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Terry Pratchett – Carpe Jugulum

Apparently, I now suffer severe mood swings when I don’t read enough Terry Pratchett. So it was about time I picked up the last unread novel about the Lancre witches and spent a few evenings giggling merrily away with a Pratchett book. Now that the fifth Tiffany Aching book has been anounced (SO MUCH HAPPINESS!) I don’t even have to feel bad about not having any more witches books to read.

carpe jugulumCARPE JUGULUM
by Terry Pratchett

Published by:  Corgi, 1998
Paperback: 416 pages
Series: Discworld #23
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Through the shredded black clouds a fire moved like a dying star, falling back to earth – the earth, that is, of the Discworld – but unlike any star had ever done before, it sometimes managed to steer its fall, sometimes rising, sometimes twisting, but inevitably heading down.

Mightily Oats has not picked a good time to be priest. He thought he was there for a simple little religious ceremony. Now he’s caught up in a war between vampires and witches, and he’s not sure there is a right side. There’s the witches — Agnes, Magrat, Nanny Ogg, and the formidable Granny Weatherwax… And the vampires: the stakes are high but they’re intelligent — not easily got rid of with a garlic enema or going to the window and saying “I don’t know about you, but isn’t it a bit stuffy in here?” They’ve got style and fancy waistcoats. They’re out of the casket and want a bite of the future.

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There’s something to be said for vampires that don’t glitter. Who would have ever suspected that this will be among the criteria by which I judge my vampire fiction? But unsurprising, Terry Pratchett’s vampires don’t only arrive in Lancre with a distinct lack of glitter, they also don’t mind garlic, holy water, and daylight. It’s quite a challenge for the four witches currently residing in the Ramtops, especially with Granny disappeared…

I love the Lancre witches. On many occasions have I said that I hope to become a Granny Weatherwax or a Nanny Ogg when I’m old (I realise they are vastly different people and I suspect I am more of a Nanny but I’ll take what I can get). With Granny gone for a large part of the book, Sir Terry had his hooks firmly set into me. After all, a Lancre without a Weatherwax is just not right. In her stead, the Quite Reverend Mightily Oats has arrived and brings with him a lot of discussion about religion, belief, and all things holy. With everything Terry Pratchett writes, there are wonderful bits of wisdom in everything Granny says. The nature of good and evil is no exception.

There’s no grays, only white that’s gone grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.

This book also marks the first appearance of the Nac Mac Feegle, that race of pictsies so prominent in the Tiffany Aching books. King Verence, after having his mind muddled up by vampires, pays a visit to the local kelda and we get our first taste of the crazy, brawling and drinking Feegles. In addition to that, Count Magpyr has brought his very modern vampire family to settle down in Lancre. Magrat is dealing with her newborn, Agnes still struggles with her split personality, and Hodgesaaargh is hunting a phoenix…

If you think that’s a bit much then I agree. Even with prior Discworld knowledge, there were too many characters and too many side-plots going on in Carpe Jugulum. There’s a reason why the Lancre witches always try to remain a trio. Hopping back and forth between the vampires’ point of view, one of the witches, Mightily Oats, and the vampires’ servant Igor, it all got a bit chaotic. Following the plot is no problem when you know who everybody is, but every time I settled into one plot string comfortably, I was ripped out for a quick visit to another character. These chapter-like breaks (as you know, Discworld novels don’t have chapters) came too often and too quickly.

carpe jugulum french

Normally, the witches books leave me an emotional wreck. The lack of structure and frequent POV hopping prevented this from happening here. Sure, Granny Weatherwax standing on the edge and being gone for most of the beginning of the book was tough. She is such an essential part of Lancre – and Discworld, really – that her absence was all the more painful.

One thing you will always get, however, is humor. Pratchett’s vampires are dangerous and scary, but they also have their quirks. Agnes and Perdita’s interactions, as well as Nanny Ogg just being Nanny Ogg make for more than enough scenes to make you laugh. The stuff that old lady carries around in her stockings leg is astounding.

Why are vampires always so stupid? As if wearing evening dress all day wasn’t a dead givaway, why do they choose to live in old castles which offer so much in the way of ways to defeat a vampire, like easily torn curtains and wall decorations that can readily be twisted into religious symbol? Do they really think that spelling their name backward fools anyone?

I wish there had been more focus in this book, a few characters could even have been cut, and it would have been an excellent read. The way it is, it’s “only” a very good book. Not my favorite Discworld book and probably my least favorite witches novel. Which, all things considered, is not saying very much because the worst book Terry Pratchett can produce is still better than the best many other authors do.

RATING: 7/10  – Very good

divider1The Witches of Lancre:

  1. carpe jugulum frenchEqual Rites
  2. Wyrd Sisters
  3. Witches Abroad
  4. Lords and Ladies
  5. Maskerade
  6. Carpe Jugulum
  7. Tiffany Aching
    1. The Wee Free Men
    2. A Hat Full of Sky
    3. Wintersmith
    4. I Shall Wear Midnight
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Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages – Wakulla Springs

Though written by a man-woman-team, I am counting this book towards my 2014 Women of Genre Fiction Challenge – seeing as I’ve never read anything by Ellen Klages (nor Andy Duncan, for that matter). You can read this Hugo nominated novella for free at tor.com – head over there and read it now, while it’s hot outside.

wakulla springsWAKULLA SPRINGS
by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages

Published by: Tor.com, 2013
Ebook: 139 pages
Standalone Novella
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Wakulla Springs. A strange and unknown world, this secret treasure lies hidden in the jungle of northern Florida.

Wakulla Springs, in the deep jungle of the Florida panhandle, is the deepest submerged freshwater cave system in the world. In its unfathomable depths, a variety of curious creatures have left a record of their coming, of their struggle to survive, and of their eventual end. And that’s just the local human beings over the last seventy-five years. Then there are the prehistoric creatures…and, just maybe, something else.

Ranging from the late 1930s to the present day, “Wakulla Springs” is a tour de force of the human, the strange, and the miraculous.

