Discussion Post: Labyrinth by Lois McMaster Bujold


Labyrinth is the latest novella we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It runs after Ethan of Athos takes place, and we see Miles as Admiral Naismith once agian. In it, we meet Taura  for the first time – a character who becomes more important later.

You can read Katharine’s review of Labyrinth here, and Tsana’s review here.


Tsana: Well, the first thing I can say about Labyrinth is that it was not very memorable the first time I read it! For the first significant chunk of the novella I couldn’t remember what was coming up next as I was reading. Once Taura was introduced I finally put the pieces together and remembered the point of the novella (which was to introduce Taura) but up until that point it was a bit of a bland but enjoyable Miles shenanigan.


Katharine: In it, we see Miles on a mission to provide safe passage for a research scientist, who refuses to leave unless Miles can do something for him – eliminate an earlier project the scientist now regrets. Miles must enter a place run by some pretty vile and cold blooded businessmen in order to try, and he only has 24 hours to do so.


Tsana: And in the meantime, Bel Thorn and the other Dendarii have to look like they’re just at Jackson’s Whole to buy weapons. Nothing unusual to see here. Oh, our Admiral is just having a chat with the suppliers, etc.


Katharine: Once again we get to see Miles’ short stature as a positive. When buying out the regretted science project doesn’t work he reckons he’ll break in and solve it that way – so he sneaks in where others can’t fit, and slowly leads the way in… Though the plan literally seems to be 1. Break in. 2. Look around and fast-penna someone. 3. ??? 4. Profit!


Tsana: Well Miles is known for thinking on his feet. I did find it interesting though that the scientist they’re extracting on the down-low was involved in the sciencey back story of Ethan of Athos. And the fact that he’s being extracted by the Dendarii to Barrayar (via a handover on Escobar) and still no one suspect’s Miles’s true identity? That’s pretty impressive.


Katharine: I guess it’s a big universe out there – almost like we’d probably walk by Benedict Cumberbatch on the street because there’s no chance he’d be here, right? Though it is pretty closely related, and you’d think that when people die and others are foiled, they’d want answers and information.

Anyway. Miles takes a small unit in with him, but they’re quickly spotted and thrown out, leaving Miles alone. He plans to see if he can find at least the location of what they need to make it easier to break in the next time but, of course, he happens to end up exactly where he shouldn’t, and is thrown in the basement as punishment.


Tsana: I think this is the time to raise the spoiler shield.

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Discussion Post: Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold


Ethan of Athos is the latest book we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. In it, we meet Ethan for the first time – this is the third book in the publishing order which means Bujold wrote of Cordelia and Aral, then Miles, and now Ethan, as if trying out which storyline she wanted to continue with. Her decision becomes clear as we proceed onto further books.

You can read Katharine’s review of Ethan of Athos here, and Tsana’s review here.


Tsana: So turns out I had completely forgotten the main plot of Ethan of Athos, despite having read it before. I remembered the premise of Athos and that Ellie Quinn was in it, but that was about it. Some of the story was more of a surprise to me than it should have been. And I enjoyed it more this time around than the first read through, probably because I was paying more attention and not just being disappointed that there was no Miles. What did you think of it overall?


Katharine: I was surprised by how much I really, really enjoyed it. I’ve personally always wanted to write space opera and this being mostly based in a space station where you have to consider so many other things like what they consider actual threats (fire and disease as opposed to a murderer on the loose) was of a huge personal interest. Ethan had such character growth throughout, and I felt as attached to him as I did with Cordelia and Miles – and surprised it happened so quickly.


Tsana: Yes, that part was fascinating. I loved how quarantine/biosecurity basically had more power to arrest and detain people than what we would think of as “normal” security. And it lead to some very amusing interactions between some of the characters. The question of how to dispose of a body or other incriminating evidence was similarly interesting since everything is so carefully monitored all the time and a rotting corpse would quickly set off alarms.


