Domestic life in space: Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few

I really loved The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the first in Chambers’ loosely connected trilogy of stories about spacefaring people and aliens. It was such a refreshing book in a world of grimdark books filled with backstabbing characters. I skipped the second book in the series but I was not going to miss this one as it’s nominated for a Hugo Award. Let’s just say while it’s not a bad book  it’s at the bottom of my ballot right now…

RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW
by Becky Chambers

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2018
eBook: 400 pages
Series: Wayfarers #3
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: “Mom, can I go see the stars?”

Centuries after the last humans left Earth, the Exodus Fleet is a living relic, a place many are from but few outsiders have seen. Humanity has finally been accepted into the galactic community, but while this has opened doors for many, those who have not yet left for alien cities fear that their carefully cultivated way of life is under threat.
Tessa chose to stay home when her brother Ashby left for the stars, but has to question that decision when her position in the Fleet is threatened.
Kip, a reluctant young apprentice, itches for change but doesn’t know where to find it.
Sawyer, a lost and lonely newcomer, is just looking for a place to belong.
When a disaster rocks this already fragile community, those Exodans who still call the Fleet their home can no longer avoid the inescapable question:
What is the purpose of a ship that has reached its destination?

Record of a Spaceborn Few delivers exactly what the title promises. The book follows five characters and their life on the Exodus Fleet – a group of gigantic ships that left the Earth for a better life somewhere else, and that has techically reached its destination. Except not all people are leaving the Fleet for life on a planet but would rather stay there living they life they know. One with artificial gravity, no horizon, and their own rules.

Through the five protagonists the author shows us what life in the Fleet is like. Tessa, a mother of two with a mostly absent husband (because work in space can take you quite far away sometimes) struggles to hold her family together, to keep her dautghter Aya’s fears of being sucked into empty space at bay, and to simply make a home for them.
Isabel, an older archivist, lives happily with her wife in their close-knit community. She receives an alien visitor who wants to learn about humans and the Fleet – so it is mostly in her POV that a lot of exposition happens but I also found it very intriguing because it explains simply what life is like for these spaceborn people and why they choose to live it.
Eyas has one of the least popular jobs in the fleet. She’s responsible for the reclamation of dead bodies. As nothing is wasted, it’s only natural that deceased human bodies be used in whichever way is most helpful for the remaining people. Eyas’ storyline has next to no plot.
Kip is a teenager who doesn’t know what to do with his life (which teenager really does?) and who’s not sure he even likes being part of the Fleet. His coming of age takes a long time to build up but when it does, it’s quite satisfying.
Lastly, Sawyer is a newcomer to the Fleet, a young man who used to live on a planet but wants to try a different sort of life. He arrives filled with hope and naivete.

So… five quite different people, most of which don’t get an actual plot in this book. The kickoff moment is an accident on the Oxomoco, a ship that suffered a breach, killing everyone on it. It means something for Isabel to take into the archive, it means lots of bodies for Eyas to take care of, it means an emotional impact on all the characters, but it doesn’t really mean there’s going to be any plot.

For a very long time, all we get in this book is domestic life in the Fleet. The world building was brilliant, so learning about how everything works, what the society is like, how people interact with each other, was interesting enough. But there came the point when I asked myself why I’m reading about Tessa cleaning up after her two kids, or about a dinner with Isabel and her wife, or Kip trying to go see a prostitute. There’s no bigger plot anywhere to be found. Until – very late, I must add – there is.

Sawyer, a character I immediately liked, arrives at the Fleet knowing nothing. He has no idea what to do, how to meet people, where to get a job… he’s a fish out of water and unfortunately, someone immediately takes advantage of his blind trust. That’s all I’ll say about his storyline. As it’s pretty much the only one that has a plot, I don’t want to give anything away. Only let me say that had the book focused more on him, I would have liked it much more.

As much as I like Chambers’ way of writing characters that are nice, this was almost a bit too much. Everyone is just so respectful and so nice and friendly all the time. Sure, the world would be a much better place if everyone behaved the way these people do, but let’s face it: humans don’t work that way. Even the nicest person occasionally has a bad day, even the friendliest, most helpful human will have something bad happen to them (the death of a loved one, say) and won’t care about the feelings of others for a little while. But because the characters here are all so damn perfect, there is pretty much no conflict. The only one who acts out a bit is Kip, and even his teenage shenanigans are resolved maturely and calmly. I’m not saying every book needs to have a villain or violence, but every character should have layers and moods. Here, everyone is just too nice all the time.

