Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan

Publisher - Gollancz

Release Date - Out Now

Price - £16.99 Paperback

Pearl is an angel. She works for the Resistance - an organisation dedicated to improving the world  by stealth; but tiny; incremental acts of kindness.

But Pearl also has wings. They blossom at moments of stress. And she is strong; an extraordinary terrifying strength capable of breaking the fabric of reality. The Resistance can't account for that, nor for Pearl's mysterious origins.  All anyone know is that she appeared in a New York junkyard in the early 21st Century. Truth is even Pearl doesn't know what she is, let alone who she is.

Now she is on a pell-mell chase across the world. In pursuit of a killer wearing another man's body .  This killer carries a briefcase that is a ragged hole in the Universe. A global conspiracy revolves around it. The nature of reality is determined by it. Pearl has got to get the briefcase back - no matter how shocking its contents turn out to be.

My physical copy of Occupy Me is quite thin (less than 300 pages) but a bit like the main character is is packed with beautiful depth. Reading this is taking a soaring dive out of a plane listening to fast beautiful music that has some pointed comments on our world. One of the most intriguing stories I've read this year.

In the near future we find a lot if the initial story contrasts Pearl's quest with Dr Sorle's (an African Dr trying to improve his world) interactions with Austen Stevens a cruel billionaire businessman.  We soon see all three characters are linked although none are quite too sure how and into the mix is a superpowered assassin who has his own agenda.  The story bounces across the world before a tight finale that matches the North Sea oil fields with the end of the universe.  

I love stories where the reader has to work and Sullivan doesn't fall into the trap of someone having to do pure exposition.  What appears a very confusing world and a mystery starts to make sense and you buy into the concept of hidden dimensions and the ability to lift yourself into them. At the same time this novel examines consequences both Pearl and Dr Sorle's working out who they are.  Products of their environment or do they have a greater ability to fight against their upbringing and those powerful enough to stop them? I love the concept of the Resistance a secret group that performs kind deeds with the the view that the overall small impacts of being nice to someone or helping them on a bad day prevents the nastier side of humanity wracking havoc. Capitalism and its ability to wreck countries and lives is the darker force serving empathy here and Stevens just wants to make money forever its s very moral battle.

The writing here is beautiful a villain is said to have a 'Death Star of a mind' and right at the end there is a wonderful passage where Pearl provides her thoughts on love. This book has a lot of passion and love for what people can do. Pearl is gentle, kind but easily frustrated and when you're very powerful that creates waves....or opens up planes you're travelling in! There is in the story a great Scottish vet Alison who brings some nice humour as well as grounds our more powerful leads. 

This was my first Sullivan and I think I want to now read all her other books.  SF can I find lack humanity in favour of pure concepts and this novel rattling through time and space manages to shine with a positive look at fighting against empathy and the loss of hope. Having now read all the Clarkes (a few reviews to follow this week) this is my favourite.  If you want your mind widened and a reminder why we resist give it a go! 

 

All Good Things by Emma Newman

Publisher - Diversion Books

Price - £12.99 paperback

As the Iris family consolidates their hold on society within the secret world of the Nether, William Iris finds himself more powerful and yet more vulnerable than ever. His wife, Cathy, has left him, a fact that will destroy him if it becomes public. To keep his position―and survive―he needs to get her back, whatever the cost.

Cathy has finally escaped the Nether, but hates that she must rely so heavily on Sam’s protection. When the strange sorceress Beatrice offers her a chance to earn true freedom by joining the quest Sam has been bound to, Cathy agrees. But can she and Sam navigate Beatrice’s plans for the future without becoming two more of her victims?

And Beatrice, a self-taught and powerful killer, is not without her enemies. Rupert, the last sorcerer of Albion, is obsessed with finding and destroying her. He orders Max and his gargoyle to help him, pulling them away from protecting innocents. As the Arbiter and his partner face the ugly side of their responsibilities to Rupert, they begin to question where their loyalties should truly lie.

Amidst death, deceit, and the fight for freedom, friendships are tested, families are destroyed, and heroes are forged as the battle to control the Split Worlds rages to its climatic conclusion.

Emma Newman has rightly applauded for her SF novels Planetfall and After Atlas (review of which is a coming) but All Good Things is the final part to her Split Worlds series.  This sequence of five books is now firmly one of my favourite fantasy series and it's great to see the novels end with a strong and heartfelt conclusion.

 

But oh furry reviewer what is The Split Worlds sequence I hear you cry? The story began in Between Two Thorns and we meet Cathy Papaver living life in modern Manchester but this is swiftly disrupted by her brother kidnapping her to take her back to the magical parallel world of the Nether to be married against her will into one of the other ruling families.  The Nether is a land that looks like Victorian England but with magical twists of spells, charms and most importantly of all a patriarchal system that firmly placed men at the top of everything and sees women as property to look after households and create children.  Equality is a foreign concept as is consent, feminism and resistance.  In a land of magic a woman can be easily silenced if she's a problem. 

 

This use of fantasy to explore sexism is a running theme of the books.  Cathy initially just wants to run away but finding out more about the world and how it's run with sinister agencies and Fae Lords who control all ruling families; Cathy becomes a secret campaigner and working to change the system from the inside to ultimately an active campaigner for its destruction.  Mirroring her journey is Will Iris who initially seems keen to help Cathy and keen for her hand in marriage but as the books progressed it becomes clear his loyalty to family and power means he will use any means necessary to get what he wants.  In the previous book Cathy found she had been influenced by magic to find Will attractive for marriage without her consent.  

 

We find in All Good Things Cathy hiding away from The Nether once again and contemplating how Will tricked her and raped her.  Consent is a running theme in these novels and it's tempting based on the initial premise to think this is a twee secondary world fantasy but it's absolutely not.  It's a series that has created a gilded hell and it's examination of how a patriarchal society shapes people not simply how women should be treated but how it conditions men to act too.  Cathy and her friends discover an opportunity to finally break Nether Society but at the cost of destroying the entire realm and freeing dangerous powers.  What I love is that Cathy is not a Chosen One she is anxious, human and at her heart ready to help others.  As the reader you spend a lot of the time hoping she will survive as well as debating if she will do the right thing.

 

The characters in the story continue to be complex and we have interesting contrasts.  Will who justifies all his bad behaviour on his desire to protect his family and in particular his illegitimate sister gets an opportunity for ultimate power - can he finally turn a corner? At the same time Tom Papaver the brother who originally kidnapped Cathy gets an opportunity to either restore his family fortune or aid his sister.  How these two men shaped by this society react reminds us that while we can understand why certain behaviours are preferred they all have a choice as to whether to continue or break the cycle.  Cathy meanwhile is contrasted with her American cousin Lucy who equally supports greater equality but is also drawn to the benefits of the Nether's magic.  This novel asks what do you do when your Society is rotten - rebel or comply? Is it worth destroying something when innocents may be hurt? 

 

Action flows from our world, The Nether and Exilium home to the Fae themselves who also have their motives for conspiring against Will and Cathy.  Stakes are high and all main characters and families play a role.  It's never clear until the very end how things will pan out and who will survive.  All you can hope after five books.  

 

Ultimately this is a fitting end to one of my favourite series that is written beautifully but with a fury at the injustice of our world and a passion for changing it.  It's never felt more apt to see a book questioning a world to say is this all we can be and can nothing be changed.  If you want intelligent fantasy this is totally up your street!

 

 

The Arrival of the Missives by Aliya Whiteley

Author: Aliya Whiteley

Publisher: Unsung Stories

Published: Out Now

RRP: £6.99 ebook

 

The Arrival of the Missives is a genre-defying story of fate, free-will and the choices we make in life. In the aftermath of the Great War, Shirley Fearn dreams of challenging the conventions of rural England, where life is as predictable as the changing of the seasons. The scarred veteran Mr. Tiller, left disfigured by an impossible accident on the battlefields of France, brings with him a message part prophecy, part warning.  Will it prevent her mastering her own destiny? As the village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations, where a new queen will be crowned and the future will be reborn again, Shirley must choose: change or renewal?

 

I was led to this story by C of the themiddleshelf.org and also its recent place in the Clarke Shadow project (which I hope to talk about more in the near future) .  I went in pretty unaware of what the story was and to be frank was bowled over. A reminder that good stories can be found in the small press too and word of mouth really helps.

The story starts with Shelley a clever and very independent woman reaching the end of her school days and childhood. She feels the family pressing down on her regards future managing of the farm while her heart is set on training to be a teacher and also winning the heart of her teacher Mr. Tiller. You may think I’m setting the scene for a touching romance but this is a story that although slight (a little over a 100 pages) goes in amazing and surprising directions and has a lot to say about learning to understand yourself and the world you inhabit.

