Here is my book bingo card for 2020, with all the challenges I completed marked.
I got three bingos: one verticals and two horizontal. Not bad, but not as good as last year. I was reading David Brin’s The Postman at the end of 2020, and if I had finished it in time I would have got the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel tile in the top left corner. That would have given me four bingos, without a free square, thus beating my 2019 card. Though, I left seven tiles unfilled last year, as opposed to five this year, so maybe I did beat it?
The important thing is that I read a lot of good books. Here are some reviews of them.
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.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January
by Alix E. Harrow
Published September 2019 (Redhook)
I’d been looking forward to reading this book for a while, but when I started reading it I found it didn’t interest me or grab me like I hoped. I mostly blame this on the timing though. I read this book right after Middlegame, and a lot of similar themes are repeated here, so I think I was getting a bit worn down by the ‘words are magic/power’ thing. Maybe if I re-read it later I’d enjoy it more.
And I’m not against re-reading it later either. I did enjoy this book overall, and there were some very exciting parts. The story is set in the 1900s, and follows January, a mixed-race girl growing up in the mansion of her father’s wealthy benefactor, Mr. Locke. As January grows up, chafing against the confines of her life with Mr. Locke and longing to go adventuring with her father, she encounters magical doors that connect different worlds.
Its a story with memorable characters and amazing worldbuilding. January goes through a lot of personal development, and at the end I was happy to see her stand up for herself. Which is a good thing, because I was annoyed at how passive she was in earlier parts of the book. I love her dog Bad as well, and it was so hard for me when he’d get hurt. The worldbuilding is the star of this book for me though; I loved all the glimpses we saw of the different worlds, with their different magic systems and rules.
That being said, I still had a lot of trouble getting into this story. Even after I had got hooked, there were still times when I was pushing myself to listen to this book, because I just wanted to be over and done and onto the next one. Seeing as the next book on my list was the new Murderbot novel, I suppose that is a bit unfair to this book. I guess Harrow’s writing style may have contributed too. This story is gorgeously written, and whilst I liked the descriptions and word choices, that combined with the slow start to the plot and the time skips made me a bit impatient.
The only concrete complaint I had is that January’s magical powers didn’t stick to the limits the story had set in place. I know that’s important to the themes of the story, and kinda the whole point of January’s character development, so it seems weird to complain about this, but I just wish it was handled differently. To me the most exciting part of the book was when she had to escape and nearly died doing so.
I have no big complaints though. Nothing that makes me angry or made me roll my eyes. But I also didn’t get that much out of it. I found it to be a nice, well written portal fantasy with good worldbuilding. I think for me, it may have been the wrong time for this book, and I may be looking at it too harshly. It’s a story outside my usual preferences, that I felt like I had to read right now despite having other things I wanted to get to, so take the negative aspects of this review with a grain of salt. If the premise interests you, I’d recommend still giving it a go.
by John Scalzi
Published August 2014 (Tor.com)
Redshirts got me to start reading Scalzi, the Interdependancy series made me a fan, and now Lock In has guaranteed I’ll read anything he puts out from now on. Lock In is a police procedural with robot people.
Robots isn’t really the best term. In the world of Lock In, a pandemic has left millions of people affected by Haden’s Syndrome, a condition that leaves locked in their own bodies, unable to move or react to external stimuli. Twenty years after the initial pandemic, people with Haden’s participate in society with a number of new technologies, including robot bodies called personal transports… or more commonly, as threeps. Our protagonist Chris Shane was locked in with Haden’s at age two, and quickly became the poster child of Haden’s Syndrome. Now Chris is starting a new job as an FBI agent, and just two days in starts investigating a murder that leads to a greater conspiracy.
I didn’t enjoy this book as a mystery. The culprit was obvious, there were no convincing red herrings, and the solution depended on technological advancements initially unkowable to reader and character alike. I did however love it as a science fiction thriller. Scalzi has thought of every implication of Haden’s and threeps, and how being in a threep would impact Chris’s work as an FBI agent. There are a lot of twists and turns, which all feel organic and make sense despite how much information about the technology we need to get our heads around. There is lots of action, and Scalzi’s humour – though not to the extent seen in Redshirts or the Interdependancy, which I’m quite thankful for. I liked our FBI agent duo of Chris and Vann. Vann’s backstory is really messed up. Or rather, shows some really messed up aspects of the Haden’s related technologies. This is all around a fun, smart book with a lot of good ideas.