So although I liked the characters as such and I liked reading about the Fleet, this book was tedious for a long time. At one point, when something big happens and the characters are finally loosely connected to each other, it got really good. This was maybe the last quarter of the book though, so even the excellent ending couldn’t make my rating go up by much. Chambers knows how to write, she does fantastic world building, she also writes lovely characters. I just wish she switched it up a bit and had given this book a plot from the beginning.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

A Predictable Adventure: Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone

I steered well away from this book when it came out because it’s clearly one of those books that get hyped based on a (gorgeous!) cover and a cool description alone. Flocks of people swear it’s fantastic, simply because it looks great and the premise sounds nice. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the kind of book that usually disappoints. While I didn’t think this was completely disappointing, it definitely isn’t the book that the interwebs say it is but instead a mostly thrilling, albeit very predictable, adventure story in a cool setting.

CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE
by Tomi Adeyemi

Published by: Henry Holt, 2018
eBook: 544 pages
Series: Legacy of Orïsha #1
My rating: 6,5/10
First sentence: Pick me.

They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.
But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.
Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.
Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy.

Zélie lives in Orisha, a magical version of Nigeria, but her life there isn’t easy. As a diviner – a young person who should get magical abilities by the age of thirteen but hasn’t – she belongs to the lowest caste of people. Although not explicitly slaves, diviners are kept down by the monarchy and forced even further down by ever increasing taxes. If they fail to pay these taxes, they are sent to the stocks where hard labor eventually kills them. So… “not an easy life” is an understatement.
Amari is a princess, living in the palace, and her life naturally differs a lot from Zélies. Unlike her father, the king, Amari is sympathetic to the diviners because her maid is a diviner and also the only person she could call a friend. Clearly not made for princesshood, Amari struggles with the rules her mother imposes upon her. When a magical scroll appears in the palace that is supposed to give diviners their magic back, however, Amari takes action, defies her father, and runs away with the scroll.
Amari’s brother Inan may currently be Captain of the Royal Guard, but he will be king someday. His driving force is making his father proud and proving he has what it takes to rule the kingdom. Which, in his father’s eyes is mostly cruelty and a complete disregard for human life – if that life belongs to a diviner, at least…
When Amari and Zélie are thrown together by fate, and Zélie learns of the scroll’s powers, the two girls and Zélie’s brother Tzain set out on a quest. Which leads them to another quest to bring magic back to Orisha and restore power to the diviners so they can finally fight back against a monarchy that wants to keep them down at all costs.

There were many things I liked about this book, but there were also many things that I found grating. The constant repetitions made me roll my eyes a lot! Yes, we get it, Zélie’s mother was executed during the Raid (the time when magic was eradiated and the maji were killed, leaving their diviner children without magic). There’s really no need to mention it in every single chapter. The prologue does such a good job in describing the horrors Zélie felt when she saw her mother captured. Constantly mentioning it again and again takes away from that, and even blunted my feelings as a reader. Similarly, an event that happened between Amari and her brother Inan keeps coming up over and over again. Please, dear authors, trust your readers enough to believe that they can remember the horrible things that happened to your characters. We won’t forget even if we’re not reminded of it for a few chapters.

The thing that bothered me the most, though, was how flat the characters were. There are four protagonists, three of which get POV chapters. Zélie, Amari, and Inan are almost indistinguishable in voice. While Inan at least follows a different path and is out to destroy magic, the two girls could have been the same person in different circumstances. When I put the book down mid-chapter, I sometimes had to check whose POV I was in to figure it out. Good characters have their own voice and you don’t need chapter headings to know who you’re following at any given moment. I hope this improves in the author’s upcoming books.

