Time to Freak Out! The Mid-Year Book Freak Out Tag 2022

What an insane half year this has been. I am super behind on writing reviews and I’ll probably go on hiatus for a while during the late summer. You know, to have our baby and all that. 🙂

Nevertheless, I want to join all of you others in freaking out over books once more, check in on goals (it’s not looking too bright for me this year) and remind myself of all the exciting releases still waiting to be devoured.

Best Book You Read So Far in 2022

This isn’t a lot but I’m quite happy with how different these three books are. Two are the final instalments of a series, one being the epic finale in a historical fantasy trilogy that made me cry all the tears and curse Rebecca Kuang for being so talented and cruel and mindblowlingly good at her job! Seriously, The Burning God was a worthy ending to a blood-soaked tale that I both want to re-read and never live through again at the same tme.
The other is only loosely connected to the rest of the Wayfarers series but it hit all the right notes again and had that warm blanket in book form effect on me. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within did not kick A Closed and Common Orbit off the favorite Wayfarers book pedestal, but it came pretty damn close.
Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs is a book I should have read ages ago when everyone else did, but better late than never. It took me a bit to get into but then it had everything I wanted. Can’t wait to read the other two books in the trilogy.

I’ve combined this question with the “Best Sequel” question because, well, two of my favortite books of the year are sequels anyway.

New Release You Haven’t Read Yet But Want To

Worse than ever this year… too many to list, but here are the top contenders.

  • C.S.E. Cooney – Saint death’s Daughter (currently reading)
  • Catherynne M. Valente – Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods
  • John Scalzi – The Kaiju Preservation Society
  • Nnedi Okorafor – Akata Woman
  • Tochi Onyebuchi – Goliath
  • Nicola Griffith – Spear
  • T. Kingfisher – Nettle & Bone

Most Anticipated Release for the Second Half of the Year

  • R. F. Kuang – Babel
  • Tamsyn Muir – Nona the Ninth
  • Freya Marske – A Restless Truth
  • Joanna Ruth Meyer – Wind Daughter
  • Becky Chambers – A Prayer for the Crown-Shy
  • Joan He – Strike the Zither
  • N. K. Jemisin – The World We Make
  • Tasha Suri – What Souls Are Made Of
  • Angela Slatter – The Path of Thorns
  • Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Stapels – Saga Vol. 10
  • Ruthanna Emrys – A Half-Built Garden

My top pick for this is definitely Rebecca Kuang’s Babel, not only because she wrote it (although that, too) but also because Dark Academia and I mean, look at that cover! Then the ever brilliant N.K. Jemisin will bring her duology to an end with The World We Make and I already know I’ll be listening to the audiobook narrated by Robin Miles because the first book was an experience! Cannot recommend the audio version enough.
I also cannot wait for Joan He’s new book, Strike the Zither, which will start a trilogy. Joan He has turned into one of my favorite YA authors because she writes a mean plot twist (or twelve) and characters that are complicated but believable. I’ll buy anything by her.
Finally, Saga is going to continue, so obviously the next volume is on this list. Then I have a non-fantasy (I think) novel by Tasha Suri, which is a retelling of Wuthering Heights. How could I resist? Plus a handful more books that I’ve been looking forward to, some of which are coming out really soon. Yay!

Biggest Disappointment

Sadly, I’ve had more of these than favorites.

This question hinges on expectations more than a book’s general quality, I think. V. E. Schwab has been disappointing me for a while now (everything after A Darker Shade of Magic was lacking) but I somehow still got my hopes up for this little gothic (potential) treasure called Gallant. Not only was it a very meh story, it had no substance at all. A short story blown out of all proportion using illustrations as a crutch (those are very pretty, though!) thrown together without care or thought. This marks the end of me reading Schwab right after release.
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao was hyped up way too much and also in a way that makes me think I read a different book from everyone else. Hailed as feminist, dismantling the patriarchy with giant mechas plus polyamorous relationships, what I got was a not-like-other-girls perfect protagonist who hates and looks down on all other women (so much for feminism), a not even thinly veiled rip-off of Pacific Rim, shoddy world-building, and not a polyamory relationship but simply a girl who doesn’t choose between her two love interests but simply picks both. I wish I could have loved this like so many others have but I was just stunned at the hate for women who aren’t like the protagonist as well as the cheap and easily spotted plot twists. I will not be reading the sequel, obviously.

A River Enchanted was my first book by Rebecca Ross and a disappointment mostly in that it was based on a cool idea that was executed in the most boring way possible. It wasn’t bad, just predictable and somehow lifeless. I will give the author another chance, though.

The Star-Touched Queen was another first, not only my first Roshani Chokshi but also her debut novel. And boy, did it read like one. The insta-lovers showered each other in sugary vows and declarations of love that would make anyone cringe, there was very little plot, questionable treatment of female characters, and no world building at all. Again, I’ll try something else by the author but my expectations are decidedly lower than they were.

The reason Naomi Novik’s The Last Graduate isn’t on here is because I didn’t have very high expectations to begin with. One book that almost made the list is Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders because she can do so much better, but writing YA for the first time didn’t work so well. That caricature of a villain was too much for me, but overall, the book was still fun and had things going for it so it didn’t feel right to put it on this list.

Biggest Surprise

Seanan McGuire and I have a very hit or miss relationship. The Wayward Children series has been more miss than hit so far and this particular volume is a lot of people’s least favorite. It figures that it’s one of my favorites, if not the favorite so far. Across the Green Grass Fields does so many things on its few novella pages that I was left truly impressed. It also sent me through a whirlwind of emotions, both during the part in our world and the part in the Hooflands. And I’m not even a particularly big fan of horses…

Favorite New Author

Only one this time because I’ve read mostly books by authors I already know. But Robert Jackson Bennett made it with City of Stairs.

New Favorite Character

Sigrud from City of Stairs. Obviously. 🙂

A Book That Made You Cry

The Burning God because R. F. Kuang has no reservations when it comes to putting her characters through absolute hell. That ending was just too much.
Mostly very funny in tone but all the more effective when things got serious was Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. Certain moments hit me unexpectedly and made me all the more emotional. The fact that I’m pregnant may have made things even worse but I have no doubt I would have cried anyway, even without all the hormones.

A Book That Makes You Happy

I swear it’s a coincidence these are all covers with shades of purple! But purple or not, they made me happy. Becky Chambers is pretty much a guarantee for a feel-good book, and both Night of Cake and Puppets and Memento were returns to beloved worlds I didn’t know I had been missing that much, so that was lovely. I really liked T. Kingfisher’s Paladin’s Grace, which not only put me in a good mood because it’s by Kingfisher, but it also happens to be a romance and I am apparently very much on board with that right now. Easy to digest, fun, and occasionally sexy – I’d like some more of that, please.

Favorite Book-to-Movie Adaptation You’ve Seen This Year

So it may not be SFF but I am completely and utterly in love with the silliness that is Bridgerton and I’m not ashamed. Season 2 started out slow and I was actually quite disappointed in the first 3 episodes, but then the romance kicked in and the tension became ridiculously high. Picture me sitting in front of the TV, shouting at the charcters to just kiss already, fully enjoying that they don’t for the longest time. Man, those dances. And the glances. And the yearning! I have watched the season three times and I fully intend to watch it again once I’m off work (a few more days, yay).

Most Beautiful Book You’ve Bought This Year

The Illumicrate edition of Holly Black’s Book of Night is lovely and the regular edition of C. S. E. Cooney’s first full-length novel Saint Death’s Daughter is also stunning. Very glad to have them on my shelves.

What Books Do You Need to Read By the End of the Year

Should I even try to make reading plans? Well, I’ll keep it simple and stick to this year’s Hugo nominated books plus a few really urgent ones but I have no hopes of reaching any reading goals this yar. Goal number one is giving birth to a healthy child and keeping said child healthy and happy.

  • Fonda Lee – Jade Legacy
  • T. Kingfisher – Paladin’s Strength
  • T. Kingfisher – Paladin’s Hope
  • Shelley Parker-Chan – She Who Became the Sun
  • Aliette de Bodard – Fireheart Tiger
  • Naomi Kritzer – Chaos on CatNet
  • Darcie Little Badger – A Snake Falls to Earth
  • Ada Palmer – Too Like the Lightning
  • Charles Stross – Empire Games
  • C. L. Polk – Soulstar

Reading Goal/Challenges Status

  • Goodreads goal: 37/100
  • Orilium Readathon August: TBD

My first half of 2022 was filled mostly with baby books, doctor’s appointments, getting things at work ready for my leave, and more baby stuff. You wouldn’t believe how much brain power it takes just to be pregnant. Your body does most of the stuff by itself, sure, but maaaaaan, does it sap the energy right out of you. I don’t regret any of it, no matter how much my reading goals may be crashing and burning, how many new releases I’m behind on, how few Hugo categories I’ll be able to read this year. It’s all good.

Once I’m finally off work (starting at the beginning of July) and before the baby arrives (beginning of September) I hope to catch up on some of those books I’ve been looking forward to but if I don’t, that’s also okay.

After all, I have you guys to keep me up to date on what’s coming out next, which books I absolutely must not miss, which ones were disappointing, and which awards are being given out. I cannot wait to start the adventure that is the second half of 2022. 🙂

Slow Start, Lovely Ending: Alix E. Harrow – A Mirror Mended

Alix Harrow is one of thos author’s whose shopping list I would pick up without a second thought. Her Fractured Fables series hit a sweet spot for me, although it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, what with its many pop culture references and easygoing (maybe a bit too simple) plot. She has clearly taken feedback for this second volume but although I liked it generally, it wasn’t as great as A Spindle Splintered.

