I got my second bingo on my card. It helped that two of these books were nominated for Hugos this year, so I had an added incentive to finish this line off quick. The Novelette square overlaps with my previous bingo, so it has already been reviewed. I copypasta’d the review from my last update, so nothing new under that heading.
For more information on my book bingo challenge, click here.
by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu
Published Oct 2019 (Oni Press)
When I first saw ‘werewolves’ as a requirement for my card, I didn’t have a book in mind, but I did have an idea of the sort of story that would tick this box. A horror story, possibly an older one. Something dark and spooky with some blood and body horror. I was expecting to find a werewolf story, with all the associated tropes and lore.
Mooncakes is not that type of story.
Mooncakes is bright and colourful, cute and wholesome and queer with a sweet teenage romance between a Chinese-American hearing impaired witch and a non-binary werewolf (who I think is also Chinese-American). Tam’s transformation isn’t pleasant, and they are a threat at one point, but there isn’t any sense of them becoming a savage beast. In fact, we see wolf!Tam playing nicely with some forest spirits in an enchanted forest. Despite being the werewolf, Tam is not the enemy. Instead, they are working with the rest of the cast to fight a big demon thingy.
As hinted before, this story has a very diverse cast. Tam and Nova, their love interest and the other protagonist, are both of Chinese decent. Nova is hard of hearing, and wears hearing aids. She lives with her Nanas – who are witches as well as being an interracial lesbian couple – in their magical bookshop. All these diverse characters, and the best part is that no-one cares. Everyone is accepted as they are and just treated as normal. The diversity felt natural and authentic, and I just loved Nova’s family.
I think it should be implied by my earlier description of this book, but Nova and her Nanas are good witches who secretly help their community with magic. Despite being a story with werewolves and witches and demons, it remains a cute and wholesome book. There is of course an evil cult behind the whole demon business who were getting up to some messed up stuff, but if everything was all cute and happy we wouldn’t have a story.
I just love how charming the art is. The colours are great, and scenes with magic look and feel magical. I do wish that it wasn’t a standalone, as I would have loved to see more of Nova and Tam’s adventures, and see more of the magic in this world.
An Unkindness of Ghosts
by Rivers Solomon
Published Sept 2017 (Akashic Books)
First things first; this book is brutal. It is an antebellum plantation in space. I read this before the current wave of Black Lives Matter protests, and even though the issues of racial inequality and the lingering effects of the Atlantic slave trade were not so fresh on my mind at the time, this is still a powerful book.
Fun fact, I didn’t actually know what the word ‘antebellum’ meant before writing this review. I assumed it referred to a specific area of the USA, but it actually means ‘before the war’. I suppose it technically means before any war, but is only really used to refer to the time before the American Civil War.
Back to An Unkindness of Ghosts. It is a very brutal book. There is violence, sexual assault, racist, homophobic, annd transphobic attitudes, body horror, and suicide amongst other things. It is not however, gratuitous in it’s depictions of these horrors. Everything feels necessary to realistically depict the true horror of slavery.
We follow Aster, a black, autistic, intersex woman living in the lower decks of the generation ship Mathilda. She works as a sharecropper in the fields that feed the ship, under the eye of a white overseer. Her real job though is a as a doctor to the rest of her lower-deckers. Aster is an amazing character, who is suffering great trauma. The supporting cast is also made up of memorable, haunted characters and I wouldn’t say it’s fun or enjoyable to follow them, because it isn’t, but it was still an amazing experience.
I suppose using this to tick off the Non-Binary Protagonist tile with this book, since Aster is referred to as a woman with she/her pronouns. But…Rivers Solomon says Aster is a non-binary woman, so I’m counting it. Whilst there are other books with more explicit non-binary or trans characters, I liked reading this book knowing that Aster was non-binary and that her love interest Theo was transgender, because it was interesting seeing characters in a setting that doesn’t have terms or for such identities.
One thing I didn’t like was the plotting. There is a compelling mystery going on about the connection between the illness plaguing the Sovereign of the ship and the suicide of Aster’s mother, but Aster is kinda dragged along by events and other characters most of the time. She isn’t completely passive, but I was never really excited and eager to see what happened next. It was still a good, interesting plot, it just never really grabbed me.