One thing this book was praised for was the setting and the world building. Now, I’m all for setting fantasy stories in places other than medieval Europe, and I loved reading about characters with dark skin and – in the diviner’s case – white hair. Adeyemi’s descriptions are quite good and would make for an excellent movie. Both the ryders, huge animals like lions and panthers with a few extra horns, and the people are described in a way that I found stunning. The magic system is kind of based on the elements – there are maji who can control water, fire, etc. but also ones like Zélie whose powers have to do with the dead and their souls. Although it’s nothing new, I really liked how magic was used and the powers it gave its wielders. As for the world as such, I found the world building rather weak. That’s another thing that could get better in the upcoming sequels.

Finally, the plot was so very, very predictable. Not only were the romances obvious from the start, the bigger events weren’t even trying to be interesting. They run away with the scroll, get some information on how to get magic back, and then they just… go and try to do that, I guess. Thank goodness, things don’t go smoothly. Because even though you know what’s going to happen, the way battles and various adventures are described is just thrilling. It’s like watching an action movie where you know the heroes will make it out alive and well and nothing’s really at stake, but it’s fun to watch anyway. And, to Adeyemi’s credit, the ending – although kind of a stupid cliffhanger – does hold one little twist in store that made me curious for the rest of the series.

Now I’ve made it all sound way worse than it was but I’d actually recommend the book. You just have to know what to expect going in. You’re not going to get an N. K. Jemisin style exploration of race or a Brandon Sanderson-esque world building. You’ll simply get a fun adventure story with a nice (if predictable) romance.
I’ve been thinking a lot about book hypes and Goodreads ratings while reading this novel.  My conclusion (based on no research whatsoever but simply my own musings) is that a good cover has a huge impact. Certain buzz words, character traits, or settings add another layer to the hype – and by then it doesn’t really matter if the book is any good, because enough people are talking about it which makes others buy it which makes at least part of the people who bought it read it and then the whole thing starts over again with the sequel – which in the case of this series has an even more stunning cover to offer.
By this I don’t want to say that this is a bad book. It’s not. It’s a totally fine book that I read quickly and that entertained me from beginning to end. But I definitely don’t think there’s anything groundbreaking about it. The plot was predictable, the developing romance(s) could be guessed from very early on, and the characters were cardboard. But the adventure is thrilling, the magic is cool, and when I’m in the mood for a light Hollywood-type fun story that doesn’t require too much thinking, I’ll be back for the sequel.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

Zombies vs. Ex-Slaves: Justina Ireland: Dread Nation

While this year’s Hugo shortlist in general is fantastic, the still pretty new YA category – the Lodestar Award, and Not-A-Hugo – is more of a mixed bag. Which is not a bad thing, to be honest. It makes ranking these six novels much easier.

DREAD NATION
by Justina Ireland

Published by: Balzer + Bray, 2018
eBook: 455 pages
Series: Dread Nation #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me.

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

I absolutely loved the voice of this book – which is the voice of its protagonist Jane McKeene – from the very first moment. She is sharp, she is no-nonsense, she lies a lot but at least she lets us readers in on her lies, she cares deeply about her family and friends, and she wants to do what is right. With that as a basis, very little could go wrong for me. And Dread Nation did in fact keep me entertained until the end, even though I felt the plot started meandering a bit at a certain point and the book left  too much open for the sequel(s).

The premise of this story  may sound cool, but if you’re tired of zombies (like me), you may have stayed away from Dread Nation so far (like me). In this alternate version of America, the War Between the States was interrupted by the dead rising. So people put down their arms against each other and instead decided to take up arms against the common threat. As for the slaves, they are technically freed, but not really because while they’re not considered anyone’s property anymore, they don’t have a lot choice in life. Jane is training to become an Attendant: a fighter of the dead to protect the living – but with manners. That’s the only “promotion” a black girl can hope for, to become a bodyguard for white people, rather than being sent to fight a whole army of zombies. So let’s just say, while slavery as it used to be no longer exists,  black people’s lives haven’t really much improved.