A MIRROR MENDED
by Alix E. Harrow

Published: Tordotcom, 14th July 2022
eBook: 176 pages
Series: Fractured Fables #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: I like a good happily ever after as much as the next girl, but after sitting through forty-eight different iterations of the same one-forty-nine, if you count my (former) best friends’ wedding – I have to say the shine is wearing off a little.

A Mirror Mended is the next installment in USA Today bestselling author Alix E. Harrow’s Fractured Fables series.

Zinnia Gray, professional fairy-tale fixer and lapsed Sleeping Beauty is over rescuing snoring princesses. Once you’ve rescued a dozen damsels and burned fifty spindles, once you’ve gotten drunk with twenty good fairies and made out with one too many members of the royal family, you start to wish some of these girls would just get a grip and try solving their own narrative issues.

Just when Zinnia’s beginning to think she can’t handle one more princess, she glances into a mirror and sees another face looking back at her: the shockingly gorgeous face of evil, asking for her help. Because there’s more than one person trapped in a story they didn’t choose. Snow White’s Evil Queen has found out how her story ends and she’s desperate for a better ending. She wants Zinnia to help her before it’s too late for everyone.

Will Zinnia accept the Queen’s poisonous request, and save them both from the hot iron shoes that wait for them, or will she try another path?

Zinnia Gray has been verse-hopping for a while and seen pretty much every version of Sleeping Beauty you can think of. Futurisitci sci-fi – check. Steampunk – check. Gender-flipped – check. All possible variations of LGBTQIA+ pairings – check. One gets the feeling Zinnia is getting a little bit bored with living through the same storybeats over and over again, albeit in slight variations. Sure, helping other sleeping beauties break out of their story, forge their own path, and defy fairy tale norms is fun, but how long does that novelty last, really?
There’s also something that happened between Zinnia and her best friend Charm which has led to them not speaking for six months! It’s clearly weighing on Zinnia, but she’d rather jump around fairy tales than face her real-world problems, especially when she catches a glimpse of a different tale, one involving a mirror and an apple, and promptly gets sucked in to it.

So in this volume, Zinnia finds herself in Snow White, (accidentally) summoned by none other than the Evil Queen. Whom Zinnia has an immediate crush on. Unfortunately, that part bothered me a lot because, sure, you can feel lust for someone you’ve only seen once, but this book is about something a little more growing between these two women and I was sad that it felt a little like insta-love and yet, at the same time, like only a fling. Eva – as the Evil Queen will be named soon – is a super intriguing character, in that she is pretty evil, yeah, but as with so many villain origin stories or falling in love with the villain tales, we get to see a different version of the well-known fariy tale and it puts Eva’s action into perspective. Killing your stepdauhter is still not the greatest pastime, mind you, but Eva’s reasoning is at least somewhat understandable here. She also undergoes a lovely bit of character growth which made me like her more than Zinnia in this book.

The plot is pretty weak, I’m sad to say. It starts with the fact that there’s almost no stakes to begin with. The only hook that’s there from the start is the mysterious fight between Zinnia and Charm and we only learn more details about that much later in the novella. The first half of it was – and I’m sorry to have to use that word – boring. Zinnia and Evil Queen meet, have some rather predictable chat, threatening each other and so on, and only later do they actually stumble into their own adventure. The second half of the novella is where things get interesting. There’s some more world-hopping, jumping around Snow White this time, dangerous situations and difficult decisions to make. As lackluster as I found the beginning, the later bits made up for a lot of it.

That fight between Zinnia and Charm also gets adressed and while I’m not going to spoil anything here, it was about something that will have consequences for later books in this series – if it is meant to continue, that is. The ending was well-rounded but gave the novella a highly episodic feel and thus detracted a bit from the relationship between Eva and Zinnia. I don’t know if the series will go on, and if yes, how exactly that might look after the things we’ve learned in A Mirror Mended. I’d like more adventures through differente fairy tales but I was already missing the wit and clever references and especially the spark that made the first book so exciting.

But if Alix Harrow decides to write more, I will absolutely read more of her fractured fables. Even if they’re “only” good, they are still a great addition to any fairy tale lover’s library. If you’re looking for easy to digest diverse takes on fairy tales, you’ll be quite happy with these novellas.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

The State of SFF – June 2022

Welcome to June and a catch-up State of SFF!

Due to pregancy stuff (buying things for the baby, doctor’s appointments, and so on), I was too preoccupied to keep up with reading or revieweing or even posting anything at all. The good news is that everything is perfectly fine, we’re all healthy and happy, and we now know that our little baby is a boy. 🙂

As you can imagine, reading and blogging have simply not been my highest priority, but I hope to catch up on all those unwritten reviews and new TBR additions soon. “News” this months may be a little older as I’ve collected things that interested me from both April and May.

Quickie News

  • The Locus Award Finalists are out! The list isn’t surprising but it has all the most talked about and well liked books from 2021. I find it notable that Naomi Novik’s novel The Last Graduate is not listed as YA but as Fantasy Novel (as well it should be). You can find all the finalists here.

  • And so is the shortlist for the Nommo Awards. Here we see familiar names such as Tade Thompson, Nnedi Okorafor, and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, but also newer ones with books still on my TBR (looking especially hard at you, T.L. Huchu’s Library of the Dead!). The list is well worth checking out if you’re looking for interesting books to read.

  • In sadder news, Award-winning author Patricia McKillip died in early May. I have only read one of her books so far (The Forgotten Beasts of Eld), but it was a deeply touching one that made me look forward to exploring the rest of her work all the more.


The Nebula Award Winners Have Been Announced

Congratulations to all the finalists and of course the winners!

Best Novel went to P. DjèlĂ­ Clark for his novel A Master of Djinn and although it’s not my favorite work of his, I am thrilled that Clark won the Nebula. I hope he writes many more novels and novellas, whether they are set in his alternate version of Cairo or elsewhere. Congratulations!

Best Novella was a happy surprise in that a Neon Hemlock book won rather than a Tordotcom or Uncanny finalists (I love both of them dearly but variety is important!). Premee Mohamed’s And What Can We Offer You Tonight took home the award.

The Andre Norton Award for YA/Middle Grade Fiction went to Darcie Little Badger’s A Snake Falls to Earth which is also nominated for a Hugo (and I have yet to read it).

Best Novelette went to Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki for O2 Arena, and Best Short Story was taken by Sarah Pinsker for “Where Oaken Hearts do Gather”, another Hugo finalists that I haven’t read yet but am incredibly excited for. Ekpeki’s acceptance speech came last during the ceremony, due to connection issues (live from Nigeria), but otherwise, the ceremony went smoothly without any real technical mishaps.
And for another completely virtual event, it was quite lovely. Connie Willis is a treasure, with or without a live audience, and Neil Gaiman’s appearances were stellar as well.

You can find the list of all finalists and winners here.


Nimona is coming to Netflix

I picked up the Graphic Novel by ND Stevenson years ago but didn’t expect to fall in love with it as hard as I did. The story of a teenage shapeshifter who desperately wants to become a villain’s sidekick offers some twists and turns that make it not just funny, but heartwarming and even romantic. After some delays and ultimately a cancellation by Disney, Netflix is now taking on the job and bringing us the animated movie version of the beloved comic.

The movie is set to release in 2023, so we have some time to wait yet. But that doesn’t mean we can’t all be collectively excited, right?


The Mythopoeic Award Finalists 2022 Are Out (link opens PDF)

Of particular interest to me, because I just like this award, are the finalists for the 2022 Mythopoeic Award. Among them, you will recognize Hugo/Nebula/Locus finalists (or winners) but there’s also always some titles that other awards have overlooked or that simply do something particularly interesting with fairy tales, mythology, magical realism, and that kind of subgenre.

  • Katherine Addison – The Witness for the Dead (Tor, 2021)
  • Ryka Aoki – Light from Uncommon Stars (Tor Books, 2021)
  • P. DjèlĂ­ Clark – A Master of Djinn (Tordotcom, 2021)
  • Susanna Clarke – Piranesi (Bloomsbury, 2020)
  • Garth Nix – Terciel and Elinor (Katherine Tegen Books, 2021)
  • Jo Walton – Or What You Will (Tor 2020)

Congratulations to the finalists. I’m particularly happy to see Piranesi on here and I am now highyl interested in Jo Walton’s Or What You Will.


Books From the Future (or: Feed Your Wishlist)

It’s great to know what books we can buy very soon (like the ones in the section below) but I also find it really nice to have something to look forward to that’s still far in the future. Such as these three books I’ve chosen for this month’s section of “I’ll be giddily awaiting you for about a year and staring at your covers longingly until then”:

  • T. J. Klune is bringing us In the Lives of Puppets, a Pinocchio inspired and probably heartwarming tale that I cannot miss. Set to come out at in March 2023. Sidenote: I love the covers for his books so much!
  • Margaret Owen revealed the cover for Painted Devils, the May 2023 sequel to her amazing Little Thieves. I cannot get over how good that book was and how perfectly the cover for the new one fits the series (the author does them herself, as well as the inside illustrations so I shouldn’t be surprised).
  • Lastly, Kelly Barnhill’s The Crane Husband was announced and it not only sounds up my alley but also has a lovely cover to offer. A gender-flipped fairy tale with a recommendation from Cat Valente is an auto-buy if I’ve ever seen one. We’ll have to wait for February 2023, though.

