedom to do as one pleases, which usually includes trampling others and forming gangs to survive. The descriptions of the parties and locals in Argelo were breathtaking in all their extravagant details, and yet there was always that atmosphere of emptiness to it.
Both cities are dying, and have a lot in common – the violence, the lack of care and sense of community, the aversion to meaningful change – and the climate is going to destroy them in not much time, if everyone on the planet doesn’t start cooperating in some way. While reading this, especially the Argelo part, I kept thinking about how in a book that doesn’t grasp the dynamics of privilege, what privilege does to people (like, uh, most YA dystopians) Bianca would have been the heroine. I’m glad this is not that kind of book.

Argelo, Xiosphant and the City in the Middle of the Night (where the alien Gelet live) aren’t the only societies explored. We also get to know about the people in Mouth’s past, the Nomads, and their storyline had some really interesting parts, but again, like everything in Mouth’s storyline, I didn’t feel like the full implications of them were explored. When we have a storyline as well-rounded as Sophie’s, with a in-depth exploration of PTSD, of a toxic relationship and of an entire alien society, Mouth’s story just feels faded, even though I get why it was there.

I couldn’t end this review without talking about the writing, which I loved. For the descriptions, for how effective it was, for how much of this I highlighted. I understand why it’s polarizing, it keeps you at arm’s length from the characters. But, once you settle into it, it carries you in its flow like the visions of the Gelet, and it’s breathtaking.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Book review · contemporary · Sci-fi · Young adult

Review: The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum + Small Haul

My physical copy of The Weight of the Stars arrived yesterday, which led me to realize that I haven’t posted my review of it – of one of my favorite novels of the year, which I can now confirm is also beautiful in person – on this blog yet. I read in in June as an ebook and I have talked about it multiple times, but never scheduled the review, so here it is:

36952571The Weight of the Stars is the kind of novel that reminds me of the power of quiet books. There are no grand revelations, surprises or explosions; just two girls, their friends, and the stars – and yet it feels so wide, carrying so much weight sometimes in just a paragraph, so much emotion in the unspoken moments.
It does feel like looking at the stars.

This is a story about Ryann, a queer butch girl, who falls in love with Alexandria, a biracial black girl whose mother left to live in space and never returned to earth. It’s a story about them and their friend group, a group of teenagers (many of which queer and/or people of color) just trying to make it work despite their trauma and the general unfairness of life. It’s about humanity, and the ways we look at space. It’s so many things, and I won’t lie, just like The Wicker Kingit’s such a strange book. It will either speak to you or not make much sense, but I’m sure that in either case it will be unlike every other thing you’ve ever read.

The romance felt also very different to me. Not only because it’s f/f, even though that’s always something I look for, but because Ryann and Alexandra’s relationship isn’t… soft, unlike most f/f romances I know, especially in YA. It’s angry, it’s raw, it’s deeply beautiful.
The friendships are far softer, though not always, but I loved them too. Of the side characters, Ahmed was my favorite, and I was living for the cameos of the characters from The Wicker King (so, Ahmed’s three parents. Who are happy and in love. Polyamory rep and Sikh rep!)

Just like with the previous book, there are some mixed media aspects to this. I’m not only referring to the way chapters are structured – extremely short, with a time in the place of a title – but also to some things that happen near the end. I thought that part was beautiful; I thought it was necessary, because one can’t think about space and not be aware of their own smallness, one can’t think about space and not be aware of being just a part of a whole – one can’t think about space without thinking about humanity.

I loved most of this book. However, I don’t see it as a full five stars. Because I liked these characters, and cared about them, and yet I didn’t understand them, and something got lost along the way.

I think I know what happened. A big plot point in this book is people being separated because they decide to live the rest of their lives in space, away from earth. I think I was supposed to feel that mix of wonder and grief and longing for infinity they felt, and at times I did, but mostly I couldn’t. I am the kind of person who sees the meaning of life on leaves, and feels so strongly about plants that is afraid of them. I… have roots, and the idea of leaving it all behind, the plants of which I want to learn the names of or the combtooth blennies or even the polychaetes living in polluted waters – I don’t think I will ever be able to understand that decision.

I understand that not everyone sees things like I do, but I was so caught up in how horrifying I found even only the idea of teenagers deciding to leave the earth to live shut off in a box floating in nothingness, so away from life, that the ending landed with half the impact it could have had.

It still made me feel so much, and for that, I will always remember it positively.