There is both a sequel, which I plan to pick up soon, and a prequel, which was included in the audible edition I bought. This prequel, Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome, is a wonderful piece of worldbuilding, but due to the subject matter, reading it in 2020 was a bit uncomfortable. I would love a movie or TV show set in this world.
Uplifted Chimpanzees or Dolphins
Brain Wave – Poul Anderson
This title is kind of cheating, since whilst there are uplifted chimpanzees that appear in the story, they don’t play a very big role.
The idea behind this story is that for millions of years the solar system was travelling in an energy field that slowed down electrical reactions, including the ones occurring in our brains. When Earth leaves this field, everything with a brain gets around five times smarter, and this has a lot of consequences.
Anderson does a great job exploring the consequences of this change, writing little snippets of people from different parts of the world finding different uses for their increased intelligence or discovering new mental powers. Besides these unrelated parts, there are two main storylines.
The first follows scientist Peter Corinth, his wife Sheila, and other scientists and union organisers he knows as they come to terms with the change, try to guide humanity through the upheavals it causes, and then build a spaceship. Because you know, 1950s science fiction. The second follows Archie Brock, an illiterate autistic man who works as a farmhand, as he deals with his exciting new capabilities, the frustration at realising that he is still “feeble-minded” compared to neurotypical humans, and trying to run the farm filled with rebellious animals with the help of his dog, plus an elephant and two chimpanzees who escaped from a nearby circus.
I enjoyed Archie’s story the most, however it is clear that this was the B story, with all the rebuilding humanity and going to space stuff being the primary focus. That and Sheila’s inability to cope with the change. The Peter/Sheila A-story is interesting. It’s not like I can read a 1950s science fiction story and then complain about them building a spaceship and having an adventure. What I’m saying is I kept longing for the narrative to go back to Archie on the farm. There were funny moments, like the plow horses deciding they were done with working and kicking over the plow, or the first time we see Joe the dog nodding after Archie tells him something. There were also absolutely devastating moments, like when Archie had to pick which one of the very smart, very individual sheep to slaughter for food. We could have seen a lot more of Archie and his “moron” colony and this book would have been better for it. Especially if that escaped tiger that was mentioned early in the story had shown up.
One aspect of this story really resonated with me. That was the realisation that whilst people are a lot smarter, individual personalities and prejudices haven’t changed. Arseholes are still arseholes, and people who believe in bullshit are able to use their new mental power to invent better justifications for their bullshit. At one point Peter and his workmate Helga get cornered by a mob chanting ‘kill the scientists!’.
It’s been about seventy years since this book was written, and just before I picked it up the Australian bushfires were at their worst. All over Facebook and in the news I’ve seen people double down on the climate change denial. There were even people in government blaming the Greens for the bushfires. To say nothing of the whole ‘Global Warming is a Conspiracy’ or ‘Dumb Scientists Can’t Even Predict the Weather’ type of comments. I am living in a Western country amongst one of the most educated populations in history, with access to more information than anyone at any time in history has had, and people cling to stupid, harmful, easily debunked ideas. Despite us supposedly knowing better, anti-intellectualism is a powerful thing.
I read this book and wrote this review, including the previous paragraph, back in February. Certain pandemicy events have happened since then that have driven home this point even harder.
Poul Anderson called it seventy years ago; you can’t fix stupid. Not even by literally fixing the stupid.
You have to build a spaceship to do that. Spaceships fix everything.
Let’s talk about how well this book has aged. For something written in the fifties and dealing with human intelligence, it could have been a lot more cringe. I’d say it is progressive by 1950s standards. Hell, we even get a female scientist. The big issue is about how mental disability is presented in this book. Terms like moron and imbecile are used a lot, as these were actual clinical terms at the time of both the book being written and it’s setting. There are issues with Anderson’s description of mental disability that will make this book hard to read, but for the time I feel this is a fair expectation. Also, Archie’s choice to work the farm by himself rather than be ‘looked after’ by the super-smart community is very understandable.
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, and 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 questioned whether I should use 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 these 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.
Many months on, I don’t actually remember a lot about the plot of this book. But I do still remember Aster and the indignities she went through.
Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel
by Seanan McGuire
Published May 2019
This book was not a Locus Award winner when I read it, but I’ll still tick it off. I was planning to read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls for this tile, and I still do plan to read it. So, if using Middlegame to retroactively fill this tile is cheating, then I swear I will actually fill it properly.
I found this book to be a very exciting page turner, and I enjoyed the two protagonists, magic twins Roger and Dodger.
Magic is the wrong word for this story. In Middlegame, it is alchemy that powers all the fantastical elements in the story. It’s basically magic though. Roger and Dodger were created by an evil alchemist in order to embody an alchemic doctrine which would grant god-like power to whoever controlled it. Roger is a prodigy when it comes to words and language, whilst Dodger is a math genius. They are separated at birth and have no idea what they are, but from a young age have a telepathic connection with each other. The book follows the twins through the ups and downs of growing up smart and alone, and all the rocks this causes their relationship. That and the plot of the evil alchemist to use them for his own, mysterious means.
I enjoyed the plot, I was excited to get through it, and whilst I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the audiobook, I didn’t have any major issues with the narration.
One thing that did annoy me turned out to be McGuire’s writing style. She repeats a lot of things, and describes things with conflicting terms. In the Wayward Children series I found this whimsical and magical, but in a longer book with adult characters, it gets old fast.
Written in the 90s
by Jane Yolen
I’ve been wanting to read this one for a long time, as the premise really intrigued me. Using a fairy tale to explore the horrors of the Holocaust is a really unique idea, plus Jane Yolen has been an author I’ve been meaning to check out for a while.
It’s hard to say how well either the fairy tale element or the Holocaust story were handled, but I could not put this book down, so Yolen was doing something right. Also, she did a good job of conveying the horrors of the camps. There are some really horrific scenes of pure cruelty. On top of that, we also see Holocaust survivors in the ‘present’ (in the 90s) have reactions to reminders of the Holocaust, which is also very moving, and something that is often overlooked.
The story is about Becca, who growing up always heard her grandmother Gemma telling the story of sleeping beauty. Except Gemma’s version had a few disturbing differences from the classic story. The bad fairy wore black boots and had silver eagles on her hat, the sleep curse was activated by mist, not a spinning wheel, and Gemma never really clarifies whether the rest of the people in the castle get to wake up when Sleeping Beauty does. Besides this story, which Gemma insists is about her, Becca and her family know almost nothing about Gemma’s past. Not even her real name or where she lived before she came to America.
When Gemma dies, she makes Becca promise to find the castle from her story. Becca promises she’ll find it, and after the funeral her family finds a box of photos and documents with clues to Gemma’s past. Becca retraces Gemma’s life and ends up in a small town in Poland with a dark past.
This is a very good Holocaust story, and I did like the Sleeping Beauty element. I don’t know if I’d really consider it a Sleeping Beauty retelling though. I’m also not really that keen on Yolen’s writing style. In parts it was simple, like, maybe written for young adults, but there were also some words and phrases that I think wouldn’t work that well for younger readers. I’m not sure I’ll go out of my way to read more Yolen, but I am glad I read this one.
by George Turner
The sequel (Kinda) to Turner’s Beloved Son. I should have read Beloved Son first, as there were characters returning and references to previous events in the second part, but the book still stands alone and I wasn’t lost or confused. That being said I read Vaneglory in February and eight months later have not felt the need to grab Beloved Son, so in hindsight this book has failed at pulling me into the series.
Turner’s writing style is really nice and he comes out with a lot of highly quotable lines (“As surely as humanity’s middle name is cruelty” really appealed to me.) This book also presents fairly unique immortal mutants, with some interesting powers and a unique perspective on life. Basically, they’ve been around so long that they’re sick of each other, and normal humans are so ephemeral that few immortals bother with them.
I liked the plot, which was about a man named Will being targeted by this mutant company, teaming up with Donald, who had also been dragged into the Company, and then escaping Glasgow just as nuclear dust destroys the city. The two of them then end up going into suspended animation and waking up in a future Melbourne. Their knowledge of immortal people reaches the powerful men of the day and starts a scramble to protect or exploit the mutants. Interesting, but could have been done better. Also, I wasn’t a fan of the ending.
I was quite surprised to find out this book was written in 1983. Whilst it’s not outdated or pulpy, it still had the feel of a much earlier story.