Mr. Tiller freshly returned from the WW1 battlefield has a secret to tell to Shirley; he has received a missive from the future and a calamity that could affect the fate of later generations needs her assistance to ensure things don’t happen. Shirley is convinced of the need to help Mr. Tiller and an unusual plan is in action centering around Daniel the son of the local blacksmith who somehow has a major impact on the future of humanity.

And that’s probably as much as I can give away. It’s a novel that touches on the war, time-travel, romance and emancipation. Shirley is a truly modern character starting to realize she has options beyond her village and at the same time find society and even Mr. Tiller have expectations of her playing only a certain role. For a small village we find some interesting relationships and realize many of the characters are all expecting certain roles to be played. A woman who defies the needs of her often male leaders can find herself in a very difficult position. Even acting on your impulses can get you into trouble where the village has its constant eyes on you. A big part of the enjoyment is Shirley’s reaction to this and how she starts to learn she too has power here.

As I read the story I kept guessing where it was leading and was always pleasantly surprised that the choices made were so much better. This is going to be one of those stories I am going to insist everyone has a read of so I get to squee about it later with you. It leaves you thinking about it for days after and I am definitely looking forward to Whiteley’s other tales.

 

The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams

Publisher: Headline

Published: Out Now

RRP: £14.99 Trade Paperback

 

The great city of Ebora once glittered with gold. Now its streets are stalked by wolves, Tormalin the Oathless has no taste for sitting around waiting to die while the realm of his storied ancestors falls to pieces – talk about a guilt trip. Better to be amongst the living, where there are taverns full of women and wine.

 

When eccentric explorer, Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon, offers him employment, he sees an easy way out. Even when they are joined by a fugitive witch with a tendency to set things on fire, the prospect of facing down monsters and retrieving ancient artifacts is preferable to the abomination he left behind.

 

But not everyone is willing to let the Eboran empire collapse, and the adventurers are quickly drawn into a tangled conspiracy of magic and war. For the Jure’lia are coming and the Ninth Rain will fall

 

Jen Williams debuted in fantasy with the amazing Copper Cat trilogy.  A sword and sorcery tale fit for the twenty-first century with humour, scary monsters, diverse casts and three of the most fun and charming characters I’d read in ages.  Finding out the next series is set in a different world and has none of those characters always sends a worry that this time the magic I read won’t be there.  But I’m very pleased to report that Williams does an equally impressive turn at Epic Fantasy and I think we are looking at a treat in this novel and the ones to come.

One thing that I think sets the story apart from the first trilogy is the sense of scale and depth.  The Copper Cat series had a back story but here Wlliams has upped the ante to cover a wider world with action in many places and a great deal of history to it too for both its human and Eboran civilisations. The history of these two races and how they have repelled the Jure’lia over thousands of years is key to the main part of the story. The previous battle (The Eighth Rain) led to the death of their tree God who was responsible for their longevity and with his fall the Eborans realized human blood was an adequate substitute…yes imagine elves turning vampire! Since the fair to say relations broke down and now the Ebrorans themselves are falling to a deadly disease their ability to get support is limited.

A world though really needs to use characters to make these stories come alive and Williams gives us a new set of three leads to follow and be engaged with. Tormalin aka Tor is the Eboran swordsman bodyguard; super strong, breath-takingly handsome and has a nice line in sarcasm but slightly tormented that to stay young and eternally healthy he needs human blood to assist. Fortunately his employer is Vintage – a middle aged wealthy woman with a keen desire to find out everything she can about the Jure’lia and the mysterious sites of their last destruction. These two make a brilliant double act both bickering in the best of ways but also happily saving each other’s lives. Vintage is in no desire to just sit back and follow her family tradition of wine-making she has personally invested herself and her considerable wealth into investigating the Jure’lia and the mysterious lands where they have apparently crashed leaving behind horribly disfigured forests and jungles as well as eerie spirits/parasites who with one touch can split a person apart! 

The final member of the trio who adds conflict as new dynamics in the group form is the Fell-witch Noon. In Sarn women with magical ability are tracked down and imprisoned to protect the world from their explosive powers. Noon escapes their island prison but then has to ask herself what next and Vintage immediately sees magic as a potential aid. But it also brings potential dangers…

Hopefully you will get already a sense of just how much is going on in this story but in William’s hands it really soars with multiple plotlines criss-crossing and by the end coming together to explain a lot more about what the aftermath of the Eight Rain has led to and where the rest of the novel will go. But in itself it’s a great tale of the cast coming together and a impressive conclusion explaining many of the book’s mysteries. The reader is never entirely sure where the story is going and that is always a welcome development in any new series

Two small aspects I think also deserve note. Williams adds a touch of genre mixing as we find the Jure’lia appear to travel in ships from off-world.  There appears to be a subtle SF hint which I’m fascinated by. Finally it’s done with little fanfare and feels totally natural but the vast majority of the main characters and those in positions of power are women.  Nothing feels forced it’s just that these are the competent characters in those positions. It’s a diverse world with sexuality and race making this a totally believable world

Reading the novel from the prison island for the Fell Witches to the various scenes of ancient death and destruction the Jure’lia left behind the reader gets a sense of something interesting and fascinating to see around each corner. It’s not faux medieval it’s a much more interesting world and one moving into more modern times – there is even a developing magic-powered rail road!

Jen Williams has rapidly become one of my favourite authors in Fantasy and I found this a confident and beautifully weighted first part of her new trilogy. It feels fresh, modern and yet has a huge love of fantasy and strange world s to explore (sometimes on back of giant bats). I’m looking forward to seeing where the story takes us in future volumes.

The White Road by Sarah Lotz

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Published: Out Now

RRP: £16.99 Hardback

 

Adrenaline-junky Simon Newman sneaks into private land to explore a dangerous cave in Wales with a strange man he’s met online. But Simon gets more than he bargained for when the expedition goes horribly wrong. He emerges, the only survivor, after a rainstorm traps the two in the cave. Simon thinks he’s had a lucky escape

 

And then the video of his near death experience goes viral

 

Suddenly Simon finds himself more famous than he could ever have imagined. Now he’s faced with an impossible task: he’s got to defy death once again, and film the entire thing. The whole world will be watching. There’s only one place on earth for him to pit himself against the elements: Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.

 

But Everest is also one of the deadliest spots on the planet. Two hundred and eighty people have died trying to reach its peak,

 

And Simon’s luck is about to run out

 

Human beings seem to have a desire to out ourselves into the most dangerous places often because they are just there. The drive to visit the unknown, to possibly become famous or just to prove to yourself you are not afraid can drive us into fascinating places but it can also place us in great danger. In Sarah Lotz’s latest novel we travel from the darkest and deepest caves to the top of the world and find that there are some things you really cannot escape from easily.

Our main character is Simon who when we first meet him is a coffee shop barista and in his spare time trying to create with a friend a pop culture website (it’s initially set in the early days of the net when Buzzfeed was unheard of…..cries with nostalgia). The would be media magnates have discovered that people’s love of the macabre and creepy is always a hit with the ratings so Simon is sent to investigate an abandoned cave system where three young men lost their lives ; using only a camcorder and a strange, drunk and bad-tempered guide.

What follows is an absolutely terrifying trip into caves, tunnels and underground rivers where you feel each slip, squeeze and jam in the darkest of places where death is literally waiting for one mistake. Lotz brings to life the sensations of cold, isolation and panic when Simon finds himself in a nightmare once the rain starts to flood the system. It’s paced extremely well and we follow his decsent into the earth and without spoilers his escape becoming a changed man. Now Simon is a media sensation as his video tape moves the small site into the big league but now his company needs a literally bigger mountain to climb to keep those webpage hits coming.

Alongside this story we meet Juliet a successful mountaineer recently recovering from a disastrous expedition the previous year to climb Everest. Julia is one of the rare mountaineers who scales mountains without oxygen packs and is seeking a successful climb that can restore her reputation and give her family a future but as we see she finds herself increasingly feeling to be climbing the mountain with unexpected company.

Simon and Juliet’s stories cross in the land of Nepal in an unexpected way which I will lead for you to uncover. But Lotz gives us a small supporting cast of Everest Mountaineers who have varied reasons to climb with Simon. There is an interesting split almost along class lines with many of the team members being wealthy people who are doing this as an accomplishment yet seem to ignore that their sherpas are doing all the heavy lifting and that the mountain these days is almost a conveyor belt (albeit still a deadly one if mistakes are made). There is an exploration of sexism. Juliet is pilloried in the press for daring to have a career and a child while a younger woman named Wanda is getting ogled and leered yet is easily the most technically gifted of the group. You get the sense of a pressure cooker as personalities rub against each other, secrets start to spill and bodies start to effectively die in extreme cold yet all are being pushed towards the summit. 

