How Long 'Til Black Future Month? by N. K. Jemisin

I wish to thank Nazia from Orbit Books for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Orbit

Published – Out Now

Price - £8.99

Record-breaking. Three-time Hugo Award Winning and New York Times Bestselling Author N. K. Jemisin sharply examines modern society in her first short story collection including several never-before seen pieces.

One of the limitations cited at the science fiction and fantasy genre is that all the stories can be labelled the same – ‘ooh it’s all medieval dungeons and dragons or Star Wars rip offs’. Any reader of the genre knows that is not the case lots of writers all contribute different facets and explore myriad worlds and ideas, but a rarer type of author is the one who can take aim at everything and in each case create a gem.  N K Jemisin has in my view written the best fantasy trilogy of the decade in her Broken Earth trilogy which is one of the most refreshing, smart and passionate series of books I’ve ever read (there is a reason it won the Subjective Chaos Award for Best Series this year) but Jemisin has also been a short story writer and in this her first collection we have some of her stories produced over 2004-17.  It’s a virtuoso performance which offers a successive series of different worlds and characters - these are some of my highlights

The Ones Who Stay and Fight - some of the hardest types of stories to imagine (especially in 2018) is a utopia.  Here we are told about an amazing world and in one slight glimpse of humanity’s dark side how should a utopia be maintained

The City Born Great – A homeless gay man is chosen as New York’s protector ss it starts to gain sentience. A mysterious entity is trying to wipe it out and our hero must run from a monstrous demonic cop. This one is brimming with ideas and is a very different type of urban fantasy with a fantastic conclusion.  Very much looking to see the novel that is now being developed from this story.

Red Dirt Witch – a mother gets into a battle with one of the fair folk to save her kids.  A folk tale that explores the progress of civil right in America. A truly creepy villain and yet also hopeful for the future.

L’Achimista – a chef is given a challenging recipe using ingredients that may not actually exist.  A whirling and very tasty take on a folk tale.  Great to see a woman being smart and capable taking the all knowing magical male character by surprise.

Cloud Dragon Skies – this is a haunting SF tale where a future Earth has seen most people move to live in the space stations and those who remain on the earth damaged by pollution are living a very simple life.  Scientists however have a cunning plan to restore balance.  A story weaving attitudes to women, falling in love and humanity’s arrogance towards nature into a very startling conclusion

Valedictorian – a girl is despised by her classmates (notably she is black) for her desire to be the best in school.  She finds out a lot more about the world she is in and what if she is chosen by her world’s victors what will happen to her.  Working out what is going on in this world is a highlight of the story about the value of knowledge.

The Evaluators - an SF horror story told via a web of recorded conversations and posts.  Here the mystery of a strange alien race is being teased out until you see the whole picture and it packs a punch.

Stone Hunger – this tale very easily seems to fit into the world of the Broken Earth as a young girl hunting a man for vengeance discovers a whole city of people like her.

On the Banks of the River Lex – all the earth’s gods are trying to live on now that humanity is extinct.  Death ponders what his function will be.  Heart-warming in a very strange way

Non-Zero Probabilities – New York is hit by a strange world where the most extreme chances of things be it lottery wins, train crashes etc all happen frequently.  A woman is trying to live her life and a religious group may be offering a way out.  This is a warm story of how the world changes with a very weird event.  One of my favourites and a sense of optimism in extreme times is always welcome

This was easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. The range of stories and the worlds explored are fresh, modern and instant classics.  You can see a novel in so many of these worlds but at no point do the short stories feel short-changed.  If there was a running theme its of the people that are often under-estimated by society being shown to be far more capable and competent than those in positions of power expected.  Giving centre stage to women and people of colour makes this a series of tales relevant to the 21st century.  If you’ve enjoyed Jemisin’s work before these underlines she is a leading figure in the genre and a brilliant story teller.  If you’ve not read her before then stop now go pick this up and prepare for a delight as you travel through her imagination.

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Burning Sky by Weston Ochse

I would like to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Solaris

Price - £8.99

Published – Out now

Everything is dangerous in Afghanistan, nothing more so than the mission of a Tactical Support Team or TST. All veterans, these men and women spend seasons in hell, to not only try and fix what’s broken in each of them, but also to make enough bank to change their fortunes.

But seven months later, safely back on American soil, they feel like there’s something left undone. They’re meeting people who already know them, remembering things that haven’t happened, hearing words that don’t exist. And they’re all having the same dream…a dream of a sky that won’t stop burning.

I haven’t read much military SF recently and I will admit the idea of a group of men talking about their mighty weapons (snigger) tends to make me snooze but one of the best bits about reading is when you get surprised and this story gave me a lot of them aiming more for Jacob’s Ladder than the next Jack Ryan.

The story starts with the TST team out in Afghanistan; at this point it feels your standard hi-tech war thriller very much as the team are immediately shown in a dangerous part of the country escorting a General to a meeting. Lots of technical jargon and a team waiting for an attack but then glowing lights from the skies intervene and the story immediately time jumps to six months later and the TST is split up and back in the US. The first chapter hammered home that this was a group of seasoned albeit young professionals and now they’re shattered. The focus of this story is Bryan Starling (who uses the nickname Boy Scout) and he’s now surviving on drugs, alcohol and missions for gang bosses. An increasingly out of fit muscle for hire sent to silence a woman making trouble so he can make some money. For the reader very jarring to see this transition from someone we first met as a very by the book soldier and then things get even weirder – his intended target tells him he’s done this before and she knows what he will do to her. Bryan decides to make a stand for the guy he used to be and starts to bring the team together. During which he finds he’s not the only member to have gone off the rails and all of them seem to be having the same dreams and an ever-growing sense that something went horribly wrong on that last mission.

In many ways this is a book of three parts and how they connect is a major attraction.  The start could easily be one of several action thriller plots where an army veteran finds his skills more useful on the wrong side of the tracks but then a more unusual plot with hints of something much more supernatural make it becomes increasingly important that this troupe is put back together to go back. This section gives a me a feeling of a Jacob’s Ladder style plot where two narratives are fighting for control and reality becomes increasingly blurred with the fantastical and once the team get to Afghanistan the final reveal shows how this team all link into an ongoing mystical battle that has been running for centuries.  It’s a very unpredictable ride and avoids constant discussions of weapons and tactics swapping it for a more personal and for me more interesting dynamic.  This session is where it becomes a clash of fantasy horror and action which I think largely works as you’re not sure how the team can survive and where it will finally end.

The character dynamic was appealing.  This is a military team with two skilled and respected women operating alongside the men and the men themselves are a diverse group of backgrounds including former criminals and a gay man who again the team have no issues with.  It feels a refreshingly 21st century set-up.  Ultimately the TST enjoy what they do and while they all have their reasons for fighting and it is clear they complement and need each other on a very deep level.

My only reservation was the final reveal is a historical character who really set the ball rolling on the confrontation the team need to address.  That character is shown in a less than positive light and as far as I’ve been able to see he had no ulterior motives and instead is a respected literary figure to Persian culture.  Artistic licence must be expected in the genre but to base a story in Afghanistan and use a famous Muslim character as a potential antagonist (and to be fair their motives are still unclear, so this may be revealed in future stories as a red herring) I felt made this a little out of step with the rest of the book.

This is the start of a new series featuring the team (well whoever finally survives) and it’s a strong start to help launch what could be a very unusual series treading a line between military action and horror fantasy.  Really accomplished and I think if you enjoy action in your stories then this may be right up your attack zone.

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The Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Publisher – Orbit

Published – Out Now

Price - £8.99

Mehr is a girl trapped between two cultures. Her father comes form the ruling classes of the empire, but her mother’s people were outcasts – Amrithi nomads who worshipped the spirits of the sands.

Caught one night performing these forbidden rites, Mehr is brought to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, who try to force her into their service by way of an arranged marriage. If she fails in their bidding, the gods themselves may awaken and seek vengeance….

We tend to go large in Fantasy. The operatic vistas and battles of a thousand soldiers can of course be a thing of violent beauty but I do think on occasion we forget the power of the more personal closed story. By focusing on the world in miniature you can also gain a huge insight into the cultures and emotional journeys our characters are all on. In Tasha Suri’s enthralling debut, we are given a fascinating intensely personal story that is one of the most engrossing debuts of this year.

The Ambhan Empire has been maintained for centuries through the armed might of the Emperor and the mystical powers of the mysterious Maha. The Maha maintains the Emperor’s control and his powers can lead to the death of entire cities or their populations if felt a threat to the Empire’s prosperity.  It’s an Empire of different traditions and there are tensions.  The ruling Ambhan groups have governorships to control towns and on the edge in Irinah the nomadic Amrithi tribe are increasingly viewed as a superstitious remnant of the past.

Mehr is the daughter of an Ambhan Governor and an Amrithi nomad who briefly fell in love but found their relationship didn’t work. Her mother moved into the desert while Mehr and her sister Arwa after a few years find themselves with an Ambhan step-mother who feels that only Arwa has the potential to be passed off as a member of true society. Mehr instead must rely on her mother’s friend to understand the traditions and rites of her own heritage. When her friend goes mysteriously missing Mehr is seen performing Amrithi customs and her father decides to prevent any more disgrace to the family, that Mehr needs to be sent away to get married.  Unfortunately, the Maha appears to have been expecting this and sent his mystics across the desert to immediately get Mehr married to the mysterious Amun and then whisked back to the Maha’s desert palace.  Mehr then finds out how the Maha has maintained power and why he is always hunting down the Amrithi. Amun and Mehr may be the only people capable of stopping him but the cost may be too high.

There is a huge amount to love in this story. Our central character Mehr is human; capable but prone to acting without thinking. Far more comfortable with her mother’s heritage she is fiercely protective of her sister and increasingly aware as one of her oldest friends is having to flee her town that the Empire is not quite what she expected. Her loyalty to her sister and father makes her take the decision to get married to Amun but then the book has a fascinating relationship between her and Amun. She quickly finds Amun is far more than just one of the Maha’s mystics; the others in the group of suspicious of him; the Maha values his powers but forces his obedience and he soon turns out to be Amrithi himself. There is an intriguing view on communication as Amun has had to find ways around the Maha’s godlike control his use of language masks his true intents, but he is shocked to discover that Mehr reads his body language far better than he is used to. Their relationship is a combination of learning to reveal each other’s motives and their deepening trust is the emotional core of the book. Two key characters that will really make you both fear for their survival and hope for that moment they admit what they’re secretly feeling for each other.