I’ve been a bit hit and miss with George Turner’s books. The first one I read, Brainchild, I really liked, whilst the second one The Destiny Makers, I did not like at all. Vaneglory I feel has been pretty neutral. I did enjoy reading it, but it didn’t really blow me away. I think I will give Turner’s work another chance; I don’t think I can judge him properly until I at least read his big hit, The Sea and the Summer. Even if I decide I don’t like him, I’ll probably still grab his books when I get a chance, because there aren’t a lot of sci-fi Australias out there.
by Elizabeth Burke
Okay, I have a lot of thoughts on Interference, and the entire Semiosis Duology. Which according to Goodreads is actually a trilogy? I’ll need to look into that. Those thoughts contain spoilers, so I’ll talk about the basics first.
The Semiosis series is a multi-generational colony story, set on a planet where the plant life is much more intelligent than on Earth. The most intelligent plant on this world is the rainbow bamboo, which after encountering the colonists takes the name Stevland and domesticates the humans. The first book, Semiosis, details the struggles of the human colonists and how their society grows with Stevland’s influence over seven generations. This book, Interference, is set about a hundred years later and follows this new society as they are visited by a ship from Earth who don’t share the values of the colonists.
I suppose I should ask if Stevland counts as the protagonist of Interference. He is not the only viewpoint character, and not the only person driving the story. He does however have the longest segment in this book; by a lot. The fact that he is so long lived and omnipresent also means that his actions have a greater impact than others, and that he must deal with consequences in a way that no-one else in the story does. In Semiosis he is the common thread in a narrative that spanned centuries, and even though Interference doesn’t span the same time period, Stevland is still at the centre of most of the conflict and action of the book. With that in mind, I’m going to count him as a protagonist for the purpose of this challenge.
You could read Interference as a standalone. You’d be missing out on the backstory of the colony and on a lot of insight into Stevland, but it is possible to do so. I liked Semiosis better though, partly because Stevland felt more alien. Still, in both books he makes for a fascinating alien character. He views the world differently in a physical sense, but also morally. To a plant, manipulating animals to serve their own needs is perfectly natural. Stevland openly refers to the humans as domesticated, and they use that same terminology. When talking to other plants, he refers to humans as his service animals. He adopts a lot of human ideals like pacifism and democracy and equality, and he recognises the personhood and rights of his service animals, but there is still no doubt that as the only rainbow bamboo, he is in control of everything and has the right to spread his control. A human, or a more human-like alien that thought like Stevland would be a villain, but since Stevland is a big bamboo grove, his moral outlook doesn’t feel evil; just alien. Especially since Stevland himself tries the best he can to be a good person. There is a lot of room to explore these differences, and a lot of big questions about morality and human nature that can be explored in this setting.
Which leads me to a rant about the endings of these books, and a pattern I have noticed in both books. If you want to skip those spoilers, just know that the series is a fun colony story with a really great alien character, but there are some issues I have with the endings. Interference is different to Semiosis, but with the addition on the Earthlings there is a lot more to explore. Now if you want to avoid spoilers, skip to the next review.
Interference sets up a lot of conflicts between different characters and different factions. The Earthling crew all have different agendas and varying levels of loyalty to the shitty government back on Earth, the humans are divided by generation, glassmaker queens instinctively hate each other, yet feel weary of humans, and the citizens of the colony are keeping Stevland’s existence a secret from the Earthlings. Towards the end of the big chunk of book told from Stevland’s point of view, everything is a mess. The commander of the Earthling ship is ready to force his people back on the ship, the glassmaker queens have taken over the city and basically pressed the humans into forced labor, Stevland and a group of his humans and trusted Earthlings are trying to arrange a resistance to both the queens and the jerk Earthlings, there are also colonists who want to force the Earthlings to leave, and then the human moderator – leader of the city – pushes for a town meeting to resolve all these issues against the wishes of the queens. I was on the edge of my seat, fully ready for anything to go down at this town meeting.
