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A Skinful of Shadows: A captivating read

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Here in the UK, Frances Hardinge is everywhere. Her new book, A Skinful of Shadows (2017), was plastered all over the London underground in the run-up to its publication, thrusting Hardinge into the mainstream.

I heard Hardinge talk about A Skinful of Shadows at a local bookshop and she admitted that she’d felt some pressure when writing. I can’t help wonder if this pressure somehow seeped into the novel as she wrote.

Like all of her books, A Skinful of Shadows is an adventure. There’s a plucky heroine, plenty of ghastly enemies and best of all, murderous ghosts. But the story lacked the originality of her previous work and felt alto... Read More

Legends of the Sky: Strong emotions, interesting politics, weird pacing

Legends of the Sky by Liz Flanagan

Legends of the Sky by Liz Flanagan, first published in the UK in 2018 as Dragon Daughter and reprinted in the US in 2019, is set on the island nation of Arcosi. Dragons have long been extinct on Arcosi, but still play a powerful symbolic role in the culture. (For what it’s worth, I like the UK title better! I think it more effectively conveys both the importance of dragons and the revelations about long-lost family that the heroine, Milla, will experience.)

Milla is a young servant girl who witnesses a murder. The killer doesn’t find the prize they were looking for, but Milla does—a bag containing four dragon eggs. In time these eggs come to the attention of the Duke, who wants control of them to increase his power, but it turns out that dragon hatchlings bond strongly to one person and cannot thrive without that person. O... Read More

The Ghosts of Sherwood: Too short, but has good heroic characters

The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie Vaughn

The Ghosts of Sherwood (2020), a novella by Carrie Vaughn, was for me a frustrating story, with several strong aspects but also some elements that drove me crazy, leaving me overall disappointed but hopeful for its follow-up, The Heirs of Locksley.

As the titles make clear, Vaughn is working in Robin Hood territory here. More precisely, she picks up the story many years later. Robin of Locksley and his wife Marian live on the edge of Sherwood Forest with their three children: Mary, John, and Eleanor (in that order) and have thrived in relative peace after Robin oh-so-painfully swore fealty to King John after the death of King James. While bowing the knee gave him influence within the power circle of the kingdom, allowing him to protect not just his ... Read More

Interference: Cultures collide on an alien world

Interference by Sue Burke

The small colony of humans on the planet Pax, who left Earth a couple of hundred years earlier, have established a cooperative relationship with at least some of the sentient plant life on Pax, as well as a group of nomadic aliens called the Glassmakers, as related in Semiosis. Their technology now is more Stone Age than Information Age (Pax is deficient in metals). So it’s out of the question to return to or even communicate with Earth, which is 55 light years away. But Earth hasn’t forgotten about Pax.

In this sequel, Interference (2019), a scientific expedition of thirty people from Earth makes plans to travel to Pax to see what has become of the colony there. Different members of the expedition have varying reasons for going, ranging from scientific curiosity to a desire to escape t... Read More

Blood of the Heroes: Exciting, educational, slightly sexist

Blood of the Heroes by Steve White

Tantor Audio is publishing Steve White’s JASON THANOU (TEMPORAL REGULATORY AUTHORITY) series in audiobook format, so I tried the first book, Blood of the Heroes, originally published in 2006. It’s not great literature, but it’s diverting and even educational (which I can appreciate).

Jason Thanou is a retired agent of the Temporal Regulatory Authority (TRA), an organization that, among other things, monitors and protects academics who use time travel in their studies. He’s been called back to the service for the agency’s most ambitious project yet. He is asked to accompany a couple of scholars to 1628 BC where they will watch the Minoan eruption and its aftermath. Jason’s tired of shepherding pompous academics through time, but when he finds out that... Read More

Strange Love: Light-hearted alien romance

Strange Love by Ann Aguirre

“This whole alien abduction thing isn't the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

Ann Aguirre’s Strange Love (2019) isn’t the type of book I normally read, so keep that in mind. I picked it up because the publisher of the audiobook, Tantor Media, offered me a review copy of their recently released edition (April 2020) and I thought it would be nice to try something different.

The story is about an alien named Zylar who wants to marry but has been unsuccessful in the marriage challenges and is about to be relegated to a life of bachelorhood doing a menial job for his tribe if he doesn’t succeed in the next annual Choosing.

Zylar thinks he’s found a suitable mate from another planet (and species) but, on his way to meet her family and ... Read More

Providence: Feels meaningless and hopeless

Providence by Max Barry

Seven years ago, previously unknown aliens attacked and destroyed the crew of a human spaceship. The brutal event was recorded, so all of humanity has seen it. Ever since, Earth has been at war with these “Salamanders.”