Simon who is an interesting mix of a lost child and dreadful website guru who would sell his soul for fame yet also recognizes his flaws. He realizes the similar terrifying experiences he and Juliet share which both gives him some sense of humanity and also a drive to make money. The consequences of this being an increasing sense of no longer being alone at any time and the final third of the book ratchets the tension as he feels his mental strength wearing down and making him follow some desperate paths to be free. Lotz ability to make us feel Simon’s hidden vulnerability ismakes you want to encourage him to make the right decisions and also be terrified of the consequences if he cannot find a way out of these extreme environments he finds himself in.

As with any horror tale the journey and atmosphere are key and Lotz has a unique ability to make these far off or well hidden places come alive but also add a human dimension (who sometimes can be even scarier than anything else). It’s a very intimate tale but still with mysteries to uncover and you will find yourself feeling cold and dark even in spring time so I’d really recommend this trip…just don’t forget to bring a light.

 

 

A Coversation on the Clarke Award

 

Time for another award shortlist conversation (not detailed book review ahem) about the Clarkes.  Again I got chatting to C from themiddleshelf.org

 

C - Here comes the Clarke! I may have mentioned (oh, just once or twice...) that this is my favourite scifi award. I always discover some great stories and authors thanks to it. I may not always agree with the winners, but that doesn't happen often. So it's always very eagerly that I'm waiting for the shortlist. And this year... Oh boy, this year... Well, it was not what I expected!

I had decided to read a few novels from the submission list (I ended up reading 23 out of the 87 submitted) and I made some amazing discoveries: The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley, The Power by Naomi Alderman ; This Census-Taker by Miéville which was a fascinating read and also a challenge, Hunters and Collectors by M. Suddain was fun and I spent an enjoyable moment reading it ; also books I had read before the submission list and loved: After Atlas, Azanian Bridges, Mother of Eden... So let's say that I was a bit disappointed when I saw that almost none of my favourites made it to the shortlist! For some novels, it wasn't a surprise, for others, yes, it was a real disappointment. On the other hand, this shortlist challenges my expectations and my preferences, and that, in itself, is very interesting too.

When the shortlist was published, I had read all bar one novels on it.

M - The Clarkes recently feel reborn and purposed.  A few years ago it was in serious danger of disappearing but it feels like a full and warmly received award that actually likes to have a conversation with the genre.  It provokes debate as to what SF is and what books should represent the field.  I really like the look of this year's list.  I've currently got two left to read but it's an impressive list that adds a bit of everything.  It feels to be like pointing to where the type of SF we are going towards. We can discuss more for me a theme of today's writers taking old ideas and retooling them to work for today.  I am just finishing off one book but otherwise read all others (more by luck than design!)

 

A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)

 

C – A Closed and Common Orbit, we meet again! Since I always make a point of reading all of the Clarke shortlist, I had engaged myself to read at least two chapters of it despite having strongly disliked the first volume. It is now done. Guess what? I still don't get the hype. I'm honestly happy that Chambers' novels are so well loved because I can feel free to say that I really dislike her writing even if felt less awkward than in A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. If she stumbles upon this post, I hope she'll be able to shrug off my comment by knowing that her novels are loved by many many others. As far as I'm concerned, I won't read further than those two chapters.

 

M - Well not all books work for everyone my friend but I have I say I thought this was excellent.  Long Way for me is a perfect beautiful look at an idea future and a warm bath in positivity as well as a look at relationships and found family.  But I was really impressed here that Chambers didn't take the easy option but went off into a really well plotted focused story looking at just two peripheral characters.  On top of which has weaving narratives from two different periods.  I'm not sure how far you got into the book but the tales of how various clones re enslaved I found quite disturbing.  I loved the theme of gender identity not simply the old plot of is an AI alive but how you get to live the life you want to and not that which society demands you take.  I read this in November and I find thoughts come back to it quite a lot.  An author I am totally ready to read their next book.

 

C - I honestly feel as if I'm missing out something. I'll probably come back to her stories in a few years when her writing, which is the main sore point for me, will have evolved (because each and every writer's style change over the years, whether readers like it or not).

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)

 

C - Miltary scifi isn't my cup of tea. Right, so now having said that, I also have to recognise that I nonetheless enjoyed reading The Expanse and that I love The Culture and the early Vorkosigan Saga novels which are, very often, military scifi. But I laboured through most of Ninefox Gambit: I couldn't engage with the plot nor with the characters that felt too stereotypical to me. While the world building was quite interesting, the pace was awry at times. Nonetheless I kept on with it and the ending redeemed that. In the end, I would say that Ninefox Gambit does less well what The Culture novels did better but it has its own voice and its own strong points.

 

M - I think one I find the best things about SF is that all the sub genres themselves allow a lot of flexibility as you note.  For me the military aspects of Gambit aren't the bits that I latched into.  What I loved in our uncertain times is the way it questions society, loyalty and truth.  The idea of a civil war based around calendars isn't the weirdest thing in the book and at the heart is the fascinating relationship between the upcoming new officer Cheris and her undead potentially insane military genius Jedeo.  Is there just an agenda of revenge, rebellion or just insanity? This book didn't give me a gentle learning curve to understand the universe; it means the reader has to work to understand it.  Tricky to do and Lee does it brilliantly.  Totally deserving of the acclaim and I'm looking forward to see where this series goes next.

 

C - I find it interesting that you liked the themes. To me they were ok. I've preferred how they were done in the City series by Robert Jackson Bennett for instance or in After Atlas which did a great job tackling truth and loyalty themes.

 

 

 

After Atlas – Emma Newman (Roc)

 

C - I've read both Planetfall and After Atlas earlier this year. To me, the fact that Planetfall wasn't shortlisted last year was a real shame as it is a novel that's powerfully written, that tackles mental health issues - something which isn't tackled often enough in scifi - and that linked wonderfully to 2001. I feel less enthusiasm for After Atlas because it's mainly a scifi noir novel, something I'm less keen on, and I engaged with its main character less than with Planetfall's main character. But I loved it nonetheless and I'm really happy to see it on this shortlist. I loved the world building, I loved the political ideas and the ending left me gobsmacked, precisely because I also know what happens in Planetfall. Emma Newman has recently announced that there would be a third novel set in this universe and I can't wait to read it even if I'm not sure that it will show us how After Atlas and Planetfall's threads meet.

M - I’m just in the process of finishing it off.  The world it's created is excellently thought out and chillingly possible.  Newman I think has been getting stronger and stronger over recent years.  The Split Worlds series I think is an excellent use of fantasy to show up the horrors of sexism while all the time giving you an amazing world of quite quite evil fae.  Her skills in SF were then demonstrated in the SF colony mystery Planetfall which as well as being a great puzzle had a fascinating lead character with one of the best looks at grief and anxiety I've read.  Intrigued how this story uses the same universe

C - I'm really looking forward to reading her Split World series. It sounds like my cup of tea and the last volume being due soon, I'm looking forward to it.

 

Occupy Me – Tricia Sullivan (Gollancz)

C - Occupy Me was a frustrating read to me for many reasons. On paper, it had everything I love in a scifi novel: folded universes, intriguing characters and a strong plot. But reading it didn't deliver what I was expecting. At times, I felt as if I had missed a chapter somehow (I checked and no I didn't). At others, I felt as if I was reading something that kept repeating itself with slight variations without ever bringing anything new to further the plot. I had loved Dreaming in Smoke which had won the Clarke in 1999, but since then, I've been less enthused by Sullivan's subsequent novels. They've felt to me as if something, somehow, was missing. And, sadly, this latest is no exception. But I'm happy to accept that it's just a matter of personal taste.

M - This was my first Sullivan and I am now going to be looking for her back catalogue.  For me the plot was good but the way the story is told was beautiful.  Some stunning imagery and a section on an angel thinking about the meaning of love was one of the best sections of writing I've read this year.  SF can be criticised for ignoring emotion but this felt wonderfully heartfelt.  A 270 page novel that goes from far past to end of the universe is like the lead character packed with hidden depth.  

 

Central Station – Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

C - Central Station felt to me like when I'm in a modern art museum. I appreciate the artistic performance, I can see where the artist is going, the technique they used, often with great talent, and... it leaves me completely cold. The concept of Central Station, marginalised people left in the shadow of a space station while the rest of humanity goes exploring and colonising space was in itself something I could have loved; the form used, a collection of sketches, to observe different aspects of these marginalised lives, including new forms of life, and their pleas or dilemmas, was a brilliant idea. But, as I said, it left me completely cold. I recognise the literary achievement, I recognise it is to be praised as it observes aspects of society rarely seen in scifi and that shouldn't be forgotten especially as we move always faster towards the future while still having a highly in egalitarian society.