Exciting June Publications

I’m a little said I missed the May edition fo this blog feature, so I’ll just casually drop some titles you may have missed last month: Maggie Stiefvater’s Bravely, Holly Black’s adult debut Book of Night, Nghi Vo’s Siren Queen, Guy Gavriel Kay’s All the Seas of the World,

J. M. MIRO – ORDINARY MONSTERS (June 7th)

“Labyrinthine” is a buzzword I just can’t resist. Add to that orphans, gaslit streets of London, crime, and superpowers, and I’m all yours.

A STUNNING NEW WORK OF HISTORICAL FANTASY, J. M. MIRO’S ORDINARY MONSTERS INTRODUCES READERS TO THE DARK, LABYRINTHINE WORLD OF THE TALENTS

England, 1882. In Victorian London, two children with mysterious powers are hunted by a figure of darkness—a man made of smoke.

Sixteen-year-old Charlie Ovid, despite a brutal childhood in Mississippi, doesn’t have a scar on him. His body heals itself, whether he wants it to or not. Marlowe, a foundling from a railway freight car, shines with a strange bluish light. He can melt or mend flesh. When a jaded female detective is recruited to escort them to safety, all three begin a journey into the nature of difference, and belonging, and the shadowy edges of the monstrous.

What follows is a story of wonder and betrayal, from the gaslit streets of London, and the wooden theatres of Meiji-era Tokyo, to an eerie estate outside Edinburgh where other children with gifts – the Talents – have been gathered. There, the world of the dead and the world of the living threaten to collide. And as secrets within the Institute unfurl, Marlowe, Charlie and the rest of the Talents will discover the truth about their abilities, and the nature of what is stalking them: that the worst monsters sometimes come bearing the sweetest gifts.

Riveting in its scope, exquisitely written, Ordinary Monsters presents a catastrophic vision of the Victorian world—and of the gifted, broken children who must save it.


ROSE SZABO – WE ALL FALL DOWN (June 7th)

I’m approachign this one with caution as early reviews had a lot to say about the representation of the Black character in this story. But I’m also still interested enough to want ot make up my own mind.

The first book in a dark fantasy YA duology by Rose Szabo, the author of What Big Teeth, about the power and danger of stories and the untold costs of keeping magic alive, perfect for fans of Aiden Thomas and Marie Rutkoski.

In River City, where magic used to thrive and is now fading, the witches who once ruled the city along with their powerful King have become all but obsolete. The city’s crumbling government is now controlled primarily by the new university and teaching hospital, which has grown to take over half of the city.

Moving between the decaying Old City and the ruthless New, four young queer people struggle with the daily hazards of life—work, school, dodging ruthless cops and unscrupulous scientists—not realizing that they have been selected to play in an age-old drama that revives the flow of magic through their world. When a mysterious death rocks their fragile peace, the four are brought into each other’s orbits as they uncover a deeper magical conspiracy.

Devastating, gorgeous, and utterly unique, We All Fall Down examines the complex network of pain created by power differentials, even between people who love each other—and how it is possible to be queer and turn out just fine.


KATHERINE ADDISON – THE GRIEF OF STONES (June 14th)

More Goblin Emperor world is always a win. In this case, we get a direct sequel to Witness for the Dead which follows Celehar. I love this world and its characters, so this is a must-buy.

In The Grief of Stones, Katherine Addison returns to the world of The Goblin Emperor with a direct sequel to The Witness For The Dead

Celehar’s life as the Witness for the Dead of Amalo grows less isolated as his circle of friends grows larger. He has been given an apprentice to teach, and he has stumbled over a scandal of the city—the foundling girls. Orphans with no family to claim them and no funds to buy an apprenticeship. Foundling boys go to the Prelacies; foundling girls are sold into service, or worse.

At once touching and shattering, Celehar’s witnessing for one of these girls will lead him into the depths of his own losses. The love of his friends will lead him out again.


ALIX E. HARROW – A MIRROR MENDED (June 14th)

Look, until Harrow somehow writes a truly terrible book, I’ll be reading all her stuff. Her fractured fairy tales are especially nice. Bite-sized twists on the stories I’ve loved since childhood with social commentary and lots of references. I guess you have to like that sort of thing but if you do you’ll be very happy with this series. ETA: Aaaand I just got an ARC of this which I will be devouring during my holiday in Southern Italy. 🙂

A Mirror Mended is the next installment in USA Today bestselling author Alix E. Harrow’s Fractured Fables series.

Zinnia Gray, professional fairy-tale fixer and lapsed Sleeping Beauty, is over rescuing snoring princesses. Once you’ve rescued a dozen damsels and burned fifty spindles, once you’ve gotten drunk with twenty good fairies and made out with one too many members of the royal family, you start to wish some of these girls would just get a grip and try solving their own narrative issues.

Just when Zinnia’s beginning to think she can’t handle one more princess, she glances into a mirror and sees another face looking back at her: the shockingly gorgeous face of evil, asking for her help. Because there’s more than one person trapped in a story they didn’t choose. Snow White’s Evil Queen has found out how her story ends, and she’s desperate for a better ending. She wants Zinnia to help her before it’s too late for everyone. Will Zinnia accept the Queen’s poisonous request and save them both from the hot-iron shoes that wait for them, or will she try another path?


A. G. SLATTER – THE PATH OF THORNS (June 14th)

Angela Slatter’s spiritual successor to All the Murmuring Bones (which, btw, you should all check out and here’s why) is another tale with gothic vibes. It sounds like part Jane Eyre, part Jekyll and Hyde, part fairy tale and if that doesn’t intrigue you, I don’t know what to say.

Alone in the world, Asher Todd travels to the remote estate of Morwood Grange to become governess to three small children. Her sole possessions comprise a sea chest and a large carpet bag she hangs onto for dear life. She finds a fine old home, its inhabitants proud of their lineage and impeccable reputation, and a small village nearby. It seems an untroubled existence, yet there are portraits missing from the walls, locked rooms, and names excised from the family tree inscribed in the bible. In short order, the children adore her, she becomes indispensible to their father Luther in his laboratory, and her potions are able to restore the sight of granddame Leonora. Soon Asher fits in as if she’s always been there, but there are creatures that stalk the woods at night, spectres haunt the halls, and Asher is not as much a stranger to the Morwoods as it might at first appear.


AVA REID – JUNIPER & THORN (June 21st)

I enjoyed Reid’s debut novel, even though it had its flaws, but it also offered enough really good stuff for me to look forward to her newest book. Fairy tales, pitched as “for fans of Cat Valente” (we’ll see… we’ll see), and gothic horror all sounds excellent.

From highly acclaimed bestselling author Ava Reid comes a gothic horror retelling of The Juniper Tree, set in another time and place within the world of The Wolf and the Woodsman, where a young witch seeks to discover her identity and escape the domination of her wizard father, perfect for fans of Shirley Jackson and Catherynne M. Valente.

A gruesome curse. A city in upheaval. A monster with unquenchable appetites.

Marlinchen and her two sisters live with their wizard father in a city shifting from magic to industry. As Oblya’s last true witches, she and her sisters are little more than a tourist trap as they treat their clients with archaic remedies and beguile them with nostalgic charm. Marlinchen spends her days divining secrets in exchange for rubles and trying to placate her tyrannical, xenophobic father, who keeps his daughters sequestered from the outside world. But at night, Marlinchen and her sisters sneak out to enjoy the city’s amenities and revel in its thrills, particularly the recently established ballet theater, where Marlinchen meets a dancer who quickly captures her heart.

As Marlinchen’s late-night trysts grow more fervent and frequent, so does the threat of her father’s rage and magic. And while Oblya flourishes with culture and bustles with enterprise, a monster lurks in its midst, borne of intolerance and resentment and suffused with old-world power. Caught between history and progress and blood and desire, Marlinchen must draw upon her own magic to keep her city safe and find her place within it.


SAARA EL-ARIFI – THE FINAL STRIFE (June 23rd)

This was on my wishlist before that cover was revealed, but I’ll be honest, this cover would have been enough for me to want that book. The story doesn’t sound all that original but it has a trial of combat and skill and I always enjoy reading about competitions of some kind, especially when in a fantasy seetting.

In the first book of a visionary African and Arabian-inspired fantasy trilogy, three women band together against a cruel Empire that divides people by blood.

Red is the blood of the elite, of magic, of control.

Blue is the blood of the poor, of workers, of the resistance.

Clear is the blood of the servants, of the crushed, of the invisible.

Sylah dreams of days growing up in the resistance, being told she would spark a revolution that would free the Empire from the red-blooded ruling classes’ tyranny. That spark was extinguished the day she watched her family murdered before her eyes.

Anoor has been told she’s nothing, no one, a disappointment by the only person who matters: her mother, the most powerful ruler in the Empire. But dust always rises in a storm.

Hassa moves through the world unseen by upper classes, so she knows what it means to be invisible. But invisibility has its uses: It can hide the most dangerous of secrets, secrets that can reignite a revolution.

As the Empire begins a set of trials of combat and skill designed to find its new leaders, the stage is set for blood to flow, power to shift, and cities to burn.


SAM J. MILLER – BOYS, BEASTS & MEN (June 14th)

I have an ARC of this, teehee. Sam J. Miller always comes up with the most interesting characters and ideas that are somehow unlike anything I’ve read before. So I can’t wait to dive into a whole collection of his short stories.