Jane simply wants to finish her studies and return home to her mother and aunt, but Things get in the way. Local families go missing, Jane’s friend and former lover Red Jack turns up again, and Jane gets stuck in stupidly dangerous situations with her most detested fellow student, Katherine. Jane resents  Katherine because she  is gorgeous and can pass for white. But these two girls are stuck together for quite an adventure. I loved their dynamic, I loved how they turned from frenemies into friends, especially how Jane started rethinking her prejudice against Katherine. Another big plus was the backstory we learn slowly through letters sent from Jane to her mother. For the most part of the book, this is a one-sided correspondence, but these brief interludes between chapters show more of Jane’s character than some of the chapters themselves. There is also more to Jane’s past than we get to see at first but I wasn’t a big fan of that plot twist and I won’t reveal it here because spoilers. Let’s just say that I loved Jane regardless of her past, because she is a badass with a good heart.

The world building really has potention. I didn’t find the premise hugely original (pairing zombies with whatever has been done too many times), but Justina Ireland really made something of it. We don’t just get to see how people defend themselves against the dead already risen, but scholars do experiments in order to figure out how to cure the plague, or how to vaccinate the living against it – I definitely got the sense that more is happening in this world than we got to see through Jane’s eyes. And that fleshed-out feeling, that sense that the world is bigger and just organic, is a sign of good writing to me.

The weakest part of this was definitely the plot. While it started really well and I could have read an entire novel set in the Miss Preson’s school, Jane sets out on an adventure. At one point, I thought it would take her many places, but then the friends kind of stay put in this one place. The villain was obivous, the conspiracy was also pretty easy to guess, and most situations that put the protagonists in danger felt like in a kid’s movie, where you just know everyone will be fine in the end. I’m not saying I was right about this but while reading, I definitely wasn’t worried about Jane, Katherine, or Red Jack.

I probably won’t jump on the sequel the moment it comes out, but I can definitely see myself reading more of Justina Ireland’s books. Especially if they’re told by Jane McKeene.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Quite good

Women Are More Than Wives and Witches: Madeline Miller – Circe

I was worried that Madeline Miller couldn’t possible write another retelling of a Greek myth that was as wonderful as The Song of Achilles. In this book, Circe gets to tell her own story and paints a rather different picture than the one I had – which, to be honest, was only that she was that witch who turned men into pigs when Odysseus landed on her island after the war of Troy. But boy, is there more to her story!

CIRCE
by Madeline Miller

Published by: Little, Brown and Company, 2018
eBook: 393 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Let me say right away that if you don’t much like the beginning of this book – don’t give up! The story is narrated by Circe herself and begins with her early life as a child of Helios in the Titan’s Hall. Her life isn’t exactly nice at first. She is bullied and ridiculed by her siblings for her strange voice and her plain looks, she can’t for the life of her make her parents proud, and she seems to stay constantly in the shadows. Until she finds out that there is magic in her and that she has the power to change things. After she changes a human sailor whom she has fallen in love with, into a god, she goes further and uses her gift with magical plants to change the Mean Girl into a monster.

And so begins her exile. Helios, in rare agreement with Zeus, decides to banish his witchy daughter to the island of Aiaia. Now I expected a long and boring exile because as I metioned, my prior knowledge of Circe was that Odysseus met her after Troy… I didn’t know if she came up in any other Greek heroes’ stories. But whether it’s part of the actual myths or whether Miller simply decided to give Circe more to do, there was definitely enough adventure to keep me intrigued.

Yes, for a long time, Circe is still only a side character who witnesses great things from afar. But reading about the birth of the Minotaur, meeting Daedalus, and of course later on Odysseus and his men, never felt boring. Instead, I was excited to see these other characters portrayed so differently from what I’d read many years ago in books of mythology. Although they may only be side characters in Circe’s story, they all felt fleshed-out, like real people, and that was enough for me, even if we didn’t follow their adventures in this story.

Odysseus does of course eventually show up on Aiaia’s shores and he convinces Circe to turn his newly pig-shaped men back into humans. As for what happens after that – it was easily the best part of the novel so I’m not giving anything away. You should all have the pleasure of finding it out for yourselves. Only let me say that the ending was a rare kind of perfection that made me close the book with a content smile.

This is sold as a feminist retelling of a Greek myth and while it takes a while to become apparent, it definitely is. The women in this book – Circe, Medea, Penelope, Scylla, Pasiphae – may not all be likable (in fact, some are quite horrible), but they are all so much more than someone’s wife, some monster, some witch who is only there to further the plot of the great adventurers. Here, they have agency, they make choices for their own reasons, whether honorable or not. And I loved, loved, loved the friendship that grows toward the end of the book between two women. It was unexpected but I cherished it all the more for that.