M - I went that extra mile then as it chimed with me a lot.  It's a great setting and the use of characters weaving in and out of each other's stories was for me beautiful.  The tale of the space vampire really stood out but we have sentient religious AI, lost lives reunited, potentially immortal rag and bone men.  It's constantly inventive and took a lot of golden age SF ideas and gave then an emotional punch they'd not had previously.  My only quibble is sometimes it felt like short stories collected rather than a pure novel in its own right but I think it deserves recognition.

C - I completely agree with everything you've just said. It's awful because I perfectly see why I should love it and... No, it didn't work. But regarding what you said above about the future of scifi, I think Central Station is to me the most modern novel there is on this list. It has, to me, faults. But it's definitely leading the way into a very interesting direction and from what I've read lately (novellas and/or stories about disenfranchised people who and/or golden age SF tropes revisited) it's a direction that many are taking. 

When we were talking about the Hugos, I was complaining that most titles on the shortlist didn't bring anything new to our favourite genre, but I think this novel in particular does.

 

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet)

C - The Underground Railroad is wonderfully told. The Underground Railroad has great characters, a strong plot, political ideas I enjoyed, makes us dive into the characters' pleas and the awful unfairness of their lives. The Underground Railroad is a remarkable novel. But I didn't read it as scifi. It may be because I know next to nothing to 19th century American History: I had to use Wikipedia after having read it to check where the novel was diverging from the actual U.S. History. It's a novel that blur the genres, which is something I'm not averse to, some sort of scifi realism rather than the usual magical realism, but in that case its presence in an unabashed scifi shortlist, for an award that usually crowns unabashed scifi novels is surprising to say the least. I've loved it and recommended it since reading it, usually along with I, Tituba, by Maryse Condé. But if I were a member of a jury for a scifi award, I wouldn't vote for it.

 

M - I agree a great book for me it's using an old fantasy style similar of leads wandering through a magical set of worlds but here it's cities or towns each of which studies racism and how it can be manifested.  I think it therefore deserves a place of recognition and that does make me wonder if future political fantasy could be allowed.  It's haunting and casts a very honest eye on a period I don't think many here in the UK fully understand the scale and horror of.  

 

C - What seems interesting to me in this shortlist is that they are all, with the exception of The Underground Railroad, stories with strong, sometimes even worn, scifi concepts. Space features heavily in Ninefox Gambit and A Closed and Common Orbit. It is also a very important background of Central Station that deals with marginalised people left in the shadow of the gate to space. It's also the case of After Atlas, that focuses on the people left behind by the spaceship Atlas. Finally, Occupy Me uses the concept of folded universes.

It's pretty ironic considering that when publishing my own shortlist I had said of it "It lacks big space ships going vroooom". The actual shortlist has its fair share of them.

M - Yes I think that's a very good point.  This last year or so the genre has been debating whether it's abandoned the theme of the alleged golden age of pure adventure.  I thought that was rather simplistic and ignored those tales also explored society and politics.  Here we have Novels all using existing ideas to explore 21st century humanity but all in different ways.  That they all do this in do this in different styles and in different sub genres I think suggests a genre still relevant to people.

C - Another thing that seems interesting to me is that four of these novels have a strong political theme. The Clarke has never shied from this. But this year After Atlas, Central Station, The Underground Railroad but also Ninefox Gambit have all four explicit political stances. After a quick look at the past shortlists, I usually find one, sometimes two, novels that are politically engaged. Of course, 2016 and 2017 justify that all persons of good will should engage to avoid further disasters. So it seems the jury took it upon themselves too to offer visibility to novels that would make people think, something I cannot fault.

M - I would again agree and argue Occupy Me also has a theme of people taking on the evil Corporations and actually the power of doing the right thing.  But I do think again after the recent debates as to the purpose of SF this is a reminder that it can be one of the most political of areas and exploring societies and how they tick is for me a key reason I keep reading.

C - If I had to pick a winner, I would ask you if you want me to tell you who's my winner of this shortlist or who do I think will win. Because, this year, it's for me two different things, whereas last year I was pretty sure Children of Time, which was also my favourite, would win even if there were some really strong contenders. So, I think Central Station will win. But my winner from this shortlist is After Atlas.

M - So if you ask me I go arghhhh.  I've enjoyed each book a lot and all differently (which is the best of dilemmas).  I'd be tempted that Tidhar would win but for me if you twist my arm it's Chambers....or Sullivan.....ok Newman......

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

 

Author: Becky Chambers

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Published: Out Now

RRP: £14.99 hardcover

 

Lovelace was once merely a ship's artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has to start over in a synthetic body, in a world where her kind are illegal. She's never felt so alone.

 

But she's not alone, not really. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall Lovelace, is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.

 

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that, huge as the galaxy may be, it's anything but empty.

 

NB – an earlier version of this review appeared at ww.geekplanetonline.com

One of my favourite novels last year was Chamber's debut SF story A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.  That was a wonderful story about a crew of wormhole miners on a deep space mission; less constant space battles but a great examination of other cultures, lifestyles and relationships.  A reminder that SF can talk about our culture in ways other genres struggle. I was really intrigued as to what the second novel from her would be like.  I'm pleased to find that this story is just as fascinating and heartfelt.

A major point to highlight is that this is in many ways not a direct sequel to Angry Planet.  The Wayfarer crew are absent bar Lovey the ship's former AI who decided she needed to leave the crew and Pepper a repair specialist who has taken on responsibility for Lovey, who has reluctantly agreed to be now housed in a synthetic human kit (completely illegal in their part of the galaxy).  It's still however a story of people working with others to find out who they are and equally less action focused but instead of how aliens would interact.

In this story Chambers has also used a different structure.  We have the main plot of Lovey struggling to find out how she fits in the world and then the book pairs these chapters with Pepper's early life.  We find out that Pepper was originally Jane 23 a clone one of many on a world where clone children are created to sort through a planet's rubbish and any attempt tofind out more about the world can have painful consequences at the hands of the robotic Mothers guarding them. These two stories compliment each other and eventually combine into a satisfying and nerve biting conclusion as Pepper's two worlds meet.

Two supporting characters are worth noting too.  Owl the sentient AI that finds Pepper as a child and seeks to protect her.  Very nicely there is a sense throughout that Owl is protecting the young girl from certain truths from the world until she is ready.  My favourite though is Taq an alien tattoo artist.  Taq is from a race with four genders and shifts throughout the book from male to female; no major point of this is made in the book but it's accepted.  Like Small Angry Planet this book just puts these ideas across to show that sexuality is not a big deal.  Taq's growing friendship with Lovely is a highlight as the artist's view of the body differs from Lovely's stance that the body is just kit.

I think it’s tempting to say Orbit is a simple ‘feel-good’ novel.  But actually Orbit is not as ree-assuring as Small Angry Planet.  The clone world Pepper runs from is cruel, heartless and we see children treated as tools.  Lovey has to hide because if she is found out for who she is the sentence will be death. It’s a world with good people in it but the wider world is not nearly enlightened – and it does not take too much thought to see this mirror our own world.

I have to say I that a book that explores gender and sexual identity is something most SF is not covering. SF should hold a mirror to our world and let us re-asses how we ourselves behave.  That Chambers melds those themes with a fantastic SF universe and gives us characters and dilemmas to think about.  I would love to see more books like this tackling the current world.

In conclusion I think Common Orbit shows no sign of that difficult second album feeling.  It's for me an even stronger story with the structure and characters delving deeper into those themes of friendship/family and identity.  There is darkness but this story also carries hope that with the support of those in our own circle of people we can grow and take on what the universe throws us.  An absolute delight.  It is completely deserving of it’s place in the awards lists for 2017. 

 

Chalk by Paul Cornell

Publisher: Tor

Published: Out Now

RRP: £11.99 Paperback

 

Andrew Waggoner has always hung around with the losers in his school, desperately hoping each day that the school bullies – led by Drake - will pass by home in search of other prey. But one day they force him into the woods, and the bullying escalates into something more, something unforgiveable, and something unthinkable.

Broken, both physically and emotionally, something dies in Waggoner, and something else is born in its place.

In the hills of the West Country a chalk horse stands vigil over a site of ancient power, and there Waggoner finds in himself a reflection of rage and vengeance, a power and persona to topple those who would bring him low.

 

I'm not a fan of schools stories generally.  I really don't think they're the best days of your lives but recognise they have a huge impact on how you develop as a person.  I find school tales can be a tad triggering on a lot of stuff I just don’t like to remember. School can be a place where you can see the worst of people.  Paul Cornell's latest excellent fantasy novel looks at growing up in the early eighties; how people change and although I did not enjoy the ride I am very glad I went on it.

