The wolf in the attic, by Paul Kearney

The wolf in the attic Book Cover The wolf in the attic
Paul Kearney
Fantasy
Solaris
10 May 2016
e-book
320

1920s Oxford: home to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien... and Anna Francis, a young Greek refugee looking to escape the grim reality of her new life. The night they cross paths, none suspect the fantastic world at work around them.

Anna Francis lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll Penelope. She is a refugee, a piece of flotsam washed up in England by the tides of the Great War and the chaos that trailed in its wake. Once upon a time, she had a mother and a brother, and they all lived together in the most beautiful city in the world, by the shores of Homer's wine-dark sea.

But that is all gone now, and only to her doll does she ever speak of it, because her father cannot bear to hear. She sits in the shadows of the tall house and watches the rain on the windows, creating worlds for herself to fill out the loneliness. The house becomes her own little kingdom, an island full of dreams and half-forgotten memories. And then one winter day, she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. A boy named Luca with yellow eyes, who is as alone in the world as she is.

That day, she’ll lose everything in her life, and find the only real friend she may ever know.

The wolf in the attic was enjoyable to read - it read well, to convert a term from TV  cooking shows. The prose really does bring to mind dusty, mahogany-and-green offices laden with books and ashtrays and inkwells. I suppose "Oxford" can be effective shorthand for that.

Before I read this, I had unfortunately come across some oddly misleading blurbs - ones that led me to believe this would be a story about Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, which had me ruffling my feathers once it turned out their named(!) presence had no real impact on Anna Francis' story.   That sort of thing happens - it isn't the novel's flaw at all.

So: It read well, I devoured it fast, it was a nice time.  Unfortunately, I found it ended up somewhat limp and aimless.  All the more disappointing because there were good things going into the book - For instance, I found it educational - I didn't know much about the events that drove Anna Francis and her father away from Greece, so I sort of fell into wikipedia (because of my own curiousity, not plot necessity)  to read up on the Ottomans and the Balkan wars.  I mention this as a clear positive trait of the novel, because it made me want to know things.

Anna Francis is a very likeable young protagonist, which also helps a lot.  It is very much her coming-of-age story.

But then her friend Luca and his people make me squirm a little bit. There's more than just a whiff of other-izing a clearly identifiable ethnic group, which just doesn't sit well, no matter how much it "fits" the narrative.  For this reader, anyway.  It sours what would otherwise be a decent and utterly cosy option for times when you want some, uh, Oxfordian magic.

Central station, by Lavie Tidhar

Central station Book Cover Central station
Lavie Tidhar
Science fiction
Tachyon
May 10 2016
e-book
288

A worldwide diaspora has left a quarter of a million people at the foot of a space station. Cultures collide in real life and virtual reality. The city is literally a weed, its growth left unchecked. Life is cheap, and data is cheaper.

When Boris Chong returns to Tel Aviv from Mars, much has changed. Boris’s ex-lover is raising a strangely familiar child who can tap into the datastream of a mind with the touch of a finger. His cousin is infatuated with a robotnik—a damaged cyborg soldier who might as well be begging for parts. His father is terminally-ill with a multigenerational mind-plague. And a hunted data-vampire has followed Boris to where she is forbidden to return.

Rising above them is Central Station, the interplanetary hub between all things: the constantly shifting Tel Aviv; a powerful virtual arena, and the space colonies where humanity has gone to escape the ravages of poverty and war. Everything is connected by the Others, powerful alien entities who, through the Conversation—a shifting, flowing stream of consciousness—are just the beginning of irrevocable change.

At Central Station, humans and machines continue to adapt, thrive...and even evolve.

Central station is a collection of loosely knitted short stories - that's nice to know beforehand, which I didn't. I still very much enjoyed the reading, but was perhaps left with the impression of an even more gloriously sprawling mess than I would have, otherwise.

There isn't a lot of plot here, or, well, resolved threads of any sort. This normally makes me unhappy. But Central Station never feels like it's supposed to be setting up for that; Indeed, it feels like people-watching in an airport or train station, overhearing snippets of conversation, looking around at distinct groups and running children and individuals meeting each other, by accident or by plan.   The difference is that in Central station, all of these random people are very, very interesting.  So interesting, I want to know more about each and every one of them. I want to know about that implant behind the ear, I want to know about those immersion pods, I want to know why the kid is flickering, I want to know about those robotnik beggars, I want to know about the others. This is idea-dense enough to put me in mind of novels by Peter Watts.  Having read a couple of Tidhar novels, though, I sort of expect that if any larger story comes out of this, it'll be about the religious robots.  (Which I say in a very hopeful tone of voice, by the way!)

