Intrigues, Saving the World, and Lots of Cussing: John Scalzi – The Last Emperox

I started The Interdependency Trilogy solely because it is a Best Series Hugo Award finalist this year and, honestly, I didn’t expect too much from it. After the first book, I was cautiously optimistic that, at least, it would be fun to read, if not very deep. After the second book, I embraced the fun and the clever twists. And now, after having finished the trilogy, I still don’t think it will make you think super deep thoughts about Life, the Universe, and Everything but, my god, was it fun!

THE LAST EMPEROX
by John Scalzi

Published: Tor, 2020
eBook:
321 pages
Series:
The Interdependency #3
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: The funny thing was, Ghreni Nohamapetan, the acting Duke of End, actually saw the surface-to-air missile that slammed into his aircar a second before it hit.

Can they escape the end of an empire?

Entire star systems, and billions of people, are about to be stranded. The pathways that link the stars are collapsing faster than anyone expected, accelerating the fall of civilization. But though the evidence is insurmountable, many are in denial. And some even attempt to profit from the final days of this golden age.

Emperox Grayland II has wrested control of the empire from her enemies. But even as she works to save her people, others seek power. And they will make a final, desperate push to topple her from her throne. Grayland and her depleted allies must use every tool at their disposal to save themselves and humanity – yet it still may not be enough.

Will Grayland become the saviour of her civilization . . . or the last emperox to wear the crown?

Oh Scalzi, you sneaky trilogy writer, you! I like it when authors plan out a trilogy in advance, when you get a full story in three parts where each single part still kind of tells a sub-story on its own and leaves you mostly satisfied. The Interdependancy is a full success on that count and actually turned me into a Scalzi fan!

Emperox Grayland II and her boyfriend Marce Claremont are still trying to figure out how to save the billions of lives of Interdependency citizens when the inevitable collapse of the Flow happens. With the recently discovered ephemeral Flow shoals, they hope to at least have a little more time to find a solution but things look grim, to say the least. Meanwhile, Nadashe Nohamaetan is still alive and, without a doubt, scheming and planning the next assassinaiton attempt on Cardenia, the planet End is still controlled by her idiot brother, and about a third of the nobility is currently locked up for treason. So… great odds all around.

I honestly can’t say much more or less than I said in my review of the second Interdependency book because this is pretty much more of the same. And I mean that in the best way. You get foul-mouthed Kiva Lagos being herself and that means not only being smug about the fact that she’s smarter than many other people and much smarter than people give her credit for, but also getting herself out of seemingly inescapable situations. With nothing but her brain. And soap operas…
You also get more of Cardenia and her lovely relationship with Marce, which I thought was a fine example of two people who truly love and respect each other, even when (or especially when) they make mistakes. I think Scalzi has a pretty good grasp of how a working, loving relationship can look like and it shows in this royal/scientist couple.

But although there’s more intrigues, more scheming, more danger and scientific discovery, this book does hold another big twist in store that could actually make a re-read of the entire trilogy worthwile. Obviously I can’t say much more than that without spoiling but I like it when a book makes me go “whaaaat?” when I didn’t expect it.

As for the dialogue, it’s snappy as ever and led to some of the most humorous moments. My favorite line is one I can’t quote here because its context will ruin part of the ending but, maaaaaan, did I laugh! And it’s not just that this book is funny (it absolutely is) but it also delivers some of the most satisfying moments you can imagine.
Even scenes where you see right thorugh the characters from the start and you know they see thorugh each other as well, it’s fun to watch them verbally dance around a bit before finally laying the cards on the table. Liek after several pages of pretending not to see how the other is trying to manipulate you, they’d finally come out and serve it up straight. Which doesn’t make it any less fun, let me tell you!

“I see what you’re doing, you know,” [character] said.

“I should certainly hope so; I’m being obvious enough about it,” [other character] said.

Now the only thing that could have ruined my perfectly happy reading time was the ending. I had kind of seen it coming that, after the discoveries made in The Consuming Fire, everything would turn out super well. To the degree that it becomes unbelievable – as much as the whole Flow and Interdependency setup is believable, anyway. But Scalzi also did a great job with the ending. I’m not saying things end well, I’m not saying they end badly, but they end in a manner that makes both sense and left me satisfied. For some people, things turn out better than others. Some get what they had coming, others get something unexpected.

If I consider not just this instalment but the trilogy as a whole, I would definitely recommend it and recommend reading it pretty much one right after th eother. John Scalzi always manages to remind us of the big players and what’s happened before but, honeslty, why would you want to stop after book one when there are two more waiting for you? Especially if it means you can spend time with Kiva Lagos who, despite the wonderful, good-hearted, clever Cardenia, is my fucking hero of these books! Kudos to Scalzi. Now let’s make sure his next book, The Kaiju Preservation Society is just as good.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very fucking good!

Change Your Own Story: Alix E. Harrow – A Spindle Splintered

I’ve been following Alix E. Harrow’s career with much excitement because not only does she like the same books I like, but it feels like she wants to write exactly the kind of books that end up being my favorites. Heavily influenced by fairy tales and mythology, her tales are about nerdy characters, about underdogs, about true friendships and dreams come true. The fact that she started a “spider-versed fairy tale retelling” novella series feels like Christmas and birthdays and some other holidays all rolled into one.

A SPINDLE SPLINTERED
by Alix E. Harrow

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
Hardback:
128 pages
Series:
Fractured Fables #1
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: Sleeping Beauty is pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it.

It’s Zinnia Gray’s twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it’s the last birthday she’ll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no one has lived past twenty-one.

Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia’s last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.

This story isn’t a fairy tale but it has a lot to say about them, particularly about Sleeping Beauty. Zinnia Gray has a rare disease – Generalized Roseville Malady – about which very little is known, except that most people suffering from it don’t make it past twenty-one. So the fact that she identifies with a fairy tale princess cursed to fall asleep on her birthday isn’t all that far fetched. Zinnia makes the best of her life, she lives fast, studies what she likes, and fiercly loves her best friend Charm who, by the way, is the absolute best friend ever in SFF fiction. Sure, you could say her savior/hero complex isn’t super healthy but she would do anything for Zinnia and reading about the way these two interact, their chat messages, the one-liners, the absolute trust – it’s pure friendshop goals!

So if you know the elevator pitch for this is “spider-verse a fairy tale” you won’t be surprised when, on her twenty-first birthday, Zinnia jokingly touches her finger to a spinnig wheel’s needle and – bam! – pops up in an alternate universe next to a real princess who wears a poofy dress and looks like she fell out of a Disney movie. It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s what and soon the two work together to try and break the curse. Instead of sitting around waiting for fate to catch up in the shape of a needle, they pack some stuff and go out to find that thirteenth fairy to convince her to lift the curse or bribe her or… something. And while they’re at it, maybe Zinnia’s “curse” can be healed as well..?

The strength of this novella is definitely its protagonist and her relationships to the people around her. Zinnia has a great sense of humor and enough self-awareness to not take herself too seriously, despite her pretty serious situation. As a fairy tale scholar, she is also the perfect person to fall into a parallel universe where the fairy tale is actual fucking reality, and try to both help the resident damsel in distress as well as maybe save her own life at the same time.
There is actually a cute little adventure happening in Fairyland (where Zinnia has cell phone reception, btw, which I somehow find absolutely hilarious) and even characters who only show up shortly get… maybe not fleshed out but they give off a sense of being more than we can see. Whether it’s Princess Primrose’s mother or the prince she’s betrothed to, there is more to them than their fairy tale nature lets you suspect. I loved that, just as I loved the actual adventure the two girls go on, including creepy marshes, a raven, and some blood because, hey, its a fairytale! There must be blood.

Perhaps a little too easy and on the simplistic side was the big picture world building and the resultant world-hopping. What first seems to be the big conflict – how to get back home to her own world – soon turns into a barely existing barrier. Zinnia tries out one idea which happens to work, and that’s it. From then on, world-hopping is possible with no real effort. By anyone. That took a lot of the magic out of it for me.

But then this story isn’t about the multiverse, or even discovering and comparing some of its worlds. It’s about the people who live there. Just like in the movie inspiration for this novella series, you get a few comical appearances with no depth but great plot moments, like 90s princess (not like other girls, short hair, you know the type), Viking Sleeping Beauty, and Space Princess with a laser gun. As important as they may be to the overall plot, the heart of this story is Zinnia, her best friend Charm, and Princess Primrose who also has a lot more depth than you’d expect from your stereotypical fairy tale princess.