Katharine: I love it so much – it’s that type of worldbuilding which sets this series apart as it’s so hard to think about what would be so different to earth.

This book felt a bit more like a mystery book set in space than the previous have – so many characters who are hunting out answers and crazed men with guns coming after them. Love it!


Tsana: Yes, definitely a mystery set in space, but let’s leave the details of that for under the spoiler shield. My other favourite thing was how realistically Ethan thought his world was normal and his reactions to being confronted with a society that we would think of as closer to the real world. He starts off thinking women are evil and not really people, which is problematic for him when half the space station’s residents are female!


Katharine: So amusing, and still so true for some small groups of people depending on their religion in our world today – I know a group who will remain at least a meter away from women they don’t know or who are unattached so… I don’t really understand why – to say temptation demeans them both – I guess ‘just to be proper’? Anyway.

I also liked how at the same time Ethan is scared of women that he comes from a place that has very open thinking about sex and relationships and how a community can work together fairly and earn their way up. One of his first interactions when he arrives is with a gang of homophobic blokey blokes, and it’s an interesting juxtaposition to show just how backwards and forwards Athos manages to be at the same time.


Tsana: Yes, that’s true. Although I was mostly disappointed at how not progressive the stationers were on that front. I like to think the future will be less homophobic than the present, not more (although, this book was written in the 80s…). After hearing so much about how progressive Beta Colony is in the other books, I was disappointed to see that’s not how most places are in this universe. Even Quinn seemed a little homophobic, although it was outweighed by her acceptance.


Katharine: And I was a little disappointed that it was most evident in the gruff men workers – kind of like our current typical ocker Aussie stereotype. But I guess the story needed some kind of confrontation early on, and it’s the easiest thing to go for.


Tsana: And it was published 30 years ago. On the other hand, I actually thought Ethan’s fear of women was handled pretty well. It could easily have come across as more misogynistic than ignorant and fearful.


Katharine: And he could have been dismissive and rude – so I agree that was handled well. What I also loved is Quinn, and how her intelligence shines through – she makes quick and hard decisions, disappears and reappears, and you never really know what she’s capable of. I love seeing so many female characters who are pretty much the most capable nearby. Even if it’s the scary waste disposal woman…


Tsana: Hah, she turned out to be more than what she seemed too. But that’s getting into spoiler territory… Perhaps we should raise the spoiler shields?


Katharine: Spoiler shields… Activate!


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SPFBO – Update

I now have two new titles, having withdrawn two from the ranks for being science-fantasy, rather than straight fantasy.

One was from my initial shortlist (meaning I got past the first 30%), and I was giving it the benefit of the doubt as being science-fantasy and waiting to see where it took itself. This book was The Killing Jar by R. S. McCoy.

The second was one I’d already eliminated, Tuning the Symphony by William C. Tracy, and upon thought and that I’m steaming along okay, I wanted to take on as many as possible from the reserve list, and so, the replacement titles are:

 James Kelly – The Fey Man
Randy Nargi – A Conspiracy of Shadows
On one hand I’m always hesitant to withdraw titles as I like everything to have a chance, but at the same time it means that others don’t get the same consideration. As these two titles were both listed as science fiction on amazon, I’m okay with taking this decision, and I look forward to the two new titles!

SPFBO Round Three – The Reckoning

For my initial info post, please see here.

Slowly I’ve been going through my initial 30 entries – this included adding those that weren’t already on it to Goodreads (seriously authors, highly recommended…) and hmming over the cover contest aspect. It’s a busy time for reading, what with the Hugo Awards and, closer to home, opening the Aurealis Awards… but here and there I’ve gone through the following.

Overall I had 18 male, and 12 female authors (please correct me if I’m incorrect, or if you don’t identify with a gender), with page counts ranging from around 112 to 750.

Initially the first slash and dash is the easiest, taken from when I’m working my way through a slush pile. Do I want to keep reading? For the following pile I was able to discard two third on that basis alone. Because SPFBO is slightly different to a publishing slush pile I allowed them all until my eReader told me I was at 25% before I could move on to the next book. And I had to be harsh – I have to get my list of 30 to one, after all.