We didn’t get a town meeting though. Instead, sentient coral from down river attacked everyone, and after that battle, all the other tensions were presumably solved offscreen and everything went back to normal. This isn’t an asspull, the corals were well foreshadowed and their appearance made sense, mostly, but that doesn’t mean I was satisfied with this turn of events. Even worse is that this is a bit of a pattern; Semiosis also bought in an external threat just as tensions were rising between Stevland and the humans. It wasn’t as bad there; the humans for the most part trusted Stevland, and their conflict with the glassmakers made both humans and Stevland accept each other’s ways of thinking more. In Interference though, the corals don’t affect any of the parties in the colony besides the fact that they are an enemy that needs to be fought. Once I realised that the corals were attacking, I remember feeling so disappointed. Fortunately, if there is a third book in this ‘trilogy’, it won’t follow this pattern.
Despite not liking the climax of Interference, I will still read any future works in this series. The world, it’s potential, and the alienness of the rainbow bamboo will keep drawing me back.
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 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.
by C. L. Polk
Published 2001 (Harper Collins)
This is the sequel to Witchmark. It could be read as a standalone, but it works much better with the worldbuilding a backstory from the first book. Also, if you read Stormsong first, it ruins the mystery and gives massive spoilers to Witchmark. So, yes, you can read Stormsong first, but, just, please don’t.
In Stormsong we follow Dame Grace Henley – sister of Witchmark protagonist Miles and Chancellor of Aeland – as she navigates the aftermath of the events of Witchmark. I enjoyed seeing the fallout of the victory of the first book, and it was a delight to return to the magical Edwardian-inspired world of the Kingston Cycle. As well as having a strong plot and gorgeous worldbuilding, Stormsong also has a lovely F/F romance. I don’t read a lot of romance, but this was a nice dose of romance that left me feeling warm and happy, though I did enjoy the romance in Witchmark more.
The finale work in the Kingston Cycle Trilogy, Soulstar, is expected to be published on February 16, 2021.
Title Starts With K
Ms. Marvel: Kamala Khan
by G. Willow Wilson (writer)
Elmo Bondoc, Takeshi Miyazawa, and Ian Herring (artists)
Yes, I know, I’m cheating by using the subtitle to fill the requirements. My challenge I can do what I want.
I found this book, which collects issues 1 – 11 of the 2014 Ms Marvel reboot, right as I was wanting to start a Marvel series. This was perfect, because I love shapeshifters, it’s my favourite superpower. We’ll blame the Animorphs for that. Since reading this collection I have continued the series by reading book 3 (issues 12 – 15) and plan to keep going.
Firstly, I like this series for similar reasons I like the newest spiderman movies; it feels like I’m reading about everyday people living and growing up in a world where all the crazy stuff that goes on around the Avengers happens. Kamala Khan is just a regular teenager with normal high school issues and insecurities. But she also gets to team up with Wolverine and fight with Loki. Being a teenage superhero, she does remind me a lot of Peter Parker.
This is very much a superhero origin story, and therefore features a lot of time dedicated to Kamala learning the nature and workings of her new shape shifting powers. Kamala and her friends and family are all likable characters, so I enjoyed going along this ride with them. I also like these type of ‘lower stakes’ superhero stories, where the hero is going after the villain responsible for missing kids and giant mutant alligators in the sewer rather than a potential world ending space warlord. Well, I like the latter stories too, but these ones are a nice change of pace.
Kamala is the first Muslim hero to headline a Marvel comic series. Because of this she was a big deal in 2014 when these comics first appeared, and now that a Ms Marvel show is coming to Disney+ she is once again being hyped up. Ms Marvel writer G. Willow Wilson and series editor and creator Sana Amanat are both Muslim women, which I feel contributes to Kamala feeling like a realistic person rather than a stereotype. I don’t know a whole lot about Islam and the Muslim experience, but it does seem that Ms. Marvel is viewed positively by many Muslim readers and groups.
Graphic Novel/Comic Book
Monstress Vol. 4: The Chosen
by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda
Published October 2019 (Image Comics)
Just a heads up, but I am taking the ‘Graphic Novel/Comic Book’ challenge out of my book bingo generator. Either you read graphic novels somewhat regularly, making this a free square, or you don’t, meaning that you’ll probably go out of your comfort zone and still just pick up the most easily accessible superhero comic. Every bingo challenge I got this tile or something similar. Before I started reading graphic novels, I’d never fill it. Now it is a free square for me.
I was enjoying Monstress, but after the last issue, I just wasn’t feeling as into the story and wasn’t that excited to read this issue. Fortunately, Vol. 4 rekindled my interest in the series and now I want more.