I loved so many aspects of this little book, starting with its self-awareness and its sense of humor. If you don’t like plenty of references then this may not be for you. Harrow drops a lot of them, starting with Disney characters, movies, and songs, , moving on to the darker, earlier versions of the fairy tale, to other pop culture characters and books and authors. And I’m not sure if I’m reading too much into it but the fact that Zinnia’s disease is called Generalized Roseville Malady – GRM for short – and it kills lots of people while they’re still very young, made me think of a certain boob-filled book and TV series by an author with very similar initials who is known to kill off characters, even if they’re protagonists…

I wish briefly but passionately that I’d been zapped into a different storyline, maybe one of those ’90s girl power fairy tale retellings with a rebellious princess who wears trousers and hates sweing. (I know they promoted a reductive vision of women’s agency that privileged traditionally male-coded forms of power, but let’s not pretend girls with swords don’t get shit done.)

Alix harrow clearly has a lot to say not just about fairy tales but about women’s roles in stories and in real life. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the women in this book instinctively work together, that they listen to each other, try to learn the other’s story before judging. And it just so happens that the vapid princess isn’t quite so vapid, the evil fairy may not be exactly what she seems, and Zinnia’s choices in life (based on the fact that it will be a short one) may not have been perfect. Harrow allows her heroines to be flawed and make mistakes while still remaining the heroes of their own story. And having a choice to change that story makes all the difference.

The ending could have been super sappy and messed the whole book up but, fortunately, Harrow didn’t go down that path. She left us on a satisfied note with a protagonist who has been changed fundamentally by the events of this tale, with a lovely side story for some side characters, and, most importantly, with the promise of more stories. More princesses who’d rather save themselves, more worlds, more versions of fairy tales to explore.
This was a very quick read and I do worry that it might not hold up on a reread, especially once a few years have passed. But only time will tell and until then, I’ll be recommending this fun, heartfelt novella with its excellent female friendships to anyone who likes fairy tales. Especially if they don’t behave as they should.

I’m already looking forward to the next book, A Mirror Mended, which will tackle Snow White.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!

Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Novelette

I always look forward to the Best Novelette category because unless one of my favorite authors has published one, I don’t read novelettes. I just don’t come across them and even if I did, I wouldn’t necessarily know how to tell it apart from a short story.

You can find my tentative ballots and thoughts on the other finalists here:

Prior to the finalists being announced, I had only heard about one of the stories – the one that now goes by the title “Helicopter Story”. I went into all of these blindly with only the title and, in the cases where I knew them, the author to give me some idea of what I’d get. It’s pretty rewarding, not knowing anything about a story and being surprised by twisty turns into horror territory or character depth where it wasn’t expected.
It can also be to a story’s detriment when you read it without context and it has to stand on its own. Stories don’t exist in a vacuum, of course, but a story should work whether the reader knows its origin or the author’s background info or not.


The Finalists for Best Novelette

  • A. T. Greenblatt – Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super
  • Isabel Fall – Helicopter Story
  • Aliette de Bodard – The Inaccessibility of Heaven
  • Naomi Kritzer – Monster
  • Meg Elison – The Pill
  • Sarah Pinsker – Two Truths and a Lie

Two Truths and a Lie by Sarah Pinsker was a cool surprise. I hadn’t looked up any of the plots for these novelettes beforehand and the Pinsker story welcomed me with wonderful creepiness and a bit of a shock. It’s about a woman helping an old friend clean out his dead brother’s hoarder house. The protagonist, fitting with the title, has made a habit out of… embellishing the truth, making up facts about herself and her life that aren’t true, of lying so cleverly that people usually don’t catch her. When she makes something up and her friend says he remembers that as well, the story starts going in a new direction and follows an eerie spiral down into the past. I don’t want to give away any more than that but I loved how Pinsker managed to give me goosebumps and made me go WTF several times. This was truly delightful to read, although I was a tad disappointed by the abrupt ending.

Naomi Kritzer’s Monster is making the ranking decision hard for me. Because as a story, it’s nice enough, with a bit of a mystery, a nice science fictional idea, and a good ending, but what makes it more than just good is the characters. I admit I found it rather easy to identify with the outsider nerd protagonist as she struggles to find friends as a kid and only really feels at home when she discovers other SFF readers. But that’s just the beginning of this novelette and once it gets going, it goes pretty dark. I can’t tell you why exactly but I liked the revelations and their implications. Paired with the title, it offers a lot of food for thought and makes you look at things from a different perspective. I really liked it, even though I felt Pinsker’s story was better written and Greenblatt’s story had much better pacing.

I vaguely remember some ruckus about Helicopter Story by Isabel Fall when it came out under a different title, was taken off the internet, then put back online. Something about it being transphobic which made Twitter explode? Then the author came out as a trans woman to put her story into perspective and make her intentions with it clear. To be honest, as much as I love fandom, sometimes the Twitter mob can be a vile piece of shit and I don’t have the will or strength to look up exactly how things went down when this first came out. But none of that has anything to do with the story as such – at least not for me. So the author is a trans woman. I don’t think her gender identity would change my opinion about her story and as sorry as I am to say this, I really, really didn’t like it.
To start with, there’s very little “story” at all. A fighter pilot named Barb is bombing a school building, gets hunted by an enemy pilot and tries to get away. That’s it, that’s the plot. Interspersed are Barb’s memories and thoughts about gender, particularly about being a woman. While I agree with many of the things Barb feels and thinks, this is supposed to be a fiction novelette, not random musings about how shit it can be to be a woman. I believe these bits would have better fit in an essay. The one sfnal idea of this tale just wasn’t enought to carry a story – namely that gender identity can, in this particular future, be manipulated directly, and so the protagonist does actually sexually identify as an attack helicopter because the government made her. I like this idea for an SF story and I believe I see where the author was going with it. But I’m sorry, when I pick up fiction I want a story of some kind and this just wasn’t one. At the very least, not a good one. Based on the story’s merits, it sadly goes below No Award on my ballot.

Which leads me to the next novelette which was well written but so predictable and preachy. Meg Elison’s The Pill didn’t really need a synopsis to create certain expectations. It’s a story by a fat author in a collection called Big Girl, so I was fairly certain I would get a science fictional fat loss pill story. I was excited to see where the author would take this idea because there are sooooo many possibilities. Unfortunately, the author took it exactly down the one road that was the most predictable and the least interesting. A fat loss pill is invented and it actually works. Except 10% of people who use it die. Really cool idea, a well written story, but a sadly boring plot.
The way good and evil characters are represented here, this reads almost like a fairy tale, everything is sooooo black and white. Either you take the magical pill that gives you the “perfect body” and that makes you evil for the purpose of this story, or you refuse, like our brave heroine, and you’re good. There is literally nothing in between.
There are many things the author brings up that I get and that are important to be woven into stories. Being stared at or even mocked because of the way you look is terrible and in a perfect world, we’d accept people of varying body shapes and sizes, heights, skin colors, etc. just the way they are, without judgement. But. Is the way to point out these societal problems really to just flip things around? Fat good, skinny bad? That’s not a very nuanced approach, especially when only these two extremes exist in your story. If you preach body acceptance and diversity, shouldn’t you show it as well? Where are the non-obese characters who refuse the pill? Where are the skinny ones who didn’t need the pill and find their own body better than the “perfect” one? What about disabled people? Pregnant people? There were so many things to explore here, yet all we get is “fat good, skinny bad”.
The way I read it, the story is mostly a vehicle for the author’s message. It’s one I completely agree with – there’s no one perfect body but rather beauty in the range the world has to offer. Tall, short, super skinny, medium sized, flabby, muscular, chubby, curvy, fat, round, pear shaped, it’s all good and the world is much more interesting and beautiful because of this variety. But getting hit across the head with a message hammer has never been fun for me. The extreme good/evil characters, the predictability of the plot, the preachiness and the lack of further exploration lead me to a rather low ranking of this on my ballot. I do, however, want to read more by this author as I enjoyed her prose a lot!

A. T. Greenblatt’s Burn: Or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super was a lot of fun! As the title suggests, we get episodic glimpses into Sam Wells’ life and, thorugh his story, into a world where some people develop superpowers. Except these people aren’t celebrated as heroes as you might expect but they are are unwanted in society. They form Super Teams, to build a community of their own, to fight for acceptance in the wider world, and to save lives when possible. Sam’s talent isn’t all that useful (what do you do with a burning head?) but the story is much more about finding a place to belong, especially when you’re an outsider. You can read this as a metaphor for marginalization or you can read it as a straight up story about a young man learning to deal with his super powers. I thoroughly enjoyed this. The only minor gripe I have is that the ending is a bit anticlimactic.