The only thing I disliked was the beginning. I understand why it was the way it was, but reading about Circe’s bleak early life with almost nobody to hold onto, to call a friend, with nothing to do but watch gods and nymphs be gods and nymphs (and let me tell you, that gets tired quickly!) – it just wasn’t fun. Her coming into her own, finding out who she is, takes some time, but the journey is all the more rewarding for her sad beginnings.
All things considered, I loved this book to pieces, and I can’t wait for whatever myth Madeline Miller tackles next.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Reading the Hugos: Novelette

Just like the short story category, the nominees for Best Novelette are almost universally excellent. Again, there was only one story that didn’t resonate with me at all, but I enjoyed the other five. Some more than others, with two that clearly stood out to me.

The nominees for Best Novelette

  1. Brooke Bolander – The Only Harmless Great Thing
  2. Daryl Gregory – Nine Last Days on Planet Earth
  3. Zen Cho – If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again
  4. Tina Connolly – The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections
  5. Naomi Kritzer – The Thing About Ghost Stories
  6. Simone Heller – When We Were Starless

It was a close call to pick Brooke Bolander‘s story for my first place because my top three are all wonderful, ambitious pieces of fiction. What took The Only Harmless Great Thing over the top for me was its basis in reality. It’s the story of one of the Radium Girls, women hired to paint all sorts of equipment so it would glow in the dark. The paint they used – and the fact that they had to lick their brushes to keep them nice and sharp – caused severe physical damage (and I mean gruesome stuff!)  and a very early death. Bolander adds elephants as characters who come with their own mythology and gave the whole story a lovely fantasy vibe. As tough as it was to read, this was my favorite story of the bunch.

Daryl Gregory follows closely with his tale of alien seeds crashing to Earth, messing up the planet with new and unusual plant life. It’s both an intimate tale, following one character as they grow up, have children and grandchildren of their own, but also tells the broader story of the alien plants. I loved everything about this story, the narrative voice, the pacing, the plot, and most of all the characters.

I had read some of Zen Cho‘s fiction before, so I knew I was in for something good. Her story about an imugi trying to ascent to heaven to become a proper dragon, was at the same time tragic and funny. Waiting a thousand years for even a chance is already a sign of great patience. But when the protagonist imugi fails – and not once, but many times – even they have trouble keeping up hope. It takes trying out a different life for them to find the will to keep going, and this is that story.

Tina Connolly‘s story is what it says in the title. A banquet of temporal confections. A baker who can infuse his confections with memories serves a banquet of them to the evil Duke. While there are lovely descriptions in this story, both of food and the memories it evokes, I found this story to be too predictable and a little bit too safe to make one of my top spots. The story unfolds with each course, but you can see from very early on where it is going. So the ending, while technically satisfying, left me thinking: so that was it?

Another story that gives you exactly what you’d expect was Naomi Kritzer‘s novelette about ghost stories. The protagonist researches ghost stories and the people who tell and who believe them, all the while kind of living through her own ghost story. It’s without a doubt an accomplished story well told, but again it lacked that certain something. The protagonist hid her feelings a little too well for me, as a reader, to get involved enough in her story for the ending to resonate. I think I should have felt more than I did.

The only story I didn’t like at all was the one by Simone Heller. I’m still not sure what exactly it is about. A tribe of post-apocalypse (maybe post-Earth) creatures is trying to survive in a hostile environment. There are “ghosts”, there are weavers, none of which are described or introduced properly. Some of what’s going on I figured out by the end, but as I spent most of the story trying to puzzle out what’s going on, who the protagonist was in relation to the others, what they were even doing, and where the hell everything took place, I can’t really say I enjoyed this. Maybe that’s my own fault for not reading carefully enough, for missing some key explanation or hint, but I didn’t like this enough to give it a second try.