So - read it? Yes, if you want to sort of sail across the river in a glass-bottomed boat to watch, rather than put on the diving suit and get fully underwater.  Go for it.

The days of Tao, by Wesley Chu

The days of Tao Book Cover The days of Tao
Tao #3
Wesley Chu
Science fiction
Subterranean press
April 30 2016
e-book
120

Oh! Look, it's a new novella, The days of Taotaking us back to visit Cameron and Tao! It's been quite some time since the events of The rebirths of Tao, and Cameron is now 21 years old... though, not at all done being somewhat puberty-addled and awkward.  Relations between the Prophus, Genjix and humanity are tense. Worse, Cameron got a D in art history.

So he's in Greece.  Greece suddenly becomes a bad place to be.  Once things begin to happen, there's not even time for the good gyros with the cute girl in Cameron's study abroad class.

He was never supposed to be doing Prophus work while simultaneously repairing his grades, and then he wasn't supposed to be such a bleeding heart, and, oh, is someone going to remind him what happens when he trusts people too easily?  Oh, Cameron.

The novella is fast-paced and full of zippy action, and I tore through it in a short afternon.  So yeah, it's a fun ride, even to a reader who really would prefer, by far, more about the Quasing themselves and perhaps less of the human interpersonal drama. That's just me, though - you give me a universe with symbiotic aliens in it, I want to know about them.  But just because your favourite ice cream flavor is mint chocolate chip, it doesn't mean you'll turn down a scoop of the caramel.

Maybe I found the ending a little lacking, but at least there's Roen and junk food.

(And as a fan of the original trilogy's book covers, I'm a little sad about how this one looks, even if it is pretty!)

Every heart a doorway, by Seanan McGuire

Every heart a doorway Book Cover Every heart a doorway
Every heart a doorway #1
Seanan McGuire
Fantasy
Tor.com
April 5 2016
e-book
174

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere... else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced... they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

Here are the three stages of being faced with Every heart a doorway:

  1. OH GOSH it's a new Seanan McGuire!
  2. WHOA NELLY it's a Special School for Special Children type of story! By Seanan!
  3. GOODREADS LISTS IT AS #1! (implying there's going to be a #2 and even #3! Exclamation marks galore!)

Um, yes. Your truly admits to vast fondness of both the author, the trope, and, as it turns out, the book itself. Counting only 170-ish pages, it's a novella - and not a time-stretchy one, because I devoured it very, very fast. (And very, very happily.)

If you follow the author in various social media, you may know she really, really wants to write the X-men.  You know, that Marvel thing that has a special school in it, for special kids.  That hasn't happened yet, but I want it to, believe me. Because now I've seen Seanan McGuire writing the same trope - the kids aren't mutants, but the concept still fits - and she has done it beautifully, entertainingly, heartbreakingly, et cetera.

Yes, it's called 'gushing'.  I'm doing it.

Under the pseudonym Mira Grant, the author's Parasitology trilogy was concluded only a few months ago. That trilogy contains within it references to and snippets from an imagined children's book (which has been written in full, and was simply waiting for a publisher, last I heard) - you'll remember it if you read those books. It talks about broken doors.

This book talks a great deal about doors, and kids who accidentally found them.  I couldn't help but think back to that other book-within-a-book and its haunting verses, because haunting fits this one too.

In all kinds of good ways. I mean.  Did you ever think about Alice in Wonderland, and what her life was like after she left Wonderland?  Was it all merely a peculiar dream? Was it years and years of PTSD?

Did she ever think of going back there?

I'd ask the same about the Pevensie kids, but... but they had a morose ending, and I've read too much about Susan, and it's all mostly a painful mess.  But you see, portal-finders, they always have to deal with what comes after.

Sometimes the after is a strange boarding school, far away from everything.

(Hey, another thing that is awesome about any universe concocted by Seanan McGuire? Diversity and representation. This is no exception!)

You should absolutely read this book. Go, do!