I thought for some reason that Aliette de Bodard’s sory The Inaccessibility of Heaven was set in her Fallen Angels universe but that’s wrong. Now that I know it’s not part of a larger series, that changes my feelings about the novelette quite a bit. Because there were certain things about it that I felt were lacking. There seems to be this deep backstory between the witch protagonist and her Fallen friend, and I just assumed it was something I’d get if I had read the novels set in that universe. But this is it, the novelette is supposed to stand on its own, so those missing pieces of backstory, those emotional beats that didn’t reach me, they weren’t my fault. The plot as such is exciting and fun, there are glimpses of great world building here and I’d love to read a whole novel set in this world, but in this shorter form, it wasn’t enough. Every aspect needed just a bit more. So I liked it and it made me want to pick up those Angel novels (even if they are set in a differen time, different place, and have nothing to do with this novelette) but I wasn’t super impressed with this story on its own.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Two Truths and a Lie
  2. Monster
  3. Burn
  4. The Inaccessibility of Heaven
  5. The Pill
  6. No Award
  7. Helicopter Story

Up next week: Best Novella

These Mexican Vampires Lack Fangs: Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Certain Dark Things

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, overhyped as she is in SFF circles, is rather hit or miss for me. Her YA novel Gods of Jade and Shadow was nice enough, but overly simplistic compared to the way it was sold (which may be more marketing’s fault than the author’s) and then Mexican Gothic was so much fun and a really great horror novel that had a lot more to say than just “oh look, creepy house”. Maybe I just like Moreno-Garcia’s newer books more than her backlist because while this vampire novel of hers was perfectly alright, I didn’t find anything special about it whatsoever.

CERTAIN DARK THINGS
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published: Tor Nightfire, 2016
eBook:
352 pages
Audiobook:
8 hours 46 minutes
Standalone
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: Collecting garbage sharpens the senses.

Welcome to Mexico City, an oasis in a sea of vampires. Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is just trying to survive its heavily policed streets when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life. Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, is smart, beautiful, and dangerous. Domingo is mesmerized.

Atl needs to quickly escape the city, far from the rival narco-vampire clan relentlessly pursuing her. Her plan doesn’t include Domingo, but little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his undeniable charm. As the trail of corpses stretches behind her, local cops and crime bosses both start closing in.

Vampires, humans, cops, and criminals collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive? Or will the city devour them all?

Oh what a cool book this could have been if the many cool ideas it contains had been spun a little further, if there had been a little more plot and substance, a little more depth to the characters. The way it stands, this is a vampire novel that stands out only through its use of mythology and the Latinx cast of characters.

Atl is a vampire, belonging to one of several vampire sub-species/tribes, and she is on the run from the evil vampires (from a different tribe) who killed her family. In Mexico City, which is supposed to be vampire-free as opposed to the rest of the country and maybe even the world, she meets Domingo, a teenage boy who lives on the streets and makes a little money collecting garbage and doing odd jobs here or there. As Domingo loves to read comic books about vampires, he becomes obsessedw ith Atl, the first real one he’s met, and wants to become her servant/errand boy/lover/friend.

Meanwhile, we follow Nick Godoy, son of the vampire who had Atl’s family killed. He is a villain who’s easy to hate because he’s just evil. Unfortunately we don’t get to learn a lot about him as a person, or about his past. All we know is he hates Atl and wants to capture and torture her. Because he that’s his idea of fun. Not a very well-written villain, as stories go, but at least you don’t have to examine the blurry lines between good and evil while reading this book.
Lastly, there are a few human characters in addition to Domingo whose perspective made this book a lot more interesting. Ana Aguirre is a cop who has fought her fair share of vampires in her day. Rodrigo, on the other hand, works tighly with Nick and is more familiar with the criminal underbelly of Mexico City. Not only do these two provide some much-needed fleshing out of the world, but it was almost refreshing to follow a character who doesen’t revere vampires but rather fears them.

I was entertained enough while reading this book but in almost every single chapter, there were instances where I thought to myself “This has so much potential! Why not do something with it?”. First of all, the setting of Mexico City. I have never been there so I would have appreciated at least some description of the characters’ surroundings. And even if I grant you that this book wasn’t written for me specifically, and you don’t have to describe every tree or building that your characters pass in the story, there’s no argument against creating atmosphere. Which was sadly lacking here.

The world building is very basic and by that I don’t just mean the actual physical world our characters inhabit. The interesting aspect of this vampire novel is that it doesn’t offer the same old tired tropes we know from all those European vampire stories we know. Atl isn’t plae, she has no problem going out into the sun, and she doesn’t have fangs. But Atl’s type of vampire isn’t the only one! While we get glimpses or one-liners about what others there are, I would have loved to eplore them more and to see this bit of world bulding incorporated into the actual story, rather than just be exposition. The world didn’t feel lived-in or real, is what it comes down to.

The characters are similarly pale with the protagonist Domingo remaining one-dimensional throughout the entire book. Domingo isn’t even a person except in his relation to Atl, the vampire he meets and gets immediately obsessed with, only to immediately fall in eternal love with her. All he wants is be near her, help her, kiss her. Any agency he does have comes from his want to serve Atl. The only thing that makes him endearing is his naivete and his unquenchable optimism. So brownie points for that.
Atl has a backstory, of which we learn a little, but you guessed it, I would have liked a bit more.

This isn’t a big book at 350 pages and I don’t often say this but an extra 100 pages really would have done it a world of good. Then again, the beginning of the book was almost only exposition, mostly Atl explaining the world of vampires to Domingo, and the plot itself is super thin as it is. Girl comes to town, finds herself a willing little helper, girl wants to leave town. She meets with a few people, there is one confrontation, decisions are made. The end.

I still think Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a writer to watch,but I am also becoming more and more convinced that her earlier books weren’t quite ready yet. Or, to say it differently, if she wrote a book about Mexican vampires now, after having written something as fantastic as Mexican Gothic, it would be a much stronger book. I still want to read some of her backlist, but for the next book I’ll choose her latest, Velvet was the Night.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good-ish

The Most Fun You Can Have Without FTL: John Scalzi – The Consuming Fire

I love these moments when I appraoch a book series sceptically, expecting it to be not for me, and then enjoying every single page. John Scalzi may not be a character-focused writer but damn if he doesn’t write exciting, clever, and super funny stories that keep me glued to the page. Although other people said the trilogy declines after the first book, my impression was the opposite. I enjoyed this even more than The Collapsing Empire and I will jump into the final book very soon!

THE CONSUMING FIRE
by John Scalzi

Published: Tor, 2018
eBook:
336 pages
Series:
The Interdependency #2
My rating:
7.75/10

Opening line: Years later Lenson Ornill would reflect on the irony tha his time as a religious man would be bracketed by a single and particular word.

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi is the dazzling follow-up to The Collapsing Empire – a space opera in a universe on the brink of destruction.

The Interdependency, humanity’s interstellar empire, is on the verge of collapse. The Flow, the extra-dimensional pathway between the stars, is disappearing, leaving planets stranded. Billions of lives will be lost – unless desperate measures can be taken.

Emperox Grayland II, the leader of the Interdependency, is ready to take those measures. But it’s not that easy. There are those who believe the collapse of the Flow is a myth – or an opportunity for them to ascend to power.

While Grayland prepares for disaster, others prepare for civil war. A war that will take place in the halls of power, the markets of business and the altars of worship as much as between spaceships. Nothing about this power struggle will be simple or easy . . . and all of human civilization is at stake.

Middle books in trilogies have a tough job and are often treated as the unwanted stepchild, a book that kind of has to be there to connect the cool beginning and the epic ending, but one that doesn’t really move the plot forward and doesn’t really offer any big twists. Well, there have been several middle parts of trilogies that ended up being my favorites in their respective series, because despite their reputation, middle books – when done well – can kick serious ass!
The characters are already established, the world is set up, so now there’s plenty of time to dive deeper into the human relationships, go sightseeing in this fictional world, and maybe even reveal a vital plot point or two.

Well, Scalzi does most of this to perfection. The world of the Interdependency, dependent on the Flow connecting all the various stations and planets that make it up, is a cool idea. Which Scalzi immediately decided to destroy in the first book because the Flow is falling apart, the “roads” that connect one place to another are closing and all the Interdependency’s stations will soon be on their own. A state they cannot survive because none of those places have all the resources needed for long-term survival. And the one planet, End, where people can live on the surface, is already closed off and happens to have a civil war raging on it. Plus, Ghreni Nohamapetan is there and if there’s one thing you don’t want on your habitat, it’s a Nohamapetan.