Over 400 Pages Long
The Curse of Chalion
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published 2001 (Harper Collins)
The only reason I read this book was because I wanted to read the sequel, Paladin of Souls, which is one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s most acclaimed works, having won the elusive”Triple Crown” (A Hugo, a Nebula, and a Locus Award. Not many books have done that.). I saw Curse of Chalion as just a huge 490 page hurdle to get over before reaching the book I wanted.
I still haven’t read Paladin of Souls, but that’s okay, Curse of Chalion was amazing.
This story has many of the familiar tropes of fantasy, such as a Medieval European setting and a focus on the royal family and court politics. Cazaril the protagonist isn’t a prince or knight, but a former page returning to the castle he used to serve in after a traumatic stint as a galley slave. He begs for a position in the Provincar’s castle, and is tasked with tutoring her granddaughter, the royina (princess) Iselle, who’s second in line to the throne of Chalion after her younger brother Teidez. Cazaril helps Iselle grow into a capable, mature leader and helps her navigate the perils of the royal court, such as power hungry assholes looking to marry her. Despite this book being long, I got through it really fast.
This isn’t the first time I’ve adventured in McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods series. As of writing this review, I am
up to date up to book #7 with the Penric and Desdemona novella series, which follow a sorcerer and his demon on various misadventures. I enjoyed the magic system and the fictitious theology in the Penric stories, and whilst there aren’t any sorcerers in Curse of Chalion, there is still some magic, and a lot of actions from the gods, who are a family of five each governing over different seasons. I learnt a lot of the theology of this world, and I’m looking forward to revisiting Penric and Desdemona with all this new context.
Now that I’ve had my first novel length taste of the World of the Five Gods, I am happily committed to reading everything in this series.
I tend to read a lot of novelettes. Usually there are a couple in each issue of Analog or Asimov’s, but I didn’t want both novelettes for this tile to be from the same source. I started this year catching up on some recommended short fiction from 2019, and decided to look at a story from Analog and one from Uncanny for this challenge.
A Mate not a Meal
by Sarina Dorie
Published February 2019 (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, March/April 2019)
I’ve really fallen behind on reading short fiction last year, a fact I was reminded of when I realised I was reading the March/April issue of 2019 in 2020. In a few of the Analog issues before this one, I struggled to get through them. Story selection lately just hasn’t been exciting me. This issue though was full of really great stories, and A Mate not a Meal was my favourite.
In this story our protagonist, Malatina, is a giant spider. Giant giant. Big enough to easily eat a human, and she gets that opportunity many times. After seeing her mother and sister killed in a mating attempt gone wrong, and almost being by the trickster male responsible, Malatina is alone and traumatised in her den. One day she hears beautiful music outside her burrow, and her fear and desire to mate are in conflict. It turns out that this ‘male’ is actually a human, but Malatina still sees her as a male of her species. Thus an unlikely friendship is born.
I liked the story. I liked the characters. I don’t think it’s realistic for a species that is so solitary to have language or sentience, and there isn’t enough worldbuilding to even know if Malatina’s people are supposed to be aliens or just giant spiders. Still, I found myself not caring too much about that.
by Ellen Klages
Published May 2019 (Uncanny Issue #28; May/June 2019)
I don’t read Uncanny a lot, but when I do get an issue I’m always impressed. It usually lacks novellas, but the short fiction and essays are always entertaining and informative. The May/June 2019 issue is no exception.
Nice Things wasn’t my favourite piece from this magazine, but it is the piece I know is definitely a novelette. Its a ghost story. Maybe? Its one of those where whether or not there is a fantasy element depends on how the reader interprets certain passages. All that said, I did still enjoy this story. Nice Things is a very hard-hitting character piece, about a daughter sorting out her recently deceased mother’s estate. The two of them had a very strained relationship, so coming back to her childhood home and being reminded of her mother is very painful for our protagonist.
I have a messed-up sense of humour, which caused me to find the ending funny before the darker implications of what I’d just read set in. Judging by other reviews of this story, that is not a normal reaction and there is something deeply wrong with me. All you non-crazy people out there should find the ending to this story quite chilling.