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“Wakulla Springs” was wonderful. That needs to be said before anything else. But I am still debating whether it qualifies as speculative fiction. There is no magic, unless you count the magic of film-making, there are no otherworldly monsters, unless you count costumed movie stars. But the atmosphere of the hot Florida air, the piney forests, the springs themselves, and what draws Mayola and Levi into the water, is so gripping that it brings a sort of magical feeling to the table.

The book is sectioned into several parts but for the sake of keeping this spoiler-free I’ll stick mostly to the first two. Mayola is a young black girl saving up money for college. She finds work in the Wakulla Springs Lodge – a whites-only hotel that pays their staff excellently – and through this summer job witnesses a movie crew shooting Tarzan. People of color aren’t allowed to swim in the springs but Mayola wants nothing more than to cool down in the still, clear water.

Needless to say, with a story set in the 1930s and a black protagonist, racial issues are front and center. But the authors handle them with a light touch and never the issues take over the plot. Mayola – and later Levi – has to face injustice on a daily basis and while I gasped at certain scenes, Mayola has grown up in that time and so doesn’t dwell on it too long.

The development thorughout the novella is wonderfully done. Not only does each character evolve, but since every part shows us a new generation of people living near or involved with Wakulla Springs, we get to follow how society’s views have changed. When Mayola thinks of swimming in the springs (secretly, at night) she is filled with fear at being caught, of losing her job. Levi, in the second part, knows fully well he isn’t allowed to swim there, but he does it anyway and doesn’t give it too much thought. When a black war veteran returns home, he fully expects to be treated like a hero regardless of his skin color. In yet another, later part, we follow a young black woman writing a paper for university – and the difference between her and Mayola’s dreams of saving up money and maybe, just maybe going to college is astounding. All of this is done without exposition. Through the characters we get a sense of time and political views. In a novella where racial discrimination happens all the time, the sudden lack thereof feels almost loud – in a good way, that is.

But the story is as much about the place as it is about the characters. Through Mayola and Levi, the readers get a glimpse of the local (and other) superstitions, traditions, and a feel for the time period the story is set in. The heat is almost tangible, the smell of the trees and the constant threat of alligators makes this an entirely engrossing read. I spent my Sunday afternoon with this book and the weather outside was just perfect. I’m sure this book is enjoyable when you read it in winter, but there is something about the sun on your face, sweat trickling down the back of your neck, and characters that are experiencing a similar kind of heat.

“Wakulla Springs” is, without a doubt, an excellent book. It is beautifully written, has engaging characters, and builds up such atmosphere that you can’t put it down. I was provided an ebook version of this novella in the Hugo Voter Packet so, naturally, I am considering how to rate it for the award. As much as I loved reading it, I fail to see the speculative fiction aspects of the story. It is a coming-of-age story, it’s about race and film-making, and women, and dreams, and very personal superstitions. But except for one little scene that can be explained away in a sentence or two, and pass as mainstream, and maybe the very last paragraph, there isn’t a single thing that qualifies it as fantasy or science fiction. I’m considering my votes well and will definitely rate this novella high. But simply because I feel it’s been classified as the wrong genre, it won’t make the top of my list. (It’s really not that hard to guess who gets my #1 novella vote…)

RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Statistics + My Favorite Books So Far (2014)

People say this all the time but: Where the hell did half of a year go?

It’s quite astonishing how fast certain months pass and how much I get done in others. This year, I have been keeping count pretty well of my books and stats. Because pie charts! As many other bloggers (at least the ones I read regularly) I tried to keep the balance between male and female authors, read more diversely and try out new things in general. Let’s see how I did, shall we?

But first, here are my favorite books of the year so far:

  1. Katherine Addison – The Goblin Emperor
  2. Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch – Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery
  3. Will McIntosh – Love Minus Eighty
  4. Elizabeth Bear – Range of Ghosts
  5. Charles Stross – Equoid
  6. Alethea Kontis – Enchanted
  7. Max Gladstone – Three Parts Dead
  8. Linda Medley – Castle Waiting Volume 1
  9. Brian K. Vaughan &Fiona Staples – Saga Volume 3
  10. Bill Willingham – Fables (Volumes 1-3)

Reviews for three of these are still missing, but worry not. They will appear as soon as I have the time. I have an entire list of reviews-to-write. Now let’s get to the statistics.

Books read: 43

  • Books by male authors: 22
  • Books by female authors: 21

breakdown by author gender

That’s pretty balanced reading, if you ask me. I have noticed, though, that it takes a conscious effort on my part to make sure I don’t just grab whatever book is lying closest to me or buying whatever certain recommendation engines recommend (which is usually something written by a man). Selecting my books more carefullly has not only helped me to achieve this almost-half-and-half but it’s also let me discover and support so many new writers. Win win!

I also wanted to read more books in languages other than English. The results of this resolution don’t even merit a pie chart because I’ve read a whopping one book in French, the rest was all in English.

But how did I do with author diversity? I took notes of authors of color as well as books with protagonists who aren’t white. I tracked LGBTQ authors and characters as well, but I definitely have to work on reading more books featuring them. The results are pretty slim. I read only five books by writers who aren’t white, one book by a gay (white) author, and one book by a gay author of color. At the very least I can say that I found some writers whose other books I want to read so hopefully, this chart will look less bleak at the end of the year.

  • Books read by authors of color: 5
  • Books read by LGBTQ authors: 2breakdown by author diversity

Book characters didn’t fare much better with me, I’m sorry to say. On the other hand, I was rather strict when collecting my data. For example, I didn’t count a POC character if they only showed up for one scene and had no real influence on the plot or protagonist. POC protagonists were counted, as well as POC characters who are vital to the plot. The same goes for LGBTQ characters and characters with disabilities. The latter are sooooo difficult to find in books, it makes me want to cry. I suspect (that’s really all it is, a suspicion) that there are more books outside the SFF genre that feature characters with disabilities (Contemporary YA? “Issue” books? Hell, I don’t know.) but I’d still like to see and read more fantasy and science fiction books with a diverse cast.

