Review: A Conspiracy of Shadows by Randy Nargi

Published by: self-published
Published: Jan 2014
Pages: 367
Format reviewed: mobi
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Three out of Five

Read for the SPFBO, this was a late edition when two from my original list of 30 were deemed to be more science than fantasy, and hence booted off the gangplank.

In this we meet Bander, who has seen much in his life and is now content to walk and walk and walk – he has a path laid out that will take him about a year to circumnavigate and this is all he wants in life. Only he’s called back to return to his old job – that of investigator, and it’s to try and uncover the truth about who murdered an old friend of his. But of course, it’s not going to be easy, and soon Bander is discovering much more than he first anticipated.

This was a good and solid read – Bander is a capable and solid main character, and he’s surrounded by some pretty decent characters. Vala is in charge of the investigation, and she’s probably my favourite character of the novel – more than capable and has earned her position of leadership (specifically that of the leader of the secret police). Silbra Dal, a representative of the Guild, is a mage who can both help or hinder them, but comes to their assistance when an attempt is made on her life also.

Overall this was fun. I was thrown every so often when there were a few words italicised to make it obvious they were magic, such as divination and holding, which we could have done without. It had good adventure and good fighting scenes, and at all times Bander seems very very human. He has his faults, he has to try, and he has to think things through.

In parts it was just a little bit of a push to keep reading, which is why it loses a star for me.

Review: Labyrinth by Lois McMaster Bujold

Series: Vorkosigan Saga
Published by: Baen
ISBN: 1590623827
ISBN 13: 9781590623824
Published: 1989
Pages: 110
Format reviewed: ePub
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Three out of Five
Related Reviews: Reading Challenge: Vorkosigan Saga Project

I have been sometimes free with choosing the cover for my posts – this is the actual cover for the omnibus in my virtual library that contains The Mountains of Mourning (1989) (already reviewed), Labyrinth (1989), and The Borders of Infinity (1987) (coming later this month.) The majority of the covers for this series are horrible, but this one didn’t even really have any to pick from, being from the middle of an omnibus. Such is life.

In this novella we see what Miles got up to just after the previous book – Ethan of Athos – who gets a mention in this tale just in passing, and the knowledge of helps Miles make a pretty tough but quick decision. His original mission was to provide safe passage for a research scientist, but of course when Miles is involved things are never that simple. The scientist refuses to board until Miles does something for him – destroy a project he regrets – especially if it were to get into the wrong hands. And when Miles finds what exactly the project is he quickly decides there’s no way he’s doing any such thing.

Apparently this gives us the background of a character we’ll see a lot more of later on (damn you, spoilers!) which makes me a little more sympathetic to the plot, but I do have one major problem with it, and possibly because it’s something that comes up quite regularly in my line of work. So it’s time for a spoiler cut:

Continue reading

Review: The Harbors of the Sun by Martha Wells

Series: The Books of the Raksura #5
Published by: Night Shade Books
ISBN: 1597805963
ISBN 13: 9781597805964
Published: July 2017
Pages: 416
Format reviewed: eVersion from Edelweiss
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five

If you have a short memory (like I do) and/or it’s been some time since you read The Edge of Worlds then the start of The Harbors of the Sun may be a little confusing. This is because it takes up right as the previous book ended (or, well, part happens at the same time as the very end of the previous book), which may mean a re-read could be in order. If this is where you’ve picked up, the entire series is well worth a read to fully understand the ties each character has to each other so go back to The Cloud Roads and start there instead.

Unlike most of my reviews, spoilers are ahead for this one because it’s just too hard to review without them in this case. Short spoiler-free review is to go read the whole series immediately!

As a refresh, a group from the Kish came and sought the help of the court to assist with exploring a sealed ancient city they believe to hold a great power – perhaps even a way to destroy the Fell, who of course are close on their heels thinking along the same lines, so it’s a race to the finish. At the very end they’re betrayed, some are killed, and Bramble and Merit have been taken hostage. Moon and Stone are coming after them just ahead of the others – Jade and Malachite (Moon’s mother) along with the rest of the court are following close behind.

With that refresh, here we are in possibly the last book of the series. We start with Bramble and Merit who are just waking in their capture and freaking out, though it turns out Delin is close by, so there’s hope yet. The rest, as stated, are following, and through use of some moss which allows them to track the flying ships (that are made of the same moss) they’re trying not to lose their very faint tracks, whilst also keeping ahead of the Fell and making some hard decisions along the way.