My rating: ★★★★¾


Small Haul

I only buy physical copies in English a few times a year, not counting the rare occasions in which a book worth buying mysteriously appears in my Italian bookstore’s minuscule English section. (For example, that’s how I got my paperback of The Kingdom of Copper. If you’re wondering, no, the first book in the series never showed up. Neither do far more popular high fantasy series. Italian bookstores really are a mystery.)

This time, I got:

IMG_20190912_202638353

  • Middlegame by Seanan McGuire: this… this was a replacement goldfish, basically. You might already know that I almost only buy physical copies of favorite books, and only make exceptions for some authors (Yoon Ha Lee, mostly) and really, really, really anticipated releases. The really anticipated release this time was Gideon the Ninth, but when I saw that the price (30€? Is that a joke? I hope gets reasonable before next year), I decided to get something else instead of buying nothing, because I could. Middlegame was half the price, which is saner.
  • The Weight of the Stars by Kayla Ancrum: see review. If physical copies are an option for you, I really recommend it, as the mixed media aspect works even better (the background of some pages is different, which wasn’t true for the ebook).
  • Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear: one of my favorite books of the year, another of which I still need to post a review of (yes, I fully admit that I was lazy about scheduling this summer). I don’t know if the picture shows that very well but this is a Tome. Such a beautiful book, inside and outside, and really heavy (only on the outside… mostly.)

Have you read any of these?

 

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Aliette de Bodard

45429770._sy475_Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight is a short story collection written by one of my favorite authors, Aliette de Bodard.

I knew I needed to read this when I got to know that there was an f/f novella in it – about Emmanuelle and Selene from the Dominion of the Fallen series, and really, the main reason I love them are the scenes of them I saw in various short stories and novellas, this one included – and it didn’t disappoint. I probably would have read this anyway because I always want more Xuya universe (and short stories set in space in general), but the fact that the novella wasn’t the only f/f story was also a nice surprise.

As one can guess from the title, most stories in Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight have something to do with a war. If you think this could be repetitive, it’s not, because these stories about war aren’t stories about battles, but about the repercussions of it. It’s about how war changes people on a personal level just as much as it can change a country, and about how war and diaspora influence a culture.
What I want the most from collections (and anthologies, too), is that they feel more than the sum of their parts, and that’s definitely true for this book. There’s a value in this multifaceted approach to a theme that one can’t get from reading all these stories individually in different moments.
So yes, this is about war, from many different angles, and yet it’s all but depressing. Some parts of it are definitely dark – I think this hits the darkest points in The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile and in The Waiting Stars, though The Jaguar House, In Shadow was also almost there, since it dealt with totalitarianism – but others aren’t, and the collection ends on a lighter note with the novella Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness, in which the main characters try to make a party work in the aftermath of the fall of House Silverspires. (By the way: all the scenes involving Morningstar were so funny. I’m kind of sorry for Emmanuelle, but… so funny)

Even then, not all stories deal primarily with war. The Dust Queen is about the role of pain in art, Pearl is a beautiful retelling of a Vietnamese lengend in space, and there are a few stories that are mostly about grief – Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight, which was a reread for me and my introduction to the Xuya universe, and A Salvaging of Ghosts – and some in which the main theme is colonization, my two favorite stories in here, Memorials and Immersion.
Memorials does talk about the aftermath of a war, and it’s about… pain-based tourism and voyeuristic portrayals of war, but it’s also a story about taking back the ways your culture is misrepresented, and about what you owe to your people. This one was so vivid that the first thing I think of when I think about this book are the food descriptions (especially the scene in which the aunts order chè ba màu).
Immersion is about globalization as a subtler form of colonization. It’s one of the stories that stands better on its own and it’s about how the colonizer’s interpretation of a culture can be prioritized, and about how people who are used to living as a part of the dominant culture assume their own as a default (the usual “I have no culture”) and so they try to reduce others to a few key points, the ones that feel the most different. About how this affects the people who are othered, and their sense of self, because being more similar to the dominant culture is seen as “progress” no matter what, and people end up hurting themselves in the attempt to assimilate. There’s a lot here and it deserves all the awards it got.

(Also, I didn’t mention it before because that’s true for basically everything Aliette de Bodard writes, but I think all the main characters are people of color, mostly but not only Vietnamese, and almost all of them are women.)