  • Books featuring characters of color: 10
  • Books featuring LGBTQ characters: 3
  • Books featuring characters with disabilities: 2

breakdown by character diversityPercentage-wise, it doesn’t even look that bad. However, there were a few books that featured POC characters as well as LGBTQ characters, and one notable book that covered all sorts of characters, some with disabilities (mental and physical), some who were gay, many who were non-white. The book in question is Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension. So no wonder that my overall feeling tells me I didn’t read that many books with diverse characters. Most of them were crammed into the same handful of books. I have probably never read as many books featuring diverse characters as I have this year, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Looking at my books per month, I am more than surprised. The beginning of the year was rather difficult for me. Work basically exploded and I didn’t have much time for anything, let alone cozying up with a book. Considering that, my books are spread out almost evenly across the first half of 2014.

Books read per month:

  • January: 8
  • Febraury: 5
  • March: 6
  • April: 8
  • May: 7
  • June: 9

breakdown per month

Lastly, I still have that personal Read Around the World challenge going, although with my reading slanted heavily towards SFF, it’s slow going. Here are a few places (real or with a hint of the fantastic) that I’ve visited in 2014 through my reading:

  • Central Asia: Elizabeth Bear – Range of Ghosts
  • Nigeria: Nnedi Okorafor – Lagoon
  • Paris, France: Amélie Nothomb – Barbe Bleue

And that’s it for my statistics. My resolutions for the second half of 2014 are pretty clear. Continue balancing books by male and female authors, reading more non-white authors, and books featuring more diverse characters. With a stack of Octavia Butler books, one unread N.K. Jemisin novel, and a few Malinda Lo stories, I think I’m set up quite well. And if I ever run out of material, the internet is usually there to help.

So how did you do during the first half of 2014? Did you track your reading progress at all? Take into account author gender and diversity? I love mid-year or end-of-the-year posts, so if you have one, leave a link in the comments and I’ll come visit.

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Max Gladstone – Three Parts Dead

Even without the John W. Campbell nomination, it has been impossible to miss the buzz surrounding Max Gladstone on the internet. He is almost universally praised and caught my eye especially with the gorgeous covers that grace his books. I couldn’t wait to jump into this secondary world lawyering story where gods can die and gargoyles move. Did I mention how much I love gargoyles?

three parts deadTHREE PARTS DEAD
by Max Gladstone

Published by: Tor, 2012
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: The Craft Sequence #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: God wasn’t answering tonight.

A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.
Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot.
Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help: Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead god, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith.
When Tara and Abelard discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for the truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and Alt Coulumb’s slim hope of survival.
Set in a phenomenally built world in which justice is a collective force bestowed on a few, craftsmen fly on lightning bolts, and gargoyles can rule cities, Three Parts Dead introduces readers to an ethical landscape in which the line between right and wrong blurs.

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This was such a blast. Meet Tara Abernathy, kicked out of magician college and promptly picked up by Ms. Kevarian to work for the renowned law firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao. Because a god is dead. Yep, this starts out with a bang and just continues on from there.

Abelard is a priest of the now-dead fire god, Kos, and helps Tara figure out what happened and whether the priests are to blame for his death. This is where the law-meets-magic mumbo jumbo comes in. The world building is difficult to grasp at times, but when it comes to gods and their contracts with the living, it’s pretty straight forward. Power comes in, power goes out, and if you tip the scales too much, bad stuff happens. It is obvious that Kos spent more power than he had at his disposal but the records show that this shouldn’t have been possible.

On their investigation, Tara and Abelard are helped by Cat, a vampire blood addict and a servant of Justice. I could ramble on about Justice, this other goddess who basically keeps the city safe with her police force, but I would inevitable get too excited and stop making sense. Justice’s Blacksuits made for amazing imagery, though, and are probably the most memorable part I’m taking away from Three Parts Dead.

So let me talk about something else instead. I am stunned and surprised and insanely happy about the gender balance of this book. I didn’t exactly keep count but the main characters are three women and three men. Tara is also a woman of color and the protagonist. It’s lovely to see that the cover isn’t just a pretty picture chosen without much thought but it actually depicts the main character. Note the awesome suit and the craft markings on Tara’s arm, please. The artist did such a great job, I want to send a hug their way!

tara abernathy
Three Parts Dead
is Max Gladstone’s debut novel and I now see why he is nominated for an award. The pacing is spot on, even the side-characters are multi-layered and genuine, the plot is engaging and offers a few nice surprises along the way. I did have some minor problems with the world building in that there could have been more of it. But the author avoided exposition to such an extent that I was left confused at times. At which point the characters or plot put their hooks back in me and I had to read on anyway.

My slightly bigger qualms were about the magic. Tara is a necromancer and can do all sorts of cool stuff with her magic. But I still don’t quite understand how at court, magic battles between two opposing lawyers are supposed to decide on the truth of the matter. Maybe I was unattentive or missed an important line, but I just rolled with it, without really getting it. The battles were well told and with a bit more background knowledge about the working of lawyers in Alt Coulumb they could have been great.

Lastly, I loved how Max Gladstone worked in characters and creatures that have become genre tropes. He gives them a new spin. He has vampires, but they’re neither the sparkly kind, nor the mopey Anne Rice type. He has magicians but no Gandalfs or Harry Potters. Other than in a lot of fantasy books, becoming a necromancer is not something I would immediately jump on if I had the chance. There is a price to pay for being a magic user and it gave me a lot of food for thought. Flying sure is cool, but do I want to become something less-than-human for it? See, it’s not that simple, and that is precisely what made Ms. Kevarian so intriguing.

I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book in the series to find out what new trouble is brewing in the city of Alt Coulumb and I hope I will meet Tara and Abelard again. They have grown on me quite a bit, as have Cat and Captain Pelham. Max Gladstone has created a wonderful world that beautifully sets itself apart from what used to be considered fantasy literature. I’ll check out the other Campbell nominees but they already have very tough competition in Max Gladstone.

(P.S.: Happy Towel Day, everyone!)