In Nebula Award-winning author Sam J. Miller’s devastating debut short-fiction collection, featuring an introduction by Amal El-Mohtar, queer infatuation, inevitable heartbreak, and brutal revenge seamlessly intertwine. Whether innocent, guilty, or not even human, the boys, beasts, and men roaming through Miller’s gorgeously crafted worlds can destroy readers, yet leave them wanting more.

“Miller’s sheer talent shines through in abundance . . . Boys, Beasts & Men is an outrageous journey which skillfully blends genres and will haunt you with its original, poetic voices as much as its victims, villains, and treasure trove of leading actors.”

—Grimdark Magazine

Despite his ability to control the ambient digital cloud, a foster teen falls for a clever con-man. Luring bullies to a quarry, a boy takes clearly enumerated revenge through unnatural powers of suggestion. In the aftermath of a shapeshifting alien invasion, a survivor fears that he brought something out of the Arctic to infect the rest of the world. A rebellious group of queer artists create a new identity that transcends even the anonymity of death.

Sam J. Miller (Blackfish City, The Art of Starving) shows his savage wit, unrelenting candor, and lush imagery in this essential career retrospective collection, taking his place alongside legends of the short-fiction form such as Carmen Maria Machado, Carson McCullers, and Jeff VanderMeer.


News from the blog

April was all about the Orilium Spring Equinox which means I readathon-ed myself successfully through the month and even managed to post a few reviews on time. More are to come soon!
May was less productive, blog-wise, and I mostly read non-fiction about breastfeeding and raising a child and such. Excellent books, but not exactly fitting for this blog. Thus the hiatus.

What I read last month(s):

I also read some novelettes and short stories but I won’t review them in detail so they don’t get their own seperate posts. I do talk about them briefly in my Orilium Readathon Wrap-Up.

Currently reading:

  • C.S.C. Cooney – Saint Death’s Daughter (ARC)
  • Sarah Gailey – Just Like Home (ARC)
  • C. L. Polk – Stormsong

I basically dropped everything in favor of my readathon book picks so now it’s time to catch up on those half-read books I’ve been dragging along. And I have a new Cat Valente middle grade adventure waiting here for me, so that will probably make an appearance soon as well.

Until next month: Stay safe, stay kind, and keep reading. 🙂

Fairy Tales, Poetry, Immigrants, and Feminism: Theodora Goss – Snow White Learns Witchcraft

I’ve been a fan of Theodora Goss’ writing ever since I picked up her gorgeous collection In the Forest of Forgetting. The author showed that she’s also really good at novels (which reminds me, I have to read the sequels to The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter!), and then she came back again with a mix of short fiction and poetry which promptly won her a Mythopoeic Award.

SNOW WHITE LEARNS WITCHCRAFT
by Theodora Goss

Published: Mythic Delirium Books, 2019
ebook:
276 pages
Short fiction collection
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: One day she looked into her mother’s mirror,
The face looing back was unavoidably old,
with wrinkles around the eyes and mouth.

A young woman hunts for her wayward shadow at the school where she first learned magic—while another faces a test she never studied for as ice envelopes the world. The tasks assigned a bookish boy lead him to fateful encounters with lizards, owls, trolls and a feisty, sarcastic cat. A bear wedding is cause for celebration, the spinning wheel and the tower in the briar hedge get to tell their own stories, and a kitchenmaid finds out that a lost princess is more than she seems. The sea witch reveals what she hoped to gain when she took the mermaid’s voice. A wiser Snow White sets out to craft herself a new tale.

In these eight stories and twenty-three poems, World Fantasy Award winner Theodora Goss retells and recasts fairy tales by Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Oscar Wilde. Sometimes harrowing, sometimes hilarious, always lyrical, the works gathered in Snow White Learns Witchcraft re-center and empower the women at the heart of these timeless narratives.

As someone who doesn’t easily like poetry, not even from my most favorite of authors, I will be focusing much more on the prose stories found in this collection. But I do want to say that most poems aren’t the rhyming type anyway and can be read like very, very short stories. For that reason, I quite enjoyed many of them, even though they are usually over too quickly for me to have any deep feelings about them. But the stories… The stories, I tell you!

Goss tackles many of the most well-known fairy tales such as Snow White, the Little Mermaid, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the Snow Queen. But she also picks up some lesser known ones, like Frau Holle (known as Mother Holle in English, I think) or The White Cat. So whether you’re a veteran of fairy tales and retellings or coming to this pretty new, there will be elements you recognize and there will be things that are few and fresh to you. In those cases where very well-known tales are respun, we usually get an interesting shift in perspective. And by “interesting”, I mean something more than just the villain’s POV – although there is that, too.

So what makes Goss’s way of twisting and retelling fairy tales any different or better than the myriad other versions out there? It’s a question of taste, certainly, but I loved how I thought I mostly knew where the story was going twist-wise and then things happened a little differently, after all. It’s not like the tales are filled with shocking twists or surprise moments, not at all. It’s just that the little tweaks work really well and it is precisely their subtlety that makes them shine.

I also liked how migration is a quiet thread that runs through the collection and it makes sense given the author’s Hungarian roots. Some stories focus more on giving an actual immigrant’s perspective, others just mention it briefly, yet others don’t touch on the topic at all. But it was nice reading about Baba Yaga as well as Snow White’s evil stepmother (who’s not really evil and doesn’t care that much about beauty in the first place).
It’s also quite wonderful how the female characters in this collection manage to be feminist without having to make any overly grand gestures. Sometimes it’s as simple as not being hateful to another woman, sometimes it’s realizing that letting your beauty be judged by men and yourself be put into competition with people who should be your allies (read: other women) is stupid and you’re just not going to play along! (After having just read Iron Widow which showed the complete opposite, this was a refreshing and delightful contrast for me.)

This book was also one of those rare occasions when I get to read a fairy tale that is completely new to me. “Blanchefleur” is a retelling of “The White Cat”, a fairy tale I had heard of but never actually read myself. So it was extra nice to discover, recognizing all the usual fairy tale trappings (rule of three, penniless boy rising up to great heights, etc.) but in a new and interesting way. I also love how, in fairy tales, we don’t question when cats speak to us or do the laundry. And suddenly just aren’t cats at all, but human-looking women.

This collection isn’t one that makes a big bang. Its strength is in its simplicity, its subtle twists, its loving care for the characters that we otherwise know to be rather shallow and one-dimensional. Goss stayed true to herself and still manages to create atmosphere using very few words, but she has also grown so much! Her stories read like fairy tales that have grown up a bit, fairy tales that know what they are and that are questioning themselves and their purpose. And that, without epic battles or shocking twists, makes for a delightful reading experience.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!

Nothing New At The Scholomance: Naomi Novik – The Last Graduate

Publisher-generated hype can be very detrimental to a book’s success, especially when it builds up the wrong expectations. A generally very good book can end up disappointing its readers, simply because they were led to believe that it would tell a different kind of story. In the case of the Scholomance, this curse follows Novik even to her second book, which is fun to read but has very little to offer in terms of what was promised.

THE LAST GRADUATE
by Naomi Novik

Published: Del Rey, 2021
ebook:
389 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 26 minutes
Series: The Scholomance #2
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: Keep far away from Orion Lake.

The specter of graduation looms large as Naomi Novik’s trilogy continues in the sequel to A Deadly Education.

In Wisdom, Shelter. That’s the official motto of the Scholomance. I suppose you could even argue that it’s true—only the wisdom is hard to come by, so the shelter’s rather scant.
Our beloved school does its best to devour all its students—but now that I’ve reached my senior year and have actually won myself a handful of allies, it’s suddenly developed a very particular craving for me. And even if I somehow make it through the endless waves of maleficaria that it keeps throwing at me in between grueling homework assignments, I haven’t any idea how my allies and I are going to make it through the graduation hall alive.
Unless, of course, I finally accept my foretold destiny of dark sorcery and destruction. That would certainly let me sail straight out of here. The course of wisdom, surely.
But I’m not giving in—not to the mals, not to fate, and especially not to the Scholomance. I’m going to get myself and my friends out of this hideous place for good—even if it’s the last thing I do.

I was skeptical from the beginning when I started reading Naomi Novik’s first Scholomance book but reviews had warned me of the info-dumping beginning, unlikable protagonist, and cultural insensitivities. I ended up really enjoying the first book but only once Novik started showing us the dangers of the school first-hand and put the characters in truly dangerous situations. I honestly didn’t feel like the information we got in the first book was “dumped” so much as delivered by El but the focus of the book was never pure action.

Now this second book had it a bit harder. With the Scholomance set up (although many, many parts of it make no sense at all and I still don’t understand how this world is supposed to work), the stakes needed to be repositioned. El and her friends are in their final year with graduation looming above everyone’s head like a big sword dripping blood. El’s former plan – make it out of the Scholomance alive and don’t become an evil Maleficer in the process – has changed a lot. Now she intends to be a Big Damn Hero and save everyone.

The bulk of the book is – yet again – not school life, lessons, not even really exciting fights against monsters, but rather lots of talk and politics and making alliances. Now I personally actually like that kind of stuff, but I must admit it wasn’t what I expected from this “adult magic school series”. The politicking and planning and making plans on how to graduate were fun to read and I mostly looked forward to getting back to the book whenever I took a break. But it felt like a broken promise, nonetheless.