Military Science Fiction
The Light Brigade
by Kameron Hurley
Published March 2019 (Saga Press)
I read this book right after reading the latest Murderbot novel, and I feel that may have had an unfair impact on my feelings towards this book. In both Light Brigade and Network Effect, all powerful corporations with no regard for human life rule a dystopian future. Whilst I usually appreciate this trope, reading two books in a row with it got both depressing and a bit boring.
Fortunately, that’s the only similarity these books have, and the corporate power wasn’t the key focus in either book, so I was still able to enjoy The Light Brigade. This book is pure military science fiction set mostly on an almost destroyed Earth, with a fascinating technology and a troubled, flawed protagonist. It is excessively violent and depressing, with plenty of scenes that will make you angry at some of the militaristic and capitalistic aspects of our own society. I think this book supplied the right amount of anger, but it’s hard to judge that since reading it after Murderbot burnt me out a bit.
The main draw of this book for me was the main technological gimmick; the drops. Soldiers are turned to light and beamed to the site of their next engagement. It’s like the teleporter in Star Trek, except horrible. The process is physically painful, it messes with people’s minds, and accidents such as limbs being rearranged through chests, soldiers rematerializing within the ground, and people being merged together are common. Though to be fair, the teleporters in Star Trek had their fair share of horrific accidents.
Our protagonist Dietz has bad drops of the time-no-longer-being-liner kind. She gets beamed off to a mission, and sometimes finds that when she rematerialises she is on a completely different mission from a different time. She can’t really discuss these time travel incidents with anyone, since everything her and her fellow soldiers say is monitored and people who ‘see things’ on drops tend to disappear. It’s exciting riding along with Deitz as she tries to be a good soldier whilst figuring out the ‘rules’ to her strange out-of-time jumps. I greatly enjoyed piecing together the story of this war as Deitz experienced it in fragments, and trying to figure out how Deitz was going to close the loop she was on.
As with a lot of military science fiction though, before this book gets to the exciting war part, we go through the basic training section of the story. Maybe I’ve just read this sequence too often, because even though I can think of a number of stand-out scenes from this section, it was a struggle for me to get through it. I suppose this leads me to one of the problems with this book: it isn’t the most original story out there. It is often described as The Forever War meets Edge of Tomorrow and yeah, that’s pretty much all you get. Just add in the ‘fuck capitalism’ message. I suppose the question is does The Light Brigade stand with the likes of Forever War and Starship Troopers and translate their war is hell themes to a modern audience. To be honest I don’t feel it does, but the fact that it got nominated for a Hugo says that it is doing something for a large part of it’s readership.
Despite the action-packed timey-whimy story, my liking for Deitz, and the fact that this book agrees with a lot of my political views, I just find that the more I think about it the less I like it. Sort of the opposite of what happened with City in the Middle of the Night and The Ten Thousand Doors of January. The ending is partly to blame; after all the anger and hopelessness this book made me feel, I wanted something more from the ending. I didn’t feel like the themes of this book were handled with any subtelry or originality. I also didn’t care about any characters other than Deitz; and even then I never felt like I truly got her, even though the story is told from her 1st person POV.
There was also a little thing that annoyed me a lot. Deitz’s gender was obscured until the end of the book for no reason. Except it wasn’t obscured well, though I can’t think of a way to explain the slip-up without dropping a spoiler. I don’t really know if Deitz being woman is supposed to be obscured; it could just be a reflection of no-one in universe caring, but it felt like it was being deliberately hidden, and I see no reason why. There were plenty of women in the military, and Samus Aran did the ‘you were a girl all along’ surprise better. Despite this being the most minor issue, it’s the only one that ever took me out of the book whilst I was reading it.
All in all, a good book. When I started typing this review I originally put an 8 in the score section, but then thought better of it almost immediately and changed it to a 7. Writing this review made me lower the score again. For the most part I enjoyed reading this book, but it has flaws, and if I’d read it last year I wouldn’t have nominated it for a Hugo.
I’m happy this bingo came so quick after the previous one. I’ve missed doing reviews, and an excuse to do a lot of short ones was really nice. It might be a little while before the next bingo, but I can assure you, this blog will be getting pretty busy this month. I have some big plans.