Since these stories have been written from 2010 to 2019, there are a few that feel dated. While I really liked The Shipmaker for being a bittersweet f/f story, the way it talked about being queer in a far-future space society and the way it accidentally conflated having an uterus with being a woman really made the fact that it was written in 2011 stand out.
Overall, while not every story worked for me on its own – that’s the way collection and anthologies go – I’m really satisfied with the collection as a whole, and I really appreciated seeing so many sides of the Xuya universe, which I previously mostly knew from the novellas. If I rated every story individually, I would have an average rating of 4.07, but this is worth more than that for me, and I rated it five stars on goodreads.

The Shipmaker – 4,5
The Jaguar House, in Shadow – 4,5
Scattered Along the River of Heaven – 2,5
Immersion – 5
The Waiting Stars – 2,5
Memorials – 5
The Breath of War – 3
The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile – 3,5
The Dust Queen – 4
Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight – 4,5
A Salvaging of Ghosts – 3
Pearl – 5
Children of Thorns, Children of Water – 5
Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness – 5

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War + Small Discussion

Today, I will be reviewing This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, and also talk about a short story I really recommend reading before/after reading this novella, That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn.


36516585This Is How You Lose the Time War is a novella about a love that transcends time, space and humanity. It’s beautiful and lyrical and heartbreaking; it’s all of these things and I loved its ending so much that I don’t feel like I can do this story justice with a review. Just know that, while this is an epistolary f/f enemies-to-lovers story set during a time-travel war, calling it that feels almost reductive.

It follows two entities, “Red” and “Blue”, both presenting as women but who don’t strictly adhere to our definition of what a human is, and there’s a time war. If you’re the kind of person who needs to know the reasons and the workings of everything, this won’t work for you; it’s often vague, but as I didn’t feel like much more context was needed, I didn’t have a problem with that.

The writing in here will be polarizing. At times, I hated it: it was pretentious, and it made me feel like the authors were trying to show off how many pretty sentences they were able to string together without saying that much at all. But in other places it was beautiful and powerful, and the foreshadowing was woven into this story effortlessly – which only makes sense in something about braiding time.
And you know what else makes sense? That a story about Red and Blue writing to each other would be 90% Purple prose.

In one of my updates, I said that I wondered whether this started out as a short story. If you’ve ever read some short fiction on online magazines, you probably recognize the metaphor-heavy style and the vagueness of the worldbuilding, and I mean, if I’m going to read something that short, I want something really pretty that will make me feel and won’t need that much background to do so. I wouldn’t have minded if the authors had toned all of this here a bit down, however.

My rating: ★★★★½


On What I Got From This

The major spoiler is hidden but there could be small ones

It’s weird how sometimes reading a book can help you understand something you read years before.

You should know, from that title, that This Is How You Lose the Time War will be in some way about someone losing a war involving time travel. And it is. But the question that is woven between its lines isn’t “how could they have won”: it’s “can you ever win a war?” Can a successful war effort ever be seen as a victory? The title tells you, this is how you lose.

A certain character says, at the end:

This is how we win. Losing the war – letting go of it – is winning at life.

ThatGameIt reminded me so much of a few lines that had stuck with me in a short story I loved in 2017, That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn. A few lines that had something important to tell me, and I knew that, but while I loved the story, I didn’t really get what¹.

For some context: the war has ended, and the main character Calla (who is Enith, non-telepathic) is playing chess against a telepath (a Gaanth, so someone who was an enemy – at least on paper – until very recently) and employing a specific anti-telepath strategy. One of the other Gaanth says:

“This is how you won,” one of them said, amazed. He wasn’t talking about the game.
“No,” Calla said. “This is how we failed to lose.”

I think I know what it means, now. Winning would imply there was something positive about the whole thing, and there wasn’t, there had never been. The deceptively happy tone of the story is a happiness built from ruin, so fragile and so impactful, and it might feel naive at times, but sometimes you need to let go of that cynicism. Sometimes you need to let go and rebuild.


¹ something about 17-year-old me: she kept falling in love with books she didn’t understand, and she couldn’t explain why. It was something like a message hidden, something that resonated with me in ways I didn’t have words for – the biggest example of this is The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, a story about perfectionism that I didn’t even understand was about perfectionism until I reread it.

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

42201485Hexarchate Stories is a collection of stories – from flash fiction and prose poems, both old and new, to a sequel novella – set in the universe of the Machineries of Empire series.
While many of these stories develop the worldbuilding, give a PoV to characters that were only minor in the trilogy, and give you some insight into how this series came together, they’re not necessary to understand it. Nor – I think – would mean a lot to someone who isn’t familiar with the main trilogy. I would recommend this mostly to those who loved this universe and want more.
As I’m part of said those, I’m glad these stories exist, and I’m glad that I can find most of them in only one place now.