The following usually lost me due to either far too many misspellings or grammatical errors, or generally clumsy writing. I can’t stress highly enough how valuable editors are, or at least a critique group. A load of the below had good intentions and an interesting premise, but stumbled over hurdles left, right, and center due to simply not putting the time in to really polish their work.

And then some, unfortunately, were good but just weren’t as good as my initial ‘short’ list. Thems the breaks :(

Jackson Lear – Kingston Raine and the Grim Reaper
Even the Grim Reaper can have trouble some days. The idea of that side of spiritual life having a mess of paperwork and Government style bureaucracy (much like the bureaucrat song from Futurama) is highly entertaining and works really well, and has a decent range of characters that keep the pages turning.
While this is fun, when I reflected back it felt like not a whole lot happened, and it didn’t have as much to recommend to others as those that clawed their way through the first round for me.

Lilian Oake – Nahtaia
Nahtaia, fae, is in trouble. Though she’s known to be trouble she has now stepped too far, and her magic has changed a human – something she must find out a way to correct before her powers will be granted back to her. It’s funny, it has a great range of characters, and it’s good when it shows that powers are a privilege and not a right.
This had strong writing – it built the world around the narrative softly and it was simply a joy to read. It just may possibly be aimed more at middle grade, which makes it hard to compare to the majority of titles. I really wish it well, and have recommended it to friends.

William C Tracy – Tuning the Symphony
Slightly more science than fantasy in some parts, we have mages who, through music, create necessary portals for travel purposes. Only the best of the best reach the highly distinguished ranks – unless needs must, and then our MC luckily gets through even though they almost fail the most important test of their life.
This was highly readable, however more of a novella than a novel, and as such parts weren’t as developed as they could have been – especially compared to other contenders. Some parts were too easy, whereas with more realistic trouble we would have had a novel out of this otherwise decent idea.

(Upon further thought, as this is a fantasy challenge this is just a little too sciency to compare to the others, and I’d love the chance to check as many books as possible. So I’ve asked for a replacement from the reserve list.)

Clinton Harding – Our Monsters
The monsters under your bed are real.
I have to admit, I didn’t make it to 25% on this one alone – there were far, far too many errors to make it readable – let alone the slightly stilted characters and dialogue.

Everly Frost – Beyond the Ever Reach
One of the more appealing aspects of Doctor Who is the immortality aspect. What if you were on Gallifrey among the rest, but you alone didn’t have that same ability? What if everyone was like Wolverine with his healing ability, except for you? Ava is this person, and as the weakest one around the reader goes through a lot to show just how breakable she is.
It’s an interesting question to pose, however it doesn’t quite meet the potential. From a worldbuilding aspect there are countless problems unanswered, and literally nothing about the world has changed except for that aspect – why hasn’t the author thought about the ripple on effect? Overall this is a fun read, but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Tamara Westberry – Divine and Dateless
Ash dies and goes to Heaven, and to her, heaven is having a boytoy, and she’s able to eat absolutely anything she likes without getting fat. However, her dream is soon snatched back away from her as it seems a paperwork issue sent her to the wrong floor, and she actually belongs in a world exactly like ours – where you have to go to work and so on.
The idea could have been interesting. It could have been funny, and a bit tongue in cheek… but honestly? And apologies for the harshness… overall it was fairly insipid and lacks decent characters. Highly superficial ad disappointing that there wasn’t some big reveal to twist everything on its head.

Meghan Ciana Doidge – Catching Echoes
Murder is afoot, and it’s up to this detective/witch to piece together what has happened. It could be quite good – fey style detective work and murder is always a good mix, however somehow this doesn’t manage to come all together. Although this is the first book of a series, it seems you’d get a lot more of the half-explained characters if you read her multiple other books first up, which is a disservice to the reader. There’s too much telling and not enough revealing through quality writing and enticing the reader along, and overall it feels like a first draft – many missing things just almost there under the surface, but not quite fully visualised just yet. A shame.