I had also hoped that the world building and magic system would be described in more detail in this book, that we’d learn more things about how this secret magic society works. Rudimentary information would have sufficed, to be honest, because I still don’t understand how everyday life outside the Scholomance works for witches and wizards.
We got some insight into how the school works and also about what drives the mals but I wouldn’t say that I have a good idea of the world this series takes place in, nor its magical society. Originally, I thought thi would be a longer series (yes, I admit, that assumption was influenced by that most famous wizard boy and his seven book series) but the trilogy will be concluded with The Golden Enclaves, which comes out this September. So it’s not like there’s a lot of pages left to do some proper world building. And if this is all we get, I am far from impressed!

As fun as the plot of the book was to read, the characters were treated with even less love than in the first novel. I’m not going to comment on the diversity aspect much, other than that I enjoy reading about well-written diverse characters, but no matter their heritage, skin color, cultural background, or native language, the side characters all remained incredibly pale (no pun intended). Only at the end of the book do we get a little bit more from a couple of side characters than just them existing alongside El. Even Orion, the main love interest, feels like a parody of himself. He, too, only gets to be a proper person when the book is almost over and El finally talks to him like she’s taking him seriously, like he’s a full human being with his own hopes and dreams.

Novik has apparently also lost her ability to write good romantic scenes. Not one single kiss made me feel anything at all and the sex scene was just meh from beginning to end. As this is only a small part of the novel, normally I wouldn’t even mention it, but I have swooned over Novik’s romantic scenes in Uprooted and Spinning Silver and was thus expecting her to keep up that level of quality, if not raise it.
El’s interactions with Orion, although she clearly feels something for him, still read like she’s always annoyed with him. If she’s in love with him, she’s treating him terribly and I don’t appreciate how she is constantly making hurtful comments, acting like he’s beneath her, or like he’s an idiot. If she’s not in love with him, why the hell play with his feelings like that? Either way, it makes me dislike El on a whole new level, no matter how many lives she intends to save. If that’s how she treats her closest friends/potential boyfriend, then I’d rather not know her at all…

The ending wasn’t really surprising. Many reviews warned of the “shocking cliffhanger” but really, I found it quite obvious what was going to happen, at least after a certain point in the novel that offered such on-the-nose foreshadowing it was hard to miss. Had I been more invested in the characters and their relationships, it still might have shocked me but as Novik kept them all at arm’s lenght, I didn’t much care either way. Plus, I’m sure the next novel is going to fix everything and wrap things up extra tidily.

To sum up my feelings: I enjoyed the reading (or rather: listening) experience but it didn’t offer anything new in terms of worldbuilding or character development, so I don’t see how this instalment helps the series progress in any meaningful way. I am also still not convinced that this is a YA novel/series. If anything, this second book has less crossover appeal than the first. As for my Lodestar ballot, despite me having enjoyed the book, I will once again leave it off completely as, in my opinion, it shouldn’t win an award in a category it does not belong in.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

Orilium Magical Readathon: Spring Equinox 2022 – Wrap-Up

I’m a bit late to the wrap-up party (okay, very late!) but better now then never, right? Here’s how the Orilium Magical Readathon in April went for me and my character.

Like every one of G’s readathons, this was a brilliant, fun event that had so much more to offer than just a list of reading prompts. The entire community is lovely, there were side quests and Twitter adventures, Instagram challenges, and the feeling of building a character and giving them a story to live – all by doing what we love to do anyway: reading books.


The Spring Equinox Syllabus + Guild Points

Our first semester at Orilium Academy felt both familiar and fresh at the same time. I really enjoyed following the syllabus for my chosen calling of Scribe, but when I saw I was doing quite well and could fit in a couple more books, I got swept up by the side quests. I wasn’t a fan of the ones you had to claim quickly because, inevitably, other people are always faster on Twitter than I am, and time zone differences can make it hard to even be online when quests are published, but G offered up a few quests that were open to everyone throughout the month and that is where I pounced. Gotta get me some Guild points, after all.

Classes for my Calling

The first five are classes were the ones I needed to take for my chosen calling of Scribe, the rest is extra credit work. It’s just so have I have some options should I change my mind next semester about what my calling should be. I’m mostly set on becoming a Scribe but that Rogue Illusionist does tickle my fancy…

BOOK TITLECLASSREADING PROMPT
V.E. Schwab – GallantInscriptionan intimidating read
Theodora Goss – Snow White Learns WitchcraftSpells & Incantationsa collection
Roshani Chokshi – The Star-Touched Queen Loremythology-based
Jessica Townsend – Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan CrowRestorationincludes healers
Fran Wilde – Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.Elemental Studiesunder 100 pages
Charlie Jane Anders – Victories Greater Than DeathPsionics & Divinationset in the future
Oghenehevwe Donald Ekpeki – O2 ArenaArt of Illusiona trope you like
Tamsyn Muir – Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Towerclaws on cover
Suzanne Palmer – Bots of the Lost ArkAnimal Studiesa quick read

Side Quests for Guild Points

QUEST TITLEREADING PROMPTBOOK TITLE
Scroll of Standstillread a 5 star predictionXiran Jay Zhao – Iron Widow
Fire Weasel in Dangerread a book by a new-to-you authorAdrian Tchaikovsky – Elder Race
Rare Ingredientread a book with the letter D in the titleSeanan McGuire – Across the Green Grass Fields
Ammelorite Samplepurple coverAmie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff – Memento

The side quests were fun and I only read one truly short work for these prompts. The rest were a novel and two novellas (and for novellas, they were on the bigger side).

I did quite well when it comes to the amount of books (I was generous and counted novelettes as books) but most of them were rather short because I’m still a little preoccupied with, you know, carrying a baby inside of me, and reading time isn’t as easy to come by as it used to. But I am proud of what I did achieve.

Books read: 13

Pages read: 2990

Tallying those Guild Points:

  • Finishing the Novice Path: 50 pts
  • Finishing the Spring Equinox: 50 pts
  • Fire Weasel Quest: 10 pts
  • Rare Ingredient Quest: 10 pts
  • Scroll of Standstill Quest: 10 pts
  • Ammelorite Sample Quest: 10 pts
  • TOTAL: 140 pts

My Character

Sistani has passed all obstacles so far and is well on her way to pursue her calling of Scribe. She finished all the necessary classes and, in true Archivist Guild fashion, added some more coursework because studying is fun. But she also likes to spend time with friends, meet new people, and explore places, so she didn’t manage to do the entire syllabus (secretly, she really wanted to, though).

  • Name: Sistani
  • Background: Urban
  • Heritage: Half-Iltirian, Half-Elf
  • Province: Kerador
  • Guild: The Archivists
    • Guild Legacy: Ausra, Goddess of Dawn and New Beginnings
    • Conduit: Staff
    • Tier: Assistant
  • Calling: Scribe

Within her Guild – The Archivists – she has become a little better known, although she is by no means a household name. She did a fair job going questing, mostly because the quests were fun little adventures that could be taken on with other students. For the next semester, she has gained some small perks that will make life at Orilium Academy just a little bit easier.

Sistani also participated in the Twitter quiz and she even got many questions right, but – alas – was usually too slow for them to count. Our Guild tied in third place during that Twitter battle and while that’s a bit sad, it was also super fun and exciting! Better train those typing fingers until next semester.


The Books (the long part)

For Elemental Studies, I technically read several stories. The prompt was to read a book under 100 pages and since I was unsure of what counted as a book in this case, I read some short stories before I officially picked a novelette. Unseelie Brothers, Ltd. by Fran Wilde is a “book” on Goodreads so it should have me covered for this prompt. I enjoyed this novelette about a young fashion designer getting the chance to make dresses for the magically appearing designers Unseelie Brothers, Ltd. She uncovers some secrets from the past and forges her own future. It wasn’t wildly original but fun to read, nonetheless. (40 pages)

For my Inscription course, I picked up Gallant by V.E.Schwab and was disappointed pretty much all the way. This book had no substance and would have been served better as a short story. It was blown out of proportion by the (beautiful!) artwork, endless repetitions of the same few lines – journal entries that sometimes took up entire pages – and didn’t take any time setting up a proper premise, conflict, its characters and their relationships to each other, or indeed a satisfying ending. Everything about this was botched (except the art) and it felt like Schwab just desperately wanted to publish something, no matter what, and threw this together without love or care.
(310 pages)

Jessica Townsend’s third Nevermoor adventure Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow was my read for the class of Restoration for which the book needed to include healers. A story about a mysterious disease turned out to be the right choice. I also listened to the audiobook version of a Nevermoor book for the first time and was quite taken with the voices and accents narrator Gemma Whelan does. I still love this series even if I felt this volume took a while to get going and was a bit unfocused at times. It’s great fun and I will continue reading this middle grade series. (I had a typo here, calling it “middle great” and that actually sums the book up pretty well.)
(560 pages)

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi was a huge disappointment. Very much a beginner’s effort with almost no plot, terribly shallow characters, little to no world-building, but all the more cheesy purple prose. The insta-lovers tell each other so many sappy things and declare their undying love in such roundabout, wannabe-poetic ways, I mostly just found it ridiculous. The story makes no sense, female characters shame and hurt each other, and it’s all about the hot magical guy wanting the girl for no discernible reason. I did like the horse character, though.
(352 pages)