Andrew Waggoner is a teenage boy attending a private school.  He's not one of the cool kids and is just part of a group that tends to be picked on by Drake's gang.  But at the Halloween disco Andrew tries to be himself and that attracts Drake's gang attention so that night he is violently assaulted.  This act appears to create Waggoner - a duplicate of Andrew who only Andrew sees but occasionally swaps places to act with slightly more inhuman powers.  Waggoner promises Andrew both revenge and an opportunity to heal himself from the assault.  Over the next twelve months the novel tracks Waggoner's efforts and Andrew working out of the price of this will be too high.

This is an incredibly stark and sometimes brutal tale.  The attack on Andrew is practically a violent sexual assault and as our narrator (an older Andrew) explains has had an impact on him even today.  It sharply undermines that children can often act in the most violent and cruellest of ways just for 'fun'.  Cornell captures the sense of powerlessness that kids can feel not simply from a gang of bullies but a sense that teachers and also parents turn blind eyes to what is ultimately seen as character building. Andrew for most of the book is left on his own to work out what is going on. In addition Waggoner takes brutal revenge on Andrew’s tormentors that escalate in visceral nastiness but perhaps more horrifying is Andrew at times seems to be enjoying the ability to hurt others even with casual violence onto others. The theme is that the bullied can easily finds it better to pass their hatred and fear onto others. It’s refreshing that Andrew is not the simple victim and is just as capable of losing our sympathy and instead gains our horrors at his behaviour

A patch of light in this tale is the use of music to almost act as a different type of release. Andrew meets Angie and a strange friendship develops where Andrew learns the power and possibly magic of music (and as it’s early 80’s its good music younger readers!!).  How as a teen THAT song speaks only to you and no one else. A theme of the book is the potential conflict between the ancient bloodlust of humanity that Waggoners and Drake revel in and that sense of hope and the future that music can represent.  Andrew has to decide where he fits in.

Two things jumped out at me. Cornell brilliantly captures the time – the music, 80’s Doctor Who (shout out to Longleat fellow Whovians) and social politics of the time. The Waggoner family is new middle class coming into a time of old money leading to conflict but both sides look down on the local comprehensive.  The use of music is also evocative as we spend a year in Andrew’s life and it really captures the confusion and eventually maturity that comes with learning how you fit into a school’s culture. The other aspect was Cornell really identifies some of the unusual things that bullying can lead to in later life. A desire not to be forced into taking a decision (often at your own expense) and not to follow the crowd even on a silly aspect as wearing jeans!! Yeah this review went into some interesting walks down memory lane

So as a huge fan of all Cornell has done to date I think this is one of his most mature works. Focused, great atmosphere and a hard and honest look at the characters and why they behave as they do its not afraid of holding a mirror up to see a nastier side of childhood than you may find elsewhere.  On that basis I would thoroughly recommend it to you (plus the amazing playtlist) and its been on my mind ever since reading it.

 

The Hugo Awards - a conversation

I do love Twitter- its a great place to meet and chat with other bibliophiles and a few weeks ago I got talking with C from The Middleshelf (www.themiddleshelf.org) about the recent Hugo awards and so in a first for the blog here is a joint collaboration looking at the nominations.  I shall try to post some related reviews on bits and bobs over the coming months

C - My relationship with the Hugo has always been fraught. It's nothing but a popularity contest, something which I'm not interested in for two reasons: 1) I'm happy to admit that my tastes don't always run with what's popular 2) I like an award to make me discover something which I've never heard of or barely glanced at. It's something that rarely happens in a popularity contest. 

And if I look at the past winners of the Hugos, there are, since its inception, only 15 novels that I agree with as Award winners (and an awful lot are McMaster Bujold's!)

So when I say I looked at this year's list with a sigh, I'm being pretty literal. I'm quite resigned to the fact that the Hugo isn't the best award for my tastes.

 

M - So for me my general knowledge of the Hugos was an award that seemed a bit remote and far away in the US.  Prestige but wasn't really aware how it worked and then the Puppies decided an SF book award if the perfect place to cheat and extol some pretty poor stories.  

So over the last last three years I have tried to get involved.  The Hugos are not perfect they have been prone to white US men for a long time but it's changing.  This year I think we have an almost puppy free list and that finally allows a debate on the quality of the books!

Best Novel

  • All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor Books / Titan Books)

C - I went as far as page 150. It was a chore. It felt to me like a YA romance with fantasy and scifi in it. I found the concepts childish and déjà-vu, the romance uninteresting (on the other hand, I rarely find romance interesting!) and the characters completely failed to grab me. But maybe I liked the writing? Sadly I didn't find anything in it that was enough to compensate the pile of clichés. Basically: I wasn't the right reader for it. (And that's me being restrained and polite.)

M - Usually I don't enjoy romance or stories set in schools but I found this fascinating.  A mash up of SF and Fantasy that for me did something new and fitted our time.  I found how the characters survived some awful schools and worked out how to grow and survive down very well. A reminder that bullying carries consequences for even the victims.  For me that's a first novel that felt quite fresh

  • A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager US)

C - I haven't read it. Why? Because after having read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet last year, I wasn't about to live that again. Most of the dialogues and characters seemed to be lifted straight off a Joss Whedon script. Don't get me wrong: I love Firefly, I know it by heart. But if I wanted to read fanfic, I'd head to a fanfic website. There wasn't enough originality (not to mention the pacing problems) in it to make me want to read the sequel.

M - I think a lot of people were surprised to read this book and realise that it wasn't a direct sequel to the tale of Orbit's crew.  Instead this story features the story of an AI now limited to one human body and the clone engineer who rescues her.  Two very different and often much darker stories than in Orbit are run in parallel and then reside in a conclusion both tense and making full use of the characters.  It questions what makes us human and I think I was glad that this time rather than short bursts of looking at each crew member this story focuses far more on two characters and the plot and how the two intertwine is done excellently.  This time firefly is dialled down!!

C - If Firefly is dialled down, then I may give it a try.

  • Death’s End, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu (Tor Books / Head of Zeus) of mystery club

C - I liked it and it had great scifi concepts. But, honestly, if the story had ended at the end of the second volume, however bleak it would have been, I would have found it more striking. I must admit that I also had issues with the main character, which didn't really helped.

M - Not yet read - enjoyed Three Body but heard a lot about book 2 that out me off.  Have dusted both down for reading shortly.

  • Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris Books)

C - I liked it. But military scifi isn't my thing and the usual issues I can have with the genre I had with Ninefox Gambit. So I liked it, but I won't rave about it.

M - I'm not a military SF fan but this won me over because you are given a huge learning curve to work out what is going on.  The fight to prevent Calendrical Rot (still not sure!) has some lovely yet violent set pieces as a world is put to siege.  But the most fascinating battle/relationship is between an insane military genius who is dead and the new upcoming officer who now now has him in her head.  Unreliable narrators, politics and sheer scale made this one stand out last year!

  • The Obelisk Gate, by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit Books)

C - Loved it. Loved it. Loved it. And I simply can't wait to read the next volume!

M - I loved Fifth Season but this is on Mount TBR - hopefully to be read soon!

  • Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer (Tor Books)

C - That's one I haven't read yet. It's a four volume saga, only two have been published yet and I'm a binge reader. So I'm quite busy navigating safely the internet to avoid spoilers as much as possible and I'll start on it as soon as all volumes are published. But it definitely looks like my cup of tea and I'm looking forward to reading it!

M - I've not read it or to be honest heard of it! So for me this homework to track down and report back on!

C - Jo Walton raves about it and I usually like what she recommends.

Our winner?

C - So, let's face it: both of some of the most popular novels on the list aren't novels that, to me, bring something new to the genre. They are certainly crowd pleasers but I really wonder at their future legacy. Even though American Gods or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - both past winners - are far from being favourites of mine, I nonetheless recognise that both brought something to the genre whether with their unique style or unique take on myths. All the Birds in the Sky and A Closed and Common Orbit? I'm doubtful.

(Right, now that I've bad mouthed two of the fans favourites, I'm expecting the mob with assorted torches, pitchforks and scythes any minute!)

Basically, apart from Too Like the Lightening (which, from what I've heard of it, will probably win because it's outstanding), there's only The Obelisk Gate that I'd vote for (I don't) on this list. 

M - Excuse me while I light my torch and sharpen my scythe

For me it's a strong list and three of them were on my ballot.  I think it's a list that looks very much like where SF is going - mash ups of fantasy and SF like birds and arguably the Fifth season book.  Even Ninefox does something new for military SF looking far more at the characters than the shiny toys of destruction.