In Vol. 4, Maika Halfwolf meets her father and learns of his plans for the world and the Monstrum Zinn. There’s less focus on the politics of the world (though there is still a good amount) and more focus on Maika confronting just what she is and what dangers yet to come. There is also a chapter of cute little Kippa meeting a mythical ancient creature and learning about her own magic.
If that made no sense, let me take a second to explain what Monstress is.
Monstress takes place in a high fantasy, matriarchal world of magic, talking cats and ancient monsters. We follow Maika Halfwolf, an Arcanic (person with animal-features) who can pass as Human, and has a demon/ancient one like being called Zinn who occasionally comes out of the stump of her severed left arm to devour people. Maika survived a catastrophic even in the last war between Arcanics and Humans, and is now looking to find the truth about her mother’s death, a strange mask, and the Monstrum within her. Throughout her journey, Maiko encounters racism from both Arcanicas and Humans, is sold as a slave, and sees the horrors of a world gearing up for war. All of this happens while she learns more about Zinn, his people, and the destruction that will happen if they ever return to the world.
The story is epic, but also complex. I found that in the wait between volumes, it’s very easy to forget details of the story. I think this is why I had problems with Vol. 3, because it took me a while to get reorientated in the world. Looking back on the series, it feels like it’s been slow and complicated. I would probably feel a lot better about the story though if I had binged it.
The thing I love most about this series is Sana Takeda’s artwork. Her style for Monstress isn’t quite manga, but looks like it could be the basis for a beautiful anime. The colours are perfect, the characters are distinct and very well designed, and there is just so much detail in every panel. The art is beautiful.
That said, the level of detail in the art can get distracting at times. I found that in some action scenes it was a bit hard to follow what was happening. I feel this may have contributed to my issues with focusing and remembering some details.
Vol 4: The Chosen collects issues #19-#24 and lacked the nitpicks about over-complexity and lack of focus I touched upon above. After finishing this volume, I’m eager to continue the series. Fortunately, the series is continuing, with issues #25-#27 having been released. More information about the series, as well as the entire issue #1, can be found on the Image Comics site.
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.
Title Starts with ‘J’
The Jewel of Bas
By Leigh Brackett
Published Spring 1944 (Planet Stories)
A fun but simple golden age romp by the Queen of Space Opera. This is a fun little story, and it has introduced me to Brackett’s writing style, which I enjoyed. Her descriptions of the evil androids and the mind-wiped human slaves were vivid and unsettling, and her description of the Immortal Bas was also rather vivid.
Still, this is a very simple story. Husband and wife gypsies Ciaren and Mouse are taking a shortcut through the mountains, then they see a scary shadow in the sky and are captured by monstrous little aliens with big zappy sticks called Kalds, who put them in a chain gang and march them and other captives across the Forbidden Wasteland towards a mountain where legend says that an Immortal god-like being named Bas lives with a magical jewel that gives him tremendous power. Then they escape, but Mouse gets recaptured and Ciaren must save her, and the world.
To be honest, I don’t have too much to say. It’s a fun little adventure, with nice action. It feels too short and straightforward to truly be called a Planetary Romance though. We get some interesting snippets about the world (It’s the 10th planet in the solar system, and it is always day thanks to artificial suns filling the sky), but the action is confined to a very small part of the world and is over very quickly. I would have liked to see more of the world.
There is one thing that makes this story stand out from other super science romps of the day, and that is the characterisation. Ciaren is not your typical hero. He is a thief and a bard, described as short and bow-legged. He isn’t an infallible hero whose actions and thoughts are always justified. His plans go awry, he is proven wrong, and he even snaps and hits Mouse at one point. Yet when she is in danger, he is crushed, sinks to the depths of despair, then sets out to do the impossible to save her. Mouse is a thief and is small and boyish; not the voluptuous beauty you’d expect from a female lead. Whilst she does get enslaved, that’s about halfway through the story, and by then she has proven to be very tough and resourceful. The two of them are under a lot of stress even before getting kidnapped. They are hungry and lost. They’re in quite a desperate situation and are having trouble getting along. Yet they still love each other.
Ciaren and Mouse aren’t pulp super science archetypes. They are flawed human beings faced with something more dangerous than they could have ever imagined, and their humanity makes what could have been a pretty meh adventure special.