Next up was Snow White Learns Witchcraft by Theodora Goss. I had read collections from this author before (In the Forest of Forgetting is a big recommendation!) and since she won the Mythopoeic Award for this one, I was very excited to fill my Spells & Incantations prompt with this book. An author I like doing twisted fairy tales?I mean, this basically screamed 5-star-prediction at me! It turned out pretty damn great as well. I didn’t like all the poetry (poetry is so hard to get right) but I loved the stories all the more. Feminist, thoughtful, and modern in ways you don’t see coming.
(276 pages)

For some extra credit work, I combined my Hugo/Lodestar reading with the Spring Equinox. Psionics and Divination was fulfilled by reading Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders. This fast-paced YA debut was definitely worth the audiobook because the narration is great. The story itself felt surprisingly black and white for someone of Anders’ skill and I got the feeling she didn’t quite feel at home writing for this new audience. It was exciting and had some neat ideas, but overall I’d call it only good but not great.
(300 pages)

I hadn’t intended to take the Animal Studies class but Hugo Award reading made it so easy. Bots of the Lost Ark by Suzanne Palmer is another novelette and this one was about the AI and robots currently steering a space ship whose human crew is in cryo sleep after an attack. I loved the portrayal of the bots as well as the central conflict, but the writing was a bit hard to get into. This was a lot of fun and currently resides near the top of my Hugo ballot. It also makes me want to read Palmer’s longer work!
(35 pages)

I threw in another last minute novelette, O2 Arena by Oghenechevwe Donald Ekpeki in order to take my Art of Illusion class. I liked the writing in this climate fiction novelette but I honestly didn’t find any of the ideas or the plot to be original or fresh. Oxygen is a commodity and people have to sacrifice all else just for the right to keep breathing, and there are arenas where you can actually fight someone to the death for a chance to win a lifetime supply of O2 – which is also used as a currency for everyday transactions. I did like the world building and writing style but otherwise, this was only an okay read.
(18 pages)

For the Shapeshifting class, I picked another fairy tale with a twist, Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir. This was very different from Gideon and Harrow the Ninth but I loved the way our princess protagonist is forced to change from wilting flower waiting for a prince to save her into a woman who takes matters into her own hands. Her hate/love relationship with the fairy Cobweb was also delightful. As fairy tale twists go, it wasn’t my top favorite but I had a lot of fun exploring forty flights of monsters alongside Floralinada and I’d definitely recommend it.
(209 pages)


QUESTS

Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky was my first foray into this author’s fiction and my book pick for the Guild Quest Fire Weasel in Danger. It had a few really cool ideas but, given the hype surrounding this author, I had expected a lot more when it comes to the characters. They mostly remained flat and one-dimensional, except for the male protagonist, who I felt for deeply. But storywise, this wasn’t super impressive and will end up on the lower half of my Hugo Awards ballot.
(204 pages)

For my second Guild Quest Rare Ingredient, I went with another Hugo finalists, Seanan McGuire’s Across the Green Grass Fields. And this one surprised me in all the best ways. It’s probably my favorite novella in this series so far! Protagonist Regan was easy to love, the way McGuire describes the cruelty of young girls was utterly heartbreaking, and the home Regan finds in her portal world, the Hooflands, was warm and lovely. If only it weren’t for those treacherous doors…
(208 pages)

For the Scroll of Standstill Quest, I had to pick a five star prediction and I couldn’t have gone more wrong than choosing Iron Widow by YouTuber Xiran Jay Zhao. I honestly thought this Pacific Rim story about a girl smashing the patriarchy would be great but it had no plot to speak of, very little character development, the twists were obvious, and the polyamorous romance wasn’t really one. Plus, the feminist message is loud but only in the telling. We are shown women who tear each other down, insult and hate each other, and only one of them gets to shine – our special snowflake protagonist who is better than everyone else (literally). Fun to read because of cool battles and romantic kisses and such but ultimately not a good book.
(394 pages)

The Ammelorite Sample Quest was a pure gift. I had to read a book with a purple cover, so I finally went with Memento by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, a prequel to the Illuminae Files Trilogy. It was short, it was snappy, it was great! AIDAN is always a win, there were even a few shocking moments here, and I just loved the way this story was told through scripts and chat protocols just like the big novels in the series. It made me want to re-read the entire triogy all over again.
(84 pages)


So this was it, my Spring Equinox 2022. Would I have liked to read more and/or bigger books? Sure. Am I proud that I accomplished as much as I did? Hell, yeah!

I can’t wait for August 2022 at the Orilium Academy! Ambitions are high, the TBR is gigantic, let’s see if I can get my grades to soar equally. I will also be fully at home by them (in Austria, you are not allowed to work starting two months prior to the expected date of your child’s birth) so time shouldn’t be a problem and I also won’t have a newborn to take care of just yet. The question is how I’ll be feeling physically and if I’ll be up for a big readathon. For now, I’m excited and optimistic that I’ll smash all my goals.

I look forward to seeing you all at Orilium Academy during the Fall Equinox. 🙂

Pacific Rim meets The Hamfisted Handmaid’s Tale: Xiran Jay Zhao – Iron Widow

I fully expected to adore this book. I mean Pacific Rim, as silly as the premise may be, is just pure fun. Mixing that with feminist themes, a protagonist who dismantles the patriarchy, and has a poly romance as well – it almost sounded too good to be true. And it turns out, it was. There were aspects of this book I enjoyed, but others (important ones!) were terribly flawed or underdeveloped. Which leads me to one of those unpopular opinion ratings. I feel like I’m not allowed to have disliked this book because the internet seems to love it on principle, but I want to be honest here and it just didn’t deliver what it promised.

IRON WIDOW
by Xiran Jay Zhao

Published: Rock the Boat, 2021
Hardcover: 394 pages
Audiobook: 12 hours 14 minutes
Series: Iron Widow #1
My rating: 4/10

Opening line: The Hunduns were coming. A whole herd of them, rumbling across the wilds, stirring up a dark storm of dust through the night.

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

A story such as this, which is meant to show a strong girl protagonist smashing the patriarchy and disrupting existing power structures, needs a solid basis. We need to know how this world works first, in order for us to watch Zetian take it apart in a satisfying manner. That is unfortunately the first problem this book has, although it tries to distract us from this fact with lots of shiny things that grab our attention briefly. What little we know about the world and the ongoing war is this:
Humans are battling the alien mecha Hunduns using Chrysalises (Pacific Rim robots) that are steered by a man/woman team, whereas the man is usually in controll and the woman frequently dies because the mental connection between them is too much to bear. They use qi powers, although I still don’t understand how or what the different sub-types of qi really mean, even after finishing this book. It felt like a PokĂ©mon style addition but without making much sense. There’s wood qi and water qi and one is good against fire and one against air and so on, but I couldn’t really explain it to you if I tried.
The fact that women pilots are used mostly as cannon fodder is accepted by the entire society because family get some money for sending their daughters to become pilots and male pilots need the women’s qi power in order to complement their own – much stronger – powers when driving the Chrysalises. Nobody except for our tenacious heroine (who has grown up in exactly the same society as everyone else in this book) questions this or finds anything with the tradition of sending your daughters and sisters to their sudden death.

But the very fact that Zetian is not like other girls (oh please, I thought we were past that!) kicks off the plot. She is fine with going to her own certain death, as long as she can avenge her sister who was killed by one of the most famous pilots in the land. Her plan is to become his female pilot, kill him and then die in the process or get executed afterward. Of course it then turns out she is MOAR POWERFUL THAN ANYONE because although she does succeed in killing the guy, she herself survives and becomes a Chrysalis pilot herself, an Iron Widow.
She is then paired with the single most powerful pilot currently living, Li Shimin. They measure this stuff in qi points or something – but this guy also happens to be forced to wear a muzzle and have a serious drinking problem. But right from the start you can tell that he is just a tortured superhero who is wrongfully seen as dangerous. I don’t have a problem with this trope, in fact I enjoyed this part of the book, but let’s just say it wasn’t exactly subtle or surprising. And it’s a little cheap that it turns out everything bad about this characters (or indeed, our protagonist) is totally not their fault. They’re perfect really. Any perceived flaws are soneone else’s fault…

Zetian also still has her old love interest Yizhi who follows her into the pilots’ program and sort of helps from the sidelines while swooning over her. One major marketing aspect of this book is the polyamory relationship but, honestly, I didn’t buy it. There wasn’t really anything there. Zetian kisses one guy, then the other, then they talk about it openly – which, granted, is very nice and mature and happens way too rarely in books or on TV – and everyone’s like “guess I’m okay with it then”. But plot convenience takes over immediately because this threeway relationship is never actually tested and can’t be appreciated at all. There are no actual romantic scenes with all three of them, there’s no chance for any of them to even get jealous, there’s simply romantic scenes with Zetian and Yizhi, and there’s romantic scenes with Zetian and Shimin. I’m not the expert on poly relationships, but this depiction felt disingenuous, like the author just didn’t want a love triangel (given how many other tired tropes they used) and so decided to just roll with both M/F relationships and have the guys sort of agree to this arrangement. I don’t want to spoil things but the ending makes it feel even cheaper.