This collection starts with The Chameleon’s Gloves, following Rhehan, an alt (non-binary person) who is trying to pull off art theft and gets roped into something much more dangerous instead, something that will make them question their loyalties. This was interesting mostly because of its worldbuilding, as it’s set before everything we saw in the series came into being.
Of mostly historical significance is also Seven Views of the Liozh Entrance Exam, snapshots about a faction then gone heretical, which made me realize just how much the Hexarchate misunderstands its own history.

And I can’t not mention the gorgeous prose poem How the Andan Court. I’ve always been intrigued by the Andan faction, mostly because a) pretty and b) we see a lot of the inner workings of the Shuos, but not of the Andan, but from the little we see of actual Andan in the series they’re equally terrifying.
And now I want them to court me instead

There are also stories following Jedao’s childhood and family. They’re bittersweet, especially if you know what happens later, and really interesting, because Garach Ledana is a very fascinating person and because foreshadowing. The one in Rodao’s PoV was especially heartbreaking, as I can’t help but wonder about all the what ifs.
(Also, of course kid!Jedao cut class to play jeng-zai)

Then there’s Extracurricular Activities, the novelette that introduced me to this series. It has all the humor of the series, but it’s much lighter in tone; I’ve read it probably more than ten times by now, and every time I catch some new detail that makes me laugh. (The part about eating utensils and Jedao’s thoughts about knives never fail.)
It’s just – Jedao. He’s a charming, murderous bisexual disaster?
Also, here you’ll get more details about his mother, about the Gwa Reality, and you’ll get to read probably the closest thing to a (m/m) romance there is in this series, apart from the Brezan/Tseya storyline, maybe.

Far less romantic is Gloves, in which Jedao visits a brothel, feat. forbidden Kel uniform kink. Basically PWP, but as I suspected, there was some seriously ugly context, because my experience told me that when this author takes the time to describe a sex scene instead of just mentioning it – at least in this universe – there’s always some seriously ugly context.
And I mean, that was one messed up ending.

Another story I read before the actual trilogy is The Battle of Candle Arc, about of one of Jedao’s most well-known battles, in which he was outnumbered eight to one. I’ve read it a lot of times by now, and every time, my favorite parts are the ones about cross-faction bickering and the Jedao/Menowen dialogues.

Then there’s Calendrical Rot, which started out as the prologue of Ninefox Gambit but was then removed. It’s just a fragment about one of the many places in which the story began, and now I have questions, and is it weird that unanswered questions just make this world feel more real?

The following stories (BirthdaysThe Robot’s Math LessonsSword-ShoppingPersimmons) are about Cheris, her Mwennin upbringing, and her relationship with servitors. I love how Cheris is simultaneously a math lesbian and a sword lesbian, this is the kind of representation we need
The servitors have never been my favorite part of this series, but reading about how they see humans and how they interact with them, especially with Cheris, is always interesting.

Then there are two stories following some of my favorite characters: Irriz the Assassin Cat, of course, which is probably my favorite of the flash pieces, because it’s about Zehun and cats and Shuos parenting, and Vacation, about Brezan and Tseya, featuring questionable Nirai experiments.

The last short story is Gamer’s End. I’m not sure where it’s placed timeline-wise, but it’s a really interesting piece in second person about Shuos Academy’s new ethics curriculum. This is probably the most unethical way to have a test about ethics anyone has ever come up with, but what can you expect from the Shuos?
Also: a medical unit decored with knitted lace? Mikodez, why. (No, seriously, half of the reason I like this series are this kind of details.)

And then there’s the sequel novella, Glass Cannon, in which Jedao Two escapes the Citadel of Eyes to get his memories back from Cheris, and the two kind of reconcile in the process. I have some mixed feelings about this, because it has an exposition problem. I think there was an attempt to make this novella accessible to those who haven’t read the main series or don’t remember it that well, but it… really didn’t flow smoothly the way the rest of the series does. (How many times did you need to directly tell me that Kujen liked luxury?)

Also, I’m not sure if there are going to be more stories in this universe, but reading a very open-ended sequel novella after the trilogy had a pretty satisfying conclusion is… somewhat disappointing? However, there were some things left open in the third book, and this novella started to deal with them (servitor rights! moth rights! Seriously I love the Harmony), and Jedao Two was in a terrible place mentally when we left him – at least what happened here seems to have made that better. Also, Cheris now knows more details about what happened with Dhanneth, which is something I had hoped would happen in Revenant Gun, and I’m glad that was addressed, if somewhat obliquely.