The villains in the story are equally well drawn. Mehr’s stepmother and father could be your default cruel parents but, in this story, there is a depth where you realise the Empire has shaped their behaviours. It’s a world where women must be veiled when in public and her only actual choice is who she marries.  Power and status are sought subtly and while you may not approve of their behaviour you understand this. The true villain and one of the most terrifying in how he is both incredibly still and yet hinting at explosive violence is the Maha. He’s the most powerful person in the empire having been there for most of its existence; his mystics are unswervingly loyal and chillingly willing to follow his orders. Even a simple dinner scene is tense as Mehr, Amun and the Maha try to work out who knows what and the consequences if found out will be deadly.

This leads to one of the most impressive aspects of the book. Rather than endless pages of exposition to explain the world and its history the focus is more on the personal and the lives of the characters and this gives you so much more insight into how people live. A simple early scene at the beginning focusing on a scared child at night allows Mehr to explain the mysterious entities known as the daiva that dominate the book’s secrets. A strangely sad wedding scene explains the society that divides men from women and the culture where a woman’s face never to be revealed to anyone bar family and husband and even a simple scene where the women who live in the Maha’s palace have a night of games and betting suddenly makes you see that the Maha’s followers are wonderfully human and you care about what may happen to them. The whole world feels lived in and just full of myths and magical places to explore further.

This one of the most impressive debuts this year and is a startlingly well-developed world and Suri’s use of character and style grips the reader.It’s beautifully paced with revelations and reveals that make you want to reach the end.I am very pleased that there is to be another instalment (focusing on a very different lead character) next year.I definitely think this is a fantasy series you should look to start reading now because I’m intrigued where this goes next.

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The Week Ahem Month in Womble aka Strictly Team Tardis

Hellooo!!

Perhaps better think of it as a month in womble this time!! But largely this is due to having some rather busy good things happening (largely). I went to London to see friends and do some book shopping and as you saw last week I also went to my first Fantasycon which was a really good experience.  I have once again done the UK publishing industry a lot of goof and my TBR pile a lot of bad.  Sadly, my third attempt this year to move to a new house failed at the last minute (buyer number four is now starting the joy and I am awaiting to find a new home to move into – please keep fingers crossed.  and work has got me a new project, so it’s been hectic (but I did get a promotion)– lots of reading time but not much else accomplished!

Other Media

Television –

Doctor Who – I’ve been watching it since I was five and its influence on me is profound.  It got me into reading and I suspect why I love mash-ups of genre so much and a focus on character.  With a new Doctor and showrunner in Chris Chibnall I was intrigued how I was going to react and I’m pleasantly surprised. Jodie Whittaker has a lovely warm kind alien approach to the Doctor and the large cast is actually really well balanced – I am amazed how subtle and mature Bradley Walsh’s character is.  It’s giving me a big early Davison feeling after the angst and high drama of the Twelfth (who is still one of my faves) I like this show because it feels the correct decision to remove a lot of the last decade’s continuity.  Highlight for me so far was Rosa because that’s the most emotional and intelligent a show on racism I’ve seen in the show’s history.  Intrigued where it goes next

Strictly – Yes, a show I never expected to love but there is something about people learning to enjoy dancing that I really love.  I don’t feel I’m being emotionally manipulated, and it has a sense of humour.  I just feel sorry for non-strictly fans when I start scoring every Saturday

Quatermass and the Pit – This is from 1959 BBC and I’m really enjoying it halfway.  It doesn’t feel like it’s embarrassed of the genre and it’s a fascinating glimpse into how the post war Britain was.  It feels a nation not sure where it is going between wanting to have a nuclear weapons base on the moon to a London still rebuilding from the Blitz.  Tension slowly creeping up so intrigued where back half goes.  Worth a look on iPlayer.

Star Trek – Finished season one of the original series and I was glad go see while horribly sexist the bones of what I call Trek are in there.  The characters start to gel, and the show has a refreshing take away from just blowing everything up.  Its definite a show from the warmer end of the Cold War period and that feeling of warring nations ready to fight is prevalent but it’s still a fascinating look at SF and the ideas it starts stay with SF for many decades to come.

Films – This month was rubbish I still don’t think I saw a single one?  Any recommendations?

Podcasts – Audio shows I feel hugely relaxing when stressed so I played catch up on three shows I can recommend

Females in Fantasy – Been gobbling up these episodes where Briana Da Silva interviews various female authors to discuss various topics. Really good flowing discussions on subjects such as bisexuality, colonialism and othering. Guests are very impressive and so far, I’ve heard Jeannette Ng, Temi Oh, Justina Ireland and Joyce Chng with quite a few more to come.

Lore/Unexplained – I cheat as these are two different podcasts where a single narrator tells us a story of the paranormal. Unexplained tends towards multi-episodes on one format (with a British focus) and Lore tends to have a range of stories of varying length on one area (more with a US focus).  Perfect for Halloween build up I think I prefer the story-telling model in Lore though but if you like the idea of a half hour of dark tales give this a go 

What I read

-          Small Gods by Terry Pratchett – wow this book was angry. Fundamentalism is clearly in his sights and it feels the first time that the social politics that the Discworld can explore are being awakened.  Loved it!

-          Rosewater by Tade Thompson – Reviewed below – great piece of SF exploring aliens in Nigeria with a compelling mystery and intriguing use of flashbacks.  Strongly recommended.

-          Petra McDonald and the Queen of the Fae by Shon Kinsella - Reviewed below a charming tale of fae gods and humans that I really hope leads to future tales.

-          In the Vanisher’s Palace by Aliette de Bodard – Beauty and the Beast retold in an SF setting – reviewed below and gorgeous

-          A Hidden Hope by Laura Ambrose – Reviewed below - a tale of two SF writers rekindling their relationship at a London SF con.  Charming

-          Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames – Reviewed Below.  Loved this look at life on the road with a band of heroes with a touch of Almost Famous thrown in

-          In the Stacks by Scott Lynch – a short story/novella where four students must return books to pass their next uni at a magician’s school.  The library is rather dangerous.  Funny and clever – well worth your time

-          Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson – Reviewed below – In 2047 we have conquered the moon but society on earth is at a crossroads.  Intelligent SF I just wished had a few more joined up plots

What I want to read next

-          Darksoul by Anna Stephens – the sequel to another one of my favourite debuts Godblind

-          Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik – I loved Uprooted and read the novella version of the tale earlier this year.  This goes in a different direction so think it sounds just what I need

-          Burning Sky by Weston Ochse – an action SF tale about something strange happening to veterans

-          Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri – a new debut author with a tale inspired by India’s history

-          The Winter Road by Adrian Selby - a new series looking at mercenaries in the wilderness

-          The Dark Vault by VE Schwab– a duology of two of her earlier works

 

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A Hidden Hope by Laura Ambrose

Publisher – Penglass Publishing

Published – Out Now

Price - £2.29 Kindle ebook

Natalie and El used to be writing critique partners, sharing their work chapter by chapter. Falling in love off-page was like the next part of the story. But after a huge falling out, three years have passed in bitter silence.

When they both appear at a science fiction convention in London, Natalie, a struggling writer, wants nothing to do with El, the hot debut novelist who sold her book at auction under a male pseudonym. But over the weekend, ignoring each other – and their attraction – proves impossible, not least because they have several panels together. Can El hope to atone for the mistakes of their past, and is Natalie willing to let hope fly?

Back in January (2018 has been a lonnnng year has it not?) I did say I wanted to read outside my wheelhouse from time to time so other book types will appear. Laura Ambrose is more familiar to me for her charming Pantomime YA books and her near future cyberpunk thrillers (please look them up they’re great) so she is now an author I am on the look-out for in terms of new projects and when she announced new romances I was intrigued.  Pleased to say it was a charming and at times passionate story of rekindled love plus its at a science fiction convention!!

Welcome to Londcom a large science fiction convention where two US guests have been invited for panels.  Unknown to the organisers El and Natalie knew each other in their early writing days El learnt to love the SF genre and Natalie loved El’s use of language.  Talking through the web ld to friendship and ultimately romance but El slammed down the gates and it’s been quiet.  Natalie is therefore alarmed that El is revealed to be the new hot debut author no one knows who is about to be unveiled as a woman to the SF community.  Natalie however is more a mid-list author going through the grind of having enough ideas for the next book to be commissioned.  A conflict is inevitably on the cards but El would like a chance to explain herself.

I really liked the structure of the romance based around panels. Any convention goer is going to recognise the subjects and some of the guests (including humourless white male author wanting things the old way) and we start off with our two main characters in conflict. El the verbose author and Natalie the initially more reserved character but as these two orbit each other and have an important chance to communicate it’s clear that both has had an impact on the course of their lives. Despite the current conflict there is a sense that these two really do work for each other on many levels means the ultimate resolutions are totally appropriate for the characters we spend time with individually. 

There is a key set piece where the two characters go on a secret cinema date and the choice of venue and the atmosphere it creates for their potentially final ever date is beautifully played.  Totally suitable for two geeks with an evocative setting. I can’t spoil this scene too much but it’s worth it.  The final aspect to win me over was the focus on need for people to talk to each other and partnerships are ultimately based on communication; even if people eventually decide it may not be enough.

This is a beautiful, sensual and at time very penetrating look at the world of cons and publishing that establishes its reality well and then allows for the romance of the two leads to progress and win the reader over so you’re rooting for these two women to sort things out.  I will definitely look out for future novels from Laura Ambrose in future.

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Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson

I would like to thank Nazia from Orbit for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Orbit

Price - £18.99 hardcover

Its thirty years from now, and we have colonised the moon.

American Fred Fredericks is making his first trip, his purpose to install a communications system for the Chinese Lunar Authority. But hours after his arrival, he witnesses a murder and is forced into hiding.

It is also the first visit for celebrity travel reporter Ta Shu. He has contacts and influence, but he too will find the moon can be a perilous place for any traveller.

Finally, there is Chan Qi. She is the daughter of the minister of finance, and without doubt a person of interest to those in power. She is on the moon for reasons of her own, but when she attempts to return to China, in secret, the events that unfold will change everything – on the moon, and on Earth.

Kim Stanley Robinson is rightly considered a giant in current science fiction from his ground-breaking Mars trilogy to his more recent environmental books such as 2312. He is very interested in looking at how the science of now can be adapted and the impact it will have on humanity plus where it could limit our growth as well.  In this novel; in which looks to be a new potential sequence of books, he brings his love of science, his eye for our cultures and its current political issues (including those of China) and mixes it with our satellite the Moon to give us a new glimpse of what may come to pass.

So, the good news is that in 2048 we are still here but the centre is not holding.  In the US people are rejecting capitalism and an economic crash is potentially on the cards.  In the other superpower of China, it is time for a new President to be chosen and infighting between the potential candidates is fierce while ‘the billion’ all those workers from around China without any real representation are starting to gain their own political momentum.  The strong feeling comes across that we are reaching a global tipping point and unusually it’s a small base on the Moon that provides that final adjustment to the balance. Fred Frederick is in the process of dropping off a quantum phone when he finds himself under suspicion of the assassination of a local politician and at the same time finds himself stuck with the pregnant daughter of one of the presidential candidates. They soon find themselves on the run and the chase moves across earth and the moon several times.