I read The Collapsing Empire in June and still had the major events in my mind, but Scalzi does a phenomenal job at reminding us not just of the biggest plot points but also reintroducing us to the world and its characters. I appreciated this enormously!
With the Nohampateans’ scheming it’s good to be reminded of just how far the intrigues go, who is controlling whom, and what the current emperox Grayland II plans to do about it. Because she doesn’t alraedy have enough on her plate what with the Interdependency crumbling alongside the Flow…

Look, I had so much fun reading this book, I hardly know how to explain it. It offers a perfect combination of political intrigue, scientific and historic discovery, action-packed sequences, and even more emotional moments between characters. And not always the characters you’d expect. 🙂
Whether it’s lines like “Alas, poor Dorick” or pretty much anyhting Kiva Lagos says or thinks, there is also humor aplenty in this book and even the kind that shows how Scalzi doesn’t take himself too seriously.

[…] which on one hand would be a very not-Kiva thing to do, but on the other hand who gave a fuck if it was “not-Kiva,” because she wasn’t some fucking fictional character destined to do whatever some goddamn hack wanted her to.

I actually cheered out loud during certain scenes when one of my favorite characters did something particularly brilliant or when Grayland II used words like a Jane Austen character. Making them sound like a compliment but actually being deeply biting and cleverly insulting. It may just be me, but I totally love it when characters do that, especially when the person they’re talking to deserves it.
And Kiva is just Kiva. Hardly a sentence passes her lips that does not contain the word “fuck” which is probably why she has no fucks left to give when Nohamapetans try to trick her. Kiva may be the only character in this series that truly stands out and maybe that’s why I love her so much. She’s far from perfect, she’s definitely not your average Mary Sue, but despite her sometimes questionable actions, her heart is in the right place.

As for the other characters, they are still pretty weak. At one point, during a dialogue, I got confused as to who is speaking because everybody pretty much sounds the same. They all have a similar sense of humor and sarcasm and can’t be well distinguished. But even though I am such a character reader, I didn’t mind. Because the story is just so much fun. You get to watch the good, the bad, and the in between guys as they try to scheme their way into positions of power, as they try to save people’s lives, as they try to work on the science of the Flow, and that means there’s never a boring moment.

I loved how Scalzi managed to advance what we know about this world and its technology while still leaving a few questions open to be answered in the next book (I hope). That Memory Room has been super interesting from the get go but there’s more to learn in there than you’d think. And the Flow, although its demise has been calculated and proven by the worlds brightest mathematicians and Flow specialists, has a few surprises in store as well.

I think this series may just turn me into a proper John Scalzi fangirl after all. I cannot wait to pick up the third book and I have already pre-ordered Scalzi’s next novel The Kaiju Preservation Society. Because come on, that sounds too cool not to check it out!

MY RATING: 7.75/10 – Very good!

Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Short Story

The only time I read short stories is when I pick up a collection or anthology (which is rare enough). Occasionally, I’ll read one that I stumble across online, but there’s just too much out there for me to know what to nominate. So I leave that to other people and then simply bask in their choices when the finalists are announced.

You can find my tentative ballots and thoughts on the other finalists here:

As expected, I had read zero of the finalist stories before they were announced but I have read stories and/or novels from four of the nominated authors. As I have liked previous work from the known-to-me authors, I was super excited to dive in but I’m also glad that there were new writers to discover. After all, I want the Hugo Awards to show me what else the genre has to offer, not just the authors I would read anyway. And this year’s crop of short stories did not disapoint.


The Finalists for Best Short Story

  • Rae Carson – Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse
  • Vina Jie-Min Prasad – A Guide for Working Breeds
  • Naomi Kritzer – Little Free Library
  • T. Kingfisher – Metal Like Blood in the Dark
  • John Wiswell – Open House on Haunted Hill
  • Yoon Ha Lee – The Mermaid Astronaut

This was a great choice of short stories and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they were published in a variety of places (as opposed to all in the same magazine, say). I read all of them in a day, one right after the other with breaks in between to digest each story but to keep them all fresh in my memory. I thought this would help me rank them. It didn’t particularly.

I started out with “Badass Moms of the Zombie Apocalypse” which is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. Two women living during zombie times are preparing for one of them to have their baby and they both know it’s going to be brutal. These zombies are attracted to the smell of blood and while women have managed to deal with menstruation pretty well, giving birth and all that that entails is a whole different story. But these badass moms come prepared and we follow them on their trip to a (probably… mostly) safe birthing place where the chances of survival are at least measurable, although by no means high.
It’s an exciting story that combines the stress of an impending birth with the stress of the zombie apocalypse. Because one of those by itself wouldn’t have been scary enough, I guess. I enjoyed this a lot although the SF content is secondary to the birthing story.

“Little Free Library” might have been the shortest of the stories but no less impactful for that. A girl sets up the eponymous library and accidentally gains a pen pal through it. Because books are taken out but none are returned and she leaves a note saying that’s not in the spirit of the library. Instead of books, the mysterious reader then leaves other gifts behind and those become stranger and stranger.
I adored the tone of this as well as the way the friendship between book taker and librarian grows over the course of the story. The speculative aspect only comes up right at the end which is sadly a bit abrupt and cuts off at the most interesting part. If Kritzer decides to turn this into a novel some day, I’ll be the first to pick it up though.

I knew I liked Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s writing from reading some of her stories when she was an Astounding finalist, and “A Guide For Working Breeds” was especially cute. It’s told through chat/instant messages between a new working robot and their unwilling mentor. It’s also about the fact that dogs are the cutest and how knowing your rights is important! I adored both style an idea from the start and I would have ranked this as my number one story if it hadn’t been for the too cutesy and adorable ending. It didn’t feel right for one of the characters to suddenly change that much. I still loved it but that was a bit too sugary sweet an ending.

T. Kingfisher’s “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” is the story that has stuck with me the most. It’s about two robot “siblings” who live off sunlight and “eat” metal which lets them change or enhance their bodies. They live through a Hansel and Gretel like story, except in space and way cooler! For Kingfisher, this was a pretty dark tale without her trademark humor but instead with cool ideas and surprising character depth for a short story. Especially for characters who are not human. I liked it while I read it but out of all the finalists, it’s the one I keep thinking about the most months after reading them.

Yoon Ha Lee didn’t surprise much with “The Mermaid Astronaut” which is a pretty straight forward retelling of The Little Mermaid. In Space. The eponymous mermaid wishes to explore the stars more than anything. Her sister takes her to the sea witch who grants her legs so she can join the humans when they travel among the stars. I loved that the mermaid’s reason for wanting to become human isn’t a dude but rather her life’s passion, I loved that it’s her sister who wants to help, and I loved the little twist at the end. But the story as such wasn’t all that gripping and the plot beats stuck predictably close to the fairy tale.

Lastly “Open House on Haunted Hill”, which has won the Nebula for Best Short Story, had the tough job of meeting my high expectations. And unfortunately, it was my least favorite story. It was by no means bad, just very, very underwhelming. It is told from the point of view of the house on Haunted Hill, or from the point of view of the entity that haunts it. Turns out that entity is actually pretty damn nice and just wants people to live in the house so it can make life easier for them (by opening and closing doors for example). Sadly, that’s it. People come to visit the house, some spooky (but not really) stuff happens, story over. I guess it’s cute but apart from a sweet idea there’s nothing about it that makes it stand out. Again, a novel based on this premise is definitely something I’d check out.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Metal Like Blood in the Dark
  2. A Guide For Working Breeds
  3. Little Free Library
  4. Badass Moms of the Zombie Apocalypse
  5. The Mermaid Astronaut
  6. Open House on Haunted Hill

My ballot is unlikely to change and that’s honestly such a relief. I am still very unsure about some of the other categories, I’m dreaming about how I could shift things around to best represent my feelings and it’s stressing me out. But this category, I feel pretty good about. I’d honestly be okay with any of these stories winning, although I do think my top picks are more deserving of a Hugo than my bottom ones (thus the ranking, after all).

Up next week: Best Novelette

Gamers, Corporocracy, and Revolution: Nicole Kornher-Stace – Firebreak

I’ve been wanting to read something by Nicole Kornher-Stace ever since her first book Archivist Wasp came out. As tends to happen to us voracious readers, buying books is much easier than reading them and sometimes that means a publication we were super excited about remains on the TBR for way too long. After Firebreak, I’ll be sure to pick up Stace’s other novels, however, because her fiction really works for me.