I think I'd had put The Power by Naomi Alderman but not sure if that's eligible for the year but also Sudden Appearence of Hope by Claire North which I though was a fantasy thriller with a lot to say about identity bin the modern world 

Early winner? I'm tempted Ninefox may win being more SF and I think may work for many 

C - Yes, it's such a pity The Power isn't there, isn't it? I hope it'll make it to the Clarke Award shortlist to gain some visibility. I wish Rosewater by Tade Thompson had been on it too. I think it really deserves the attention.

Best Novella

  • The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle (Tor.com publishing)

C - On my to-be-read list but haven't found the time yet to read it.

M - Loved this!! A lot at one of Lovecraft's most racist stories through the eyes of a black man in 1920's America.  Challenging not just that author's racism as placing black People as villains but drawing a strong parallel with the racists attitudes of the police and society back then with that of now.  Some things sadly have yet to change as much as we would like.  It's haunting and stays with you.

C - That has now just moved up on my to-be-read list!

  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson (Tor.com publishing)

     

M- Still to read this one but sounds very interesting

C- Didn't heard of it, but go ahead and tell me about it afterwards!

  • Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com publishing)

    .

C - On my to-be-read list but haven't found the time yet to read it.

M - Another great story.  What happens to the kids from portal stories when they get back? Are they accepted? Do they want to be? McGuire imagines a school just for those kids who are completely changed by their experiences.  It's a tale of acceptance with a very diverse cast and a reminder that this genre is one where many feel comfortable being themselves.

  • Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum Literary Agency)

C - I'm a huge fan of Lois McMaster Bujold. I've liked The Curse of Chalion a lot, I've raved about Paladin of Souls and the Penric novellas are charming, funny, touching and gripping... In short, they are McMaster Bujold through and through, so obviously I love them.

M - Still to read any but I do love many Bujold novels so am intrigued 

  • A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson

 

  • C - I've read Wilson's Sorcerer of the Wildeeps a few months ago. I liked the style, I liked the story, but this one was advertised as mostly a romance, so not my cup of tea which is why I haven't read it. If it wins the Hugo, I may give it a try though.

M -Not yet read though I loved Wildeeps for that strange beautiful word it created musings SF, fantasy and our own world together

  • This Census-Taker, by China Miéville (Del Rey / Picador)

C - It took me a few days after having read it to realise how interesting this novella was and I reviewed it. Funny thing is that it was so bleak that I needed something light hearted after that so I read the Penric novellas again and caught up on the ones I hadn't! 

M - Reading this very very soon - I'm way behind in Mieville so a novella may be a good way to ease back into what I recall is an author that required some thinking! 

C - It can be hard to keep up with him, isn't it? I have The Last Days of New Paris on my to-be-read too and the title intrigues me, but as this one was on the Clarke submission list, I went for it first.

M - Ok I have now read this and found it a very impressive bit of writing - dark and oppressive but just with a tiny glimpse of hope.

Our Winners?

C - So, basically, if I had to choose between Penric and This Census-Taker, I'd choose Penric, even though I bow down to Miéville's literary prowess.

M - Tough decision but I go with Every Heart as it's a very mature piece of writing that doesn't preach but very subtly gets its point across and the cast is fascinating.

Best Novelette

  • Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, by Stix Hiscock (self-published)
  • “The Art of Space Travel”, by Nina Allan (Tor.com , July 2016)
  • “The Jewel and Her Lapidary”, by Fran Wilde (Tor.com publishing, May 2016)
  • “The Tomato Thief”, by Ursula Vernon (Apex Magazine, January 2016)
  • “Touring with the Alien”, by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2016)
  • “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny Magazine, May 2016)

 

C&M - I've not read any of these yet!

Best Short Story

  • “The City Born Great”, by N. K. Jemisin (Tor.com, September 2016)
  • “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, by Alyssa Wong (Tor.com, March 2016)
  • “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016)
  • “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press)
  • “That Game We Played During the War”, by Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com, March 2016)
  • “An Unimaginable Light”, by John C. Wright (God, Robot, Castalia House)

M - Only the Jemisin so far which impressed me for doing in a short story so poetically what many urban fantasy series need three books to deliver.  Homework to find the others!

C - I have to read it!

Best Related Work

  • The Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley (Tor Books)
  • The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher (Blue Rider Press)
  • Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg, by Robert Silverberg and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (Fairwood)
  • The View From the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow / Harper Collins)
  • The Women of Harry Potter posts, by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com)
  • Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer)

M - The Geek Feminist Revolution was a stunning set of personal and professional essays reviewing life and the genre.  A reminder that SF is often political and also has shortcomings it needs to address.  But again some reading for the others needed.

Best Graphic Story

  • Black Panther, Volume 1: A Nation Under Our Feet, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze (Marvel)
  • Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, written by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda (Image)

M - this was a new experience - a whole impressive magical steampunk world with a very diverse casts and magical cats.  Dark, intriguing and beautifully drawn.  I just hope the rest of the series keeps up the quality. 

  • Ms. Marvel, Volume 5: Super Famous, written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa (Marvel)

M - I enjoyed this run but it just didn't quite hit the highs of the earlier volumes.  Still by far one of the most freshest takes on superheroes and humour that can make me laugh out loud.

  • Paper Girls, Volume 1, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang, colored by Matthew Wilson, lettered by Jared Fletcher (Image)

M - a facinating mash up of an 80's kid movie with SF, fantasy and time travel.  It's doing something new.  Some lovely art and I really hope they know what they're doing but that first volume was quite refreshing!

  • Saga, Volume 6, illustrated by Fiona Staples, written by Brian K. Vaughan, lettered by Fonografiks (Image)

M - Saga is a juggernaut but volume 6 is a slight reset of the longer story as our narrator is no longer a baby.  It's very good but I felt more a prologue for events to come rather than stand on its own feet.

  • The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man, written by Tom King, illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta (Marvel)

M - if you had told me The Vision would be a thoughtful, scary and intriguing look at what it is to be human I'd had laughed.  But this is stunning and unsettling

Our winners?

M - I'm tempted by The Vision as that one haunted me long after I read it

C - I'm not a graphic novel reader anymore so I have nothing to add!

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  • Arrival, screenplay by Eric Heisserer based on a short story by Ted Chiang, directed by Denis Villeneuve (21 Laps Entertainment/FilmNation Entertainment/Lava Bear Films)

C - The book was better. (Actually, I didn't see it, but based on my long experience to how I react to adaptations of novels/short stories I love, I really didn't want to spend any money on it.)

M - yet to read the book! Heretic! But this was a film I went into knowing nothing and being emotionally hit by my favourite film of the year and one of the best SF in recent years.  A beautiful story about communication and choices with Amy Adams being particularly impressive 

  • Deadpool, screenplay by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, directed by Tim Miller (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Marvel Entertainment/Kinberg Genre/The Donners’ Company/TSG Entertainment)

M- usually you don't expect the best parody of superheroes to come from a studio producing them but this one pulls no punches and surprises me for actually being FUN!

  • Ghostbusters, screenplay by Katie Dippold & Paul Feig, directed by Paul Feig (Columbia Pictures/LStar Capital/Village Roadshow Pictures/Pascal Pictures/Feigco Entertainment/Ghostcorps/The Montecito Picture Company)

M - this was a joy to watch and easily beats the first film for me.  Hotzmann and Patty are two great additions to SF icons 

  • Hidden Figures, screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, directed by Theodore Melfi (Fox 2000 Pictures/Chernin Entertainment/Levantine Films/TSG Entertainment)

M - annoyingly missed this at the cinema 

C - Me too. I hope I can catch up with it soon.

  • Rogue One, screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, directed by Gareth Edwards (Lucasfilm/Allison Shearmur Productions/Black Hangar Studios/Stereo D/Walt Disney Pictures)

M - a Star Wars prequel I can enjoy and goes into some more interesting places than I expected.  Nice set pieces and performances but possibly nothing new 

C - I think we all needed the comfort blankets that The Force Awakens and Rogue One were after what Lucas did to us with Episodes 1, 2 and 3!

  • Stranger Things, Season One, created by the Duffer Brothers (21 Laps Entertainment/Monkey Massacre) 

M - I have still not got around to this!!

C - I'm currently watching it: it's well done, it has a very strong feel of E.T. for adults. I saw E.T. as a kid and it gives me the same feelings.

Our Winners?

M - so for me it has to be Arrival which I think is a classic

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

  • Black Mirror: “San Junipero”, written by Charlie Brooker, directed by Owen Harris (House of Tomorrow)

C - Loved it. Did I mention I hate romance? Well even little romance hater me loved it. So there. If someone hasn't seen it, it's to be watched urgently.

M - Yet to watch any of these yet - I'm rubbish at tv catch ups 

C - If you have one thing to catch up, it's this one.