I’m going to get my biggest issue with the story out of the way first - the characters of Fred and Qi and the political thriller they find themselves in s probably the weakest part of the book.  Fred is portrayed as autistic and ignorant of Chinese politics while Qi (who we find out is the quasi-leader of the billion) comes across as a sullen and reserved politician in the making.  A good quarter of the book is these two on the run and in the process swapping a lot of information on the history of Chinese politics and quantum computing.  While the information was always interesting it never felt like a natural dialogue and more that the reader needed to know key plot points. Very little real character emerged, and I struggled to see Qi as the future leader of a revolution.  Scenes of capture or release would often materialise off screen and ultimately, I never felt invested into these two’s survival and the thriller often lacked actual thrills. Happily the book gives a lot more to chew on.

Firstly, the colonised Moon of the future.  If you consider that most of our mental images are the grainy pics of the Apollo Mission, we seem to have lost our vision of what the Moon is actually like now multiple unmanned missions have been there. Robinson really gives you a feel for the spectacle of the place with huge craters, ice mines and a landscape were rocks are weathered not by air but by moonlight. On top of this we have lunar life where the bases are now starting humanity’s preparation for further adventures like Venus and beyond. A completely artificial world but where animals can be seen and in one dazzling scene an opera sung by the people in a vast aerial landscape -  it feels the start of something new although noted a lot of the inhabitants appear to be the very rich. A very different character in the form of Ta Shu is for me the heart and conscience of the book. A man who has lived through the 21st century and strives to look for the beauty in it but also assessing the flaws in the society. He acts as a bridge between Qi and Fred and the various forces coalescing in China. His scenes feel more natural explaining China’s history and culture and when he is centre stage the story really flows.

The last half of the book moves a little beyond a simple thriller and moves into a bigger scale review of 21st century culture with a sense that capitalism and the type of representational democracy/or dictatorship we’ve used so far has run their course.  This leads the question as to what is next?  Watching a new Chinese revolution despite the Great Firewall and in the 21st century it’s prototype surveillance AI Little Eyeball seems a daunting and scary prospect, but Robinson portrays a way past these barriers; not everyone in the system believes it will carry on and importantly technology brings about ways that a critical mass of people can act together.  These ideas are fascinating, and I hope explored further in future books.  Annoyingly a few times there are several scenes of revolution being relayed between characters from a distance, so we don’t really get enough of a handle on the scale of the change at the coalface back on earth.

So overall, I think this is an intriguing read if you are interested in the ideas of where politics and economics are heading or a discussion of what our lunar satellite now has to offer; the political thriller element is probably it’s least successful thread but overall enough balance to recommend it to SG fans. Hopefully now that the groundwork of this universe has been built in a future novel we may get even more sight of what Earth’s potential can truly be.

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COVER REVEAL!! NEW SUNS: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Colour

Rebellion Publishing have been regularly releasing excellent anthologies such as The Djinn Falls in Love and earlier this year The Not So Stories exploring a number of writers of colour discussed colonialism within fantasy and now they can announce a new amazing anthology on its way – NEW SUNS!!

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Colour is edited by Nishi Shawl (author of Everfair and numerous short stories). The basis of the title comes from Octavia E Butler who said “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns”; the aim of the anthology is to showcase several new and veteran authors from many races being allowed to tell stories of science fiction, fantasy, horror and all the gaps in between. It offers a move away from stereotypes and clichés. It even has a foreward by LeVar Burton aka Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation! Plus just look at that cover by Yoshi Yoshitani (check out their other art at  http://www.yoshiyoshitani.com/ )and the impressive list of authors below means this looks something very special. Stay tuned for further details and reviews nearer publication date

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

·       Foreword, LeVar Burton

·       The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex, Tobias Buckell

·       Deer Dancer, Kathleen Alcalá

·       The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations, Minsoo Kang

·       Come Home to Atropos, Steven Barnes

·       The Fine Print, Chinelo Onwualu

·       unkind of mercy, Alex Jennings

·       Burn the Ships, Alberto Yáñez

·       The Freedom of the Shifting Sea, Jaymee Goh

·       Three Variations on a Theme of Imperial Attire, E. Lily Yu

·       Blood and Bells, Karin Lowachee

·       Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister, Silvia Moreno-Garcia

·       The Shadow We Cast Through Time, Indrapramit Das

·       The Robots of Eden, Anil Menon

·       Dumb House, Andrea Hairston

·       One Easy Trick, Hiromi Goto

·       Harvest, Rebecca Roanhorse

·       Kelsey and the Burdened Breath, Darcie Little Badger

·       Afterword, Nisi Shawl

 

 

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Fantasycon 2018

Fantasycon – 19th-21st October

The Queen Hotel Chester

 

I was not too sure what I was going to get with Fantasycon.  I did hear rumours that it could be a tad insular but more recently I’ve been hearing it was a great time.  I decided as it was fortunately on my doorstep in Chester I would find out for myself (so nice to be able to drive home after every day) and I can confirm it was a positive experience even when recovering from a bad cold! I thought it showed that the main face of fantasy is evolving and definitely for the better.

So rather than a panel by panel review I’m going to focus more the highlights.  I was a bit wiped out from the cold (as some noticed by my voice) so I was more interested in having a wander and sometimes opted for quieter panels than I probably would normally opt for – taking on board lots of ideas was not always top of my list. So, Friday felt more like a giant catch up session with people from Twitter or that I last saw at Edge Lit. There is a lot to be said for social media as it does help break the ice when people sort of already know you (even if as always people are disappoint ted I am not an actual womble)  - so plenty of true geeky discussions such as television shows and books to catch up on and what exactly happens if Dracula bit Frankenstein. At times like this you know you are with your people.

Panel wise was an interesting look at how writers got into the business with I Don’t Know What I Am Doing – this was really a good discussion and even though I’ve no desire to ever write a book I am intrigued at how words in someone’s head become the gorgeous precious things in my hands.  Advice on how to get feedback, the importance of an agent and the sheer number of ways people can enter publishing these days from online groups to classic slush pile reads reminded you that each book goes on a long journey even after it is written. The evening slot though was a good chance for people to relax with two D&D panels hosted by Dave Moore and Nate Crowley. A variety of guests then became characters and through the audience’s extremely serious suggestions had to take on killer bees, killer sheep and various assorted spells and dangers.  An extremely good laugh and a hint that this is SF that doesn’t take itself too seriously anymore.

Saturday saw me attend some reading sessions where published and non-published authors had a chance to perform pieces of their work.  Highlights here for me where Shona Kinsella’s reading her novella Petra MacDonald and the Queen of the Fae; Stephen Poore giving us an early glimpse of his next work and I finally got to see RJ Parker give a eye catching performance from his Blood of Assassins; all three showed different approaches to story-telling and it was great to look at a few stories I knew well but in audio form. It was also a good opportunity for the authors to be given questions about writing and all the authors seemed happy to share their own hints and tips.

I got to sit in and listen to two recordings of one of my favourite podcasts – Breaking the Glass Slipper where Clare North and RJ Barker discussed mystery writing in fantasy as well as the beauty of tight plotting (even if neither actually used tight plotting themselves). Later, I heard Starburst’s Brave New Words (returning to podcast feeds soon) with a very valiant attempt to get through Book News and this time succeeded even if there were many many tangents. Both are well worth a listen when you can catch them.

There was a great large panel on the Kitschies awards involving previous and current judges, organisers and nominees and winners.  The Kitschies is a progressive and unusual jury award that I think has a much more flexible attitude to SF than some would apply to items such as the Clarke or Hugos. It was great to hear about the debates in judges and was fascinating to hear Tade Thompson talk about it raised his profile appearing next day in the Guardian. Really big news is that it was announced that this time the Kitschies will actually have a few weeks grace between announcing the shortlist and the winners.  So, if I can get my act together that should allow me time to review some of the award nominees!

One other panel I enjoyed was Writing Warfare which talked about the reasons why we may enjoy the grisly battles of a war on an emotional connection and the links between historical tactics and the way to get a reader to understand a battel sequence both at the personal level of a individual fight scene to the grand scale explanation of tactics and the chaos of battle.  One thing I did note because it was not even mentioned as a surprise was that three of the four guest writers (Anna Stephens, Anna Smith Spark, Danie Ware and Peter Maclean) were women.  It was just four experts in their field having a great discussion on a subject they loved.  No fuss or drama just treating people as equals.

The night then relaxed into karaoke and what happens in the karaoke room stays there…it was fun, and I did not sing!

Sunday is a more built around a banquet meal ahead of the British Fantasy Awards.  I decided against the banquet and instead tried a few panels.  Highlights for me was another interesting writers’ panel where four authors just in the process of a debut talked about the ways they started and The Fantasy Box of Plot Ideas where four authors tried to use audience suggestions to make a story.  This got dafter and ruder as it went on and I think a lot of people let their hair down in it

The Hotel was really well suited for a con with large rooms and good facilities (prices were expensive for North but cheap for those from the south though). The Dealers room had plenty for a bookworm and I was well and truly tempted!  In addition, several Publishers such as Tor, Titan, Unsung Stories and Jo Fletcher Books (to name a few) did small launch events and author signings.  Suiting the time of year, I think I looked for horror in the main so stay tuned for a few reviews in this area next month.  Two key highlights Adrian Tchaikovsky and Clare North being Guests of Honour and watching them get interviewed about their careers. Both ongoing sources of great tales and a view of where the genre is going

The BFA awards was a nicely performed ceremony and full list of award winners are below. The categories I thought all demonstrated a very healthy genre and with winners such as Get Out, Monstress, The Changing, Under the Pendulum Sun and most notably for Best Fantasy Novel Jen William’s The Ninth Rain I got the sense of a forward thinking set of juries looking for where fantasy is going rather than looking at the past.  Huge thanks to the organisers and the red cloaks who keep things on track behind the scenes this con felt well thought out and welcoming.  As a newbie I would say it’s far more book centred than say Nineworlds and probably one more suited for those with an interest in publishing, reviewing or writing but it was absolutely welcoming I met people who were from parts of the fandom and it felt inclusive and respectful of new entrants (caveated that I am viewing this from my perspective as a white male). It felt that while clearly still a lot of work to do to make publishing more diverse the conversation and accepting that things need to change is now underway.  I came away with that lovely feeling of recharged geek batteries and a desire to once again get talking about stories and trying to get you to read them all. Just what I needed – so it looks like I will be going to Glasgow in 2019 then!