I realize that so far what I’ve said about this novella sounds mostly negative, but I actually really liked reading it – it’s hilarious. As Cheris/Jedao and Jedao Two are both Jedao to a level but not fully, and as no one alive hates Jedao quite as much as Jedao himself does… well, it goes exactly as messily as one could think. It reminded me of Extracurricular Activities, as it has all of the humor and some of the darkness of the main series but none of the heaviness. And since I’m always there for mirroring, something about this ending made a lot of sense to me, too.
(My favorite parts were the ones in which Jedao was described as “the regenerating menace from outer space” and “what did the void vomit forth”.)
Also: Niath cameo (I’m so glad he seems to be doing ok, even though I hadn’t really met him before), Hemiola cameo, and poor Mikodez.

My rating: ★★★★½ [5 for the short stories, 4 for the novella]

Adult · Book review · Short fiction

Reviews: 2019 Novellas From Tor.com

Today, I’m reviewing three Tor.com novellas that came out this year, In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire, Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh and Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan.


38244358In an Absent Dream is a cautionary tale about the dangers and consequences of indecision. You go into it knowing – or at least strongly suspecting – what’s going to happen, and that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking or impactful, because its tragic nature doesn’t live in a twist or in a revelation, but in how easily avoidable on a superficial level and completely inevitable deep down its ending felt.

This is a story about being caught between two worlds, about the inherent unfairness of having to choose paired with how it would be unfair to the people around you not to – because you can’t live in two worlds at the same time.

I think every reader can relate to Lundy’s struggle on some level. I think most of us have dreamed, at some point or another, to be able to escape to a magical world. After all, it’s what this series is about. It’s easy, and this book acknowledges that, to think that choosing one world over another would be painless when one isn’t actually confronted with that choice.
Lundy, unlike most people, is given that choice – and in a modern culture that values individual choices as the pillar of freedom, it’s really interesting and chilling to see how having to choose tears her apart.
I feel like we often overlook the role and power of communities even when we talk about agency and how a character’s choices should be the ones to drive the story, so this book is, if anything, a necessary reminder.

This novella also made me think about fairness, about whether something like that can ever really exist. The world of the Goblin Market is fair, supposedly – but is it really? It certainly highlighted a lot of flaws in our own, but it’s still not a place I would ever want to be in. I think most humans need some unfairness to exist and not be stifled by rules, but unfairness is a bad thing (now I’m thinking about the intermediate disturbance hypothesis in ecology and maybe humanity needs something like that to thrive too? But still, where would be the balance in that).
I don’t know. I’m not sure the way this book would want me to be. But it made me think about many things in a really short time, and I appreciate that a lot.

On a different level, I loved this book for the way it made the Goblin Market come to life. I felt like I could taste the pies and climb the trees along with Moon and Lundy, and I could see the archivist’s shack. This is even more remarkable considering that I usually struggle with this aspect while listening to audiobooks, but not this time. Cynthia Hopkins’ narration was amazing, and I might even say that Seanan McGuire’s writing works better when narrated, as it relies heavily on telling instead of showing. It slows down the story when you’re reading, but it’s actually a strength when the story is being read to you, and that was really interesting to experience.

My rating: ★★★★


43459657Silver in the Wood reads like a forest fairytale. It could be seen like a loose m/m retelling of the Green Man myths, so it’s fitting that this is a story about rebirth and reawakening, not only of nature after spring but of people after toxic relationships.

It’s a quiet, slow story, and if at first I thought that the pacing was odd – things happen too quickly, but the book is still slow? – I realized that in a way it was a reflection of how the main character, who is part of the wood, experienced time himself.

This is also one of the best plant magic stories I’ve ever read. Not only it’s about a vaguely creepy wood, it actually talks about which trees there are in detail – elms, oaks, and even a mention of gorse (I love gorse) – and there are scenes in which roots and vines are weapons.

What didn’t work for me as much was the romance, as this is barely longer than 100 pages and the characters interact for only half of them; I thought it was cute, but I didn’t feel it.

At times it reminded me of Witchmark for the sweet romance between a human and a paranormal creature, at times it reminded me of Strange Grace for the isolated town in the wood and the terrible things that lurk in it, and I’d definitely recommend it to everyone who liked those books.

My rating: ★★★★


40939044Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water is a mind-bending and very gay futuristic sci-fi novella whose main character is a queer latinx woman.