United states of Japan, by Peter Tieryas

United states of Japan Book Cover United states of Japan
Peter Tieryas
Science fiction, alternate history
Angry robot
March 1 2015
e-book
400

Decades ago, Japan won the Second World War. Americans worship their infallible Emperor, and nobody believes that Japan’s conduct in the war was anything but exemplary. Nobody, that is, except the George Washingtons – a shadowy group of rebels fighting for freedom. Their latest subversive tactic is to distribute an illegal video game that asks players to imagine what the world might be like if the United States had won the war instead.

Captain Beniko Ishimura’s job is to censor video games, and he’s tasked with getting to the bottom of this disturbing new development. But Ishimura’s hiding something… He’s slowly been discovering that the case of the George Washingtons is more complicated than it seems, and the subversive videogame’s origins are even more controversial and dangerous than the censors originally suspected.

Part detective story, part brutal alternate history, United States of Japan is a stunning successor to Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

Ah. If a book blurb alludes to things like "Alternate history", "PKD-esque", or "mechas"(!), you may correctly predict I will want to be all over it.   The united states of Japan knows this.

We start out with the classic idea - What if the axis had won the war? In this version,  Japan seizes control of the western US,  while we're told the Germans are still fighting it out over the east coast.  At the time of the events concerning protagonist Ben Ishimura, the history of these events is already rewritten as Emperor propaganda - both the very recent history and the more distant. (Ghenghis Khan was a great Japanese hero, see.)

I like Ben Ishimura - his character is the most memorable part of the story, which is a story it is nearly impossible to read without comparing it to, as everyone keeps saying, The man in the high castle. The comparison is unfair; They are different stories, and Tieryas is not actually trying to do a PKD thing. Not the way I read it, anyway.  What they have in common is a world in which Japan was among the great victors of the war, it has made life somewhat different in the US, and... that's it, really. PKD does his special which-reality-is-the-real-one thing, while this novel has Ben Ishimura tangled up with a mysterious portable game that portrays a world in which Japan lost the war.  A terrible game that must be stopped, obviously, because it casts Japan and the Emperor in an unfavorable light, and makes the conquered and subdued Americans out to be heroes with heroic values. And stuff. Frightful!

Unfortunately, the story didn't really flow for me until well after the halfway point. It took a long time to care even a little about any character, and while there was plenty of dystopian-totalitarian shock and horror, it just fell a bit flat for this reader.

The devil you know, by K.J. Parker

The devil you know Book Cover The devil you know
K.J. Parker
Fantasy
Tor.com
March 1st 2015
e-book
128

This novella is terribly stylish and terribly clever. Not only that, it is the second novella of that description by K.J. Parker published by tor.com.  I only mention this because if you like The devil you know, and haven't already read The last witness, you will want to!  They aren't really connected - although I believe they're set on the same map.

So! A great, aging philosopher decides to make a deal with a devil.  He doesn't have a history as a religious man - rather the opposite - but he's very, very good at making a convincing case for just about anything. Including the existence of entities interested in the eternal torment of human souls.  Specifically, his soul.

The story is told from two changing points of view; that of the philosopher and that of the devil. These transitions aren't marked, which isn't much of a problem if you're reasonably awake while reading, but, well, can confuse you if you're not.

The philosopher is said to have asked for this particular devil by name, but that name is never explicitly offered to readers - probably because the devil is every devil,  and the philosopher is every philosopher. (This is actually quite funny as several well-known titles are attributed to this one philosopher throughout the book.  A lot of the story makes him out to be Nietzsche, but, well, there's some stark moral philosophy and there's some Adam Smith and... okay, maybe this isn't going to amuse everyone as much as it did me.)

Can a human outsmart a devil?  Maybe that depends on exactly what defines human and devil.  What can a human do that a demon can't,  and vice versa? It tends to look like a game of definitions, and I thorougly enjoy reading that - I mean, this- sort of thing.

I hope the rest of the books published under this name (I know K. J. Parker is a pseudonym for Tom Holt) are of the same ilk as these recent novellas - Clearly, I must go forth and find out.

 

Lustlocked, by Matt Wallace

Lustlocked Book Cover Lustlocked
Sin du Jour #2
Matt Wallace
Urban fantasy
Tor.com
Jan 26 2016
e-book
224

Tor.com started publishing a bunch of excellent novellas in 2015. I love the novella format - it's short and tight and doesn't accomodate much fluff, while it also provides more meat than a short story. All good things!  One of the novellas I've loved so far is Matt Wallace's Envy of Angels: A Sin du Jour affair - The first book about the strange border-world of Sin du Jour, one of New Yorks finest catering restaurants. They serve a very discerning, very specific demographic.  (I expect you'd find an entry on Sin du Jour in, for example, Mur Lafferty's Shambling guide to New York.)