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Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames

I’d like to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher - Orbit

Price - £8.99 paperback

Published – Out Now

Live fast, die young.

Tam Hasford is tired of working at her local pub, slinging drinks for world-famous mercenaries and listening to the bards sing of adventure and glory in the world beyond her sleepy hometown.

When the biggest mercenary bad of all rolls into town, led by the infamous Bloody Rose, Tam jumps at the chance to sign on as their bard. It’s adventure she wants – and adventure she gets as the crew embarks on a quest that will end in one of two ways: glory or death.

Fantasy, SF and rock music do seem to go together well. Highlander without Queen’s soundtrack falls over (just look at the sequels) and Led Zeppelin definitely stole a few legends into their own storytelling. A music that appeals to the inner soul and can go truly epic and up to 11 easily fits with fantasy’s various kingdoms of the ice and snow and riders approaching cities while the wolf begins to howl…. (notes cease and desist letter from lawyers) …ahem. But Nicholas Eames has in this book examined the life of the fantasy heroes and heroines and imagined that there may be quite a few similarities with those of the stars of the bands themselves. In Bloody Rose there is a fantastic examination of what such a life may look like.

The key conceit of the story is simple.  Heroes join up as Bands (of warriors) and go on tour around the lands fighting monsters for fees and gaining fans as tales of their exploits go far and wide. As time has moved on now towns have arenas where monsters are put in place of the acts to fuight (or be killed) alongside waiting for the call for a slightly wilder adventure. And listening to this in a tavern is Tam Hashford herself the daughter of a now deceased Band Bard and she wants to go outside that village her father has stopped her from leaving. When she hears the infamous Band, Fable is auditioning for their next bard she seizes the chance and is soon working with her new leader ‘Bloody’ Rose to go on what may be the most lucrative score of all.  However, all other bands are going in the other direction to fight a new power preparing to invade the land.   

Tam finds herself with Rose – the taciturn but fiercely protective heart of the band herself following in a famous parent’s footsteps; there is her lover the druin Freecloud from a mysterious and magical immortal lineage; backing these up is the Shaman Brune who can shapeshift but struggles with controlling his wilder side and then the Summoner Cura who uses her tattoos to summon powerful creations to fight her battles and loves to live on the edge. Behind the scenes is the flamboyant and often still drunk Roderick organising the tour. A tight unit that understands each other but now needing to find out if Tam can be accepted.  Imagine a rock tour but with bigger dangers than cut-throat agents.

I had not got around to Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames last year (too many books and too little time) I was aware of this idea of Bands and was intrigued what it would mean.  In some ways this initially feels like a fantasy take on Almost Famous as Tam is slotted into this group of living legends and starts to find out what an actual life on tour means.  The Bard’s role is to sit back and sing about how heroic her Band is and yes it does appear a life of living on the edge where any moment you can die but the roar of the crowd, the groupies and copious amounts of sex and drugs is the reward. Exactly what kind of person does this attract?

Eames is great at humorously deconstructing the standard fantasy tropes and exploring the type of people heroes probably are when they’re not standing in the arena soaking in the adulation after the next kill. As Tam herself realises that role requires a certain type of person and their motivation as to why they’re doing this needs to be understood in order to better know that person. As with many rock stars their background informs why they decided to seek the stage and possibly escape. Rose for example has a very strong emotional relationship with Freecloud but also a constant desire to be proving herself against the living legend that her father is; Bruin and Cura have both felt this lifestyle is probably safer than her home and Roderick feels like this is one of the few places he can be himself. The first half of the book is a series of escapades and adventures as the band travels where we get to learn and love this group and understand the world it is part of.  Its successful and can range from the laugh out loud funny to the heart-breaking.  Ultimately this is a found family story of how these people bond and care for each other.

But this is still epic fantasy and very skilfully there is a midway turning point where Fable’s mission turns out to have far huger consequences for the entire world than anyone can imagine. This is where that build up really succeeds because now the group we are so invested in are going to be right in the middle of a huge confrontation. By putting themselves on the line the band really must show they have the right stuff and sometimes that’s the only time you can truly earn your true moment of glory but there may be consequences as this lifestyle isn’t always going to mean a happy ending. Eames has a fluid style of writing and he can do small character scenes which make you understand the people you are meeting but then he can easily swing to the epic battle with huge monsters; swirling action and at times some beautiful moments of pathos and solidarity.  The final battle in the book is expertly plotted both tactically and emotionally the latter something I wish was thought about a lot more in fight scenes.

One last thing I really enjoyed was the progressive look   fantasy.  This wasn’t just in the range of characters. Our lead Tam is gay, and this seems to be broadly accepted in this world but there is an examination of the way the human races treat all the other creatures they live alongside.  In the aftermath of the last war creatures such as gorgons, orcs and goblins can now find themselves sold as battle fodder in the arenas and ultimately Tam starts to think the myth of the band life may be better than the real thing. Especially when this attitude starts to ferment the next war. There is an interesting side commentary on fantasy (a bit like Rock) playing with the worlds of the older generation; perhaps going a little crazy and then asking if there are other ways to live/write than eternal bloodshed for the audience using stock battles ad infinitum?

I found this an engrossing read that mixes some great ideas with a great writing and characters all doing something different to the expected. I will definite be catching up on Kings of the Wyld soon, but I think this series could end up another entry in what a golden period in recent new fantasy authors has been.  Strongly recommended but be warned urge to grab a sword or guitar and play to crowds may take place.

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Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Publisher – Atlantic Books

Published – Out Now

Price - £3.79 kindle ebook

Lois Clary, a software engineer at a San Francisco robotics company, codes all day and collapses at night. When her favourite sandwich shop closes up, the owners leave her with the starter for their mouth-watering sourdough bread. Lois becomes the unlikely hero tasked to care for it, bake with it and keep this needy colony of microorganisms alive.

Soon she is baking loaves daily and taking them to the farmer’s market, where an exclusive close-knit club runs the show. When Lois discovers another, more secret market, aiming to fuse food and technology, a whole other world opens up. But who are these people exactly?

I was reminded this weekend that we all believe in food. Food is important to us as both as a ritual and a fuel. A lot of our day revolves about it and everyone has a view on it. In this story Robin Sloan looks our the 21st century view on food and uses it to look at our ever-increasing love of technology, battle for capitalism and obsession. It is an incredibly tasty mixture.

The story focuses on Lois a young hard-working programmer who has moved out to San Francisco to work for one of the world’s up and coming tech firms. She works, and she sleeps, and she works. Life is ordered, her teammates are persuading her to move into a liquid nutrient diet perfectly designed for a well-balanced working life. Her kitchen is empty and she has become a creature of routine. But as with all things a takeaway service can always make a difference (mmm pizza) . In this case however, spicy soup and a piece of sourdough delivered every day from her Mediterranean delivery man gives her a moment away from it all. Sadly, the American government cracks down on the staff’s lack of green card and a restaurant closure beckons but noting her daily routine the restaurant gives their best customer the recipe for the sourdough bread handed down the generations and most importantly the ‘starter’; a micro-organism culture that the dough is mixed with to make it rise. Suddenly Lois finds a new talent and potentially a new calling as a baker.

I thought I knew the type of book I was getting when I started this book as the standard Generation/Y/Z tale of people discovering there is more to life than a computer and a desk through the power of a non-technical life aka dough. But while it does skewer the culture of people only living to work its also has a satirical glance at those who have gone to the other extreme. The multi-million-dollar world of artisan cooking where Lois finds herself fighting to get into precious baking markets – while the goods may be more natural the business can be as mercenary and hard-going as the tech world (just with more flour). Lois must learn about pitches and is sucked into a world where you must spend hours before and after work just baking and baking.

The fantasy element of the novel (I bet you wondered why this has grabbed me!) is in how the starter culture Lois turns out to be a bit demanding. It needs the music of the Mazg homeland played through headphones and if you don’t pay it attention the bread will suffer. As Lois gets sucked into the secret world of hi-tech food where meat is grown, vegetables are genetically modified and insect food protein is heralded as the next best thing then Lois must merge her robotic skills and her new baking into a new thrilling concept. Lois finds that she is being increasingly targeted by the rich and powerful to support their own plans. The starter though sees this as an opportunity to spread its own influence…

It’s a very inventive story and Sloane has a way of creating a very extreme situation that is both funny and making some pointed comments on obsession and the desire to win in business at all costs. Lois is the classic character looking to find where they fit in and trying to work out why she thinks something in her life is missing. Is food a power source, a hobby or a new income stream that can change your life? I can’t really say much more about the plot as the surprises as to why this starter acts the way it does is part of the fun, but the story’s logic is internally sound and really comes together in a very memorable conclusion. his was a pleasant surprise of a read giving me a setting and a story I found made me look at the world of food and business with a slightly more raised eyebrow and a reminder that everyone wants to fit in somewhere. Well worth a look but you may find yourself with a bread craving afterwards.

 

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In The Vanisher's Palace by Aliette de Bodard

I am grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this novella in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Jabberwocky Literary Agency

Published - Out Now

Price - £4.99 kindle eBook

In a ruined, devastated world, where the earth is poisoned, and beings of nightmares roam the land…

A woman betrayed, terrified, sold into indenture to pay her village’s debts and struggling to survive in a spirit world. A dragon, among the last of her kind, cold and aloof but desperately trying to make a difference. When failed scholar Yen is sold to Vu Con, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Con’s amusement. But Vu Con, it turns out, has a use for Yen: she needs a scholar to tutor her unruly children. She takes Yen back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death.

Vu Con seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yen comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yen will have to decide where her own happiness lies and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Con’s dark unspeakable secret.

We often like to call a fairy story a timeless classic; the tales of a long time ago can be reshaped and re-told to suit today’s times and perspectives but we tend to always set the story in the past of a mysterious land where magic is real.  Aliette de Bodard however has taken a different approach of transplanting the story of Beauty and the Beast to a very futuristic world where the science can easily appear to be magic; despite this change of scene it is still an enticing story with some important points about today’s world.

The story begins in a land where the all-powerful rulers could change matter, bodies and energy at by the power of words (or more accurately spells). But at some point these mysterious people moved on from the world (and hence are known as the Vanishers); not everyone on the world was a Vanisher and there are small settlements across the world who are having to live in a chaotic world where the powers are now uncontrolled; harvests are patchy, diseases are rampant and ever mutating; life for those on the edges of society is hard. If you cannot be of use to your village you may find yourself stripped to your molecular components. In Yen’s village her mother the healer desperate to save the life of an important person in the village summons one of the most powerful remaining forces in the world Vu Con an entity that can be both a dragon or appear human. Vu Con agrees to assist but only in exchange for another life and this turns out to be Yen herself. Vu Con is known for having a bloodthirsty streak, so Yen expects her trip to Vu Con’s realm to be short and painful.   But Yen is about to get a much better view of what led to the world she knows being created and her presence will make Vu Con start to look at the humans in the world with new eyes.