At first, I thought this was going to be a cave horror story about an f/f/f love triangle, which I loved as a concept, but this book turned out to be something entirely different, which was… both the story’s main strength and weakness.

I love being surprised by things that are properly foreshadowed, but when the foreshadowing makes you feel like the main character could say “and it was all just a dream!” at any moment, it’s not really an enjoyable experience. (That’s not what happened, by the way.)
Because Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water is dreamlike in an ephemeral way: it’s not whimsical, it just feels like it could fall apart at any moment and become something else – because that’s what dreams do.

Also, this book reminded me why I dislike amnesia as a trope: I don’t know the main character when I start the book, and when she doesn’t know herself either, how am I really going to ever get to know her? (Especially in so little space.)

However, I liked this book’s message and the way it talked about trauma and inner strength. (I wish I could say more, because I thought that aspect was really well-written, but it would be full of spoilers.) Also, reading something that is really short but manages to surprise me twice anyway is always pleasant.

My rating: ★★★¼


What are your favorite Tor.com novellas? Have you read any of these?

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

40523931I feel like I’m back to a Too Like the Lightning situation: The Light Brigade is just as unreadable as it is clever. But finished it, and I have feelings, so it must mean something. How do I even rate something like this?

The way I rated Too Like the Lightning, I guess.

My first reaction, when I finished this, was “I want to lie down somewhere and look at the stars”. Which, one could think, is an odd thing to take away from one of the bleakest, most depressing books I have ever read – something I actively hated reading.
But the ending was… I don’t know if I can even describe what worked exactly about the ending. It’s something you have to experience for yourself.
And I think that it takes skill to write a book as bleak as The Light Brigade that still manages to make the reader feel something in the end that isn’t completely negative. Most SFF books about the horrors of war don’t do that (and I dislike them for it. I don’t know, I’m stressed and sad enough as is, and if I want more, I have real stories to draw from).

But I think it’s also fair to say that a book isn’t only its ending, and someone might want to know if reading 300+ pages of pure ugly is worth those last few chapters. For me…. it was, mostly.
There was nothing to keep me reading this book. Nothing apart from the fact that Kameron Hurley wrote one of my favorite books – and, to quote The Light Brigade, this probably also had an influence:

[…] there’s this thing called escalation of commitment. That once people have invested a certain amount of time in a project, they won’t quit, even if it’s no longer a good deal.

Anyway. I’m glad it worked in my favor, I’m glad this isn’t the first book I’ve read by Kameron Hurley, and I’m glad this made me trust her enough to finish The Light Brigade.

This is a novel set in a future in which corporations own everything, from infrastructures to healthcare to the people themselves and their access to information. And they’re in a war with the humans who settled on Mars, because the Martians are evil. Supposedly.
The worldbuilding here was… solid, for the most part. I had no idea how anything or anyone looked like, but if you look for novels in which the worldbuilding is focused on the themes and low on the details, The Light Brigade is exactly that. So much that one might even criticize it for lack of subtlety in its discussions on the role of war, the meaning of freedom and heroism, and its criticism of capitalism, but sometimes that’s necessary. Not because readers won’t get it, but because there was no way the main character wouldn’t react strongly in situations like these.

All of Kameron Hurley’s books end up doing interesting things with gender. God’s War had a woman in a stereotypically male role, The Stars Are Legion had an all-lesbian cast, and The Light Brigade has a main character who narrates the book in first person whose gender isn’t explicitly stated until the ending. Which makes sense, because why would it matter, in a book about a sci-fi war? But Dietz is also explicitly bi/pan, and while that doesn’t “matter” either – Dietz just is attracted to people of different genders – I really appreciated it.
Also, I think Dietz is afrolatinx too (lives in São Paulo and is of Ivorian descent).

The Light Brigade is also a very confusing read. It’s a story about a character who starts experiencing time jumps because of an unusual reaction to sci-fi technology. Which means that Dietz doesn’t experience time the way other characters do, and this story is very difficult to follow – there are still some details that are lost on me – but the way it adds distance between the tragedies and the main character oddly made it easier to read? It also meant that there was a lot of distance between the main character and all the side characters, and if you’re the kind of person who reads books for the interactions between characters, this is something to keep in mind. But I didn’t have a problem with the “all the side characters kind of blur together” thing, as I imagine that’s how it would feel to be around so many people who die.

I (mostly) hated reading this, and continued just because writing and pacing were great and because I trusted the author, but it also made me think about a lot of things, which I guess was the point. I don’t want to penalize a book for what it meant to do. Also, if a book has so many things I don’t like reading about in it – dystopian worlds, time travel, a lot of meaningless-feeling death – and still works for me?
It means it’s really good.