  • Doctor Who: “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”, written by Steven Moffat, directed by Ed Bazalgette (BBC Cymru Wales)

M - as a Who fan I sadly can't recommend this it just seemed very pedestrian  

C - I'll politely refrain from commenting on the Moffat era...

  • The Expanse: “Leviathan Wakes”, written by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, directed by Terry McDonough (SyFy)
  • Game of Thrones: “Battle of the Bastards”, written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, directed by Miguel Sapochnik (HBO)
  • Game of Thrones: “The Door”, written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, directed by Jack Bender (HBO)
  • Splendor & Misery [album], by Clipping (Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes)

M - two shows and an album I've yet to watch the Album sounds intriguing! 

Best Editor, Short Form

  • John Joseph Adams
  • Neil Clarke
  • Ellen Datlow
  • Jonathan Strahan
  • Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas
  • Sheila Williams

 

Best Editor, Long Form

  • V** D**
  • Sheila E. Gilbert
  • Liz Gorinsky
  • Devi Pillai
  • Miriam Weinberg
  • Navah Wolfe

Best Professional Artist

  • Galen Dara
  • Julie Dillon
  • Chris McGrath
  • Victo Ngai
  • John Picacio
  • Sana Takeda

Best Semiprozine

  • Beneath Ceaseless Skies, editor-in-chief and publisher Scott H. Andrews
  • Cirsova Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, edited by P. Alexander
  • GigaNotoSaurus, edited by Rashida J. Smith
  • Strange Horizons, edited by Niall Harrison, Catherine Krahe, Vajra Chandrasekera, Vanessa Rose Phin, Li Chua, Aishwarya Subramanian, Tim Moore, Anaea Lay, and the Strange Horizons staff
  • Uncanny Magazine, edited by Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, Michi Trota, Julia Rios, and podcast produced by Erika Ensign & Steven Schapansky
  • The Book Smugglers, edited by Ana Grilo and Thea James

M- all power to the smugglers

Best Fanzine

  • Castalia House Blog, edited by Jeffro Johnson
  • Journey Planet, edited by James Bacon, Chris Garcia, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Helena Nash, Errick Nunnally, Pádraig Ó Méalóid, Chuck Serface, and Erin Underwood
  • Lady Business, edited by Clare, Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay, and Susan
  • nerds of a feather, flock together, edited by The G, Vance Kotrla, and Joe Sherry
  • Rocket Stack Rank, edited by Greg Hullender and Eric Wong
  • SF Bluestocking, edited by Bridget McKinney

M - Lady business FTW

Best Fancast

  • The Coode Street Podcast, presented by Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan

M - two friends debating/arguing over SF - often fun and interesting but could be great to move on from discussions of Heinlein!

  • Ditch Diggers, presented by Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace
  • Fangirl Happy Hour, presented by Ana Grilo and Renay Williams

M - For me this is a funny, insightful and smart podcast that explores the genre I recognise and has some excellent recommendations

  • Galactic Suburbia, presented by Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce and Tansy Rayner Roberts, produced by Andrew Finch

M - this bi monthly podcast is a mixture of reviews, discussions and reading suggestions.  A lot of fun 

  • The Rageaholic, presented by RazörFist
  • Tea and Jeopardy, presented by Emma Newman with Peter Newman

M - SF interviews with a difference - mild peril, singing chickens and an evil butler.  It's a relaxing positive joy to listen to

Our winners?

A hard decision it's between Fangirl and Tea for me

Best Fan Writer

  • Mike Glyer
  • Jeffro Johnson
  • Natalie Luhrs
  • Foz Meadows
  • Abigail Nussbaum
  • Chuck Tingle

M - Ilove Abigail's work even if I disagree with her reviews!

Best Fan Artist

  • Ninni Aalto
  • Alex Garner
  • Vesa Lehtimäki
  • Likhain (M. Sereno)
  • Spring Schoenhuth
  • Mansik Yang

Worldcon 75 has elected to exercise its authority under the WSFS Constitution to add an additional category for 2017 only:

Best Series

A multi-volume science fiction or fantasy story, unified by elements such as plot, characters, setting, and presentation, appearing in at least three (3) volumes consisting in total of at least 240,000 words by the close of the previous calendar year, at least one volume of which was published in the previous calendar year. If any series and a subset series thereof both receive sufficient nominations to appear on the final ballot, only the version which received more nominations shall appear.

Note that there is a pending amendment to the WSFS Constitution that, if ratified by the 2017 WSFS Business Meeting, will add Best Series as a new permanent category. The definition above is based on the wording of the proposed new category.

 

  • The Craft Sequence, by Max Gladstone (Tor Books)

M - yet to read as not widely available in the U.K. But picked up the sequence in a One volume ebook

  • The Expanse, by James S.A. Corey (Orbit US / Orbit UK)

C - I'll stand by what I said in my review of it: it ain't much but it's fun. Not sure it deserves an award though.

M - I read the first book and it seemed fun I hear later books are better but not yet got around to them 

C - Later books are definitely better. It remains a bit formulaic, but it's done with great gusto. Also, they definitely improved on the diversity in later books, so it helped me keeping on with reading it.

  • The October Daye Books, by Seanan McGuire (DAW / Corsair)

M - still to read any 

  • The Peter Grant / Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch (Gollancz / Del Rey / DAW / Subterranean)

C - I have loved the first two books. From book 3 and onwards, I've felt it didn't exactly knew where it was going. The latest volume has sat on my reading list for months now but I haven't managed to gather enough interest to pick it up. It's a pity as I love the characters.

M - I tend to agree I had a similar experience they're fun but I feel the series has threaded water a while now but the characters are a great bonus

  • The Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Harper Voyager UK)

M - I enjoyed the first two but found they quickly tailed off so I've not kept up 

  • The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)

C - LOIS MCMASTER BUJOLD FOR THE WIN!

M - oh yes I think a) it's got the consistency in the books b) the series developed as we explored the world and c) it feels nearer the end than most series 

C - I don't know about you, but Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen really felt as a goodbye and as a book end. We started the Vorkosigan saga with Cordelia. It'd seem fitting we end it with her too.

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Award for the best new professional science fiction or fantasy writer of 2014 or 2015, sponsored by Dell Magazines. (Not a Hugo Award, but administered along with the Hugo Awards.)

  • J. Mulrooney (1st year of eligibility)
  • Malka Older (2nd year of eligibility)
  • Ada Palmer (1st year of eligibility)
  • Laurie Penny (2nd year of eligibility)
  • Kelly Robson (2nd year of eligibility)

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Title: Revenger

Author: Alastair Reynolds

Publisher: Gollancz

Published: Out Now

RRP: £18.99 Hardback

The galaxy has seen great empires rise and fall. Planets have shattered and been remade. Amongst the ruins of alien civilisations, building our own from the rubble, humanity still thrives. And there are vast fortunes to be made if you know where to find them,

Captain Rackamore and his crew do. Its their business to find the tiny enigmatic worlds which have hidden away, booby-trapped, surrounded with layers of protection – and to crack them open for the ancient relics and barely-remembered technologies inside.  But while they ply their risky trade with integrity, not everyone is so scrupulous.

Adrana and Fura Ness are the newest members of Rackamore’s crew, signed on to save their family from bankruptcy. Only Rackamaore has enemies, and there might be more waiting for them in space than adventure and fortune: the fabled and feared Bosa Sennen in particular.

 

Ahoy me hearties – Pirates (bar innumerable dodgy sequels of certain films) are one of those things I have a soft spot for.  I also love space so when you have a story with pirates IN space its safe to say I am going to have a nosey and I can happily confirm this is a tale worthy of sitting around ye olde inn fire to read.

The young Ness sisters are in a tight spot when we meet them their widowed father is in financial difficulties.  The eldest Adrana has hit upon an idea being young they may be suitable to be ‘reading the bones’ a fantastic method of intra-planetary communication where messages are channelled through an alien’s dead skull. Fortunately both are rated highly and are swiftly recruited by Captain Rackamore a semi-respectable space captain who takes part in the profitable business of finding in space a ‘bauble’ effectively a dug out asteroid /space station of the ancient past of the earth for profitable logn lost technology such as an eyeglass that can see through anything. Apart from their father understandably angry at losing his daughters all seems to be going well. Unfortunately the ship and her crew are raided by the mysterious Bosa Sennen in a brutal attack separating the sisters and leaving Fura adrift on a ship in empty space.

You may not be surprised considering the title that Fura’s quest for her sister also has a huge element of seeking revenge for the attack on her crew and captain. Reynolds is asking how far is a person willing to go for someone they love and will that change you? Fura is the quiet book-loving younger sister and Adrana is the thrill-seeker who got them on board. But Fura uses that intelligence and ability to analyse events to make herself extremely focused – she strategises, can manipulate people and is willing to push her own body to the limits and defy her family just to get her sister back.  I found her a fascinating character and at times unlikeable but you do see her own self-horror at how she now makes decisions she knows a few weeks ago she would not even contemplate.  Her personal reactions is one the strongest parts of the book pushing out to find out how the story ends.