Time Travel Story
Paper Girls Vol.1
By Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang
Published April 2016 (Image Comics)
It’s going to be hard to review just the first volume of this series, since I have since gone out and completed the entire series. That should serve as an indicator of how good this book was. Paper Girls Vol. 1 is fast paced, instantly gripping, and makes a great hook that will drag you into this insane time travel war. A great start to a great series.
The series Paper Girls is about four 12-year-old girls on their morning paper run after Halloween 1988. All is normal until they get dragged into a war between two different factions of time travellers. The next few days are spent jumping between different years trying to get back to their own time. Along the way, their loose bond becomes a tight friendship, and they all grow so much. There’s even a romance/coming-out aspect in there. It’s a wild ride, full of dinosaurs, mutants, giant tardigrades, cavewomen, interdimensional things, and nostalgia for the 80s, and even for 2000 and Y2K. Yeah a wild ride indeed.
The first volume does a great job at letting you know what you’re in for… by throwing a whole lot of crazy at you with little explanation. It does take a while to figure out what’s going on, but that makes every time a piece of the puzzle click so satisfying.
A lot of the plot complexity is simply because this is a time travel story. The narrative itself is straight forward enough, and everything happens really quickly. This story makes for a real page-turner, but there were some points where I would have liked it to slow down and explore some of the new settings or characters they were encountering a bit more.
I really liked Cliff Chiang’s art in this. Before I picked up the series, the coverart was a turn-off. Seemed way to pink for my liking. But the colours on the page look great, and all the characters are distinct and emotive. We end up seeing a lot of characters at different stages of their lives, and their always recognisable despite being so different, which makes me appreciate the character design a lot.
Translated from Chinese
The Flock of Ba-Hui
By Oobmab. Translated by Arthur Meursault and Akira.
Published February 2020 (Camphor Press)
This collection/fix-up novel links four Lovecraftian stories by Chinese writer Oobmab. These stories were published originally one the Ring of Wonder, a hub within China’s huge online literary scene specialising in weird fiction.
By Lovecraftian, I don’t mean has Lovecraft inspired themes, I mean these stories are set firmly within the Lovecraftian mythos. The title story follows a researcher in the mountains of Sichuan, a place Lovecraft would never have visited, at least not with a Chinese protagonist. However Lovecraft’s snake-god Yig gets a reference.
The title story reminded me a lot of At the Mountains of Madness, especially with the way the history of the place was discovered through murals. The following story, Nadir, is a quick journey through the dreamlands that featured a terrifying trip up a pitch-dark tower and an unfathomable scene at the top. Black Taisui did give me Shadow Over Innsmouth vibes, but the actual monster there is one I haven’t come across before and am not sure what it would be called in English. The final story, The Ancient Tower, again has references that I didn’t get, but it was my favourite of the four. The locations were described vividly and the whole story was full of atmosphere. There were also scenes and a twist there that were actually creepy.
The four stories have been put into a framing story. This frame seems simple and purely functional at first, but after each story we realise that there is more going on here than meets the eye.
The translation of this book is excellent. In the translator’s introduction, they mentioned how Oobmab went to great lengths to convey Lovecraft’s style, and how translating this back into English was a challenge. I think, both author and translators should be congratulated, because this book reads like Lovecraft. Lovecraft with Chinese setting and sensibilities.
The introduction to this book by the translators is also quite interesting. Meursault talks about the online writing community is China, and the affect the Communist Party’s censorship has had on fiction in the country. The most obvious effect is that works of horror are not common over there, which makes this collection something special.
Biggest complaint though is that the cover has a 20c sticker on it, but the kindle edition of this book cost me much more than that lol.
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.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.
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 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.
The Relentless Moon
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Since The Relentless Moon is a Lady Astronaut novel, I went into it very excited. There was also a bit of trepidation, since this is the first novel of the series to not follow the Lady Astronaut Elma York. Still, I dove in, listening to the audiobook version because I really enjoy listening to Kowal narrate her own works, and I loved everything about this one.
The Lady Astronaut series is alternate history… which I am only just realising now as I type this. I could have ticked off the ‘Alternate History’ tile on my book bingo card back in August.