K.A. Stewart – Second Olympus
Greek Gods and the power they hold. Also known for impregnating mortals just to mess around with their lives a bit – which is good, as having a few mortal characters juxtaposes nicely with the names we’re well aware of, and their absolutely insane antics. Artemis is a brilliant god to read of!

This was gripping enough, but just didn’t hold it together as well as some others did with the basic quality of writing. Too much telling rather than showing, and some paragraphs really needed to be made tighter.

Kay Ling – Beyond the Forest
Lana works at her father’s jewelers where, using her knowledge of gem lore, she can find out things other people wouldn’t ever notice or wouldn’t be able to come across. We see Lana enter her journey and discover what else is out there, and throughout you like her character, and her drive.
This was an almost – and simply fell to the side because I had to whittle the list down further and further, that’s all. A little tighter, a little more engaging, and it would have been there. The kind of writing that just takes time to develop.

Christopher Bunn – The Fury Clock
Characters drive this story. What we have is a quest and and traveling troop trope and it’s handled well. The characters are absolutely mad and seem real because there’s a method to their madness, and they appear fully realised in the text.

Overall this just needs a bit of editing for a tighter start, and to ease the paragraphs into something a bit more, because it could be really quite clever with a bit more editing.

Christina Ochs – The Forsaken Crown
Captain Sonya Vidmar is an excellent lead character. Kendryk is a close second, a prince waiting for his time. Thankfully, it’s not with Kendryk that Sonya has a romance with. This is decent old fantasy of political intrigue and tough decisions which give the entire kingdom the weight that would exist.

The only thing that let this down was the dialogue and language, which came across a little stilted and made it hard to read and keep on reading – it could be very good without much effort.

Harmon Cooper – Fantasy Online
A bit meta and while it was a very fun read, it’s along the lines of Ready Player One where a virtual life such as experienced in a MMORPG can be just as vital as any real life. When Tamana is killed right in front of Ryuk he knows the only place he can go to find out why. To do so, he’ll have to level up his character as fast as possible, recruit the best gamers he can to assist, and start getting some gold into his account.
As I said, it’s fun, just a little too easy in parts.

Cameron Smith – The Holtur Enigma
A big bad evil is coming, and it’s up to Vivian to save them all. Whether he can or not is another question. He must rally those he can, and get through some smaller challenges along the way, sometimes with humour as his only weapon. This is gritty and hard fantasy where the land is unforgiving and you can only survive through your grim determination.
This one was a little short, and there were lengthy description passages that felt a little by the end that they were wasting valuable real estate. This could have worked at it’s current length if it were punchier, however it needs just a little work on its pacing.

David J Normoyle – The Silver Portal
A nice and easy read – soft fantasy for the YA market that follows the ‘coming of age’ tale that’s comfortable and well delivered. There are five chosen ones who are surprising picks for the weapons they are now matched to. They must find each other, and this is possibly where the novel needed a little work – five separate characters is a little hard to pull off at times, and there’s heaps of setup with not equal payoff. Really enjoyable, though.

Holly Evans – Stolen Ink
Tattoos that can come to life? Excellent! Except when someone can steal them, and hence take part of your soul, so you die a miserable miserable death? Not so excellent.
A really great idea, with sadly poor execution. Some areas were also problematic, specifically the use of the term ‘spirit animal’, which simply isn’t acceptable if you’re not from that culture, or even bother to have any Indigenous characters in the novel.

Jesse Teller – Liefdom
A fey story that’s a little different, and certainly aimed towards adults than the usual young or new adult crowd. Our main character in’t pretty and is quite disliked by his kind, which spurs him on towards the darkness and wondering about his place in their world and who his loyalties are to… ultimately to have to make a decision for his people and those be values.
This was good in many ways, if only for being a bit different, but unfortunately parts were a little clumsy and the novel doesn’t feel like a stand-alone. It feels like there’s a few plot lines left open or parts that don’t exactly make sense, which is a shame.