Characters in SF have occasionally been felt to be secondary to the ideas but there is a great supporting cast who keep crossing the sister’s lives. Two stand-outs in particular are Prozor a veteran of the ships who both is responsible for training the Nesses in space life but she develops a fascinating bond with Fura that the attack by the pirates dramatically impacts.  And lurking in the shadows but both when referenced and when she arrives on the page Bossa Sennen is a terrifying woman - merciless, clever and one of those villains where you are not sure what she will do next.  This diverse cast work really well and so nice to see female characters take centre stage in what could be considered a male genre.

The other major plus is the universe this story sits in.  Like Firefly this is just one solar system but one at the end of the sun’s life.  Every planet and asteroid mined and major planets destroyed.  It’s a fascinating setting with the baubles full of treasure, thousands of small and unique settlements and the beautiful idea of ships powered by solar sails.  Using the idea of 18th century sailing Reynolds has made a SF version that gives this story an immense amount of depth.  This both supports key parts of the story as it develops but you get a huge sense that beyond this story there is a whole universe waiting to be unpicked but this works as a standalone so no cliff-hanger to worry about.

I only had two niggles.  The first quarter of the book spends a lot of time creating the world and getting the sisters into space.  While it pays off as the remainder of the book really does move fast after that it can appear like it treads water.  I would recommend stick with it as when the pirates arrive things HAPPEN!  The only other issue is Revenger is supposedly YA and I’m not sure – it’s a VERY violent tale and I’m not totally sure would completely work for a teenager (caveat it’s been a while since I was one!).  But at the same time it is responsible enough to show the consequences of violence particularly on Fura.

So ultimately I totally recommend this treasure of a tale and recommend you coves to it or else face the plank – arghh!

Behind Her Eyes

Author: Sarah Pinborough

Publisher: Harper Collins

Published: Out Now

RRP: £12.99 Hardback

Louise – Since her husband walked out, Louise has made her son her world, supporting them both with her part-time job. But all that changes when she meets...

David – young successful and charming – Louise cannot believe a man like him would look at her twice let alone be attracted to her. But all that comes to a grinding halt when she meets his wife...

Adele – Beautiful, elegant and sweet – Louise’s new friend seems perfect in every way.

As she becomes obsessed by this flawless couple, entangled in the intricate web of their marriage; they each in turn, reach out to her. But only when she gets to know then both does she begin to see the cracks...Is David really the man she thought she knew and is Adele as vulnerable as she appears? Just what terrible secrets are they both hiding and how far will they go to keep them?

These days lying...ahem...I mean alternative fact spreading is all the rage.  The big lies are centre stage but I also think it’s just not that unusual in our species – lying to others about our great lives, our healthy relationships or lies to ourselves about the decisions we make for our own good.  In this intriguing thriller Sarah Pinborough explores these smaller lies and the impacts they can have.

Louise meets a handsome and perfect stranger at a pub leading to sparks and kisses fly.  She then finds out her stranger is her new boss at the clinic she works in - her very married new boss.  This means obviously nothing else can continue except they do get on, make each other laugh so it’s a bit hard to completely ignore each other. At the same time Louise literally bumps into Adele whois completely new to the area and also finds she gets on with her too, they enjoys lunches and gym trips together – making Louise a much healthier person.  But Louise decides it’s probably best not to share the information that she knows their significant others.

What follows is a fascinating story about relationships and loyalty. Louise is quite a likeable character – she’s putting her life back together after her marriage falling apart, she has a sense of humour and honesty about herself.  Certainly initially you can see how David and her click...but he’s married and ultimately she decides that relationship should move forward despite how well she gets on with Adele.  Louise’s story is told in her own voice so we can see it’s not an easy decision but she also surprises herself how easily she finds deceptions to both as well as her friends and her child.

The other voice we hear in alternating chapters is Adele’s.  She is an absolutely fascinating character – appears initially very weak and timid but we start to find she has had a very intense and twisted relationship with David that means the two are in an uneasy balance/alliance with each other.  She loves David but she is delighted as t what Louise has allowed her to explore.  Her plan of action is disturbing - why is she so keen for Louise to come into their lives?  In both cases Pinborough creates two very different voices giving you a real feel for both women.

As you can expect things do not go smoothly and eventually events mean alliances shift.  We see Louise become very protective of Louise as she realises David has also been lying – the charmer has an uglier side and seems unwilling to risk his comfortable and wealthy lifestyle that he received upon marrying into Adele’s family.  Flashbacks to their early years suggest a dark secret from the past both are keen to stay buried.  There is also an interesting look at class – Louise the struggling single mother contrasts with a life of luxurious gyms, beautiful homes and delicious food served in the garden.  Is Louise just a distraction or is she reminding them they live in a nice gilded prison? Are they offering her the life she has always wanted?

And so I have to confess I too may not be telling you the whole truth dearest reader because this thriller is not always what it seems.  Pinborough is setting these events up but they do not go the way of every single crime thriller with a similar plot.  The book will reveal a slightly more supernatural side that builds and builds until just until you think you’ve guessed what is happening you find you’ve been looking at the wrong part of the stage. It’s an excellent piece of misdirection with two fascinating characters working out their relationship to one another.  I think this will be a story you may want to be surprised by.

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The Power by Naomi Alderman

Title: The Power

Author: Naomi Alderman

Publisher: Penguin-Viking

Published: Out Now

RRP: £12.99 Hardback

Suddenly - tomorrow or the day after – girls find that with a flick of their fingers they can inflict agonising pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of Naomi Alderman’s extraordinary, visceral novel are transformed and we look at the world in an entirely new light

What if the power were in women’s hands?

So James Brown once sung It’s A Man’s World.  And if you asked some men why that would be the case someone somewhere will say it’s because men are just physically stronger.  Men have forced themselves to the top of the tree and that’s why women should know their place; at the same time we would then be told that women are the fairer sex and just don’t have what it takes to lead.  This amazing novel challenges these assumptions with a very simple change to our world that creates a whole new plausible reality

The conceit Alderman has created is the idea of the power.  A latent muscle within women mutates for reasons not initially clear which activates a potentially long-suppressed ability to generate electricity – imagine the power and intensity of an electric eel that can be fired from your fingertips.  Initially starting with teenage girls but we soon see that this power can move to adults too.  The story then imagines how our wonderful patriarchal world will react.

To do this we look through largely the eyes of four characters.  Roxy is the child of an English gangster who we first meet as a child witnessing the murder of our her mother and possibly one of the first uses of the power to defend herself which may mean her use to the family business will be bigger than initially expected. Tunde is when we first meet him a ladies’ man but gets exposed to the power very quickly and takes on the role of a travelling reporter seeing how the world changes.  And over the Atlantic we have Margot an ambitious politician who starts to suspect her daughter may be exhibiting symptoms and at the other end of the spectrum we have Allie an abused foster child who has a far greater vision of what the power will mean for the world and its religions.

Over the next ten years the story then builds up the ramifications of these changes.  This is one of the most fascinating ideas in the book – how does this one change affect society?  In some cases the power can be liberating.  Bullying and abuse towards women quickly stops.  Countries that have restricted women’s right to drive or own property suddenly see revolution. In other cases we see frightened societies (strangely in the US if you could possibly believe it) who try to suddenly monitor and control every young woman in the country. There are darker undertones too – those with the power can now be seen as a new weapon; it can be abused without much thought and we see some use it for murder and sexual violence as well as to secure powerbases.  It should always be remembered though that men have been doing similar for a few millennia or so.  Ultimately showing that our choice to be good or evil is not simply a matter of gender.

Each character’s journey into the world exposes how the corners of the world may react and as they cross paths directly or indirectly we see that power can make allies or enemies of men.  The book builds up from small stories to a truly international stage as tensions mount between the old world and the new. The new world it should be stressed may not be the nirvana some who hope for and the final part of the novel really underlines that the new boss may be the same as the old.

This has so far been the read of the year for me as it does what good SF should do - use such ideas to question and challenge our views of this world.  Its smart, well thought out and I think accurately reflects how our world thinks.  I’m really intrigued to know what Naomi Alderman has in store for future tales

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And So it Begins!

Hello and welcome to my blog!

So I've been loving books for many years and primarily Science Fiction and Fantasy but with twists of crime, and history.  I have done the odd review for a website called geekplanetonline and have decided it may be time to try going out on my own.  I'll try to give thoughts on what I'm currently reading which may be a mix of recent releases and whatever has jumped to the top of my TBR pile.  Interesting news, films and general geekery may follow too.