The latest war ship to be developed and deployed against the salamanders is the Providence. It’s equipped with artificial intelligence that takes care of most of the shipboard tasks but is crewed by four humans who’ve been appointed after an arduous selection process. To keep the public support, the crew maintains active social media profiles. This is an important part of their jobs. The crew members of the Providence are:

Gilly, the computer programmer, is the youngest of the crew and the only one with no military background.
Talia, the Life Officer, is responsible for the mental health of the crew. She is constantly role-playing and branding herse... Read More

Stories of Your Life and Others: Eight carefully crafted stories

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

Stories of Your Life: And Others by Ted Chiang

In his review of Ted Chiang’s brilliant short story collection Stories of Your Life and Others (2002) in The Guardian, China Miéville mentions the “humane intelligence [...] that makes us experience each story with immediacy and Chiang’s calm passion.” The oxymoron “calm passion” is an insightful and ingenious way to describe these stories because of the way it hints at their deft melding of the most solid of hard science fiction concepts with an often surprisingly gentle, hu... Read More

Darth Vader and the Ninth Assassin: Darth Vader goes on a mysterious mission

Darth Vader and the Ninth Assassin by Tim Siedell & Stephen Thompson

I noticed with interest that this volume was published in 2013, meaning it just missed out on being an official part of the new Disney canon. Yet despite being relegated to what’s now called Star Wars Legends, Darth Vader and the Ninth Assassin still fits into the new continuity (minus one small detail at its conclusion) that can be read as a straightforward standalone story.

The head of a vast mining operation vows revenge on Darth Vader after the death of his only son and heir. Having already sent eight assassins to kill the Emperor’s apprentice, he now goes in search of more lethal assailants, one that can guarantee to bring him Vader’s head.

Meanwhile, Vader manages to prevent another assassination attempt on the Emperor, one that very nearly succeeds despite their combined power in the Force. Realiz... Read More

The History of Gibbeting: Britain’s Most Brutal Punishment

The History of Gibbeting: Britain’s Most Brutal Punishment by Samantha Priestley

The History of Gibbeting: Britain’s Most Brutal Punishment (2020), by Samantha Priestley, is an interesting and somewhat informative, if overly long, look at the tradition of “hanging in chains,” as it was often called at the time.

Priestley offers up a general introduction to the practice followed by several sections: The Murder Act, The Making of a Gibbet, Infamy, Thieves and Pirates, That’s Entertainment, The Gibbet as Landmark, No Deterrent, The Decline of the Gibbet, A Modern Fascination.

The first looks at the impact of the 1752 law, which attempted to standardize the hodgepodge application of the gibbet. We also get a sense of the frequency of gibbeting (relatively rare), the crimes it was associated with (murder, piracy, and stealing the Royal Mail, mostly), and whether or not criminals were ever gibbe... Read More

The City & The City: Dumbing down & Fridging hamper this adaptation

The City & The City (TV Adaptation)

The City & The City is one of my favorite China Miéville books. I love the conceit of the nested cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, and I love the voice of our narrator, the smart, world-weary and not-always-so-honest Tyador Borlu.

Amazon Prime offers a four-part adaptation of the book. All four episodes are directed by Tom Shankland, with Tony Grisoni, who was also credited as a writer, as one of the producers. China Miéville shared a writing credit. The series first aired on BBC2 in 2018.

The show stars D... Read More

A Broken Queen: Series is beginning to feel its length

A Broken Queen by Sarah Kozloff

A Broken Queen (2020) is the third book in Sarah Kozloff’s NINE REALMS series, with each book being published only a month apart, and to be honest, I sort of wish I’d waited for them all to come out and then reviewed the series as a whole, mostly because I feel I’ll just be repeating myself in this review, and, if things go as they have been, in the review of book four as well.

In that vein, mostly what I’ve been saying about the first two books (A Queen in Hiding and The Queen of Raiders) is that they’re readable enough, even somewhat enjoyable, but they leave me wanting more as a ... Read More

Leia: A fascinating look at a teenaged Princess Leia

Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray

The thing about STAR WARS tie-in books is that they can never contradict what happens in the films, which means they also can't have stakes that are particularly high. The big galaxy-shaping events have to be saved for the big screen.