Into this we have in the lead roles two very intelligent women working out their relationship. Yen wants more than village life, she seeks knowledge and a purpose but is hurt as she was forced into a form of servitude by her own family. Vu Con is someone who changes form at will (or under great emotional turmoil) a holder of the Vanisher’s secrets her powers can heal, or she may decide to kill those she deems a danger to the rest of the world. Hence finding Vu Con has two children both equally powerful but not yet fully emotionally mature enough to venture into the rest of the world adds a surprising dimension to the almost demonic tyrant we were led to suspect she was. While both characetrs want something from the other - a continued existence and to show the children that power should be used responsibly and while there is tension because of their roles of ruler and servant there is also an undeniable attraction between these two women that will make them question their approach as to how to live in this world. A key point in this is that Vu Con needs to learn to recognise Yen is not an obsession or a servant but ultimately someone she needs to learn to have a consensual relationship based on trust with. It’s so refreshing to see a mainstream fantasy tale that makes a growing relationship between its two female leads both incredibly sensual, normal  and true to the nature of the characters.

One of the most enjoyable parts of this novella is we are in a very different world to the standard medieval European village setting western readers are so used to. The world outside Vu Con’s world is analogous to south east Asian culture but also one that is verging towards a dystopian apocalypse while Vu Con’s realm is a mysterious fractal every changing dimension with rooms that lead anywhere and shift contents and structure at any time its owner requests. These two extremes highlight both what the Vanishers were capable of at their best but also a reminder that they seemed to be very absent landlords. It is a very thoughtful comment about the dangers of very advanced powers deciding to own and toy with people with colonisation for their own purposes but then leaving those people to then deal with the consequences of that invasion.

The language of the entire tale echoes the world it’s gorgeously colourful, powerful and the whole tale has a fluidity and energy that matches the flowing and ever-changing world that Yen finds herself in.  There is a risk that because we all know the original story (or to eb more honest its most com mon 21st century interpretation) that the story will lack any surprises, but I think the final third of the novel provides new threats and revelations that make this story its own delight. That’s a voyage I really think any reader who loves a modern look at the classics should take.  I definitely think de Bodard is one of the most talented storytellers we have around now, and this is a fine addition to her work.

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Petra McDonald & The Queen of the Fae

Publisher – Fox Spirit Books

Published – Out Now

Price - £7.99

Petra McDonald is a bisexual, pagan artist who lives and works on a small Scottish island. While in a trance, she paints a young girl who has been abducted by the Queen of the fae and it falls to Petra to save her.

She must travel to Faery, collect three items for the Queen, escape the sec spell of the Selkie prince and steal the loyalty of her fae guard.

Can she bring the child home before it’s too late?

Myths are timeless we are told but I tend to think the best myths where we get the opportunity to hold our own time and morals up against it and see where we are moving to. In this charming mix of modern adventure and ancient faerie story we get what I hope is the start of a new series of adventures reminding us of what hides underneath modern lands.

We follow Petra McDonald who has found on an unnamed Scottish island both a shelter and a way to live her life the way she has wanted to. As well as following her wish to be an artist she has found that this island offers a way for her to practise her pagan beliefs in the service of the Goddess Brighid but unexpectedly one painting trance shows a girl in what appears to be mortal terror. Petra finds her Goddess has recommended her to the Goddess of Warriors the Morrigan who has decided Petra is best fitted to finding the girl stolen by the Fae. After finding that Goddesses never give up Petra decides to seek out the land of the fae and discover what is really going on.

What follows as Petra meets the fae in some ways is a familiar path – The Fae Queen wants three mysteriously unobtainable items to perform a great spell and Petra plus her fae guard Valerian must journey to other parts of the magical land and perform certain tasks to find the items. These tales involving banshees, selkies and other creatures from pagan mythology on the one hand will remind you of older tales but I think the key to the story is Petra brings modern sensibilities – she offers morality about the value of life; consent and serving the greater good all remind us that the world has moved on and Kinsella has added a suspicion that even the Fae are not above seeking some changes.

And while elements of the tale are ancient Kinsella has a really nice flowing style that really does bring the tale to life. The horror of a girl trapped by spiders with human faces to the mysteries of crows who surround you in a circle mean this is a story with a very close link to nature and there is that sense of a pace underneath the world as we know it just on the edge where time passes differently. While the story has a clear ending there are enough signs that Petra is only just beginning to find a new role and purpose and I will be very keen to see what other mysteries need to be unravelled.

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Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Publisher – Orbit

Published – Out Now

Price – £8.99

I am very grateful for the publisher providing me with an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Nigeria, 2066 The hopeful and the helpless congregate around an alien biodome, seeking salvation.

Rosewater is a town on the edge.

Science fiction and mysteries do tend to go together. From the simple stories of Asimov’s robots to the urban fantasy genre’s many detectives many novels explore how either science or magic can further complicate a mystery beyond the rational world (plus it’s more fun to think of the impossible Mr Holmes).  In this fantastic novel Tade Thompson provides the reader with an intriguing thriller set in the future, merging telepathy with alien first contact in a web of multiple plotlines that you will completely want to unravel and discover the real cause of all these events lying in the heart of Rosewater.

In 2066 Rosewater is one of the most advanced cities in Nigeria a centre of scientific discovery where an alien presence has for the last ten years been slowly observed by the government and a magnet for so many people wanting to change their lives. This is the alien’s third arrival on Earth and this time takes the form of a biodome that annually opens a portal releasing a mysterious energy that can heal the sick or even make the dead return mindless and violent.  The world is on the brink of China and Russia battling for power as the US many years ago mysteriously vanished after the first sign of alien life was discovered in 2012.

Most surprisingly telepaths have moved from myth to a valued resource that governments are seeking to use for their own ends from bank security to espionage. The world is on the edge of a change, but no one seems clear on exactly what nor if the change is welcome. In Rosewater one of the most powerful telepaths is Kaaro who for all his life has had several interactions at key moments in the city’s short history ever since its creation.  His latest mission doesn’t go to plan but reveals that telepaths are under threat and mysterious presences in the telepath mindscape seem to want Kaaro for their own purposes.

This novel is an amazing puzzle box where all these mysteries are outlined and through Kaaro’s narration we see two sides of the city. In 2066 Kaaro is a reserved cynical but ultra-confident agent but in his youth, he was an arrogant thief using his powers for his own gain – because of his talents the government soon realises he could be the clue to finding a mysterious woman who disappear in thin air Kaaro’s mission however made him end up staying for the rest of his life. Rosewater offers him immense opportunities but also unfinished business. Through the narration of his younger and older selves we slowly piece together what exactly is Kaaro’s role in what is turning to be a deadly game for so many people he has been involved with. There is clever mechanism in rotating chapters seeding the plots of both past and future until there is a final conclusion explaining how these two parts of his life are tied together at last.

I think Tade Thompson has achieved that perfect balance of inventive ideas, character and plot. The old SF trope of telepathy is given a refreshingly new rational cause which really suits it’s 21st century setting when you find the cause; the exploration of what a telepath is capable of and what uses they would serve is both smart and terrifyingly plausible and this is really achieved through the way we see Kaaro. Because of the time jumps we get the young know it all who is living on his wits and then through the experiences we are about to discover we get an older more guarded and hurt Kaaro who while keen to judge the guy he used to be is still recognisably the core of the same man  - prone to take the harder path and not going to obey the rules if he thinks its not in his interests. He’s engaging but flawed and its good to see the book recognises Kaaro’s sense of masculinity leads to mistakes that will haunt him. In fact, the initial factor that sets him on a better path is the revelation that there is a larger telepath population out there who provide him shelter and in one very touching scene a warning that his is very close to making the same mistakes another telepath made which really does change his life. SF thrillers can tend towards the clinical, but this book offers surprising moments of tenderness and introspection that invests you in Kaaro’s story and potential for redemption.

Rosewater is one of the most intriguing science fiction novels I’ve read this year; it’s a classic noir plot set in a future world but its beautifully thought out in terms of worldbuilding as we see how this alternate 21st century grew into existence and where it’s going – all of which sounds plausible to our eyes. It is also refreshing to see a SF world that doesn’t resemble New York and a reminder that aliens are perhaps unlikely to miss one the largest continents on the planet in favour of the centre of Hollywood. Overall if you enjoy getting under the skin of a great thriller and see how the future can offer both horrors and wonders.  This is definitely a book you should be looking to snap up as one of the best reads of the year.  I very much look forward to seeing what other tales Thompson has to tell.

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The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein

Publisher – Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Published – Out Now

Price - £5.62 kindle eBook

This was the September choice for the #TheLadyVaults reading group started by Elizabeth of the excellent book blog Books n Pieces. The reding group can be found on social media with the hashtag and on GoodReads in the Groups.  The aim is to reads SF & Fantasy works by women that over 15 years old. Please Join in!!

On the eve of World War II, a wandering magician comes to a small Hungarian village prophesying death and destruction. Eleven-year-old Kicsi believes Voros and attempts to aid him in protecting the village. But the local rabbi, who possesses magical powers, insists that the village is safe, and frustrates Voros’ attempts to transport them all to safety. Then the Nazis comes and the world changes…

 The worst part of a nightmare is knowing what is about to happen and finding you’re powerless to stop it. You see it coming, closer, closer and then blam its upon you. But after a horrific experience the next question you’ll ask yourself “what am I supposed to do next?” and “Should I even bother carrying on?”.  In this superb children’s story, the real nightmares of the Holocaust are explored while the reader is focused on an independent young girl and her charming family in 1940’s Hungary.

The story is on one level very simple Kicsi is the young independent daughter of a wealthy printer finds herself embroiled in a battle between two magicians.  The respected and very traditional Rabbi of the village and a mysterious newcomer named Voros who is clearly powerful but seems to be wary of something on the horizon.  Initially it seems a clash of old versus new ways of viewing the world but then you realise this is Hungary in the 1940s and the Nazis are on the move towards the Jewish population of the village. Voros warns the town of an unimaginable horror and Kicsi dreams of a man with no teeth driving towards her family.  Into this we start an ongoing battle between magicians that involves golems, ghosts and curses. The rabbi feels Voros is endangering the peace of the village with his dangerous ideas and Kicsi finds him offering a way of life very different to those her family believe she will follow.