My rating: ★★★★

Book review · Sci-fi · Young adult

WANT + RUSE by Cindy Pon: Spoiler-Free Series Review

Today, I’m reviewing the two books in the Want duology by Cindy Pon, which follows a group of Asian teenagers in a near-future, very polluted world as they try to make the situation better. It’s mainly about class privilege and environmentalism.

There won’t be any spoilers for either books.


32333174Want is one of the best YA dystopians ever published.
I tend not to like dystopians. Some of them don’t work because they’re thinly-disguised romances in which the “dystopian” part doesn’t make any sense, and most of them aren’t that interesting to read because the setting is always a terribly bland future version of the USA.

Not in this book, and I don’t mean that just because it’s set in Taipei. Want is a story that portrays hope in a ruined world not only through the plot, but also through the setting. For a story set in a polluted city, it’s very atmospheric, and there are so many beautiful descriptions – not only of the extravagant sci-fi technology, but also of the night markets, of the food, of the ways humans try to change their appearance when they can do nothing to change how sick the world looks around them. It also shows this future Taipei as a city of contradictions, the rich and the extremely poor, the old temples side-by-side with sci-fi skyscrapers. The setting is as developed as the characters, and like them, it has its own charm.

Let’s talk about the characters, then. This is the story of Jason Zhou and his group of friends, who managed to bring down an evil corporation by kidnapping an heiress and infiltrating the rich. They’re hackers and thieves and they’re trying to do the right thing in a world in which injustice is everywhere. I really liked reading about Jason – he’s the kind of character who really feels like a teenage boy but doesn’t end up being insufferable (and he also throws knives, which I appreciate).
My other two favorite characters were:
🎭 Lingyi, the bisexual hacker who is amazing and in a relationship with Iris, a mysterious acrobat;
🎭 Daiyu. She’s the best character in this book, and when I read it for the first time (in 2017) my reaction was “why can’t I marry her right now”. She’s smart, she’s competent, she’s beautiful, she’s aware she’s privileged and actually does something about it.

Another thing I really appreciated about this book are the themes. It’s a story about environmentalism and anti-capitalism, and it doesn’t shy away from showing how messed up the situation can get. And the thing is, I can see some parts of this book happening, and in a not-so-far future. Want feels both relevant and realistic, like a good dystopian should.

This book isn’t perfect. Sometimes the story got lost in paragraphs of exposition, and because many of the characters already knew each other, we’re told about their friendships and relationships instead of shown, so they didn’t feel as real as they could have.
Also, the literature references got a bit cheesy, but I didn’t mind that too much. I love cheesy sometimes, just as much as I love decadent – is it weird that part of the appeal of this book is reading the descriptions of the parties thrown by the corrupt rich people? There’s so much beauty in here, and I love when beauty is just a layer covering the rot.

My rating: ★★★★½


35274032I didn’t love Ruse as much as I loved Want. I do think it is a solid sequel, and worth reading if you liked the first book, but the combination of my expectations and this book just not being as compelling and well-paced as the first one was led me to enjoy it less.

Let’s talk about expectations: I believed Lingyi would be the main narrator of this book. She’s not; most of the novel is still narrated by Jason Zhou, and while Lingyi is slightly more prominent and has a few chapters in her PoV, she still doesn’t get much development or more depth that she had in the first book.
While I love Zhou, I expected this book to be different, to get more into Lingyi and Iris’ history, and their relationship. It doesn’t.

I also thought this book was less thematically strong than the first one. It still talks about class and environmentalism, which I really appreciate, but it does nothing with these messages that the first book didn’t already do more effectively. The descriptions of the excesses of the rich and the poverty felt far more vivid in the first book.
The pacing was also uneven, which made some of the flaws already present in Want stand out even more, like the lack of character development (the only character who actually gets an arc is Daiyu. Who is of course the best character in the book and we don’t deserve her).

However, I still really enjoyed reading this! I loved reading about this diverse group of teenagers trying their best to take down an evil rich man. They doubt each other and mess up and feel guilty for not being able to do more in a world that is so unjust, but… I admire all of them a lot.
Also, the novel was still very atmospheric (it’s set in Shanghai instead of Taipei this time and I really liked seeing this new place from Lingyi and Zhou’s eyes), and it has the kind of food descriptions that will make you hungry.