You should read Envy of Angels before you proceed to read this second volume in the series; Lustlocked.  You'll be able to enjoy it anyway, but there are references to events from the previous story, which will obviously make more sense if you've been there. Also, it's fun, so why not?

Lustlocked begins much the same way Envy of Angels did - we find Ritter and the rest of the supply & stock team out somewhere in the world, busy acquiring a vital ingredient for the Sin du Jour kitchen.  They need to provide for a goblin wedding, this time. Not just any gobling wedding, actually - it is the wedding.  A royal one.

...

By the way? Are you sad about losing David Bowie? This story packs a little extra punch for Labyrinth-y people.  I may have cried a little bit.

Of course, we're quickly back to Darren and Lena, Sin du Jour's newest line cooks. Despite their experiences in that kitchen, it really is hard to turn down a job that pays more than they'd earn as sous chefs anywhere in the city.

I don't know about you, but I watch cooking shows a lot (especially while I consume ugly junk food) - and Matt Wallace has managed to turn the entertainment kitchen, and the overall foodie trend, into an urban fantasy universe. I love it,  I love the descriptions of the pastry chef's meticulous presentations.  AND I'm very relieved that the phrases "Me on a plate" and "Cook your heart out" are not included anywhere in the text.

Lena continues to be beautifully competent, Darren continues to be weirdly incompetent,  and Dorsky is a doofus. As expected.

The short story "Small wars" is included in the e-book copy, and also available to read online here. It details exactly what went on with Ritter, Cindy, Moon and Hara on their mission at the start of Lustlocked,  and as a bonus it offers glimpses of how Ritter even found these people.  Pretty naff!

Do I recommend it? Yeah! I haven't even mentioned the lizardy snake people things.  They're there, you know.

 

A fantasy medley 3

A fantasy medley 3 Book Cover A fantasy medley 3
Fantasy medley #3 (no continuity)
Kevin Hearne, Laura Bickle, Aliette de Bodard, Jacqueline Carey
Fantasy, short stories
Subterranean Press
Dec 31 2015
e-book
152

A medley in which the reader visits a handful of established fantasy universes.

In the first story, "Goddess of the crossroads", Kevin Hearne invites us into the world of his Iron Druid series, which I have not yet read.  Here, we get a story featuring Shakespeare in his own time, a bunch of witches, and a nice display of what I have to assume is how the magic works in this particular world.  I enjoyed the voice and telling of the story, and probably will seek out these books when I need a new series-thing to read.

Second story, "Ashes", appears to be an origin story for Laura Bickle's series about Anya Kalinczyk and her salamander familiar. Anya is a rare kind of medium, and turns out to have other peculiar qualities, but her day job is with the Detroit fire department.   In this story, she's hunting for the Nain Rouge,  which I had never previously heard of, but wikipedia confirms: This is actually a thing.  The Nain Rouge, "Red dwarf", is a Detroit urban legend in a "harbinger of doom" kind of way, and just as in the story, there are related parades and whatnot.  The more you know!

Do I feel like spending more time with Anya and Sparky the salamander? Maybe not immediately - I didn't feel like she could knock out my existing queue of "urban fantasy protagonists punching things in book series"-stuff.

The third story is by Aliette de Bodard, and "The death of Aiguillon" takes place some sixty years prior to the events of the novel The house of shattered wings.  This is a world I know and enjoy already, and it centres on a couple of the characters I was most fascinated by in the novel.  Awesome!  But would I like it quite as much if I didn't already have larger context for the characters and events?   Probably not - but I suspect that's true of all the three first stories in A fantasy medley 3.

The fourth and last story, however, is a standalone:  Jacqueline Carey's "One hundred ablutions".  I've never read this author before, though I have been sort-of meaning to.  I really liked this story about a subjugated desert people and the mysterious people who rule over them - it lingers on, weeks after reading.

I think this collection is most of all a special interest piece for fans of one or more of the universes represented - which is a-okay.   (I really do respect that - as a specially interested fan myself, it is proving very hard to get my hands on A fantasy medley 2 and its stories..!)

Hey-ho

It’s quiet here lately – sort of dusty, even – and I’m late with several review posts. Sorry about that.  I’ve been hibernating. Possibly, I still am.   I just saw the first part of SyFy’s Childhood’s End,  did you? I read the book a few years ago and was mostly just grateful it was less horrendously boring than Rendezvous with Rama.  Anyway.