Another thing that made me sad was how this supposedly feminist book handles its female characters. And I don’t mean the obviously terrible sacrifice of young girls that nobody seems to object to. I mean how Zetian thinks and talks about other girls, how they are shown – as conniving, idiotic bitches, as girls too stupid to understand anything, or too blinded and too conformist to use their brain. Only Zetian is smart, only she sees through the VERY OBVIOUS rigging of the entire system. I’m all for romance in my SFF, but I’ll take a good female friendship or at the very least some good female characters over a shallow poly relationships any day. I found this actually the most devestating thing in a book that is sold as “feminist”.
Zetian could have been such a great character. I mean, she’s pretty ruthless, she needs a cane and later a wheelchair because her family broke and bound her feet (beauty standards and all that) and she isn’t swayed easily by nice words. In short: She is damn interesting! I may not have wanted to be her friend, but I appreciated her strong will and her determination. Except she frequently turns on her fellow women – the ones she is supposedly trying to save – thinking of them as sluts or morons. And then toward the end of the book, she does several 180-turns in a row, one to do with her family, one to do with her general view of the world and whether she cares about what others think about her. It felt like a betrayal. By that point, I was already annoyed at the way she is depicted as oh so special and the only girl worth anything in this world, but that was just inconsistent and unnecessary.

So what did I like then, you might ask yourself? Well, as with most stories about gigantic magical mecha monsters fighting mecha aliens, this one had pretty cool battle scenes. It does rely heavily on Pacific Rim, even with the “drift compatibility” being represented as the mind connection between pilots and a sort of balance of Yin and Yang, but that doesn’t make the idea and the battles any less cool.
The writing was compelling, things happen quickly, and the author creates a sense of urgency in any given scene that makes it hard to put the book down. It may turn out the scene you just read is pretty meaningless overall, but books are allowed to be just fun. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
I also really enjoyed how the romantic scenes were written. I can get annoyed pretty quickly when characters throw cheesy lines at each other with no basis, just to sound dramatic and meaningful. So it was refreshing to have such no-nonsense people (although the boys are very one-dimensional) simply go for it without any fuss. And I liked the kissing. 🙂

As for the plot… it’s a bit of a mess. First of all, the big twist from the epilogue can be guessed way ahead of time and isn’t exactly an original or fresh idea. But that isn’t even all that important for this volume, it’s only set up for the second book. This book deals with Zetian discovering some similarly obvious things that are not only hard to believe but also shouldn’t have to be uncovered by an 18-year-old girl. Well, if everyone else is utterly stupid, then that makes sense, I suppose. You see, the battles and the dialogues between characters don’t really advance anything. They are fun to read, as I said above, but ultimately meaningless for the plot. When Zetian does find out some devastating truth, it’s simply presented or rather dumped on the reader. As all of these revelations can be guessed beforehand, this didn’t bother me that much. After all, I was just getting confirmation for what I had suspected all along. And I’m not trying to make myself sound clever here, it really is that on the nose!
But as the world building doesn’t really advance and we don’t learn new things about the Hunduns, qi magic, or how the Chrysalises came to be, that’s all the plot there is.

Sooooo, I read this for a readathon prompt that asks you to read a “five star prediction” and I think I don’t have to say more about that. I doubt I will read the sequel to this, even if the cover is pretty and reviews throw around buzz words. As I’ve learned yet again, just because a book wants to be something (feminist, original, featuring a poly relationship) doesn’t mean it actually succeeds. I didn’t hate reading this. It was quite a bit of light fun that smashes you across the head with ostentatiously feminist messages every other chapter, but as for rating it, especially as a Lodestar Award finalist, this sits firmly at the bottom of my ballot for now.

Because I want to end this review on a more positive note: For a good poly romance and female characters who don’t tear each other down in the name of “raising each other up”, check out the underknown but totally worthwile sci-fi novel Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi! Or, in fact, that one part of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season that I can’t explain in more detail for fear of spoilers. But reading that book is a good idea anyway, for whatever reason you choose. 🙂

MY RATING: 4/10 – Pretty bad

Lots of Telling, no Showing: Roshani Chokshi – The Star-Touched Queen

I had high hopes for this YA adventure. I was promised a loose Hades and Persephone retelling, I was promised Indian mythology inspired stuff, fairy tale vibes, and a romance. What I got was a trip to YA trope land with bad writing and lots of plot problems. But also with some potential. Even for a debut novel, this wasn’t very good, but it also wasn’t bad enough for me to write off the author completely.

THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN
by Roshani Chokshi

Published: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016
eBook: 352 pages
Series: The Star-Touched Queen #1
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: Staring at the sky in Bharata was like exchanging a secret.

Fate and fortune. Power and passion. What does it take to be the queen of a kingdom when you’re only seventeen?

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…

But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.

Things start out well enough. Maya is a Princess who is cursed with a really, really bad horoscope in a world and culture where people put stock into such things. When the stars promise that you’ll be married to Death, suitors don’t exactly come knocking by the dozens, the other girls in the Raja’s harem don’t want to be your friends, and even servants may avoid you whenever possible. So Maya’s life is somewhat lonely, except for her young sister Gauri who loves hearing Maya tell stories. Fairy tales and myths and legends – oh how I would have loved to share in that pastime with them. Unfortunately, us real-world readers get almost no legends or myths or fairy tales. We’re just told that they exist and are great.

When the Raja decides to marry Maya off for political reasons, things don’t exactly go as planned. Instead of the sacrifice she is supposed to make for her people and her home, a man named Amar spirits her off to Akaran where she is to be his wife, horoscope be damned. And that’s where the really boring part starts and the tropes go completely overboard.
Because – of course – Amar can’t really tell Maya anything important for magical reasons. Once the moon has turned, she’ll learn everything there is to know. Until then, she should just be meek and shut up and not explore her new castle too much. Which is a rather empty place, by the way. Except for her, Amar, and his assistant Gupta (who disappears whenever it’s convenient for the plot and only reappers at the very end when the author seems to have remembered that he exists), there is nobody there. So Maya explores the castle, which leads to some very, very boring chapters where nothing happens, we learn nothing new, and where even wonders that shouldn’t be possible (because magic) are taken for granted. Like, girl, you lived in the real world, aren’t you at least a little surprised to have mirrors in your new home that work like portals and let you look into other places?

Also, this is the part where the “romance” happens. If by romance you mean that two people exist in the same room together, find each other pretty and then randomly kiss someday. Also, Amar keeps the upper part of his face hidden to be extra mysterious and sexy, but when he finally reveals himself, there’s nothing special about it. Like, he’s handsome and all but there’s no reason for him to have kept his eyes hidden before. I still don’t get what that was about. But then I also didn’t get the attraction between them because we are only ever told things and never, ever, shown them. Their supposed undying love is ridiculous so I also didn’t care when it was threatened.

After a series of maybe not so smart, but to my happy surprise understandable, decisions, a plot of sorts finally kicks off. We’re talking the half-way mark of the book here, so don’t get too excited. Maya has done something stupid which has dire consequences and so now she has to try and fix things. This led me to hope once more that the book would tell a story that’s more than two people saying incredibly sappy things to each other for no reason whatsoever. I mean, this is the sort of writing you can expect:

His stare slipped beneath my skin. And when he saw my eyes widen, he smiled. And in that moment, his smile banished my loneliness and limned the hollows of my anima with starlight, pure and bright.

There are myriad instances of descriptions or dialogue where I simply asked myself what that’s even supposed to mean. The prose is so purple, even I though it was too much, and I’m a fan of Cat Valente and China MiĂ©ville, two writers who know a bazillion words and aren’t afraid to show them off.

As for the Indian-inspired mythology and setting, I would really have liked to get a bit more of that. Because what the author did was throw in lots of words without explanation or description, expecting that to do all the legwork for he world building. But when you don’t know there’s a glossary at the end of the book, you can get frustrated really quickly by the amount of names for mythological creatures that are just thrown in there without ever explaining what they are, what they look like, etc.
I generally like when an author expects something from their readers, like looking up things for themselves or understanding stuff by context. But if you give me literally nothing but a word, and then throw in three other words in the same paragraph, do you really think I’m going to stop reading to look each of them up on the internet so Google can do your author work for you and let me know who and what these creatures are? That can’t be in the author’s interest either, as it would totally disrupt the reading flow. But oh well, I still don’t know what a bhut is or a raksha or a timingala. One of them has fins I guess…

One of the few redeeming qualities of this book is (wait for it) the horse character! Not only is it the only positive female friendship in this book that has any meaning (Gauri’s name may be dropped but as we didn’t get any shared memories or development of that relationship, it’s totally meaningless), but Kamala the horse may also be the single most fleshed-out character in this entire book. She has her own way of speaking which may be a little creepy at times – she threatens to eat people a lot – but my god was it refreshing to read about her! Other than that, every single character might as well have been a shadow wearing a name tag. Amar’s name tag must also read “smoldering and full of cheesy one-liners” but that’s it.

There is no proper plot to follow, the world and characters change as needed for the author to reach her super cheesy conclusion. She wanted so badly to write impactful scenes but apparently forgot that, in order to make readers feel stuff, she has do to the build-up for that. Make us know and like the characters, show us why they belong together, put them in danger, make us fear for them, make us feel literally anything! Only then can big words have actual meaning, only then can the touch of a hand send electric sparks up our readerly spines, only then is it meaningful when lips touch, when friends are reunited.
This was just boring with occasional hints of promising ideas, but in order to be a good book, it would have needed to do a whole lot of growing up. Much like its protagonist Maya who is the same person at the end of this book despite all the supposedly life-shattering things she learns.

As bad as that sounds, I’m not willing to give up on Roshani Chokshi! I have Gilded Wolves on my TBR and I’m hoping that with a heist novel, there is no way she can make the same mistakes again. I mean, a heist novel needs a plot that makes sense and it also more than two recurring characters. My hope is that Chokshi developed and grew as an author in between these books. My expectations are definitely lower than they were, though.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Bad

Performing Girlhood Incorrectly: Seanan McGuire – Across the Green Grass Fields

McGuire’s Wayward Children series is so hit or miss for me that, with almost comical certainty, I will like and dislike alternating titles. That meant this one was supposed to be a good one and the rule still holds up. It was not only a good one but I’d say one of my top two favorites of the series so far.