FIREBREAK
by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Published: Saga Press, 2021
eBook:
416 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 42 minutes
Standalone
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: The first time in weeks i see a SecOps NPC up close, I’m coming up on my daily thousand, my mind is long past numb from the repetition, and between that and the dehydration and the lack of sleep, I’m pretty sure I’m starting to hallucinate.

Like everyone else she knows, Mallory is an orphan of the corporate war. As a child, she lost her parents, her home, and her entire building in an airstrike. As an adult, she lives in a cramped hotel room with eight other people, all of them working multiple jobs to try to afford water and make ends meet. And the job she’s best at is streaming a popular VR war game. The best part of the game isn’t killing enemy combatants, though—it’s catching in-game glimpses of SecOps operatives, celebrity supersoldiers grown and owned by Stellaxis, the corporation that runs the America she lives in.

Until a chance encounter with a SecOps operative in the game leads Mal to a horrifying discovery: the real-life operatives weren’t created by Stellaxis. They were kids, just like her, who lost everything in the war, and were stolen and augmented and tortured into becoming supersoldiers. The world worships them, but the world believes a lie.

The company controls every part of their lives, and defying them puts everything at risk—her water ration, her livelihood, her connectivity, her friends, her life—but she can’t just sit on the knowledge. She has to do something—even if doing something will bring the wrath of the most powerful company in the world down upon her.

Firebreak is a book with so much to discover. Mallory is a gamer, in the sense that she – along with her best friend Jessa – streams her adventures in the most popular VR game in the hopes of gettin genough donations from viewers to supply another week’s worth of water. Chances of being watched and getting those donations are much higher when you manage to catch a SecOps operative in-game. These revered non-playable characters are based on the real-life operatives who helped win the war between Stellaxis and Greenleaf, the two corporations who managed to buy everything else and remained as the sole players vying for the right to rule America. There’s no government, water is the most precious commodity, and life is pretty tough for Mallory and the other people living in old town.

The story kicks off when Mallory and Jessa are offered a job that sounds too good t be true. In return for enough water to keep them alive and healthy for many months, they are supposed to help the mysterious woman named B find out the truth behind the operatives. B has good reason to believe that, unlike what Stellaxis says, the operatives weren’t grown in a lab, but were rather once regular human children who were stolen, enhanced, manipulated, and trained into the supersoldiers they are now. Those that are still alive, that is. And with that begins an adventure that’s part cyberpunk, part corporate conspiracy, part dystopia, and part action movie.

I immediately knew that I would love this book. Seriously, the moment I started reading – or rather listening – the writing style was so engaging that I prepared myself for many a late night and lots of “one more chapter” moments. I was not wrong. The central mystery of the book wasn’t even that exciting as it’s revealed very early on in the story, but there is so much more than just discovering that the evil coproration that makes people pay for water (!) has done some horrible things in the past, including torture and kidnapping.

What makes this so compelling is, on the one hand, the incredible world building. Kornher-Stace sets up a real world that’s not super original but with the added layer of VR gaming, of operatives who are treated like celebrities, both in the real world and in-game where it’s just avatars based on their personalities, it becomes something special. There are intricacies to the game they’re playing and the author managed to explain them, set up the rules, and make me care about our protagonist’s gaming success all without slowing down the plot.
On the other hand, the mix of themes and plot points worked really well for me. While it’s not technically YouTube or Twitch that the girls (and many other peole in this world) are streaming on, the mechanics are the same. Internet fame is tricky, social media can be a horror show, and just like in our world, even if it’s “only” online, what happens there has real life consequences! I loved how the author explored that world wihtout ever judging it. She shows both positive and less positive sides, she shows how manipulative it all can be, how fake, how meaningless. But then we also see how the internet and social media can be a source of strength, of peple connecting in order to reach a common goal.

The characters were also fantastic. Mallory isn’t your perfect streamer because she’s a little bit awkward, doesn’t feel too keen on talking to hundreds of audience members, and generally just wants to concentrate on playing the game. Which just means that pairing up with her friend Jessa works liek a charm. Jessa is outgoing, good at narrating their gaming stream, and always knows what to say. She also happens to be a real friend to Mallory and seeing those two interact lifted the whole book up to another level.

Which leaves the operatives. I must admit I was quite taken with them! The mystery surrounding them, the rarity with which one could meet them in-game, the star struck moment when you see one in the real world. Nicole Kornher-Stace’s writing is so damn good, it made me feel just like Mallory when she comes across two actual operatives. Without entering spoiler territory, the operatives are also the reason this book struck an emotional chord with me, especially as their backstory is revealed and more and more pieces of the truth come to light. That and Mallory’s friendships are the heart of the tale.

If you feel like reading a sci-fi book that tackles serious topics but still delivers a thriller-like plot with plenty of action, cool battles, major female friendships, and great writing, then this is for you.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Damn good!

I Love the Lady Astronauts: Mary Robinette Kowal – The Relentless Moon

Oh, Mary Robinette Kowal, you brilliant wonderful writer! With every instalment in the Lady Astronaut series, I am more and more convinced that Kowal has found her “thing”. Writing hard sci-fi about humanity exploring the solar system, but with a social angle and deeply human characters that one can’t help but root for. I am so happy that next year (hopefully) we’ll get the fourth volume titled The Martian Contingency. I really wouldn’t mind if this series kept going for a long, long time.

THE RELENTLESS MOON
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published: Tor, 2020
eBook:
538 pages
Series:
Lady Astronaut #3
My rating:
8.25/10

Opening line: How many places do you call home?

Mary Robinette Kowal continues her award-winning Lady Astronaut series, which began with The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, with The Relentless Moon.

The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The IAC’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened.

Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.

Did you ever wonder, while reading The Fated Sky and following Elma York and Stetson Parker on their way to Mars, what exactly has been going on on Earth and the Moon colony in the meantime? Well here’s your answer because Nicole Wargin, Lady Astronaut and wife of the governor of Kansas, lets us follow her during her everyday life which is… let’s just say slightly more exciting than the average person’s.

I admit I had a hard time adjusting to this new protagonist, the new voice, and the new circumstances presented in this book. I had really grown to like Elma and after two books, I felt like I knew her. Her work, her marriage, her anxiety, opening the book always felt like meeting an old friend. Now suddenly I’m supposed to care about one of Elma’s old friends and fellow astronette Nicole Wargin? Was she even that important in the first book? I barely remembered her at all. So although I swear I went into this book open-minded, I needed a while before I really found my way into this story and learned to enjoy Nicole’s narration.

The beginning is a tad slow and not just because Kowal has to set up Nicole as her new protagonist, but also because the book starts on Earth. But worry not, Nicole goes to the Moon soon enough, as is her job, and that’s when shit really starts hitting the fan. In The Relentless Moon, the plot revolves mostly around sabotage of the IAC and the mission to get humanity off Earth. You know, because the planet is dying and all that. What starts with riots by Earth Firsters soon turns even more dangerous as rockets misfire, various systems on the Moon colony have hiccups, and things go more and more wrong over time. Nicole’s job on this particular visit to the Moon is as much to do her usual job as working to find out who the saboteur(s) might be. While keeping what little she knows top secret, of course.

What follows is an exciting mix of everything that Kowal has done before, but still somehow new and interesting. We’ve spent time with Elma working hard for women’s rights to even be astronauts, we’ve accompanied her on the first ever mission to Mars and got to know the joys of toilets on space ships. We’ve actually been on the Moon in this series as well, but not like this. Nicole is a senior astronaut and really knows her way around both space ships and the Moon colony. And there is so much cool stuff to explore! Whether it’s the way every system has a safety net, there are redundancies for everything, sayings like “Slow is fast” (because doing anything in 1/6 Earth gravity takes practice), or how they’ve set up a little museum on the Moon to make it less about pure survival and more about living – it’s a joy simply walking around with Nicole as a guide.