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The Craft Sequence:

  1. Three Parts Dead
  2. Two Serpents Rise
  3. Full Fathom Five

craft sequence

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A. M. Dellamonica – Child of a Hidden Sea

I have two of A. M. Dellamonica’s books on my TBR pile that both sound delightful. When I came across this on NetGally, I couldn’t resist. The cover is gorgeous and I was in the mood for pirates. Well… this book was “not for me” as they say. I hope the author’s other books are more up my alley than this.

child of a hidden seaCHILD OF A HIDDEN SEA
by A. M. Dellamonica

Published by: Tor, 24 June 2014
eBook: 336 pages
My rating: 4,5/10
Review copy from the publisher

First sentence: Sinking.

One minute, twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa is in a San Francisco alley trying to save the life of the aunt she has never known. The next, she finds herself flung into the warm and salty waters of an unfamiliar world. Glowing moths fall to the waves around her, and the sleek bodies of unseen fish glide against her submerged ankles.
The world is Stormwrack, a series of island nations with a variety of cultures and economies—and a language different from any Sophie has heard.
Sophie doesn’t know it yet, but she has just stepped into the middle of a political firestorm, and a conspiracy that could destroy a world she has just discovered… her world, where everyone seems to know who she is, and where she is forbidden to stay.
But Sophie is stubborn, and smart, and refuses to be cast adrift by people who don’t know her and yet wish her gone. With the help of a sister she has never known, and a ship captain who would rather she had never arrived, she must navigate the shoals of the highly charged politics of Stormwrack, and win the right to decide for herself whether she stays in this wondrous world . . . or is doomed to exile

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I’ll forgive a book many flaws as long as I like the characters. A.M. Dellamonica created some that give the impression of being interesting, without ever really being so. Sophie, the protagonist, felt very much like a one-trick pony to me. She is a marine videographer and, naturally, interested in the flora and fauna of this new crazy place she’s discovered. That is her one defining quality. Apart from that, all I can say about her is that she’s a decent human being who is shocked to find that slavery exists and certain nations are raging homophobes. Other than that, she is a blank piece of paper.

Bram, her genius little brother, had so much potential. Not only is he supposed to be incredibly smart, he is also gay in an environment that isn’t completely okay with homosexuals. The chance for great storytelling basically seeps out of him, yet all of his potential remained unused. The only show of his intelligence is that he picks up the language within weeks. Other than that, he is a commendable brother, keeping his sister motivated, but doesn’t get enough screentime to be anything more than cardboard.

As for the other characters – Verena, Parrish, Tonio – they sadly didn’t even get that one character trait that Sophie has. Most men in the Fleet are breathtakingly beautiful and Sophie makes sure to mention this every once in a while. The others are simply mouthpieces for bad dialogue, without any visible agendas or lives of their own.

child of a hidden sea

Stormwrack is a great idea. Its capital city is a fleet of ships, constantly in motion, and the world contains many nations with different cultures and languages. So far, so wonderful. Too many fantasy books forget that – if you remove them even a little bit – people will develop their own habits, mannerisms, linguistic quirks. Stormwrack isn’t a homogenous world where, if you’ve been to one place, you’ll know what the others are like. There are tons of things to discover, a paradise for a marine videographer and scientist.

The use of magic – and it is used heavily – felt disingenuous though. If you know a person’s name, you can scrip them and do all sorts of things. To me, it seemed insane that people would go around using their real names if it gives everyone so much power over them. If Stormwrack made any sense, people would use a fake name for everyday dealings, and their real name only for closest family and friends. On the same note, if magic were as easy as it is here, why would people still die of hunger whenever they can’t catch enough food by natural means. Why not just scrip their fish traps or something? I got the feeling that the magic wasn’t thought-through at all and the only real repercussion it had on this story is the giant McGuffin that comes up in the second half. Some aspects of magic (say, how to get from the real world to Stormwrack and back) are conveniently never explained at all.

One of its strongest points – the language – ended up being bungled as well. Initally described as Italian-ish (that much is true, the words sound sort of Italian), the language is used more and more inconsistently throughout the novel. Suddenly, very English-sounding names are mixed in where they weren’t before. Inhabitants of Stormwrack have trouble understanding Sophie’s modern slang. They have to ask twice what “gay” means (in the context of sexuality) but three pages later people throw around the word “queer” as if they used it every day. Now maybe I’m just nitpicking, but if it’s glaring enough for me to pick up on a first reading, it bothers me and makes me enjoy the book less.

What about the writing style, you ask? Let me welcome to exposition-land. As so many books do, Child of a Hidden Sea starts out as wonderful fun. A young woman with an interest in marine life is thrown into an unknown world with about a million species of plants and animals that she wants to study. I didn’t mind reading about Sophie examining this plant or that dragonfly wing for paragraph after paragraph. Her passion was tangible and as such, made for interesting reading. Once Sophie is drawn into the politics of Stormwrack, however, we take a sharp turn to the country of long and boring exposition.

Sophie knows nothing about how Stormwrack works and naturally has to be told what makes this society tick. Or, you know, there’s always the possibility of her discovering it herself. Not so in this novel. You get long and jarring explanations of this nation or that, the tensions between free countries and those that hold slaves, mostly wrapped up in bad dialogue.

child of a hidden seaI suppose this is the number one reason why the dialogue felt so very terrible to me. It’s not that the actual words used were in some way wrong. It’s just that so much is talked about unnecessarily. Not only is Sophie told everything by whoever is conveniently standing next to her, but characters also rehash events that the readers have witnessed first hand.
The second reason is that, on more than one occasion, I forgot who was talking. By use of words, it was impossible to tell who is who, which may be a minor point, as long as the descriptions surrounding the dialogue make clear who is speaking. But there were scenes when two people talk and suddenly a third person would chime in that I didn’t even know was in the room. The same thing happened the other way around. Three or more people would hold a conversation and suddenly it would be just two of them left, without me knowing where the others went.

I’m not an inattentive reader and I don’t think I’m too stupid to understand an author’s hints. But I was constantly jarred out of the narrative by the confusing dialogue. The narrative I didn’t care for much in the first place. Throw in a completely wasted “romance” that doesn’t come to any sort of conclusion, and you’ve got Child of a Hidden Sea. Just like Garland Parrish, a beautiful face on an ultimately empty container. A pretty cover on a bland book.