The Relentless Moon is a conspiracy/mystery story set on the luna colony in an alternate 1963 where a deadly world-destroying meteorite has spurred humanity to throw nearly everything into a global space program. Meteorite aside, the Lady Astronaut world feels so much like what our efforts to explore space could have been. Kowal has done a lot of research on both spaceflight and the era these books are set in. Everything has the feel of a real, fully possible history.
The star of the Lady Astronaut series is Elma York, a pilot and math genius who campaigns for the space program to allow woman astronauts. The first two books in the series, The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, follows Elma as she becomes an astronaut and flies to the Moon and Mars. The Relentless Moon takes place at the same time as The Fated Sky, where Elma is busy flying to Mars. With Elma out of the way, protagonist duty falls to Nicole Wargin, a fellow Lady Astronaut friend of Elma’s. Nicole is in her fifties and struggles with an eating disorder. Neither of those facts are her defining feature. Like Elma, she was a pilot in WWII, though it appears that Nicole learnt other skills during the war as well, which become useful when a saboteur pops up on the moon. Whilst she is using her technical and political skills on the moon, her husband, senator Kenneth Wargin, is considering running for President of the USA.
I love Nicole as a character, I love her relationship with Kenneth, and I loved reading about her and the rest of the crew from the previous books solving mysteries and kicking ass on the moon. The Relentless Moon is a wonderful book and can be read as a standalone if you are not up-to-date with the Lady Astronaut series. It is also the longest book I read this year, which surprised me. It did not feel long at all.
by Clifford D. Simak
First things first, most of these stories were written in the 1940s. So, they have the problems typical to stories of the time with female and non-white representation, and our understanding of what the solar system is like has changed greatly.
The framing story for this book is a dog historian providing commentary on the individual stories, which have become the ancient myths of doggish society. The stories are so long in the past, that there is debate about whether or not humans actually existed. These stories were mostly written in the 40s, so they contain an old school solar system with aliens on Mars or Jupiter. Also, the dogs have psychic powers.
I’m making it all sound silly and funny, but there is something rather deep to this book. Simak conveys the passage of time and the loneliness caused by humanity’s passing really well. I found it somewhat eerie reading some of the later stories, where humanity was gone and forgotten. Simak also does a good job explaining how the other intelligences in this world do not think like humans.
The dogs are the ones we follow the most, and whilst they feel maybe too human at times, the world they set out to make is something humans could never dream of. Later on, ants emerge as an intelligence and there is just no way to gain any insight into their motivations or to attempt to communicate. They remain completely unknowable. When we first see the ants being elevated, they seem cute. They have little carts and a couple of chimneys sticking out of the ant hill. Then a few thousand years later they are building a thing. A building. No-one knows what it is, just that at the rate the ants are going, they’ll cover the entire planet. Not because they’re evil, just because they’re alien.
I did a bigger review of this story which explains the whole timeline complete with spoilers. You can read it here.
In this smaller review, I’ll focus on what I feel is the most powerful elements of the story. Firstly, there is the portrayal of pacifism. Twice there are situations where a character must choose between violence and a world destroying defeat. In both cases, the characters choose defeat rather than violence. Losing everything they and their people have worked for is seen as preferable to the moral changes their societies would go through if violence is used. That was really powerful. I have always believed that pacifism is hard, yet in most media with a pacifistic protagonist, things do work out even if they don’t kill the bad guy. It’s rare to come across a story where refusing to be a killer results in defeat, and yet the refusal is still treated as the right thing to do.
I was also struck by how even though this book is about the fall of human civilisation, it does not cast human civilisation in a negative light. Simak was a Humanist who believed strongly in the value of humanity, and despite us failing often in City, humanity was portrayed in a positive light here. I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself if that view is realistic, but I’d recommend City to anyone that just wants to read a nice story that won’t leave you bummed out about the world. We aren’t perfect in this book; there is that whole bow and arrow incident, but you won’t feel like humans are total shit after reading City. Yet we still go extinct about halfway through the story. Human civilisation is destroyed by human actions, and yet it is never a dystopia. In fact, this is the way I would want us to all die out; by choosing to be good and peaceful, even if it makes it impossible for us to remain human, and then leaving the world to worth successors.
I suppose saying this book takes place “On Saturn, Jupiter, or Their Moons” is strange, since most of this book takes place in the North American countryside. But I would argue back that the parts of this book that do take place on Jupiter are the most pivotal parts of the story, so why not?