Dean F Wilson – The Call of Agon
This had such a strong start. Ifferon is our main character, and overcome by the burden set on his shoulders – to ensure a beast remains trapped beneath the earth and hence can’t harm the people of the world. This may seem like he should be trapped in the one place and make for a limited tale however Wilson finds a way to twist the plot into a journey instead – which is good, as it’s the only way we get to meet a single female character in this book…
The main reason that had me putting this book down was the characters. They didn’t feel individual or that they had their own developed voice – they all spoke the same, repeated each other, and generally slowed the pacing right down.

J.L. Madore – Blaze Ignites
A fun romp where Jade, a warrior, seeks revenge for her mother’s death but meets and falls for an elf along the way. Sexy times ensue. What really worked with this one is how the modern world met fae, and how they worked through that (bluetooth, mobile phones, excellent!)
What didn’t work was… not much, really, it just wasn’t strong enough overall to make it onwards.

Skyler Grant – Dungeon Crawl
Along the same lines as Fantasy Online – virtual world, where just because it’s an artificial reality it doesn’t make it any less real. There’s battles, allegiances, and so on.
Unfortunately this one just didn’t catch my attention. The start is a little confusing, the characters don’t seem to run naturally, and the sex was a little bemusing. Unfortunately the quality just wasn’t there for this one, which is harsh and my apologies.

R.D. Henderson – Wit Fallo
Whenever anything looks too good to be true one should always be highly suspicious and back away quickly. Unable to resist, Wit, a gnome who hates hard work, takes on something he shouldn’t have and gets in way over his head within moments. Along his troubles we have fun dialogue, fun characters, and just a good, easy-to-read tale.
This so nearly made it, and in the end simply wasn’t long enough. I finished it, and wanted to consider it further, but it felt more like a novella than a novel, and could have benefited from an extra layer of complexity to the plot or something. It has everything else right – few typos or errors, a great cover, great layout and formatting.

tfmjtkJames T. KellyThe Fey Man
This one is quite fun – a man cannot lie but does have foresight, having been gifted from his stint amongst the fae, a place he longs to return to. Instead he’s currently part of the court of Duke Regent but quickly seizes the opportunity to try to return to the fae for a quest, to bring back a sword that may stop the encroaching war. He’s an utter selfish jerk – seeming to go out of his way to be contrary and twist the truth simply because he can’t lie, just to be a prat. This one has pretty good writing, and a stunning cover, and not many spelling/grammar errors… but it did need a little working pace-wise, and it’s hard work with such an easy-to-hate main character, even if he does go through the expected ‘maybe what I wanted isn’t what I really wanted after all’ spiel. And the ending is quite abrupt, too.


The ones that’ll appear in a later post? They are the following:

S.J. Madill – Magic Comes to Whiteport
Jamie Edmundson – Toric’s Dagger
Harrison Davies – Destiny of the Wulf
Aidan Meyer – Arcana Zero
Harry Connolly – The Way Into Chaos
V.B. Marlowe – A Girl Called Dust
Daniel Olesen – The Eagle’s Flight
Graham Austin-King – Faithless
R.S. McCoy – The Killing Jar Just not fantasy enough to be considered.
Adam Steiner – The Censor’s Hand
Replacement: Randy Nargi – A Conspiracy of Shadows

Congratulations so far to the above!

Discussion Post: Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold


Cetaganda is the latest book we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. In it, we see Miles and Ivan sent on a diplomatic mission to attend the Empress of Cetaganda’s funeral. Of course, knowing Miles the trouble-magnet, he could never just attend a funeral.
You can read Katharine’s review of Cetaganda here, and Tsana’s review here.


Katharine: So here we are again. We know Miles is going to find trouble (or it’ll find him), but it must be a record for it to have found him before their ship even manages to dock properly.