 

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Malinda Lo – Adaptation

For three of my WWE Challenges this year (Women of Genre Fiction, LGBT SF, and SF Authors of Color) I finally picked up a Malinda Lo novel. Unsure whether to pick Ash - a Cinderella retelling with a lesbian twist – or Adaptation, I did the smart thing and flipped a coin.

200479565-002ADAPTATION
by Malinda Lo

Published by: Little, Brown, 2012
Ebook: 416 pages
Series: Adaptation #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The birds plummeted to the tarmac, wings loose and limp.

Reese can’t remember anything from the time between the accident and the day she woke up almost a month later. She only knows one thing: She’s different now.
Across North America, flocks of birds hurl themselves into airplanes, causing at least a dozen to crash. Thousands of people die. Fearing terrorism, the United States government grounds all flights, and millions of travelers are stranded.
Reese and her debate team partner and longtime crush David are in Arizona when it happens. Everyone knows the world will never be the same. On their drive home to San Francisco, along a stretch of empty highway at night in the middle of Nevada, a bird flies into their headlights. The car flips over. When they wake up in a military hospital, the doctor won’t tell them what happened, where they are—or how they’ve been miraculously healed.
Things become even stranger when Reese returns home. San Francisco feels like a different place with police enforcing curfew, hazmat teams collecting dead birds, and a strange presence that seems to be following her. When Reese unexpectedly collides with the beautiful Amber Gray, her search for the truth is forced in an entirely new direction—and threatens to expose a vast global conspiracy that the government has worked for decades to keep secret.

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I see what the author did there. Normally I don’t start with what I disliked in a book but since it’s the most prevalent thought on my mind right now, I have to break with that rule. My biggest problem with Adaptation is that it reads like an unnecessary prequel to a much better story. On the one hand, Reese is discovering that she is bisexual and dealing with her new feelings and the questions that come with them. But this isn’t supposed to be an “issue novel” which is why you also get government conspiracies, genetic manipulation, and alien experiments. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, this is where some editing would have helped.

adaptation reese

The story starts with a punch. Flocks of birds randomly fly into planes, causing them to crash all over the country. Other birds just plummet to the ground, commiting bird suicide. When airports are shut down, Resse, her debate partner David, and their teacher, rent a car to get back home from the national debates competition (which they lost) and madness ensues. This is exactly how a YA novel should start. Action follows action, but leaves enough room for setting up the characters, the tension between them, and giving them a life beyond what is happening right now. Reese and David end up in a hospital (read: secret government base) and are sent home after signing a non-disclosure contract forbidding them to speak to anyone about anything. So far, so interesting.

Once they are home, though, I would have expected them to at least talk to each other about the strange things that have happened to them. But no… they go on with their lives as if not much had changed. And this is when the tone of the novel flips to contemporary romance. Reese meets a girl named Amber and falls in love with her. The romance is well-written, no question, but during this middle part, all sfnal plot strings are abandoned in favor of just that: a romance. So Reese thinks she may be a lesbian, but she’s not sure because she’s had a crush on David for a long time. The obligatory talk with the mother is wonderfully drama-less and Reese can spend her time inspecting her feelings and what they mean. Only occasionaly does she think she should speak to David about what happened to them.

Again, none of this is badly written. I found the romance sweet and full of butterflies, but I picked this up because it is a science fiction book. The beginning promised all sorts of interesting ideas that are just put to the side because Romance Needs to Happen Now. After all, you can have a love life, and still try to figure out who the strange doctors were that magically healed your wounds without leaving a single scar, right? Right. Eventually, Reese does investigate, but things only get interesting again right at the end. In an exposition overload things are finally explained to her and David and the actual story is ready to start.

This is where my thought about editing came up. So many writers say that their first draft of any story is usually improved by chopping off the “beginning”. The story is supposed to begin when things get interesting, not wasting time setting it up for hundreds of pages. And that’s just the problem with Adaptation. I got the feeling that the real story begins where this novel ends. Everything that happens could be backstory, cleverly inserted into what will now be volume 2 of a series. Reese’s romance with Amber, her crush on David, their accident and regeneration… it would have made for excellent twists and reveals in a standalone book. Or flashbacks, if you’re into them.

But that’s just my wishful thinking. As YA novels go, this wasn’t bad. I suspect that, as a younger reader, I would have liked it much more, not spending so much time thinking of how to improve the story and just going with it. I’m not much of a romance reader and as such, I must say that I really enjoyed the little moments of tension – although I am getting mighty tired of the love triangle. At least this triangle is made more interesting in that it involves a heroine who has to choose between a boy and a girl.

Bottom line: Recommended, but don’t expect too much sci-fi.
Will I read the second book? Probably. You know… sometime.

RATING:  6/10  -  Good

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3

M.R. Carey – The Girl With All The Gifts

It is a rare occasion that I jump into a book knowing absolutely nothing about the story or author. The reason this showed up on my radar was Seanan McGuire raving about it on the SF Squeecast. She managed to make it sound juicy and fun without giving anything away and, having now read it, I believe the best way to experience The Girl With All The Gifts is to just dive in. The synopsis from GoodReads does an okay job, giving you a feel of what to expect without spoiling the little twists. Still, it doesn’t hurt to skip it.

girl with all the giftsTHE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS
by M.R. Carey

Published by: Orbit, January 2014
Hardcover: 405 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Her name is Melanie.


Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her ‘our little genius’. Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh. Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children’s cells. She tells her favourite teacher all the things she’ll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn’t know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.

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Melanie’s world is small but beloved. Her entire world is made up of her cell, the corridor outside it, and the two doors at each end. One – the red one – leads to the classroom, a place where she learns about the world, about the laws of physics and mathematics, but especially about stories. Her favorites are the Greek Myths, and of those, her favorite is the story of Pandora’s box. The door at the other end of the corridor has been closed for as long as Melanie can remember…

Reading The Girl With All The Gifts is a little bit like poking through a tiny window into Melanie’s life. Over time, the window opens up a little and we get to see more of what goes on around her. But at first, we – like Melanie – know only her cell, the classroom, and the showers. It’s not too hard to guess why school children are kept in a bunker-like building if you read closely. Something devastating must have happened to the outside world and for an avid reader of SFF it becomes fairly obvious what the cause is.