Childhood’s end is a perfect daydream. It begins with the not-so-optimistic idea that humankind is stupid and aggressive and too entangled in their own history of petulant shit to ever be able to fix itself.  But then somebody else comes along and fixes it for us.

I mean, just taste that idea.  I find it pretty soothing even inbetween all the scenes in which I wonder why they had to cast O’Brien in the thing. (As a character who remarkably resembles, exactly, O’Brien when the ST:TNG/DS9 writers decided continuity did not exist and they needed a dumb guy to be pig-headed about something or other. )

Uh, well.  It’s kinda yuletidey these days? Everything I eat smells like gingerbread.  It’s lovely.

Empire ascendant, by Kameron Hurley

Empire ascendant Book Cover Empire ascendant
Worldbreaker #2
Kameron Hurley
Fantasy
Angry robot
Oct 6 2015
e-book
495

Empire ascendant is the second book in the Worldbreaker series, and it does not work as a standalone, so you should go and read the first book, The mirror empire, before you do anything else.

 

Story time: The first time I saw Kameron Hurley's name, it was as a Hugo award novel nominee - one that I chose to ignore, because I saw the title God's war and it looked like yet another sorta military SF series and I didn't urgently need another one of those. I probably also assumed Kameron was male, which she is not, and now I know that whatever she writes, it is never going to be a mere "yet another".  Really.  I still haven't read God's war or the rest of that series, but I can say very definitely that I will, because I have become a Kameron Hurley... fangirl? Devotee? Acolyte?  I honestly can't pick an appropriate term.  If you follow this author in social media, you'll understand. Her upcoming book, The geek feminist revolutionspeaks volumes - with just its title.

Ah, so...

I bought The mirror empire when it was first published, and then, unfortunately, it got shoved back indefinitely in my to-reads. It takes a certain time and energy to get started on high fantasy things - at least it does for me.  The time didn't come until quite recently, when I finally started on it, and found a story with characters more broken, violence more brutal, and world more unforgiving than... I'm not going to say it.  Let's assume that statement ends with "...Any natural comparison in the world of gritty high fantasy."

It has a lot of female characters. It has characters who are careful about preferred pronouns, cultures with different ideas and terms for various genders.  "Culture crash" is a kind of giggly undercurrent for the whole story, considering the nature of the mirror empires.  The parallel world thing can be difficult to sort out in a novel, and maybe you do need to pay some careful attention at the start - but I thought Hurley did it well, and I was never really confused about what world anything took place in.   Unless she deliberately tricked me, of course, which I'd applaud.

Anyway, with a second book in a series, the one this review is actually for, you already know the characters. I was impatient and agitated to see what became of Lilia and Roh, Ahkkio and Nasaka, Anavha and - you know what? Zezili is around. That was a little surprising, given how her last chapter in the previous book turned out.

Her chapters are by far the most interesting to me, this time.  Like many other high fantasy series, these books employ a large set of different viewpoint characters, whose stories occasionally weave into one another.  Zezili still insists, is still actually quite convinced, that she's just a bullheaded soldier, one who knows war and death and does not care much for wrapping her mind around things like politics and philosophy and that sort of thing.  But her actions betray her. She has made a decision no one asked her to make, and she never doubts herself or the path she's chosen, no matter how much it mangles her.

Zezili is not at all a good person - we know too much about her household and culture to allow that particular illusion - I can hardly say she's likeable, but she's certainly interesting - and her discoveries are terrifying.

And I like Lilia, who is no less of a hardass than Zezili, though she may not look it.  Most of the time, it's heartbreaking to see her come up with brilliant stategies, only to be thwarted by her people's lack of respect - or faith - in her.  Along with Lilia we find Taigan, who might be the single most unpredictable character around, and would be even without the fluctuating gender phenomenon.

The magic system in these worlds depends on the stars - para and tira and sina offer different kinds of power to those who are born with the ability to draw on them, and these magic wielders depend on their corresponding stars.  But we know, after the previous novel, it's a different star on the rise, its effects threatening to shatter the world.  Or, well, worlds.

As always, I find it near impossible to talk meaningfully about plot in a second-book-in-series.  So I'll say this to those who already read The mirror empire:  Yes, you want to read this too,  and no, you will not be disappointed.

And if you didn't read The mirror empire - you should.   Now.  Go!