As ever, this series is driven by the characters. The connection of Moon and Jade (but the ability for them to also have multiple partners and find different levels of comfort around) is so refreshing. It’s great to see so much of Stone, and get to know Malachite better. In this, because of the perceptions of the outside characters, we get a focus on what the different expectations are for each person (whether or not someone should fetch mugs, or do errands for people and so forth), which I’ve always loved in this world building.

An interesting factor in this book is the inclusion of the half-breeds. It’s an interesting discussion of perceptions and their form of racism – we see how deeply it’s bred into them, of course because the majority (or all of them) have experienced some dreadful things from the fell recently, so it would be hard to change minds without immediate evidence to the contrary (along with continued evidence, and even then it would probably take years…)

This feels like a massive book. At 30% I almost felt like if that had been the plot I would have been happy, and then it reaches 50% and so on, and the stakes are only getting higher.

Overall, I adored this book and can’t wait to continue reading Wells’ backlist. Her book The Death of the Necromancer has quite a Scott Lynch feel to it so fans of his work, get on over there if you haven’t already to The Ile-Rien books. And her latest, the Murderbot Diaries, are my absolute favourites!

Review: The New Voices of Fantasy edited by Jacob Weisman & Peter S. Beagle

Published by: Tachyon Publications
ISBN: 1616962577
ISBN 13: 9781616962579
Published: July 2017
Pages: 336
Format reviewed: eVersion from publisher
Site: Publisher Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five

So many authors are the reason I picked this one up – it would probably be easier to list those I haven’t yet come across yet. This is however a collection of people fairly new to the scene (last four or so years until now), and an excellent starting point for people who may not have come across them yet – get in on the ground floor, type of thing, so you can follow what are sure to be excellent bibliographies.

“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong

It would drive you crazy if you could see the thoughts of anyone you concentrated on – especially if you focused on their worst thoughts and memories. Imagine it’s what you digest – what you feed on.

We see Jen on a tinder date who notes her date wants to split her open and glory at her insides. It’s just as well for the rest of the women on tinder that Jen has the ability to suck out every thought in his mind and leave him a maybe-dead mess in an alleyway – something she’s seemingly inherited from her mother who has a home filled with ‘hissing (…) ugly, bottled remains of her paramours’. Who wouldn’t want to read more? Jen’s problem is she has a sweet friend, Aiko, who’s becoming more and more alluring. Scared that she won’t be able to resist hurting her, she pushes her away instead and retreats to her mothers home, and distracted, then gets herself into a whole lot of trouble.

This is sweet and perfectly delivered. Wong is certainly someone to keep an eye on – every piece she’s had published so far it a wonder to read and sometimes a little hard hitting.

“Selkie Stories are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar

A girl loses her mother the usual selkie way – comes across a certain coat by accident, and never sees her mother again.

She looks after herself best she can. It’s almost easier for her to look out for Mona, a girl she meets through work, who cries sometimes and worries her suicidal mother is going to drag her back to Egypt. They plan instead to go to Colorado together. They’re together in their grief, both abandoned by their parents.

This is a beautiful piece of work – totally normal in its everyday life of going to work, avoiding creeps, driving out late at night and sneaking back home. You can’t help but wish them both the best, and hope they make it to The Centennial State.

“Tornado’s Siren” by Brooke Bolander

Rhea can talk to tornados. The first time is when she’s nine, alone at home through some sort of mixup with her family, but living in a wild weather area she knows what to do. She drags the cat and supplies into the bathtub and huddles down for the wait… and it’s only when the roof is ripped free and she screams, that it goes away.

Tornadoes come and go on other significant moments of stress in her life, and as soon as she can he marries young and escapes to sunny California because it’s not normal to be chased by lovelorn winds of terror, is it?

This is an awesome piece. As someone who lives in a place that was totally flattened by a cyclone a few years before I was born (so going to places like England where they actually have history in beautiful old buildings is like a drug to me), I can fully appreciate the power of the weather and how it can move you.

“Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” by Sarah Pinsker

A hungry and deep water pool will take you if you dive instead of jump, or tempt it by saying ‘one more jump’. Always go with a buddy, and jump one at a time so if one is taken, the others can escape. Shay knows many who’ve been taken – Kendra, Grant… and her own brother, Nick.

Shay pieces together what Nick left behind, and what she knows from others. And like the story before this, it captures at what mercy we are at when it comes to nature, and ends on a punch that’s both beautiful and eerie at the same time – as well as full of hope, if you look at it in a certain way. It’s becoming increasingly harder to pick a favourite from this anthology.