However, there are more layers to this story than a simple post-apocalyptic how-to-keep-on-living narrative. Melanie is front and center for a long time. As the story opens up, chapters switch between her viewpoint and that of other characters, but Melanie remained my absolute favorite. Now it’s getting really hard to talk about this book without giving too much away. Let’s just say: This story uses a trope. A very, very well-known trope with a newish spin. I’m not particularly fond of this kind of book because it’s been done to death and there’s usually not anything new to discover. But The Girl With All the Gifts has one thing going for it that kept me hooked even after the mysteries were solved: Melanie.

Melanie sees the world through the eyes of a much younger child. Being approximately 10 years old, she may well be classified as a genius. Her hunger for knowledge is insatiable and she enjoys making connections. But even for a smart kid, being suddenly thrown into a vast world is overwhelming, especially if you’ve only heard about it in lessons but never experienced it for yourself. There is a good reason Melanie and her classmates were kept locked up. The side characters – Sergeant Parks, Helen Justineau, Dr. Caldwell, and young Kieran Gallagher – were all sympathetic and interesting in their way, but like I said before, none of them drew me in as much as Melanie did.

girl with all the gifts melanie
The plot as such starts out wonderfully intriguing. If you go in completely oblivious it’s a thrillride to figure out what is going on. Once certain truths about the world are established, however, the story drifts off into territory that is plastered with cliché. Melanie’s presence still lends it originality and enough to keep readers interested, but for me it was a little sad to see such a great idea end up more or less like any other story involving the same SFnal trope. Not that it isn’t well done. It’s just not something that I haven’t seen many times before.

As the characters meander through their devastated world, Melanie in tow, the focus of the story shifts toward problem-solving and exploring what it means to be human. I wasn’t bored exactly because I had come to care for the characters (even the despicable one) but my interest wasn’t anywhere near the level it held at the beginning of the book. This may all have to do with me not liking the central trope very much. That said, I was all the more thrilled to read the ending. I don’t think in all the movies I’ve watched, and books I’ve read, the make use of you-know-what I’ve ever come across an ending quite as poignant and sad and full of hope. It left me breathless.

MY RATING: 7,5/10  – Very good

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Other Reviews (slightly but not really spoilery):

0

Catherynne M. Valente – Indistinguishable From Magic

You all know I go a little coo-coo when it comes to Cat Valente’s books, right? So I pre-ordered this sometime last year, as soon as I found out it would be published. Now imagine my shriek of joy when I got an e-ARC in my mailbox. Yes, it was loud. The boyfriend thought I had seriously injured myself. And then I sank into a cloud of words and didn’t come up for air until I was finished.

indistinguishable from magicINDISTINGUISHABLE FROM MAGIC
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Mad Norwegian Press, 6 May 2014
Paperback: 244 pages
Standalone non-fiction
Review copy from the publisher
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: These days, it’s almost a Cartesian axiom: I am a geeky postmodern girl, therefore I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In Indistinguishable from Magic, more than 60 essays by New York Times-bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland) are brought together in print for the first time, sharing Cat’s observations and insights about fairy tales and myths, pop culture, gender and race issues, an amateur’s life on planet Earth and much more. Join Cat as she studies the fantasy genre’s inner clockwork to better comprehend its infatuation with medievalism (AKA “dragon bad, sword pretty”), considers the undervalued importance of the laundry machine to women’s rights in locales as wide-ranging as Japan and the steampunk genre, and comes to understand that so much of shaping fantasy works is about making puppets seem real and sympathetic (otherwise, you’re just playing with dolls).

Also featured: Cat takes a hard look at why she can’t stop writing about Persephone, dwells upon the legacy of poets in Cleveland, and examines how stories teach us how to survive – if Gretel can kill the witch, Snow White can return from the dead, and Rapunzel can live in the desert, trust that you can too.

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Mad Norwegian Press are known (by me, at least) for such collections as Chicks Dig Time Lords and Whedonistas and the feshly-Hugo-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords -  book-shaped love letters to fandom. But they also publish collections of essays by single authors. Having been to her blog a couple of times, I know that I enjoy Cat’s non-fiction almost as much as the made-up stories she shares with her readers. The release of Indistinguishable From Magic has been pushed back a couple of months but, trust me, you want to get your hands on this!

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

My approach to collections is usually to read them front to back and then maybe go back to my favorite pieces and re-read them. I went the same way about Indistinguishable From Magic, except I went back all the time to highlight passages, and jot down book recommendations, and make notes to look this or that thing up on the internet later. It is a treasure cove of geeky goodness.

But most impressively, this book made me feel more accepted and more understood than anything else I’d read before. Growing up as someone who loves fantasy books wasn’t particularly harrowing on me. I always had friends and they accepted my quirks as a given, not questioning why I would be into that weird stuff about made-up worlds, why I would name my pets after Hobbits and characters from Labyrinth. But still, there was nobody around who shared that obsession. Then the internet happened and suddenly, I wasn’t so alone anymore. Cat Valente gets that. Oh, how she gets it.

I choose magic. I choose invented histories. I choose epic battles between armies of wolves and spriggans. I choose witchraft, ray guns, AI, and dark gods. I choose swashbuckling, cruel queens, and talking beasts. I choose cross-dressing orphan heroines. I choose unreliable narrators. I choose my friends.

Whether I share her opinion on the importance of folklore or not (I do), whether I agree with her paper – “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” – on Alice, Dorothy, and The Nutcracker‘s Clara, I couldn’t help but feel like I was talking to a friend. In fact, if I hadn’t admired and envied her before, after this collection, I want to be her best friend. Someone I can call late at night to talk about that old Doctor Who episode that made me cry again, or how underrated Flora Segunda is. I think she’d just get it, happily brew herself a cup of cocoa and discuss the night away.