ACROSS THE GREEN GRASS FIELDS
by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook:
208 pages
Series:
Wayward Children #6
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: At seven, Regan Lewis was perfectly normal according to every measurement she knew, which meant she was normal in every way that counted.

A young girl discovers a portal to a land filled with centaurs and unicorns in Seanan McGuire’s Across the Green Grass Fields, a standalone tale in the Hugo and Nebula Award-wining Wayward Children series.

“Welcome to the Hooflands. We’re happy to have you, even if you being here means something’s coming.”

Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.

When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to “Be Sure” before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines―a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.

But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem…

Damn, the beginning of this novella hits hard! It’s about young Regan Lewis, a girl as average as they come. She loves running around, riding horses, and playing with her two best friends, Heather and Laurel. But when one day, Heather brings a snake to school and clearly adores it rather than be scared or disgusted by it, Regan learns that there are apparently rules on how to be a girl and those rules are set by society. In their little circle of friends society is represented by Laurel – who will not accept any aberrations from what she considers the norm.

She knew even without asking that Heather was no longer part of the trusted inner circle: she had performed girlhood incorrectly and hadn’t instantly mended her ways when confronted with Laurel’s anger. She was out.

This broke my heart in so many ways, not only because it is told excellently but also because McGuire either remembers her own childhood days or takes seriously the problems and feuds and intricacies of girl friendships at that age. When bringing the wrong kind of candy can make you ostracized, when liking football instead of dolls turns you into a pariah. Heather is out of the group but Regan has learned to keep things to herself until she is sure that Laurel approves.

When puberty starts hitting and Regan seems to be the last one left out, no hint of boobs or a period in sight, she talks to her parents about it and learns something about herself that, generally, isn’t a problem for her. The problems appear only once she confides in Laurel because it turns out, Regan is performing girlhood even more “incorrectly” than Heather ever did and also never should have trusted someone like Laurel, who is unaccepting of anyone the slightest bit different than herself. So ten-year-old Regan runs away and promptly stumbles through a door that asks her to “Be sure”.

What follows is the portal fantasy we all signed up for when pickin gup this book but I must say, it’s one of the more enjoyable ones. Regan is found by a centaur who takes her home to the herd with her where Regan makes friends with a young centaur named Chicory and is taken in as if she were family. She also learns a thing or two about the Hooflands and its hinhabitants. I absolutely adored the idea of unicorns – that revered species of mythical being – turning out to be beautiful, sure, but also completely dumb! Seriously, this made me giggle so hard, I’m still not over it.

Take unicorns. They’re as beautiful as it gets, and they don’t have the brains to come in out of the rain. They’ll just stand there trying to figure out why they’re getting wet and wait for someone to come along and fix it for them.

I mean:

More of Regan’s awe died during the first storm. It was hard to be dazzled by a wet, muddy unicorn that was attempting to eat your mattress.

But even though Regan’s time in the Hooflands is mostly harmonious and gives her the freedom of just being who she is without any strict rules on how to be a girl the right way, there is conflict on the horizon. Because humans come to the Hooflands only when something big is about to happen. Humans are heroes and have to do some heroing eventually and Regan kknows she will have to present herself to the queen someday.
I won’t spoil any of it but I really enjoyed that part. Both the fact that we get to go along on Regan’s quest and not just witness the aftermath, and the way McGuire even adds a twist at the end.

The world building for the Hooflands may not be stellar but it has everything that’s needed to tell this story and make me feel like I’m in a believable world filled with sympathetic characters. Just like all the Wayward Children stories, we know how this one will end ahead of time but that doesn’t mean it’s always impactful. This time, it absolutely was, and I’m counting this instalment among my top two (In an Absent Dream is the seocond).

I don’t know why bigger fans of McGuire and the Wayward Children series seem to not have liked this volume as much. It has the lowest rating of all the volumes on Goodreads (not that that’s saying much, really) so I feel like I have to come to its defense. I’m also grateful that this year’s Hugo nominated McGuire work truly deserves its spot on the ballot, even if it makes ranking my ballot that much harder.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Damn good!

Sci-Fi Disguised as Fantasy: Adrian Tchaikovsky – Elder Rade

The (to me) most unexpected entry on theis year’s Hugo Award Best Novella Finalists list was this book by prolific and well-loved author Adrian Tchaikovsky. I had never read anything by him, atlhough I’ve heart plenty of recommendations for his Shadows of the Apt series as well as the newer Children of Time Duology, which I’m very much looking forward to. My high expectations weren’t met with this novella but I also didn’t dislike it.

ELDER RACE
by Adrian Tchakovsky

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook: 204 pages
Standalone Novella
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: Nobody climbed the mountain beyond the war-shrine.

In Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race, a junior anthropologist on a distant planet must help the locals he has sworn to study to save a planet from an unbeatable foe.

Lynesse is the lowly Fourth Daughter of the queen, and always getting in the way.

But a demon is terrorizing the land, and now she’s an adult (albeit barely) and although she still gets in the way, she understands that the only way to save her people is to invoke the pact between her family and the Elder sorcerer who has inhabited the local tower for as long as her people have lived here (though none in living memory has approached it).

But Elder Nyr isn’t a sorcerer, and he is forbidden to help, for his knowledge of science tells him the threat cannot possibly be a demon…

This is one of those neat books that are really science fiction but, to some of its characters, work like a fantasy novel. The story is told through dual perspectives, that of Lynesse Fourth Daughter, the headstrong fourth princess of Lannesite, and Nyr Illim Tevitch, a human anthropoligist who spends most of his time in a sort of cryo-sleep, only waking up to write down whatever cultural changes of note the inhabitants have to offer for his reasearch. His colleagues have long left the planet, leaving him all alone to complete this mission of knowledge. When a “demon” is threatening some villages on the planet, Lynesse takes matters into her own hand and decides to climb up the mountain to the tower of the Elder Nyrgoth and ask for his help. As he has once helped her ancestor in a battle against an evil sorcerer many years ago…

The idea behind this set-up is not new, by any means, but that doesn’t have to automatically make this a boring story. In fact, Tchaikovsky offers plenty of cool aspects that make reading this worthwhile. My favorite part was probably the DCS – Dissociative Cognition System – which is built into Nyr (who has many augments, not least amon them a pair of horns!) and which lets him block all emotions in order to make the most rational decision for whatever situation he is in. Except those emotions don’t evaporate, he can only hold them back for a while, but needs to eventually let them out. As you can imagine, collecting a bunch of (usually negative) feelings, only to feel them all at once, is not very pleasant. Especially considering how incredibly depressed Nyr is and how little purpose he sees in this strange half-life he leads.

In order for there to be a story at all, he of course agrees to accompany Lyn and her companion Esha, to confront this “demon” of hers, fully suspecting either a natural disease or some old tech that was left over from when humans colonized the planet in the first place. He is ignoring the Prime Directive (it has a different name here) because, hey, if he’s the loneliest anthropoligst in the world, why not also be the worst? And so off they go, stopping in this village or that, collecting info on the demon, and going to kill it once and for all.

What didn’t work for me, or rather what I found surprising and disappointing alike, was the shallow characterization. Except for Nyr, who gets a personality (albeit a sad and depressed one), there wasn’t any effort put into anyone else’s character. Lyn’s one characteristic is that she has defied her mother in order to go on this quest and that’s it. Esha is the wise-ish companion but we never get to know her. And later on, another man joins the cast, who at least gets an interesting backstory but no more.

The same lack of focus can be found in the world buliding for the “fantasy” side of this story. Lannesite could have been described a little more, or any part of this world really, in order to make us care about what happens to its people. The way it is, it’s just generic fantasy land without any depth or lore or cool mythology. There are a few moments where Nyr explains something, telling the locals how it’s not magic, but science, and because of language barriers and translation problems, all they hear is “magic” and “sorcery” after all. I found that part really neat but it doesn’t make up for the lack of proper wold building. The sci-fi half of the novel fared much better, with a little info on how Nyr came to be here, what his job was meant to be, and what happened to Earth and us humans. I have no gripes there, except that it makes the fantasy part feel all the more like an unloved stepchild.

A question of taste, surely, but another thing I wasn’t too fond of was the writing style. Whether we were in Lyn or Nyr’s narrative, apart from the change in POV (Lyn is third person, Nyr first person), there wasn’t much difference in how events were described. Sure, Nyr uses words that Lyn doesn’t know, such as “anthropoligist” or “drone” but I think the contrast between the sci-fi and the fantasy sides of this tale should have been more visible, also in the writing. I never felt like the story was truly flowing, although I can’t put my finger on why. The style and I just didn’t gel.

The plot is, unfortunately, quite thin. Very little happens and despite a pretty cool ending, most of it was predictable. The book’s strongest aspect is surely the character of Nyr, how he handles his complicated emotions, the loneliness, the lack of purpose, the not knowing of what’s to come. Otherwise, there wasn’t much here to keep my interest and I’ll probably have forgotten most of this story in a copule of weeks. But I also didn’t actively dislike it. It was fine.
I certainly hope Tchaikovsky’s novel-length works do better in terms of characters (especailly female ones, come on!) and world building.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good