“A Kiss with Teeth” by Max Gladstone

Vlad is a vampire. He’s lived through much – countless lifetimes, and has experienced all there is to experience. Now, though, he lives in a concrete jungle with a wife and 7yo son, he works as an accountant, and plays catch in the evenings. His son is struggling with school, and so he meets with his teacher in order to discuss what can be done. And from here lies disaster.

This is a good, strong story – twisting certain tropes and giving depth and feeling to the usual vampire/midlife crisis story. It’s elegant, and gives strength to the usual vampire myth, making it seem as though they really are ancient and powerful beings who can sit silently in the shadows and observe us.

“Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon

‘A little magic is worse than none,’ is probably one of the best lines I’ve read in ages.

Jackalope wives. Long legged girls who dance in the moonlight, all curves and firelight, until they’re spooked and they dart away into the nothing, never to be caught. Until one is, and like most fantasy, there’s a tinge of horror in the good ones.

There’s a human boy with a little magic in him. He’s tall and dark and causes the girls to swoon – though he’s not swoon worthy, and that’s the difference. He does something that either proves he’s too kind to a fault, or not kind enough… but definitely too cruel. His grandma will make everything alright again though.

And she does. This story is even more perfect than you think possible, as it defies what you hope will happen and manages to give you an ending even better than you were hoping for.

“The Cartographer Wasps and Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu

This short story is too big to be summarised in a simple paragraph review and nothing I can write will do it justice. An envoy of wasps are moved on by heartless humans, and their new residence encroaches on an established bee hive, who will struggle to share the natural resources. The wasps have higher learning – their homes are beautiful maps that are true masterpieces, whilst the bees have never known of paper and ink until now.

The title reveals enough – there are anarchist bees, and slowly, generation by generation (as anarchy is hereditary you see) the wasps’ undoing is beautifully orchestrated. This entire piece is beautiful, and a tale to be savoured slowly.

“The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate” by A. C. Wise

This one is a lot of fun, being exactly what it says in the title. Wise takes us through a practical guide for buying, squatting, or growing a house with hints and tips, do’s and do not do’s, and it’s all a bit of fun.

There’s not much to review – other than saying it’s well written and enjoyable, and probably one of my favourite pieces in the book so far!

“The Tallest Doll in New York City” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Possibly the most unique story in this collection, which is saying something after reading The Cartographer Wasps and Anarchist Bees. Set in New York, as we can see from the title, the story is told by a waiter in one of the fanciest buildings there is. It’s Valentine’s Day, and in this the buildings have life. On this special day, they match up, and overall it’s really quite magical – something you can only see happening in a magical city such as New York, or perhaps London.

I’ve been keeping an eye out for Headley’s work ever since getting an ARC of Magonia and whoa – this is just as special. Surreal and beautiful, this sets out to achieve a lot, and absolutely manages it.

“The Haunting of Apollo A7LB” by Hannu Rajaniemi

Hazel is sitting in her house, in mourning, when her evening is interrupted with something literally from her past. She has a history with NASA, and uses the skills she learned there to get the facts out of this stranger that’s turned up on her doorstep – it doesn’t hurt that she was involved in making the spacesuit this guy is wearing, and that she probably understands more that’s been happening in his life than he does.

There’s a lot to this, and being Rajaniemi some of it is subtle, at least for the majority of the short piece. It’s really quite wonderful, and it makes me want to re-watch Hidden Figures because it’s just so good.

“Here Be Dragons” by Chris Tarry

Trigger warnings. Don’t like how the subject was handled at all. Hard pass.

“The One They Took Before” by Kelly Sandoval

Kayla knows exactly what’s going on when people start to disappear – she’s experienced it before, and she’s back now, but everything aches at her to return against all sense. Her cats help, but food barely sates her and she can’t play her guitar, can’t apply for jobs, can’t do anything. To return would be losing, but what kind of living is she in now?

A beautiful take on those who step into the world of the fae and what it’s like to return. Such a relief to be back here after the previous, and goes very nicely if you’re also recently reading Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series.

“Tiger Baby” by JY Yang

A woman is plagued by dreams of what she feels is her true self – a tiger – and it juxtaposes against her real life which isn’t overly great. She yearns to be able to leave everything behind and be who she should be, as someone born in the year of the tiger and not compatible with this world.

Somehow I felt this one fell a little flat, as while I can relate to the character from everything of not really fitting in and being born in the same year, I didn’t really feel relief or happiness for the character for the ending. It seemed a little too easy, somehow. I am however really looking forward to her work from Tor that’s coming out soon.