While the collection is structured by topic – pop culture, gender in SFF, publishing – every section overflows with love for the genre and the community. Yes, there are rants about our failings, and pleas to behave like decent human beings – within fandom and outside of it – but the overwhelming feeling I got was this endless love for fantasy and science fiction. That’s something I can get behind.

indistinguishable from magic
Cat Valente also reveals a fair bit of herself through her writing. It depends, of course, on how you read her articles and how much you know about her already, but the fact that she can’t let go of Persephone speaks volumes. Her experience as an army wife, living in Japan, keeps coming up and if you’ve read a bit of her short fiction you’ll recognize sides of Cat in them that suddenly make all the more sense. You understand that behind that achingly beautiful prose is a full person with dreams and a past, and all the puzzle pieces fall together. So in a way, this is probably the Valente work in which she is most vulnerable and open about herself as a writer and as a human being. Obviously, I love her all the more for being that brave.

While Indistinguishable from Magic, as a book should, starts with a foreword, I will end this review with it. Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows a little bit about Cat Valente, the foreword is written by her friend Seanan McGuire. I have no words for how jealous I am of their friendship. The introduction not only shows off McGuire’s own hand at writing poetic prose but it shines with love and friendship and respect. And while I don’t know Cat Valente personally, I believe every word Seanan McGuire says about her. It is obvious from Valente’s prose that she must at least have a little bit of magic in her, eaten some of those pomegranate seeds, been sprinkled with just a thimble-ful of fairy dust.

 She is a poet and a poem, wrapped up in the same star-and-moon-tanned  palimpsest skin. She contains many contradictions. She’s the serious mermaid explaining to you why trading fins for feet was a feminist action, and why the sacrifice of a voice is sometimes a simple thing, because there are so many kinds of voices, child; the sea witch left you fingers, left you figures, left you everything you’ll ever need to make this tale your own. She’s the laughing gingerbread witch standing by the chicken coop, feathers in her hair and a promise on her lips that you may or may not want to hear, because promises are prophecies, in their own way, in their own time. She is her own once upon a time, and her own happy ending, and those are two of the best things in the world to be.

MY RATING:  8/10  -  Excellent

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1

Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples – Saga Volume 3

Let the squeeing begin.

saga volume 3SAGA VOLUME 3
by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Published by: Image Comics, March 2014
Paperback: 144 pages
Series: Saga #13-18
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: I’m positive, they were a fuckin’ couple.

When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never–ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe.
From New York Times bestselling writer Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina) and critically acclaimed artist Fiona Staples (Mystery Society, North 40), Saga is the sweeping tale of one young family fighting to find their place in the worlds. Fantasy and science fiction are wed like never before in this sexy, subversive drama for adults.
In volume 3, as new parents Marko and Alana travel to an alien world to visit their hero, the family’s pursuers finally close in on their targets.

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From gigantic troll scrotums to a family board game – there is nothing Saga cannot do. The characters have been well established in the first two volumes (collecting issues 1 through 12) and several plot lines have been set up, making our fannish expectations soar. That said, I can’t talk about this third collection without spoiling some events from the previous ones. Consider yourselves warned.

In volume 2, Brian K. Vaughan left us on a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger that came out of pretty much nowhere because just before it, we jumped ahead in time. Volume 3 catches up on how Alana, Marko, and his mother got to be in this latest crazy-dangerous situation. On their way to meet Alana’s hero, the writer D. Oswald Heist, the small family are still pursued by Prince IV, the assassin The Will, and Marko’s ex-girlfriend Gwendolyn. Add to that a couple of journalists too curious for their own good and you’ve got a nice idea of how important the young couple is for the world. Some want them destroyed, others want a bit of revenge, and the journalists just want a good story. This time, though, someone actually catches up to them.

saga gwendolyn

Volume 3 differs in tone from its predecessors. Alana and Marko – and of course Hazel and Marko’s mother – spend almost the entirety of this story at Heist’s residence where, for the first time really, they can think about what it means to be parents and to just have lost a parent themselves. They are still on the run, but not running. They are dealing with the aftermath of all that’s happened, but they get a little bit of rest. Not that you don’t get the blood and violence you’d expect, it simply isn’t as front and center as it was in the previous volumes. Instead, the story focuses on characters and world-building.

With the addition of the wonderful new character, the author Heist, we get a new perspective to the current situation. The war that brought Alana and Marko together has been a given since the series began, one the couple have been questioning since they fell in love, but through Heist, we are offered a point of view by someone who has been thinking long and hard about war and life, and come to the conclusion that a little kindness would go a long way. No wonder he lets the family crash at his place and ends up playing board games with them and reading Hazel wildly inappropriate stories.

The Will’s storyline continues to be interesting, although a bit chaotic. Now accompanied by Gwendolyn and the little slave girl they saved from sex planet (I still shudder at that), they land on a gorgeous planet to have the ship repaired. The Will’s story, almost a parallel to what Alana and Marko are going through, is much more introspective this time, rather than relying on breathtaking action and heartstopping moments of mortal danger. He is haunted by his ex-girlfriend – remember? The spider woman? Yeah… – and seems confused about Gwendolyn. Slave Girl, who finally gets a proper name, was part of my favorite scene so far. Who would have thought that Lying Cat, as cool as she is, can show kindness in such an unexpected place? This rather character-driven episode also shows us that Lying Cat isn’t just a gimmick, a cool creature to add to an already pretty dope world. Lying Cat has a past and Lying Cat has feelings. If I hadn’t already been a total fan, now would be the time that I’d lose my heart to Lying Cat.

Prince IV gets very little screen time – probably because we already got a chunk of his storyline in the last volume and are merely catching up on what the others did in the meantime. But his story did take an interesting spin that would lead us into spoiler territory. I can’t wait to find out what happens with him in the next volume. And I’m still waiting to find out more about his situation, his home, his super-pregnant wife, etc.