As we have the advantage of history we understand (particularly as adults) exactly what the threat is, and the question is can this be avoided for her family.  It’s a building of tension particularly as the early chapters of the book paint this charming village life and amazingly vivid world of Jewish traditions, folklore and magics. The storm is threatening to destroy all of this and Voros seems to awaken special abilities within Kicsi who seems to almost act as an apprentice at first. But importantly the magic doesn’t save Kicsi – she and her family are rounded up and herded to a concentration camp. There is no magical cheat applied - which is completely the correct choice for this kind of story.  I feel this is an important point for you to know as the scenes in there are while not explicit make it very clear what happens to those Nazis feel are worthless. The brutalisation of the amazing clever teenager we have spent time with makes this part of the book heart-breaking but it’s a beautifully tragic piece of writing that haunted me weeks after finishing the tale.  You can argue in this section Kicsi loses agency as the events happen to her, but I think this is intentional many amazing bright lives were destroyed by this period where the power of the regime swept away all they felt to be unhuman.

The final part of the book though is very, much focused on survivors. Kicsi is separated from her village and her family and has been almost destroyed by her experiences. This final section of the book both wraps up the battle of the two magicians and asks a question about how on earth you’re supposed to carry on and if you do is it a path of anger or forgiveness or something else. In this Kicsi who herself has seen so much and been hurt so much must decide how she will aid Voros in his final battle with the furious Rabbi. It’s an ending mixing the scariest ghosts of Jewish folklore and yet also an unexpected debate on hope and revenge.

This was a short but very powerful read and I found myself totally immersed in the world. Its beautifully put together and I think even adult readers would appreciate the mix of fairy-tale and review of one of our worst periods in human history but examines how those who survive the horrors of humanity can decide their own future paths. An excellent read.

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The Week (OK Month) in Womble aka Its a Picard Enough Life

Hellooo!!

Shorter update as you’ll note I was not largely around the last month.  The impact of my uncle’s death and helping organise a funeral and a few other things like sorting out belongings stirred a lot of stuff up and my brain was pretty much focused on that.  Reading was only a few pages after work and then sleep followed. Funerals really do help sometimes put a sense of closure to that and after a little bit of time to see family I feel a lot more relaxed that I have a for a while. I had to put quite a few heavier reads down for a while as I was not really in the right place for two many tales of pain and loss.

Relaxing in Spaccceeeeee

At times like this comfort televise was sought and this turned out to be watching a lot of very early Star Trek - The Next Generation. While the quality of these early stories is often low there was something incredibly relaxing settling back into this weird found family and watch a crew/cast start to bond.  Yes, Riker in those days is awful but Patrick Stewart really does make Picard seem a genuine person (and so so soothing as a grown up) and was already a much better model for masculinity than James Kirk (or for that matter William Shatner). Its been a while since I’ve seen the show which is good to watch a story and not remember what is going to happen but at the same time I’m watching a huge example of suck it and see writing as you get the feeling there is a great idea here but not sure how it needs to work.  My suspicion its when the show went slightly outside the remit of what Gene Roddenbury was demanding that we got the better stories with a tad more bite to them. Very much looking forward to the rest of the journey

I think it would be well worth your time to read my friend Ric Crossman (@squidfromspace) who has a column in the Geek Syndicate website comparing all the episodes of Trek series against each other – it’s a fascinating cultural voyage http://geeksyndicate.co.uk/features/infinite-diversity-finite-combinations-4-1-13-maps-and-legends/

 

The Lady Vaults

Weirdly though it was The Red Magician for the #LadyVaults I read last month in small doses that read this month that while quite a harrowing story grabbed me and dealing with grief in the story helped.

I really enjoy the vlogs of Elizabeth of the BooksAndPieces channel (on twitter at @Books_Pieces especially for her enthusiasm for books, great analysis of the genre’s history and its way forward as well as so many good book recommendations.  She’s announced a new monthly readalong focusing on books by women authors from over 15 years ago. Last month the readalong which can be found on Goodreads started with The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein or on Twitter #LadyVaults.  Really looking forward to finding new stories and taking part in the discussion.  I think this will be a fascinating journey – I didn’t read much contemporary stuff in the 80’s and 90’s my library seemed to just have the older doorstep trilogies of certain big-name white male authors at the time and I could not get into them so finding out the good stuff I’ve missed is always welcome.  I’ve noticed quite a few reviewers lament that women who were once bestsellers in the 90’s appears airbrushed out of history so finding those authors is something I am planning to do a lot of! This month it’s the short stories of James Tiptree Jr contained in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.

Other Media

Television – The Good Place is back!!! One of the smartest and kindest comedies out there which I cannot really say a lot about without spoiling it for you.  A woman wakes up in the afterlife by accident and tries to work out how to avoid Hell. Superb cast and humour with added philosophy and examination of morality

Films – This month was rubbish I don’t think I saw a single one?  Any recommendations?

Podcasts – Audio shows I feel hugely relaxing when stressed so I played catch up on three shows I can recommend

99% Invisible – a show about design that covers everything from clothes to adverts. Always an interesting story and very good at explaining the social history that a design or choice can operate in.

The Coode Street Podcast – this is a SF& Fantasy podcast usually involving Gary K Wolf and Jonathan Strahan discussing authors, books or trends in SF. While occasionally it does have two white men of a certain age making it clear they are two white men of a certain age they are pleasantly ready to accept their own biases and often have a desire to see the genre wake up to its flaws and move on

Breaking the Glass Slipper – the three hosts Charlotte Bond, Megan Leigh and Lucy Hounsom explore the genre from a feminist perspective and challenge some of the stereotypes in the genre and explore authors and tropes. Really refreshing and this last few weeks I was listening female characters in books are written, interviews with Vic James, Catriona Ward and Anna Smith Spark – strongly recommended!

What I read (a light month)

-          Doctor Who Twice Upon A Time by Paul Cornell – a nice simple Target style retelling of Capaldi’s swansong

-          Saga Vol 9 by Brian K Vaughan and artwork by Fiona Staples - ahem OMG that ending and I’ve a year to wait???? Ahem

-          Monstress Volume 3 – written by Marjorie M Liu and Art by Sana Takeda – a weird almost Final Fantasy style tale of human, demons and those who appear t have animal powers/features. The wider story yet to be fully revealed and its enchanting and the art is Amazing!!

-          Sourdough by Robin Sloan- an everyday tale of a young software designer and a malevolent sourdough mixture – it has a lot of heart and I think will be reviewed soon

-          The Tower of Living and Dying by Anna Smith Spark – I think this is a an impressive instalment in a great fantasy trilogy – review should be below this blog – had to put it down but was very glad to get sucked back into this world.

What I want to read next (time to catch up!)

-          Rosewater by Tade Thompson – fascinating SF tale and review to come very soon next week

-          Darksoul by Anna Stephens – the sequel to another one of my favourite debuts Godblind

-          Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik – I loved Uprooted and read the novella version of the tale earlier this year.  This goes in a different direction so think it sounds just what I need

-          Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames – I want to catch up on this which I heard many good things about and I understand there is humour and that’s what I will need next week

-          Burning Sky by Weston Ochse – an action SF tale about something strange happening to veterans

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The Tower of Living and Dying by Anna Smith Spark

I’m very grateful to the author for an advance copy of this novel

Publisher – Harper Voyager

Published – Out Now

Price - £14.99 (Hardcover)

King of Ruin, King of Dust and Shadows, King of Death, He Will Rule All, The King is Coming

Marith Altrersyr – father-killer, dragonlord, leader of the blood-soaked Amrath Army – is keeping his promises. He is determined to become King of all Irlast and take back the seat of his ancestors.

Only Thalia, once high priestess of the Lord of Le Empire, might stop Marith and his army’s deadly march. But she is torn between two destinies – and if she was to return home, what would she find there? A city on the brink of ruin: diseased, despairing, dying?

Crawling through a tunnel deep under the ruins of her city, Landra Relast vows vengeance. Her family has been burned, her home destroyed, and now Marith – once her betrothed – must die.

But as Landra cuts through the wasteland left in the wake of Marith’s army, she finds that she is not the only one who wishes him ill…

Warning – some spoilers for The Court of Broken Knives will be mentioned

At the start of this year I was engrossed and ultimately very impressed by the debut instalment of this trilogy – The Court of Broken Knives. What starts with mercenaries hired to kill an Emperor suddenly revealed that a young man named Marith was a long-lost drug-addled royal heir who by chance suddenly rediscovered his desire to take back his crown alongside awaken an immensely violent bloodlust. He falls in love with the High Priestess of Sorlost Thalia who runs away with him on his journey while in Sorlost the man who hired his mercenaries to bring about change instead finds himself very much supporting the corrupt powers he had planned to overthrow. A key factor for me in the success of this novel was the writing of Smith Spark herself – vivid, poetical and powerful it really stood out from other entries into Grimdark territory as something refreshingly different. I’m very pleased to find that the sequel is even stronger and just as enticing.

While Marith was often seen more as aside for much of the first novel as his secret became a key mystery now we focus very much on his quest for ruling the world. The first section of the book follows the death of his father and his decision to move onto attacking his own kingdom and family. Thalia stands as a watcher to these events and it is an absolutely a stunning opening with an invasion of a town via ships at sea. It’s a beautifully whirl of action and pain – from the pageantry and cruelty of sacrificing animals for some form of moral advantages to eventual war at sea with no glamour or heroics just two armies fighting to stay alive. Once finally arriving ashore to take control the question for Marith is ‘what’s next?’ and slowly Marith follows the path of his infamous and dangerous ancestor Amarath marching across the other Kingdoms. Meanwhile in Sorlost Orshan is finding that he is under of suspicion for the various deaths that mysteriously coincided with the mercenary attack and the shifts in power towards him may have consequences for all he cares about and wants to protect.

Alongside these two main plot points we now have two new viewpoints. The mercenary Tobias who indirectly led to Marith being able to seize power again meets up with Landra relast the woman who decided to trigger Marith’s capture and then saw her plans for revenge end in ruin for everyone she knew. These two begin to explore if Marith can be stopped before he causes much more harm. While in Sorlost we start to see the world less from nobles and priestesses but also those who serve them as we see how one of Orshan’s servants gets treated after an attack on his home.

There is a lot going on in this novel and its finely balanced to see what is increasingly looking like two sides getting closer to come form of confrontation. Sorlost is a decadent power that seems to have forgotten the basics of rule in favour of protecting elites. Marith seems to be on a quest to recover all the lands that his ancestor had but at the same time take revenge on all other lands. In the first novel I noticed that for all the main characters the theme seemed to be that the societies that they came from influenced their decisions even when they seemed to be the wrong ones.  Marith in particular is an example of toxic masculinity at its worst – while undoubtably clever and can be charming his family upbringing and court politics led relatives and hangers on to heavily influence who he must be but ultimately, he decides to carry on because he feels this is what he is entitled to. While Thalia would have been happy with a simple home Marith wants everything now - a deeply scary character who you’re never sure what he will do next nor if he can be stopped.