So it makes sense that a lot of them come across as "filler" or "prequel" stories, which add details and background to things we already know have happened. In the case of Leia: Princess of Alderaan, we learn a bit more about Princess Leia in the year she turned sixteen: the trials she must pass to become future queen, her induction into the Rebellion, and her first love. None of it is hugely crucial, but it's always nice to spend a little more time with your favourite characters.

To be formally named heir to the throne of Alderaan, Leia must prove herself in the areas of body, mind and heart, which m... Read More

Come the Revolution: Sasha makes a great protagonist

Come the Revolution by Frank Chadwick

Come the Revolution (2015) is the sequel to Frank Chadwick’s How Dark the World Becomes (which you’ll want to read first).

Sasha Naradnyo survived the events of the previous book, but just barely. One of our favorite characters, however, did not survive. Now it’s a few years later. Sasha is the head of security for Tweezaa, the Varoki girl he was protecting in How Dark the World Becomes. Sasha and his wife, who is Tweezaa’s top advisor, are expecting their first child.

The story begins with a bang when Tweezaa’s shuttle is shot down with a missile. She has many enemies which include political rivals, her own relatives who are after the vast fortune she inherited, and Varoki citizens who are ... Read More

Batman: Nightwalker: A fun adventure with a young Bruce Wayne

Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu

Superheroes permeate nearly every facet of pop-culture these days, and someone at Penguin Books found a way to capitalize on that popularity: round up some successful YA authors and have them write original stories about the most famous DC superheroes while still in their adolescence (the heroes, not the authors).

Therefore the DC ICONS COLLECTION gives us new stories about Wonder Woman, Batman, Catwoman and Superman before they adopt their later personas, most of them no more than seventeen or eighteen years old at the time these tales are set.

Batman: Nightwalker (2018) tackles Bruce Wayne, fast-approaching his eighteenth birthday but still grappling with the loss of his parents. It's not an easy life despite his wealth, and he prefers to avoid th... Read More

A Pocketful of Crows: A short but evocative offering

A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M. Harris

You're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but how could I resist the artwork of Joanne Harris’ 2017 novel A Pocketful of Crows? The black background, the gold embossing, the stylized crow... I immediately snatched it up.

It's a story based heavily on the traditions and holidays of medieval England, with chapters divided into months and snippets of various ballads and proverbs added throughout, both of which help lay the foundation of the story.

A shapeshifting wild girl of the forest meets by chance a highborn noble, and soon becomes infatuated by him. The feeling seems mutual, but after a whirlwind romance, reality sets back in and the girl is asked to leave the castle.

Naturally, a creature of the wild doesn't take rejection very we... Read More

Phalanxes of Atlans: A well-paired yet unconvincing double feature

Phalanxes of Atlans by F. Van Wyck Mason

A little while ago. I had some words to say about Capt. S.P. Meek’s 1930 novel The Drums of Tapajos, in which a band of American explorers discovers a lost civilization in the jungle wilderness of Brazil, comprised of the cultured and scientifically advanced remnants of the 10 Lost Tribes and Troy, uneasily coexisting with the barbaric remnants of Atlantis. The book was done in by a lack of convincing detail and exciting set pieces, as I reported. Well, now I am here to tell you of my most recent read, another offering from Armchair Fiction’s Lost World/Lost Race series; a book that suffers from one of the same problems that plague The Drums of Tapajos, even though its story line has been inverted. In this c... Read More

The Assassin’s Blade: Four short stories provide extra insight

The Assassin's Blade by Sarah J. Maas

Over the past few years I've been reading Sarah J. Maas's THRONE OF GLASS series, though thanks to my dislike of e-books, never got around to reading the five novellas that explored some of the early years in Celaena Sardothien's career.

Celaena is a famous assassin in the employ of Arobynn Hamel, the ruthless master of the Assassin's Guild. Though few have seen her face, Celaena already has a fearsome reputation despite her youth, and is recognized as Arobynn's protégé among the other recruits.

The five stories within The Assassin's Blade (2014) involve separate but connected adventures that are mentioned throughout the THRONE OF GLASS books, and shed insight as to how Celaena ended up where she is at the start of the first boo... Read More

King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats: Uplifted dogs and cats

King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats by James Patrick Kelly

In James Patrick Kelly’s novella, King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats, we visit a backwater planet called Boon where humans live with uplifted dogs and cats.

Our protagonist, Gio Barbaro, is the clone of the man who created the government, called The Supremacy, generations before. Gio’s job is to maintain the family’s position and power in the senate.