Then again, we decidedly don’t just walk around because there is a saboteur on the loose and nobody knows when something so awful will happen that the 300 odd people currently on the Moon may not survive. Mary Robinette Kowal does such a great job at pacing her story, mixing more action-packed scenes with quieter ones, showing us the characters excelling at being sciency as well as their more vulnerable, emotional sides. It all comes together beautifully and in no time at all, I found myself not just rooting for but really caring about our brave and smart Moon residents.
Kowal also makes sure these people feel real by including discussions of mental health, in this case anorexia nervosa. The way it is talked about and presented in this book was incredibly refreshing. That sounds terrible – of course, the anorexia itself isn’t refreshing but it’s usually depicted as something that’s always triggered by the wish to look thinner for beauty reasons. And even though we know it has little to do with aesthetics and much more with control, pop culture still depicts anorexia in one particular way. Usually that’s a young girl wanting to be pretty. Nicole is a middle-aged woman and she really doesn’t care if other people think she’s skinny enough. I’m truly grateful for this nuanced depiction and Kowal even mentions in the afterword that she made sure not to include behaviours or triggers that people suffering from anorexia might use as “thinspiration”.

I was even more taken with the characters and their development overall. That’s right, the ones I wanted to get away from so I could be with Elma instead. It was lovely to watch Helen kick ass on the Moon, seeing as she got bumped off the Mars mission in order to make space for Elma. Myrtle and Eugene’s relationship, although they are side characters, truly shone and made me believe even more firmly that Mary Robinette Kowal must have a great marriage herself. Seriously, she writes the best married couples (Elma and Nathaniel’s embarrassing rocket metaphors aside). There’s also some development in terms of the blatant racism of the first book. It’s still there, to some degree, but you can see things changing. Slowly, oh so slowly, but still.

And then there’s Nicole, this brilliant astronaut and politician’s wife, who knows how to fly as well as how to manipulate a conversation in a desired direction, who loves her husband and their ancient cat but who also loves the Moon. Who almost forgets to take care of herself because she is spreading herself so thin and trying to solve every problem at once. It’s not often that I develop this kind of respect for a fictional character but, damn, do I want to shake Nicole’s hand. And then hug her really tight and cry on her shoulder because she is so amazing.

I cried during several occasions in this book, none of which I’m going to spoil here (and it’s not all sad occasions, mind you). The way grief is described, as this thing that you can almost push away only for it to hit you unexpectedly and even harder, felt incredibly real to me. But then, I also cry when humanity gets its act together in order to solve a problem, forgetting their differences and instead working as a unit. The ending of this book both made me cry and smile delightedly. So far, every book in this series has been brilliant, but the way it all comes together makes it clear that the series is so much more than the sum of its parts. I wholeheartedly recommend every science fiction fan pick it up!

MY RATING: 8.25/10 – Truly excellent!

Orilium: The Novice Path – Readathon Wrap-Up

September and the new-and-improved Magical Readathon are over and it’s time to look back at the journey, see how I fared, what books accompanied me along the road, and what my character for upcoming Magical Readathons looks like.

I didn’t have as much time to interact with my fellow novices this time around, but I soaked up all the YouTube videos and blog posts about your TBRs and characters. Seriously, some of you got so creative with your character designs that it blows my mind!

I very much enjoyed the choices we had to make on the Novice Path (on Twitter and the Discord) and I wonder what they will mean. G from Book Roast created these amazing situations for us, like finding magical runes or getting caught in poisonous gas, and then we had to choose one out of four options on how to proceed. I’m sure our choices will have consequences for the next readathon and I can’t wait to find out all the details.


The Novice Path Journey

For the Novice Path, these are the books I read or am still reading. Two of the prompts remain only partly fulfilled and the easiest prompt of them all I didn’t even start. I thought “a book from the top of my TBR” would be an easy pick because I could just go with whatever I was in the mood for, but then time ran out and so that’s the one I haven’t even attempted.

BOOK TITLEREADING PROMPTFULFILLED
Robert Jordan – The Great HuntNovice Path Entrance reading
John Scalzi – The Consuming FireAshthorn Tree
Nicole Kornher-Stace – FirebreakMists of Solitude reading
Katherine Arden – Small SpacesRuin of the SkyeYES
Sarah Gailey – The Echo WifeObsidian Falls YES
Jordan Ifueko – RedemptorTower of Rumination YES
Tori Bovalino – The Devil Makes ThreeOrilion Academy YES

All things considered, I did very well and I am happy with how the readathon turned out. I started with a couple of shorter books but then ended up picking up chonkster after chonkster (what’s wrong with me?!).

  • Books read: 7
  • Pages read: 2641

That means I have surpassed the goal of the readathon but I haven’t reached my secret stretch goal of fulfilling all the prompts. I could have probably done it but life doesn’t only consist of reading, after all, and I don’t regret spending some of my time doing other things. 🙂


My Character

There is no urgency in creating my readathon character Sistani, but I still like that I managed to get most of her traits done in September. She’s a half-Iltirian half-Elf girl who lives on Kerador. She grew up in a big city and loves the bustling city life and its multicultural inhabitants. That last part you just have to believe me because I didn’t manage to read the book for the “urban” prompt yet.

BOOK TITLEPROMPTFULFILLED
Colson Whitehead – The Underground RailroadIltirianYES
Linden A. Lewis – The Second RebelKeradorYES
Alaya Dawn Johnson – Trouble the SaintsUrban
Mary Robinette Kowal – The Relentless MoonElfYES
Sistani

As there is still time until next April to create and polish our characters, I will definitely catch up on fulfilling the final prompt for my city girl. I may also come up with a more elaborate backstory for Sistani, just because it’s fun. You’ll see whether I followed through next March, I guess.

ETA: Last night, G revealed the consequences of those choices we made on the journey to Orilium Academy and I am so excited!!! Because our choices helped us find our Guild, which is basically our group of likeminded people at Orilium Academy but which also grants us each certain abilities, specialties, and probably weaknesses that will be relevant in the next instalment of the readathon.

My character turned out to be an Archivist, which totally cracks me up because they are essentially the nerdy book club of this fantasy world. 🙂
Our colors are white and gold, we can make a pact with a god (!) and we are granted access to the Academy’s incredible spiral library that goes all the way down into the crater the Academy is standing on.
I find the other three guilds really interesting as well and I’m certainly a bit jealous of their abilities but I feel very much at home in this one.


The Books (the long part)

The first book I finished was Small Spaces by Katherine Arden with its spooky cover and its spooky plot – fitting for Ruin of the Skye. This middle grade novel was exactly what I had hoped and 12-year-old me would have gobbled it up with even more delight. Young Ollie is still grieving for her dead mother and doesn’t really care about school or friends or much of anything anymore. When a school trip takes a dark turn, she has to take part in the world again, however, and she’ll learn that she has a lot to live for. Her delightfully non-cliché dad as well as the friends she picks up on the way make this a really charming read. There are creepy moments, of course, but it’s very mild and child-friendly which isn’t to say it’s stupid or dumbed down in any way. There is a cool backstory and nice world building about the particular creeps of this book (the cover gives you a big hint as to what that is). I really loved it and can’t wait to read the rest of the series. It’s the perfect reading slump antidote.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was the book that cemented my Iltirian heritage with its red cover. I’d say I knew some of what was coming, this being about an enslaved woman fleeing the plantation where she was born by using the (literal) Underground Railroad, but I really wasn’t prepared. I’ve read a fair amount of books with graphic descriptions of violence in them, and I expected the slave characters to be treated terribly, but Whitehead still managed to write scenes that absolutely punched me in the guts and made me gasp out loud. Was this a fun read? Hell no! Do I recommend it? Absolutely!

The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey is proof that this author has an endless amount of great ideas and knows how to tell a story. A recently divorced woman has to team up with her clone (with whom her ex-husband has been cheating) in trying to cover up the murder of said husband. Perfect thriller material for Obsidian Falls.
It’s about science and agency, about what it means to be human and how far technology should go. It’s about being a woman and not conforming to expectations (such as motherhood). It also has murder and betrayal and twists galore. I cannot praise its complicated characters enough or the way Gailey just always nails the pacing to keep you engaged every damn page. I loved this book.

Next up was The Devil Makes Three by Tori Bovalino, a book that perfectly fit my current mood because Dark Academia just goes so well with the season and the weather and schools starting again. So I chose it for the Orilium Arc prompt. It started out well enough with dual POVs of its fleshed-out characters, each with quite complicated family lives. Tess and Eliot accidentally summon a demon and then have to deal with the aftermath. Sadly, there was a large slumpy part in this book, the solution was super unoriginal and the one tiny twist was predictable from miles away. I did like the understated romance and the characters as such, but the plot was paper thin and the whole supernatural aspect felt like it was thrown in there as an afterthought because there’s so little worldbuilding. This book wasn’t bad, but I think I’d much prefer to read a contemproray romance by this author.

Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko was my five star prediction and thus my book for the Tower of Rumination. This second part of the duology did many things really well, others suffered a bit because they needed more time to be fleshed out. I can’t believe I’m saying this but maybe a trilogy would have been better?
Either way, I adore Ifueko’s characters, the way she writes found families warms my heart, and the ending to this series felt like putting the last piece of a puzzle into its slot and smiling to yourself happily. I highly recommend this YA duology and I even more highly recommend reading them one right after the other. Especially if you like reading about diverse characters and found families.

My audiobook for the month was The Second Rebel by Linden A. Lewis, sequel to The First Sister and thus my choice for the Kerador prompt. I had more trouble than expected remembering everything that was important in the first book, so it took me a while to find my way back into this universe of warring factions, tech against religion, evil corporation versus rebel groups. But despite the many confusing things, I thoroughly enjoyed Lewis’ ideas, the diversity of the characters, their relationships to each other, and the excellent twists. Maybe when the third book comes out I’ll do a re-read of the first two and just eat up the trilogy in one go.

Lastly, I read one of my top two books of the month, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon. With its moon on the cover and in the title, this book made sure everyone knew my character is a (half) Elf. After my initial unwillingness to let go of beloved characters and follow a new protagonist, I quickly fell into this story of sabotage, life on the Moon, scientists being sciency, astronauts doing astronauty things, and the deep humanity of all people involved. In no way did I expect this book to touch me so deeply but I found myself crying several times. It does everything Kowal does best: hard sci-fi, mental health, racism and sexism, the beauty of science and the importance of love and friendships. Damn, this was a good book!


So yeah. This was a great readathon and I already look forward to April 2022 at the Orilium Academy! See you there. 🙂

The State of SFF – October 2021

Spooky time is here! And with October comes a lot of adaptation news, some super shiny editions of previously published books, a lot of publications to look forward to, and of course more SFF awards.

Quickie News

  • The Sal and Gabi books by Carlos Hernandez are getting a TV adaptation which is being developed by Eva Longoria. I’ve only read the first book (it was super adorable!) but I can’t wait to see this crazy adventure translate into a visual medium. It will be so much fun.
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  • Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko is being adapted for Netflix and I CAN’T STOP SMILING! I don’t know if you’ve heard me mention that duology once or twice (or a hundred times) but I am beyond happy that it’s getting an adaptation and if they do it right, it will look so stunning.
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  • Illumicrate is trying to take all my money recently. I already splurged on special editions of Raybearer and Redemptor, but I am also totally going to buy these exclusive naked hardbacks of the Green Bone Saga by Fonda Lee with new and shiny covers. I mean, how could I not?
  • Sadly, that means that I won’t be buying these equally stunning editions of Circe and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller even though I really, really want to. But at least I can share them with you and we can all suffer together. Or, if you have enough disposable income, go treat yourself and get them all. (I’m not getting paid by Illumicrate, I don’t have a partnership with them (I wish), I’m just a huge fan of their special editions.)

The IGNYTE Award Winners Have Been Announced

With a shortlist this great, it was a foregone conclusion that the winners would make us all cheer. So huge congratulations to all the IGNYTE winners. Check out the full list of categories and winners behind the link in the title. Here are the ones that I found most interesting:

  • Best Novel: Rebecca Roanhorse – Black Sun
  • Best Novella: Tochi Onyebuchi – Riot Baby
  • Best YA: Tracy Deonn – Legendborn
  • Best MG: Claribel A. Ortega – Ghost Squad
  • Best Novelette: Aliette de Bodard – The Inaccessibility of Heaven

My favorite YA novel didn’t win (again!) but I still have hopes for the Hugo Award ceremony where my precious Raybearer might get a Lodestar award. That said, I really enjoyed Legendborn and am super happy that it got the award. Tochi Onyebuchi’s win makes me particularly happy, even though Riot Baby isn’t my favorite work of his. But he is without a doubt one of the most exciting new writers in SFF and I hope he’ll give us many more novels, novellas, and stories in the coming years.


C.S.E. Cooney brings us new Hopepunk with Dark Breakers

Mythic Delirium, the publisher behind the amazeballs collection Bone Swans, is making me very happy with this latest announcement. C.S.E. Cooney, poet extraordinaire and writer of words both pretty and dark, is giving us a new collection, consisting of two previously published but uncollected tales plus a bunch of new stuff. Needless to say, I’ve already pre-ordered my hardback copy. It will have illustrations as well. 🙂

“Welcome to a Gilded Era like you’ve never before known and will never be able to forget. C. S. E. Cooney’s DARK BREAKERS will transfix and transform you, and, should you chance upon its characters in a glittering hallway, you had best be wearing your fanciest moonlight, and be ready to dance. If Titania herself were to commission a book, it would be this one.”

—Fran Wilde, two-time Nebula Award-winning author of UPDRAFT and RIVERLAND

A young human painter and an ageless gentry queen fall in love over spilled wine—at the risk of his life and her immortality. Pulled into the Veil Between Worlds, two feuding neighbors (and a living statue) get swept up in a brutal war of succession. An investigative reporter infiltrates the Seafall City Laundries to write the exposé of a lifetime, and uncovers secrets she never believed possible. Returning to an oak grove to scatter her husband’s ashes, an elderly widow meets an otherworldly friend, who offers her a momentous choice. Two gentry queens of the Valwode plot to hijack a human rocketship and steal the moon out of the sky.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Sharon Shinn
  • The Breaker Queen
  • The Two Paupers
  • Salissay’s Laundries
  • Longergreen
  • Susurra to the Moon

Exciting October Publications

October is looking good with a nice mix of new books by established authors as well as some debuts that people already can’t stop talking about. I’m still awed by the pile we got in September and October isn’t going to help our TBRs shrink either.

ALIX E. HARROW – A SPINDLE SPLINTERED (October 5th)

Harrow is one of those authors whose books I would buy blindly. In this case, however, could there be a more enticing description than “let’s spiderverse a fairy tale”?!

It’s Zinnia Gray’s twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it’s the last birthday she’ll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no one has lived past twenty-one.
Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia’s last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.


JENNIFER MARIE BRISSETT – DESTROYER OF LIGHT (October 12th)

Perseophone, science fiction, Afro-futuristic. That is all.

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The Matrix meets an Afro-futuristic retelling of Persephone set in a science fiction underworld of aliens, refugees, and genetic engineering in Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Destroyer of Light.

Having destroyed Earth, the alien conquerors resettle the remains of humanity on the planet of Eleusis. In the three habitable areas of the planet–Day, Dusk, and Night–the haves and have nots, criminals and dissidents, and former alien conquerors irrevocably bind three stories:

*A violent warlord abducts a young girl from the agrarian outskirts of Dusk leaving her mother searching and grieving.
*Genetically modified twin brothers desperately search for the lost son of a human/alien couple in a criminal underground trafficking children for unknown purposes.
*A young woman with inhuman powers rises through the insurgent ranks of soldiers in the borderlands of Night.

Their stories skate across years, building to a single confrontation when the fate of all—human and alien—balances upon a knife’s-edge.

Warning: This book is designed for audiences 18+ due to scenes of physical and sexual violence, and themes that some may find disturbing.


DONNA BARBA HIGUERA – THE LAST CUENTISTA (October 12th)

I like storytellers as characters and this one is the last who remembers Earth. This could either be a lazy YA dystopia or a brilliant examination of what makes us humans (spoiler: stories are a big part of humanity). I’m more than willing to try and see for myself.

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Había una vez . . .

There lived a girl named Petra Peña, who wanted nothing more than to be a storyteller, like her abuelita.

But Petra’s world is ending. Earth has been destroyed by a comet, and only a few hundred scientists and their children – among them Petra and her family – have been chosen to journey to a new planet. They are the ones who must carry on the human race.

Hundreds of years later, Petra wakes to this new planet – and the discovery that she is the only person who remembers Earth. A sinister Collective has taken over the ship during its journey, bent on erasing the sins of humanity’s past. They have systematically purged the memories of all aboard – or purged them altogether.

Petra alone now carries the stories of our past, and with them, any hope for our future. Can she make them live again?

Pura Belpré Honor-winning author Donna Barba Higuera presents us with a brilliant journey through the stars, to the very heart of what makes us human.


JUNE C.L. TAN – JADE FIRE GOLD (October 12th)

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding this book and I will be honest. I got swept up in it. The story sounds super cool and while I don’t like the US cover, the UK version (below) is very pretty.