A second theme here is that sometimes even when after seeing the results of their actions these characters all decide it will be better to plough on despite the likely consequences. Its tragic seeing those who clearly have interests of others at heart deciding to keep taking the path of most harm.  There is a chilling insight into humanity one character makes that most of these people who support these sides have decided to do so much harm to others not because of some invisible magical force Marith exudes but because a nihilistic and violent march to crush the world is deep down what they’ve always wanted.

Powering all of this is Smith Spark’s writing and I am definitely impressed how this has grown stronger in the novel. The first novel was often small scenes of intrigue or one on fighting but now we get whole vistas of battles, city riots and cities turning to ruin. There is a general feeling of a world ending possibly for the last time. Its beautifully dark poetry and while equally happy to go for blood and guts when needed the whole book has an epic feel to it and this time we get a stronger feeling of the magical forces in this world. As well as battle mages used in law and small enchantments there are hints of a larger battle between light and dark underway.

I think this is best described as High Fantasy Grimdark. We are seeing the classic story of two ancient empires battling out but this time the focus is on the people impacted and unlike standard Grimdark which always focuses on the front line this novel looks at those in charge making these frequently awful decisions and knowing the results will be deadly for many. Deciding you want to take over the rule of a country or safeguard your self after evading death is often in fantasy seen as noble and heroic and this novel reminds us of what happens to people other than the hero.  This all points to a very impressive showdown in the final book and I cannot wait to see where we go next - although I suspect it will hurt.

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Starfang - Will of the Clan by Joyce Chng

Publisher – Fox Spirit Books

Published – Out Now

Price – £7.99 paperback £TBC ebook

The sudden appearance of the enigmatic jukka adds another layer of intrigue and peril to Captain Francesca Ming Yue’s already shaky game with the shishini. The threat of galactic war with a mysterious force looms. Will the clans gather? Francesca must keep her wits about her, unite all the clans and fight. In this stunning conclusion of the trilogy, the fate of the wolf clans, shishini and jukka will be decided in a final battle. Will the will of the clans prevail?

Space Opera a bit like Musical Opera needs to have a powerful last act.  In place of an an aria we often instead get the infinitely cooler space battle and literally world breaking events.  It’s great to say that the final volume in the Starfang series really does deliver this in spades still with added werewolves and should have you cheering for an encore.

In the last instalment of this trilogy our Clan Captain Francesca Min Yue was piecing together the mystery of how her nemesis and rival captain Yeung Leung had appeared to take over an entire alien species’ home world when her ship was surprised by a starship appearing out of nowhere directly in front of them. Very quickly we establish that this is a new alien race to discover the jukka – a mysterious hi-tech world where they are known to interfere in other world’s development for their own ends (that also resemble the classic Grays of countless SF legends). Francesca discovers that Yeung Leung has been going for the ultimate power grab by stealing technology from both Jukka and the reptilian shishini; but instead he appears to have become something even more powerful than a werewolf and now has set his sights on the elimination of all rival clans.

If the first volume was a classic revenge quest and the second was a variation on a first contact, then this final volume really goes for the aim of showing you of the scale of the galaxy that Chng has created. These three alien races plus the myriad Major and Minor rival clans of werewolves all have been vying for power for many years but now Yeung Leung has awakened a mythic power that all sides could be destroyed on. The jukka want to flee; the shishini are divided between both sides and the human/werewolves are divided.  Even Francesca’s clan leader parents are aghast at the idea of combined forces.  This is a tale where everything is on the line and you really get a vibe of a universe like Babylon 5’s with strange alien cultures and politics; mystical technologies and a sense that everything is on the line and pleasingly even the humanoids are shown to have flaws and prejudices that need to be fought.

Character wise we are once again being told the story by Francesca and this time it’s how she finally recovers from her capture and torture at Yeung Leung’s hands and her unique physic adventures into the minds of shishini rebels. She is no longer simply the loyal dutiful clan warrior we first met but someone prepared to take her own stand and fight for what she believes in.  More open minded than her clan is traditionally thought to be but still internally wracked by guilt that her forbidden relationship with her cousin April is both her motivation to live and her secret shame that she can’t follow her clan’s strict and ancient rules. There is a mirroring theme here of old world meeting a newer more progressive one not simply on matters of the heart but also challenging the view that each alien race must battle for supremacy rather than learn to co-operate with others. It gives the tale a heart as we see characters prepare for their final battle and really powers the final few chapters in surprising ways.

The final element I think makes this a fine read is the sense of life beyond space battles.  We return to the Black Talon’s base Noah’s Ark and this time we see snapshots of life below the stars.  This can be simple celebrations such as the New Year where paper lanterns carry your wishes to the sky or even fishing for oysters in the sea as well as characters exploring ancient poetry and what it says to them. This all gives the universe a depth - that sense of traditional and heart.  This is what the Talons ultimately fight to preserve not power but their family, friends and way of life. Sometimes in an epic we need a quieter song to set the mood just as much as we need the big stage number that brings the house down.

Overall, I’ve been really impressed with these tales. There are hints of a wider universe I’d love to see even more of in the future and I think that a reader is now able to take all three tales at once may be the best way to power through all the different types of adventures and appreciate the growth not just of Francesca but her wider clan. As always come here for the werewolves and then stay for a great slice of SF adventure.

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The Week in Womble - The Rock and a Hard Place

Hellooo!!

Quick update - this week been strange as we’ve had an unexpected death in the family. A relative who when I was a kid introduced me to Star Trek, Doctor Who and Horror Films but as I got older we went very separate ways.  Lots of memories and stuff flying around my head now but it’s always to focus on the good memories but I think next couple of weeks will be strange as we have a bit to sort out in the family. Thanks for the good wishes and kind messages received this week - much appreciated.

The Lady Vaults

I really enjoy the vlogs of Elizabeth of the BooksAndPieces channel (on twitter at @Books_Pieces especially for her enthusiasm for books, great analysis of the genre’s history and its way forward as well as so many good book recommendations.  This week she’s announced a new monthly readalong focusing on books by women authors from mat least 10-15 years. This month the readalong which can be found on Goodreads starting with The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein or on Twitter #LadyVaults.  Really looking forward to finding new stories and taking part in the discussion.  I think this will be a fascinating journey – I didn’t read much contemporary stuff in the 80’s and 90’s my library seemed to just have the older doorstep trilogies of certain big-name white male authors at the time and I could not get into them so finding out the good stuff I’ve missed is always welcome.

Worldbuilding

There is a slightly different interview with the great N K Jemisin I’ve been gripped by this week as the podcast host Ezra Klein does an 80-minute worldbuilding exercise with Jemisin based around a similar thing she does with her students.  Although I am not a writer I really found how she took the idea of the world and its core geography to create cultures, politics and economies absolutely amazing – authors are magical people!  This then leads to a great discussion of what world building can do in terms of opening our eyes up to how our own world works.  Really worth a listen at the link below

https://www.vox.com/2018/8/27/17779026/ezra-klein-show-book-recommendations-n-k-jemisin-broken-earth-hugo-award

Other Media

Television – I’m in a comfort watch mode so this week the big one has been Season 4 of Leverage. This is one of my favourites and is a tale where a group of con artists and thieves decide to help people in need.  The pilot episode introducing everyone is one of the smartest pilots I’ve seen, and the cons are slick, fast and clever. But the big draw is the found family aspect that evolved as these all slightly flawed but loveable people learn from each other.  Lots of heart, humour and an amazing amount of SF in-jokes/guest stars you can watch out for. Bad guys really do make the best good guys!

Films – At the Movies I saw Ant-Man and The Wasp and it was…. ok I guess.  I really enjoyed the smaller scale of it – focusing on a rescue mission rather than the fate of the world but at the same time it felt unusually mechanical for a Marvel film. The action sequences and the emotional beats were all what I expected but no big surprises and my main issue was a lot of the drama would have been stopped if people had actually chatted for five minutes. Its diverting but doesn’t stick in the memory.

The Jumanji remake however was a lot more fun. I’ve not seen the original (I knowww) but four teens are plunged into a video game and turned into action movie characters such as Dwayne Johnson or Karen Gillan actually I thought was pleasantly subversive about how teens always want to be fitter, stronger sexier and play to ridiculous icons/templates you cannot be.  It had heart and laughs, and Jack Black was funny again.

Also saw Rampage (yes I appear to have had a Dwayne Johnson double bill) which is what you would expect when an evil corporation releases a mutant virus that grows creatures into those of incredible size. The monster versus humans versus monsters aspect is all very standard action but the fun bits are the character moments. In particular really hard not see the bromance between Dwayne Johnson’s primate specialist and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s sinister Man In Black as just total flirting.  I was less impressed with how little they gave Naomi Harris to do but it’s a fun movie with a great few unexpected twists.

Podcasts – I finished the last half of Zig Zag and less comfortable with the focus on the CVL crypto-currency and subscription service.  It felt at times slightly more advertorial than newsworthy, but I will be intrigued how season 2 works as my impression is that the idea of funding by such a currency is not really taking off yet.

What I read

-          The magnificent Age of Assassins by RJ Barker (reader I swooned at how good this trilogy is and how this wraps the whole thing up in a beautiful bow decorated with antlers) – see below for the review!!

-          Currently reading the beautifully terrifying The Tower of Living and Dying by Anna Smith Spark I’m intrigued where this story is going

What I want to read next

-          Darksoul by Anna Stephens – the sequel to another one of my favourite debuts Godblind

-          Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik – I loved Uprooted and read the novella version of the tale earlier this year.  This goes in a different direction so think it sounds just what I need

-          Kings of the Wyld/Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames – I want to catch up on this which I heard many good things about and I understand there is humour and that’s what I will need next week

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King of Assassins by R J Barker

I am very grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Orbit

Price – £9.99

Published – Out Now

The King is Dead, Long Live the King…

Many years of peace have passed in Maniyadoc – years of relative calm for the assassin Girton Club-Foot. Even the Forgetting Plague, which ravaged the rest of the kingdoms, seemed to pass them by. But now Rufra ap Vythr eyes the High King’s throne and will take the court to the capital, a rat’s nest of intrigue and betrayal. There the endgame of twenty of politics and murder will be played out in his bid to become the King of all Kings. Friends will become enemies, enemies will become friends and the god of death, Xus the Unseen, stands closer than ever – casting his shadow over everything most dear to Girton.