The Supremacy, though, is losing control as dogs are walking off the job and cats are forming unions. The cats and dogs are just as intelligent as humans, but they’ve been relegated to boring and/or dirty menial jobs. They want more out of life, but the conservative Supremacy won’t recognize them as equal.

Another problem for the Supremacy is the looming clone cris... Read More

Tower of Dawn: The pieces are put in place for the penultimate instalment

Tower of Dawn by Sarah J. Maas

The penultimate book in Sarah J. Maas's THRONE OF GLASS series goes on an unexpected detour: instead of following Aelin Galathynius (the protagonist of the previous five books and a collection of novellas), Tower of Dawn (2017) focuses on supporting players Chaol Westfall and Nesryn Faliq, who have travelled to the southern continent and the city of Antica to try and enlist its armies to assist them in the coming war.

At this stage, there's no point reading unless you've already read the previous books. These aren't standalone novels, but different parts of an overarching story that need to be read chronologically in order to make sense. In this case, Chaol suffered a terrible injury at the conclusion of Read More

The Drums of Tapajos: A middling lost-world adventure

The Drums of Tapajos by S. P. Meek

As you may have noticed, over the past six months I have been dipping into Armchair Fiction’s current Lost World/Lost Race series of 24 novels, and with mixed results. One thing I have observed is that the best of this bunch — such as Frank Aubrey’s The King of the Dead (1903), Rex Stout’s Under the Andes (1914), John Taine’s The Purple Sapphire (1924) and Read More

The Alchemist’s Shadow: The monster in the maze… and in the puppet

Watch Hollow: The Alchemist’s Shadow by Gregory Funaro

The spooky adventures of Lucy and Oliver Tinker continue in The Alchemist’s Shadow (2020), a sequel to last year’s middle-grade haunted house novel by Gregory Funaro, Watch Hollow. The Tinker family — 11-year-old Lucy, 12-year-old Oliver, and their father — are settling in at the rural Rhode Island mansion, Blackford House, where they vanquished a supernatural foe in Watch Hollow. The Tinkers, originally the caretakers of Blackford House, now own the home, complete with its enormous clock that magically powers the house. At least, the Tinkers thought they owned the house, until the orphaned 12-year-old part-Japanese Kojima twins, Agatha and A... Read More

Terminal Alliance: Janitors to the rescue!

Terminal Alliance by Jim C. Hines

The people remaining on a devastated Earth have been turned into zombies by a virus accidentally unleashed by one of their own scientists. Fortunately for some humans, a race of aliens known as the Krakau have figured out how to genetically engineer humans without the virus. Thus, about 10,000 humans still live, but rather than return to Earth to be cannibalized by their own species, they choose to work for the Krakau who saved them. The Krakau are benevolent overlords; they have even preserved the records of as much of Earth’s civilization as they could so that their human fosterlings can have their own culture.

One of these humans is Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos who leads a team of janitors on one of the Krakau spaceships. When the ship is attacked by the Podryans, an aggressive alien species, a series of mishaps incapacitates their Krakau leaders and leaves Mops in charge of the ship. With h... Read More

Black Leviathan: Starts decently but becomes too scattered

Black Leviathan by Bernd Perplies, translated by Lucy Van Cleef

Vengeance is a tale as old as a time, and female characters have been killed in order to set male characters off on a protagonist’s journey since well before there were refrigerators (almost before there was ice). But it takes a particularly audacious ambition to use Moby Dick as an explicit inspiration for a coming-of-age fantasy set in a world where sky ships hunt dragons and one captain becomes maniacally obsessed with killing one such dragon. And for a little while there I was thinking Bernd Perplies, author of Black Leviathan (2020) (translated in the US by Lucy Van Cleef), might be able to match execution to ambition. But while the story ends up being relatively entertaining, issues toward the close and an overall surface-level narrative had the execution falling short.

The story opens with a... Read More

The Last Day: A decent techno-thriller

The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

The Last Day (2020), by Andrew Hunter Murray, is a sci-fi thriller, though to be honest I found both elements (the science and the thrills) to be a bit slight and while it’s a highly readable work, I’d call it moderately engaging or tense.

The book opens some decades after “The Slow” (or “The Stop”), when the Earth’s rotation gradually declined then halted altogether, plunging half the planet — the “Coldside” into uninhabitable cold and darkness and the other half into a baking sunlit zone. The UK found itself in the goldilocks zone and is one of the lucky few places on the planet that is relatively habitable, though it keeps itself going only by a ruthless rejection of refugees, a staunch coastal defense, and a move to a totalitarian regime. Even so, despite the government’s propaganda, people can sense that things seem to be fal... Read More