My rating: ★★★½


Overall, I thought this was a really interesting and original series, and it’s one of the few YA dystopians I feel like I can recommend.

What are your favorite dystopians?

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

37794149A Memory Called Empire is a political sci-fi novel with a main f/f romance, the best court intrigue I’ve read in months if not ever, and plot twists I didn’t see coming.
It’s set in a space empire in which straight isn’t the default, most of the cast is queer, and the worldbuilding is complex but never confusing – everything I’ve ever wanted.

And yet it’s so much more. I knew this would be an intense read for me right from the dedication, because this book is dedicated to anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own. 

Maybe devouring isn’t the right word, but how do you call it when a country often tries compare itself to America according to American standards, not realizing that it’s a game it will always lose? Or how do you call the constant attempts at emulation because “American culture” is mistaken by some as “modernity”, or even only the fact that the YA section in a bookstore is mostly translated American books? (When your neighbor is more powerful than you are, it gets to decide what is modern, what is moral, and even what’s good literature, but it really shouldn’t be that way.)

And this book gets it. This book also gets that the misguided “patriots” who try to restore the “purity” of the culture and avoid cross-culture “contamination” are dangerous (…and often advocating for some version of fascism).
This book gets why someone might love another country’s literature so much that they speak another language better than their own, that they think and dream in it. This book gets what it means to never lose the lingering feeling that you’re reading stories that never quite fit you, because they were never meant for you in the first place – you are, at best, an afterthought.

I do realize that I’m talking about a book written in English, published in America. But for once, and this might be the first time, I haven’t felt like a book was explicitly not written for me.
I could understand Mahit, which means that some parts of this were hard to read. When she feels both insulted and complimented when someone says that she speaks/acts exactly like someone of another culture, or that specific kind of… angry xenophilia we share, or that part in which she specifically says that she finally found a word to describe how she felt and it wasn’t even in her language.

But let’s talk about the rest of the book too, not only about Mahit’s experience with navigating two cultures. A Memory Called Empire has some of the best worldbuilding I’ve seen lately. Don’t get intimidated by words like Teixcalaanlitzlim or ezuazuacat – the court, the intrigue and the surprising plot twists are worth it. (I thought it was worth it just for the pretty descriptions, but not everyone shares my priorities.)

I loved Mahit Dzmare. She’s the new ambassador in Teixcalaan, and she gets thrown in a place where she has no allies, after her predecessor got murdered. She’s smart and manages to do so much from almost nothing – if you want to read about a complex female character who doesn’t use a weapon in the whole book but changes the outcome of an empire’s messy succession problem anyway, try this. And her slow-burn romance with cultural liaison Three Seagrass? I love both of them so much, and Seagrass as a character kept surprising me.
The side characters were interesting to read as well – Nineteen Adze was… fascinating to say the least, Yskandr Aghavn was a bisexual disaster and the dialogues between what was left of him and Mahit were my favorite parts of the book, and Twelve Azalea’s banter with Seagrass was very entertaining to read too.

Click here to read a small spoiler-y paragraph

Also, the whole Nine Direction-Yskandr-Nineteern Adze polyamorous triangle was one of my favorite things in here and I’m in so much pain seeing how it ended. I would read a book just about that.

When I say that I love a sci-fi book’s worldbuilding, it means that it did something interesting with the technology: this did – it’s the first book I’ve ever read that mentioned that AIs can carry the human creator’s biases.
But the most interesting sci-fi technology is without a doubt the imago-machine. In Mahit’s culture, the memories of the dead are installed on compatible people, and Mahit has an out-of-date version of the previous ambassador in her head.

I loved how this book talked about personhood, memory and identity because of the imago, and how the concept of “me” had different meanings in those situations.
A Memory Called Empire is a book that pays a lot of attention to language, how cultures shape it, and how they shape literature in return. It’s really interesting to read, and the level of lit-related detail – paired with the excerpts you get at the beginning of every chapter – made these fictional cultures feel more real. Those details were also part of this book’s odd sense of humor (plagiarism jokes! Inappropriate citations! Even more inappropriate double entendres!)

The only thing I didn’t like was the binarism. This book is set in a world where homophobia doesn’t exist and polyamory is normal, but… there are no explicitly non-binary characters, and some phrasings used in this ARC copy were binarist (“men and women” instead of “people”). An otherwise-queer-accepting society being binarist wouldn’t be flawed worldbuilding in itself, were there any reason for it to be that way. Was it intentional? If so, why? I feel like I’m nitpicking but I would have wanted to know more about this.

My rating: ★★★★★