Tsana: Yes! But you know, if it didn’t, it would have been a much more boring story. I actually really liked how it opened with something weird happening and then it was a while before anything related popped up again. All while Miles in angsting about “WTF, it must be a trap somehow!” etc. But you know what my absolute favourite part of this book was? Ivan’s childhood reminiscences about Miles’s hijinx.

Katharine: Aha he’s still so outraged about it all – and hell, who isn’t, we’re always bringing things like this at work or school reunions. I’m loving that we get to see more of Ivan and therefore, their past and a slightly more relaxed version of Miles as he’s able to rely on Ivan for everything he’s too embarrassed about with everyone else. And that we see Ivan’s intelligence, and how it differs from Miles.

Tsana: Ivan’s intelligence seems to mostly be centred on trying to stay out of the trouble Miles is generating…

Katharine: And excelling at social occasions where Miles likes to trip over his own curiosity. Like, he’s good with the ladies but he can also handle polite conversation and cues so much better.

Tsana: Ah, I loved the bit where he was drugged but came through it fine in a way Miles probably wouldn’t have been able to (also wouldn’t have been in that situation to begin with). But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

This is the first book where we get to see the Cetagandan home world and in which the Cetagandans aren’t just enemies to be fought or outwitted or avert a war with. What did you think of the planet?

Katharine: I thought it sounded spectacular, like everything would be pristine gardens (and that’s why the slightly dilapidated house would be of particular note) and buildings like the Taj Mahal everywhere. I keep wondering whether Bujold very slightly bases each planet or race on a different culture on earth – not that she doesn’t have the imagination to come up with something totally different of course – just to be, I don’t know, clever?

Tsana: I thought there were a few vague overtones of Japanese culture in Cetaganda. Not overtly, but based on, for example, the idea of flower-arranging taken to the extreme with genetic engineering. (I’m still a bit traumatised by that kitten tree.) But then the bubbles the haut ladies use put me a little bit in mind of burkas etc but with very different cultural ramifications and origins.

Katharine: Oh god the kitten tree. To hell with that! For some reason parts had me thinking of India but I have utterly no idea why. What did you think of the Ba?

Tsana: I’m not sure. They’re similar to the betan hermaphrodites we met earlier (like Bel Thorne) but I got the impression the Betans existed by choice, whereas the Ba were engineered to be servants (which seems an awful lot like slavery, for all that they seemed relatively happy) and used as test subjects both before and after their births. (Well, uterine replicator decantings, presumably.) The Ba are also only a part of the Cetagandan hierarchy. I actually found the differences between the Ghem and Haut more interesting.

Katharine: And at least the Ba seemed to have some level of power above that of general guards, thanks to who they report to… but yeah, sounded pretty much like slavery.

I have to admit I’m not strictly sure I understand the full differences between the Ghem and Haut… (I’d certainly fail in their social scene!)

Tsana: Well the haut are precisely genetically engineered the ruling class — so the Emperor and other “noble families” are all haut — whereas the ghem are less precisely engineered and are like the warrior class. I thought the way that people kept comparing them with the Vor helped me keep that straight. So ghem generals are who the Barrayarans come up against in conflict (and obviously the lower ranks of ghem doing the actual fighting). Then it got a bit confusing when we got to the part about who was ruling the other Cetagandan planets. Each planet has a male haut governor and then a female consort. They’re sort of married but don’t hold direct allegiance to each other, as we learn in the course of this book. Then there is the possibility of exceptional male ghem being awarded female haut for services to their empire or whatever. Which is a bit icky. And it’s all a bit complicated. I actually thought reading it a second time probably helped all the details stick into my head.

Katharine: I think it was at the other rulers part where I got a bit lost – but mostly it was easy to follow probably because they don’t all outwardly show their emotions. They’re all ‘everyone else is scum’ the end, which helped! Oh, should we raise the spoiler shield?

Tsana: Now sounds like a good time!


<spoilers ahead!>

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