“The Duck” by Ben Loory

A duck somehow falls in love with a rock, and though the other ducks laugh at him (well, all but one), he has to ask himself what will happen, as his love is so great something has to, otherwise he feels he’ll explode. One duck, the one who didn’t laugh, tries to help. She agrees that something has to be done, and so she calls the rest of the ducks to hep (which they do, for all ducks are brothers – I loved that line), and together they try to carry it to a cliff. They’ll throw it off, and something will – it just has to happen!

This is a lovely tale, and I really enjoyed it. It was a bit cute, a bit funny, and didn’t take itself too seriously. Just made you smile throughout, which is sometimes uncommon with short stories.

“Wing” by Amal El-Mohtar

A girl drinks her tea and reads a book in a cafe.

A girl sits beneath a chestnut tree and reads, and shares bread and honey with another girl when approached.

But to neither does she tell her secret. This she only shares with one, who does the same – the boy with a matching book on a cord, secured around his neck.

Amal’s words are always beautiful and this is some of her best. It’s right up there with The Truth About Owls, and makes you just want to shove it at people saying ‘if you only read one, please read this one!’ The less said about it the better, as it’s such a lovely tale you need to come to it yourself, and find the meaning you want in it.

“The Philosophers” by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

The relationships of a boy and their father, presented in a triptych fashion. Good writing, but didn’t really present anything ‘wow’ to me that I can review. All about expectations, choosing whether to try to live up to them or not, and whether you will be who you will be, or who someone else wants you to be, or shapes you that way.

“My Time Among the Bridge Blowers” by Eugene Fischer

A man travels, searching for the Bridge Blowers, and what we have are his travel notes as if we’re watching a travel documentary by Palin or Lumley. For fans of Marie Brennan, this was quaint and peaceful and a bit of a character study, but not much else to say about it other than that.

“The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado

I confess I’m a little confused at the ordering of the short stories in the collection, as putting this piece after two fairly simple stories that don’t really have much you can say about them, after Amal’s which is beautiful, and this one which, again, you need to come to it yourself to find whatever meaning you wish from it, but it is undoubtably powerful and feminist and deserves all the applause. I’d love an audio version of this, and to see/hear it performed at Worldcon.

This piece is a little more horror-bent than the majority of the collection, which only works even more in its favour. I’m certainly going to be keeping an eye on whatever else Machado has out already, and what she comes out with next.

“The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Malik

A boy grows up listening to a story his grandfather tells, of a pauper princess who had a tea store in the shade of a eucalyptus tree, in which a jinn resided. The tale tells of a place that seems a very long way from where they now reside in Florida, where even when they speak to each other in Urdu it’s like they’re in another world entirely.

Possibly the longest piece in this collection, but being Usman it manages to be worth it. As the grandfather’s story dominates the boy’s life, it overwhelmed the story too (in a good way) for the little it takes up, and pages and pages after are about the boy – now grown up – and his journey to find answers, meanings, an end to the story that sustained him as a kid.

It’s a grand ending to this anthology, and lovely throughout.

Review: Magic Comes to Whiteport by S.J. Madill

Published by: self-published
ISBN 13: 9781370468935
Published: February 2016
Pages: 241
Format reviewed: mobi
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Four out of Five

Read for the SPFBO, this is the first book that I chose to further consider out of my initial 30, trying to whittle them all down to a single title to put forward to the other judges.

Split into three POV characters, we have: Katryn – who was recently killed, brought back to life by a necromancer, and now seeks revenge for her family. Anson, who serves the eccentric Lord Jaminus who is always in fear of his powers hurting innocent people. And Nick, who goes by a title rather than an actual name – ‘Nick’ after his mother who was the previous Nick and was much better at the job than he is.

Throughout the start they come near each other in their own separate plots and following their own aims. We get to know them all equally well, and though with some books the reader may get disgruntled with leaving a character behind as the POV changes, this isn’t the case in this book – each three journeys are equally as engaging, and from the start we know how they’ll eventually come together – because something is wrong with magic, and that means Katryn is slowly decomposing despite the spells that keep being refreshed upon her… and Nick, who relies on magic heavily to survive keeps getting further and further into trouble. As for Lord Jaminus’ woes, you’ll just have to read to find out.

Although the novel feels short, each character manages to grow and the plot comes together neatly and precisely at the end. The title almost feels like it doesn’t make a lot of sense for part of the book, and then it all comes to light also, near the end.

This is a novel for people who are character driven. Each and every character had their failings, but they were each someone you grew very quickly attached to, and I’d love to see a short story set sometime in the future showing where they all end up – because I really want to know that they all stay happy and safe, and I’d also love hints of where they end up in the future.

Overall, a quite enjoyable novel that has lovely characters, decent plot, few to no spelling or grammatical errors, and easily keeps you reading.