I mentioned that some new characters are introduced. Apart from Heist, whom I absolutely adore, Upsher and Doff, two journalists trying to get the scoop on Alana and Marko, help to add both depth and width to the world. Their visit to Alana’s step mother was hilarious, in that it was so utterly believable. Since this is secondary world fantasy/science fiction, you never know where the characters stand on real-world issues. But with these two new guys, who clearly look like a different species, with green-blue skin and webbed feet, we also learn that homosexual couples aren’t accepted in all of the world, and at least sneered at in the parts where they are. Their subplot at first seems like a vehicle for world building but this wouldn’t be Saga, if it didn’t come with a twist.

saga 3 alana

Upsher and Doff also help show off Fiona Staples’ a-ma-zing skills. So far, I have gushed about how she depicts emotion on the characters’ faces, but she does so much more than that. The colors create exactly the right mood for where the story is going, the characters’ clothing and hairstyle tell us about their personality. Marko grows a beard, Alana used to look like a goth, Gwendolyn is always dressed impaccably (she’d look hot in anything, I suspect). I still love how the artwork tells a story all its own and how little details help flesh out the world. This is how comic books should work, right? Art and text complementing each other, coming together to tell an awesome story.

Saga Volume 3 not pack the same punch as volumes 1 and 2 did, but it offers a unique view at the characters we have come to love. There are still monsters and strange creatures, there is a crazy mix of fantasy and science fiction, but it is the small moments of family bliss in a world dominated by war that make this series so special. I crack open the pages and fall into a story that – while brutal and unpredictable – invariably makes me smile.

 MY RATING: 8,5/10  -  Excellent!

divider1Sagasaga one to three

  1. Volume 1
  2. Volume 2
  3. Volume 3
8

Nnedi Okorafor – Lagoon

Worlds Without End has seduced me to join four (!) different challenges this year. I don’t know what possessed me during a time where my job is more time-consuming than ever before. Nnedi Okorafor goes on a few of those lists, so I was all the happier when I received an ARC from the lovely people at Hodder. *dances*

lagoonLAGOON
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 10th April 2014
Paperback: 393 pages
Standalone
Review copy from the publisher
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: She slices through the water, imagining herself a deadly beam of black light.

Three strangers, each isolated by their own problems: Adaora, the marine biologist. Anthony, the world-famous rapper. Agu, the troubled soldier. Wandering Bar Beach outside Lagos, Nigeria’s capital city, they’re more alone than they’ve ever been before.
But when a meteorite hits the ocean and a tidal wave overcomes them, these three people will find themselves bound together in ways they never imagined. Together with Ayodele, a visitor from beyond the stars, they must race through Lagos and against time itself in order to save the city, the world… and themselves.

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Nnedi Okorafor blew me utterly away with her beautiful Who Fears Death. With that in mind and this gorgeous Joey Hi-Fi cover in front of me, I was sure that great things would expect me in her newest novel. Hailed as an original and unusual first contact story, and as the author’s answer to the movie District 9, it paints the picture of a city during crisis.

The ostentatious protagonists – Adaora, Agu, and Anthony – were never really what the story is about. They meet on the beach just seconds before a meteor strikes (or so they believe) and an alien creature emerges from the sea. After that, chaos ensues throughout the entire city, violence rules the streets, religious zealots hunt witches and the alien “demons”, people frantically film the strange events on their phones or cameras, and the world goes completely bananas.

It is this human reaction to something new, something strange that we don’t immediately understand, that is the heart and soul of Lagoon. Every short chapter is almost a tiny short story that shows us Lagos through a myriad of people’s eyes. This may do wonders for world building and setting a scene, but the quick changes of view point disrupts the narrative in ways that make it hard to stay engaged. The moment one of the proper plot lines got interesting, it was dropped for a quick interlude. This made Lagoon a strenuous read when it should have been engaging.

Getting to spend so little time with the main characters – and leaving them during the most interesting moments of conflict – made it difficult for me to identify with them or care for them in any way. Their personalities never really rise much above what the blurb gives us. Adaora, a marine biologist… well yes, she likes the sea and knows about its inhabitants. She is also a decent person with two kids. I can’t give you anything else because I never had a chance to properly meet her. The same goes for Anthony, who gets to wear the “world-famous Ghanaian rapper” cap and nothing else. Agu, a soldier, stands out only in that he – like Adaora – is a decent human being who will defend people weaker than himself against violence.

The biggest copout of the novel are the actual aliens. I didn’t read this expecting a creature feature. I knew going in that Okorafor would paint a city and its people in all their facets. But, hey, if aliens land on the fucking planet, I’d at least like to know a little bit about them. But every. single. time. there is a scene that gets us close to the real wonders from “beyond the stars”, the scene ends and the characters conveniently don’t remember anything. I, as a reader, feel cheated. I put faith in the author to tell me a story worth reading and every time things got interesting – either with the humans in the city, or with the aliens – we fade to black and hop into a character’s head I neither know nor care about, and who will never show up again for the rest of the novel anyway.

lagoon cover

All of that said, these short chapters are beautifully written. I believe a lot of subplots could have been handled better. In the beginning of the novel, some time is invested in a religious group and their zealous leader, as well as an LGBT organization and their struggle to be themselves in a hostile environment. For the amount of set up and world building involved, these two plot lines were dropped rather unceremoniously. Nnedi Okorafor’s writing may be fantastic, but even if you describe utter chaos, structure is your friend.

A handful of moments make up for some of the novel’s failings (such as turning into a mermaid or gigantic spiders – I’ll always love reading about gigantic spiders) but all things considered, Lagoon didn’t deliver on anything I had hoped for. It may be sold as science fiction, because aliens and magic, but in reality, it is a fix-up novel that only grazes these alien life forms, and focuses more on the humans (and animals) in and around Lagos. Little vignettes, connected by the arrival of aliens off the coast that show humanity in all its ugly beauty.

As much as I loved Who Fears Death, I won’t pounce on the next Okorafor novel. I’ll wait and see what others have to say about it first. If I finish a book only because I feel I should (because it’s an ARC from the publisher) then it failed me as a reader. As it will be published in only one week, I will be on the lookout for reviews to see if I maybe just picked it up while in the wrong mood, or if other readers have the same misgivings.

MY RATING: 6/10  -  Okay