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Her destiny. His revenge.
In an empire on the brink of war . . .

Ahn is no one, with no past and no family.
Altan is a lost heir, his future stolen away as a child.

When they meet, Altan sees in Ahn a path to reclaiming the throne. Ahn sees a way to finally unlock her past and understand her lethal magical abilities.
But they may have to pay a far deadlier price than either could have imagined.

Girls of Paper and Fire meets A Song of Wraiths and Ruin in June CL Tan’s stunning debut, where ferocious action, shadowy intrigue, rich magic, and a captivating slow-burn romance collide.


K. EASON – NIGHTWATCH ON THE HINTERLANDS (October 19th)

To my shame, I haven’t read the Rory Thorne books yet but this one caught my eye anyway. Standalones are always welcome, especially when

Set in the universe of Rory Thorne, this new standalone sci-fi mystery follows an unlikely duo who must discover the motive behind an unusual murder.

THE TEMPLAR: When Lieutenant Iari hears screams in the night, she expects to interrupt a robbery or break up a fight. Instead she discovers a murder with an impossible suspect: a riev, one of the battle-mecha decommissioned after the end of the last conflict, repurposed for manual labor. Riev don’t kill people. And yet, clearly, one has. Iari sets out to find it.

THE SPY: Officially, Gaer is an ambassador from the vakari. Unofficially, he’s also a spy, sending information back to his government, unfiltered by diplomatic channels. Unlike Iari, Gaer isn’t so sure the riev’s behavior is just a malfunction, since the riev were created using an unstable mixture of alchemy and arithmancy.

As Gaer and Iari search for the truth, they discover that the murderous riev is just a weapon in the hands of a wielder with wider ambitions than homicide–including releasing horrors not seen since the war, that make a rampaging riev seem insignificant…


ZIN E. ROCKLYN – FLOWERS FOR THE SEA (October 19th)

If the cover hadn’t caught my attention, the comparisons would have. Everything about this novella sounds fantastic and I’m always on the lookout for new favorite authors. Gothic fantasy, creepiness, and similar to Octavia Butler gives me high hopes.

Flowers for the Sea is a dark, dazzling debut novella that reads like Rosemary’s Baby by way of Octavia E. Butler.

We are a people who do not forget.

Survivors from a flooded kingdom struggle alone on an ark. Resources are scant, and ravenous beasts circle. Their fangs are sharp.

Among the refugees is Iraxi: ostracized, despised, and a commoner who refused a prince, she’s pregnant with a child that might be more than human. Her fate may be darker and more powerful than she can imagine.

Zin E. Rocklyn’s extraordinary debut is a lush, gothic fantasy about the prices we pay and the vengeance we seek.


MARGARET OWEN – LITTLE THIEVES (October 19th)

Start the synopsis with Once Upon a Time and you have my attention. Move on to tell me that the protagonist is the goddaughter of Death and Fortune, and you have my excitement. Add a cool, somewhat creepy cover featuring three women and you have my money. See, it’s really not that hard.

Once upon a time, there was a horrible girl…

Vanja Schmidt knows that no gift is freely given, not even a mother’s love–and she’s on the hook for one hell of a debt. Vanja, the adopted goddaughter of Death and Fortune, was Princess Gisele’s dutiful servant up until a year ago. That was when Vanja’s otherworldly mothers demanded a terrible price for their care, and Vanja decided to steal her future back… by stealing Gisele’s life for herself.

The real Gisele is left a penniless nobody while Vanja uses an enchanted string of pearls to take her place. Now, Vanja leads a lonely but lucrative double life as princess and jewel thief, charming nobility while emptying their coffers to fund her great escape. Then, one heist away from freedom, Vanja crosses the wrong god and is cursed to an untimely end: turning into jewels, stone by stone, for her greed.

Vanja has just two weeks to figure out how to break her curse and make her getaway. And with a feral guardian half-god, Gisele’s sinister fiancé, and an overeager junior detective on Vanja’s tail, she’ll have to pull the biggest grift yet to save her own life.

Margaret Owen, author of The Merciful Crow series, crafts a delightfully irreverent retelling of “The Goose Girl” about stolen lives, thorny truths, and the wicked girls at the heart of both.


LAUREN BLACKWOOD – WITHIN THESE WICKED WALLS (October 19th)

A Jane Eyre retelling will always get me interested, but Jane Eyre with an exorcist twist and Ethiopian-inspired fantasy setting, I simply can’t ignore. I want this now!

What the heart desires, the house destroys…

Andromeda is a debtera—an exorcist hired to cleanse households of the Evil Eye. When a handsome young heir named Magnus Rochester reaches out to hire her, Andromeda quickly realizes this is a job like no other, with horrifying manifestations at every turn, and that Magnus is hiding far more than she has been trained for. Death is the most likely outcome if she stays, but leaving Magnus to live out his curse alone isn’t an option. Evil may roam the castle’s halls, but so does a burning desire.

Kiersten White meets Tomi Adeyemi in this Ethiopian-inspired debut fantasy retelling of Jane Eyre.


STADE THOMPSON – FAR FROM THE LIGHT OF HEAVEN (October 26th)

I still have one book to read in the Wormwood trilogy by Tade Thompson but I knew right after Rosewater that this was an authorI wanted to follow. I like a good mystery on a space ship and I cannot wait to see what cool and new ideas Thompson has come up with this time.

The colony ship Ragtime docks in the Lagos system, having traveled light-years from home to bring thousands of sleeping souls to safety among the stars.

Some of the sleepers, however, will never wake – and a profound and sinister mystery unfolds aboard the gigantic vessel as its skeleton crew make decisions that will have repercussions for the entire system – from the scheming politicians of Lagos station to the colony of Nightshade and the poisoned planet of Bloodroot, poised for a civil war.


News from the blog

I did alright in September. The Magical Readathon helped me find a nice balance between older stuff I’ve been meaning to read, books I have to read for the Hugos, and new publications I’m excited about. Here is how the readathon went for me:

In October, I’ll start posting my Reading the Hugos posts about this year’s finalists. We’ll kick this little blog post series off with Best Short Story on October 15th and after that, I’ll be looking at a different category every Friday and telling you what my voting ballot looks like (at least at that moment in time). I made it through quite a few categories this year and with the prolonged reading time, I might still manage to squeeze in one more.

What I read:

  • Mary Robinette Kowal – The Relentless Moon (8.25/10) (review to come on Monday)
    took me a while to get into – but then I was ALL IN – Kowal does hard sci-fi with diverse characters best – my second favorite of the series – also, that ending!
  • Tori Bovalino – The Devil Makes Three (5.5/10)
    intersting YA characters – nice romance – terribel fantasy world building – uneven pacing – cheesy ending
  • Jordan Ifueko – Redemptor (7.75/10)
    lovely found family – great writing and characters – too much plot for the page count – pacing varies – excellent themes (mental health, sexuality, family, belonging)
  • Sarah Gailey – The Echo Wife (8/10)
    get away with murder (with your clone) – excellent characters, themes, and writing – exciting thriller – plot twists that aren’t cheap – didn’t like the protagonist much but loved the book more for that
  • Katherine Arden – Small Spaces (7/10)
    wonderful middle grade horror book – diverse loveable characters – very cool backstory – mild creepiness – super quick read
  • Linden A. Lewis – The Second Rebel (6.75/10)
    cool plot – great ideas – confusing names and places – too many plot strings, not enough time for fleshing out world/characters/etc.
  • Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad (7.5/10)
    tough to read – excellently written – gets very cruel and dark – conveys utter despair but with a glimpse of hope

Currently reading:

  • Robert Jordan – The Great Hunt
  • Nicole Kornher-Stace – Firebreak

I didn’t manage to finish the second Wheel of Time book in September but I do enjoy it much more than the first. The Lord of the Rings copy vibe is gone and it’s finally time for Jordan’s own ideas. Characters, world building, politics and devious machinations – everything is so much more interesting than in Eye of the World. I’ve only read a third, but so far I’m having fun and I can even see myself turning into a proper fan if the next books hold up.
Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace was like love at first sight. I can’t even tell you what exactly it is that I like so much but I simply cannot keep my hands (or rather my ears, because audiobook) off this book!

G’s Magical Readathon gave me a much needed push but, as with most readathons, I’m glad that I can now go back to a more relaxed type of reading. I still have a lot of books to go for the Hugo Awards and a whole bunch of 2021 publications to catch up on. But then October is also spooky month and I want to read something dark and creepy, maybe something witchy or about a haunted house? We’ll see.

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