Warning – there will be spoilers for those of you yet to have read either Age of Assassins or Blood of Assassins

There is a theory that in comedy the number three turns up because it’s the earliest possible time that you can tell a sequence and on the third time wrongfoot the reader. In the last of RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy, we as the author have got used to the lives of the assassin Girton Club Foot and his best friend King Rufra in Castle Maniyadoc in stories that are intriguing mixes of epic fantasy, political thriller and murder mystery. But ever since the very end of Age of Assassins when we were abruptly warned that we were actually hearing Girton’s confessions there was a niggling suspicion that things would end in a much darker place and now we have arrived at that destination and everything we learnt and assumed over the previous books needs to be rethought because this is the end of one amazing trilogy.

We arrive nearly two decades after the end of Blood of Assassins and there have been many changes since young Rufra ap Vyrthr won his throne after the Battle of the Three Kings. He has brought peaceful democratic changes to his subjects; married twice and now has young children. His former foe Aydor is now a trusted warrior and finally he is protected by his best friend Girton who has moved on from being an angry headstrong warrior to now both his sworn protector, his Death’s Jester (think a mixture of priest/storyteller) and behind the scenes his assassin to deal more subtly with threats to his rule. Their Kingdom is strong but Rufra has now been focusing his attention on the centre of the Tired Lands and with the death of the previous ruthless High King then Rufra moves his key family and warriors to Castle Ceadoc to begin the horse-trading with other Kings and interested parties to become the ruler of everything. Girton meanwhile has just lost a close friend during one assassination attempt on Rufra’s family and now he follows Rufra suspecting his skilled and dangerous opponent lurks in the shadows ready for a rematch. Everything is primed for a final reckoning.

After reading the previous entries you start to feel off-balance reading this novel. We’re now used to the lands and customs of Maniyadoc but suddenly we have moved into Castle Ceadoc is a very different kind of environment – Rufra is shown to be just one faction in a much larger fight for power; other Kings, the mysterious powers that runs the Kingdom; the Landsmen who are sworn to eliminate magic and on the edge the cult known as the Children of Xus. Old foes are returning, and new ones are also revealing themselves at last. Whereas previously Rufra’s sense of justice and idealism were strengths to bring people under his banner here they are perceived as dangerous weaknesses preventing his support. This time the stakes are high as whoever gains power could cause issues for Rufra too if he fails.  Its an interesting theme that the closer you get to ultimate power then you may have to start sacrificing some ideals to make the alliances and secure your own agenda – will you be the same person you set out to be?  Are there always going to be deep seated interests that while they accept the rile of a King re far more comfortable having the power in the shadows to keep the status quo continuing ever onwards?

Tension is constantly escalating in this story with fracturing friendships and grasps for power. A big key to how that is achieved is Castle Ceadoc itself…this environment constantly feels wrong. You will see the title of the Wounded Kingdom in a very different sense after this story.  Larger than anywhere else we have seen previously the impression is of a huge sprawling castle of uneven floors; vast towers; narrow winding corridors and hidden depths and terrors luring underneath while everyone is watched by massive statues of the dead gods and other threats lurking in shadows. Girton himself finds his magical abilities abruptly curtailed and everyone feels on edge with a sense that someone or something is watching their every move and preparing their attacks. The pressure mounts and mounts and slowly the strategies of their enemy are revealed who unusually seems to know our main characters and their weaknesses unusually well.

But the focus of the trilogy has been on Girton.  We are used to Girton being the outsider in the shadows and hiding his talents each time in a different disguise but this time we have him up front and centre in the court (albeit now dressed in the costume and make up of Death’s Jester so much that most people don’t recognise him without his costume). Rufra’s family and troops know him as a cunning warrior and his reputation as an assassin is now pretty much an open secret. He is comfortable in his skin; still funny but less prone to anger and fear than we’ve seen before but also feeling the first signs of middle age in his strength and speed. An intriguing development is that due to his prowess Assassins are once again in fashion across the Lands and Girton is both held in esteem and viewed as a great target to test your skills against. It’s however much much harder to investigate a murder and conspiracy when you’re so famous and everyone wants to meet you and test you are as good as they hear! At the same time Rufra’s focus on absolute power is starting to run against Girton’s sense of fairness and the two are more likely to fight than agree. All the things we are used to are out of sync…suggesting the centre cannot hold for much longer. Particularly as the one secret Girtin is still hiding is that he is a sorcerer and the one thing Rufra will not accept is magic. Discovery of his last secret means death at the hands of his oldest friend.

Surrounding him and often the heart of the book is the relationships Girton has developed with Merela and Aydor. Merela the woman who found Girton as a child has been a mystery for much of the story.  For the first time we see where she comes from and what drove her into becoming an assassin; her motives and journey with Girton need to be reviewed in the light of these revelations. Aydor however has moved from being the bully we loved to hate to the loveable bear of man who in learning to give up power can offer Girton a refreshingly honest opinion as well as being able to deflate his tendency for the dramatic. Because we’ve journeyed with these two and know how much they now mean their arcs in this story provide the emotional depth and concern as to where they will feature in this final adventure.

The overall feeling you get is we are heading for a mighty climax and Barker has done this skilfully; by the time we enter the final few chapters a scene where characters simply walk up steps slowly is physically and emotionally pounding with a sense that all hell is about to break loose when the final step is loose. We are plunged into kinetic fight scenes where we feel every blow; treated to the assassins’ dangerous moves and this time particularly as Girton has embraced his role as an assassin he can when needed create an air of theatricality he uses to terrify and surprise his targets that is delightful just as much as it makes you cheer him on. This time though there is a stronger mythic element to the story previously only hinted at as the focus on the Children of Xus and their very different worship of the God of Death means Girton starts to find himself key to a much more mysterious plan; in scenes both fairy simple but incredibly eerie hinting at something so much bigger under the surface of the physical world.

Having been a huge fan of this trilogy from the day I first opened the book I can say I categorically loved this finale. RJ Barker is proving himself to be one of the most interesting storytellers debuting in the UK and this trilogy is something I think all readers of fantasy need to read. The sequence is fresh, dazzling and most important of all it has emotional depth from the joys of triumph to the despair of loss and grief and seeing how the seeds of the wider story have been planted is a fantastic reading experience.  When I first reviewed RJ’s Age of Assassins I noted that we tend to think of Robin Hobb as our go to Assassin’s story. With the Wounded Kingdom and Girton Club-Foot RJ Barker has matched the story of FitzChivalry Farseer with a compelling lead character and amazingly detailed world perhaps one day there may be more tales about The Tired Lands but safe to say whatever novels await I will be reading them avidly.

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The Week in Womble

Hellooo!!

So, summer is over and the urge to turn on heating is rising.  Its been a strange old summer this year.  I was expecting before it began to be safely in a new home with more bookshelf and sadly after two buyers managed to mess things up I’m still in my old place.  House moving is stressful – doing it twice without moving is realllllly stressful. But third time lucky and then finally I can have some books unboxed (trying to make your home suitable for non-bookworms is awful!)

So apologies if content this summer has been sporadic I really can’t read a lot when stressed but I have managed to keep reading (just slowly) and one thing I want to do is get at least one review out a week from now on but I suspect you’ll get a bit more than that next month as I’ve a lot of review books outstanding. Colder days really suit reading and helpfully train companies work hard to make my commutes longer just to finish a few more chapters….bless em. One thing I thought I’d do more is a quick update on life and things I’ve been interested in.

Hugos

A very decent election of Hugo awards this week and for me the standout is N K Jemisin’s third Hugo for the Broken Earth trilogy. Its really set a high standard for what fantasy can achieve that all writers should aim for. If you’ve not seen her award acceptance speech check out this link

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lFybhRxoVM

and promptly after that high a rather pathetic ‘golden age’ author decided to criticise the speech and her win (admitting he never had even bothered to read it).  The nice thing about such people is it helps me decide which authors I cannot be bothered to spend my precious time on.  Farewell Silverberg you won’t be in my TBR! For me Jemisin’s work and her speech capture what I think SF needs to aim for. I don’t think that is vulgar I think it’s awe-inspiring.  I so want to do a quick review on the series (which won our Subjective Chaos award) but when the books that good the review needs to be decent…

The Good Old Days

There has been an interesting debate in Who fandom where the latest Doctor Who monthly has a feature where much younger fans are watching the classics. There has been outrage that watching “The Talons of Weng Chiang” the team while saying it had its moments also had huge amounts of racism – this story very much borrows from the Fu Manchu stories where the villain is a stereotypical Asian man and the clichés keep on rising and on top of this most of the Asian roles are white actors using ‘yellow face’ (made up to resemble those from asia). Some older fans have said that’s not taking into account the times it was made in and putting such social commentary in reviews of these things ruins the experiences. You won’t be surprised to hear I say sod that to such fans. I suspect there were many people of colour feeling television in the day was racist back then but very few white people listened. I think reviewers of classic stories that want to focus on just the ‘story’ should be able to look at something from the past and say is this something really that speaks to us now? You can still say a show or book has some good and bad elements and if that means in 2018 a forty odd year story is now rightly seen as racist and problematic that I think a) shows us how much we have come and b) may mean that we can find better stories to recommend instead?  There are quite a few!

Other Media

Television – Yes, I’ve finally rediscovered television and two big things are popping up on my “To Watch” list. The Good Place (Netflix) where a woman arrives in Heaven by mistake and spends the series trying to hide it is not just both very funny and heartwarming but gives the viewer a fascinating tour through moral dilemmas and philosophy.  If you’ve not seen it - go ahead!! Then tweet me about it

I’m finally after having been spoiled multiple times braving Star Trek Discovery and overall nearly half way am enjoying a new take on Trek. My suspicion like the title is that this is where humanity discovers the actual message of the show/philosophy of Starfleet and the Federation.  There seems a running theme about war/isolationism and friendship/science and I’m intrigued where that is going…Don’t tweet me about this yet!!

Podcasts – On that has really grabbed me this week is Zig Zag where two women from public radio in the US have decided to create their own media company. I’d usually be switched off by business chats but this story is done really personally (the stresses on them and their families) but also takes in the fate of US journalism; capitalism; sexism and the new powers of silicon valley. I am about half way and I’m finding it very enlightening about why journalism is suffering so much and why social media tycoons scare the hell out of me

What I read

-          City of Lies by Sam Hawke – one of the best debuts this year – see below or the review!

-          The Might Captain Marvel Vol 2 – ah that annoying time when a Marvel series has to tie into the year’s arc….

-          Lumberjanes Vol 8 – Greek Gods, Gorgons and all the joy you need

What I want to read next

-          King Of Assassins by RJ Barker  - the final instalment of an amazing trilogy

-          The Tower of Living and Dying by Anna Smith Spark – one of my favourite debuts now tells me what happened next

-          Darksoul by Anna Stephens – the sequel to another one of my favourite debuts