I hope to have finished all the nominees for Best Novel by next week and then follow that with the Lodestar finalists. The novellas will have to wait a bit longer because I’m just not in the mood for them right now and I’m trying to keep up with my reading challenges this year. You know how it is: So many books, so little time…

The Epic Goes On: Brandon Sanderson – Oathbringer

By now my faithful readers know the reason why I’m always so late to read Sanderson’s latest instalment in The Stormlight Archive. It’s not because I’m not super excited and want to dive back into the world of Roshar. It’s because Graphic Audio take their time to produce a quality audiobook with full cast, music, background noises and so on – and I love listening to this story that way, sometimes reading along in the book, looking at the illustrations. But the time has come, I have caught up, and I can say Oathbringer continues the epic epicness of the two predecessors. SPOILERS for The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance below!!!

OATHBRINGER
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Tor, 2017
Audiobook: 41 hours
Hardcover: 1248 pages
Series: The Stormlight Archive #3
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Eshonai had always told her sister that she was certain something wonderful lay over the next hill.

In Oathbringer, the third volume of the New York Times bestselling Stormlight Archive, humanity faces a new Desolation with the return of the Voidbringers, a foe with numbers as great as their thirst for vengeance.
Dalinar Kholin’s Alethi armies won a fleeting victory at a terrible cost: The enemy Parshendi summoned the violent Everstorm, which now sweeps the world with destruction, and in its passing awakens the once peaceful and subservient parshmen to the horror of their millennia-long enslavement by humans. While on a desperate flight to warn his family of the threat, Kaladin Stormblessed must come to grips with the fact that the newly kindled anger of the parshmen may be wholly justified.
Nestled in the mountains high above the storms, in the tower city of Urithiru, Shallan Davar investigates the wonders of the ancient stronghold of the Knights Radiant and unearths dark secrets lurking in its depths. And Dalinar realizes that his holy mission to unite his homeland of Alethkar was too narrow in scope. Unless all the nations of Roshar can put aside Dalinar’s blood-soaked past and stand together–and unless Dalinar himself can confront that past–even the restoration of the Knights Radiant will not prevent the end of civilization.

The Stormlight Archive, as vast and daunting as its world may seem, follows a pretty clear structure. The first book focused on Kaladin (still my favorite character, just sayin’), the second was all about Shallan and her past, and this one is Dalinar’s. We know already from the first two books who Dalinar is and we also know his reputation as the Blackthorn, a powerful war lord who has won every battle his king sent him out to fight. But there are holes in Dalinar’s memory. Oathbringer fills in those holes and lets us see not only why Dalinar is the man he is today but who he used to be and what made him become “our” Dalinar. That alone was worth 1200 pages if you ask me.

But there also happens to be a few new threats on the horizon (one of them literally). The Everstorm is here, the Voidbringers are back, Roshar is in turmoil, the Knights Radiant are coming back… there is a lot to do if these characters want to bring some sort of peace to the world. And as you may guess from the massive amount of pages in this book, a lot happens. Dalinar is desperately trying to unite the kingdoms by inviting all the kings and queens to talk, a task that proves more difficult than expected, but vital if humanity is to survive long-term.

Kaladin visits his old home and learns some interesting things about the parshmen, things that already have an impact in this book but will probably become even more important later on. Shallan continues training her abilities by slipping into her various personas. This led to some truly exciting and hard-to-read character development on her part. I didn’t expect to care so much about her because, again, this is clearly Dalinar’s book, but Shallan’s story was just as intriguing. Especially the ending of her storyline felt mostly satisfying. Mostly because – as much as I dislike forced love triangles – I was rather a fan of this particular triangle. Shallan engaged to Adolin, but clearly interested in Kaladin, who in turn is drawn to her. I’m not saying the triangle is officially completely resolved by the end of the book but I’m pretty sure things are set now.

A Stormlight Archive book wouldn’t be complete without epic battles, and boy do they get epic! I thought the battle on the Shattered Plains from the first book couldn’t be topped, both in scope and in emotional impact. But hey, Sanderson did it. There are several fights in this book and what I liked was that they aren’t won by numbers or superpowers, but rather by key decisions made by certain characters. Describing a battle must be incredibly difficult, describing reading about a battle would simply be boring, so I’ll just leave you with my assurance that the epic battles are truly epic.

Another thing I adored and hope to get more of in future books is Shadesmar. We first enter this other realm with Jasnah Kholin in Words of Radiance and ever since then, it has been my own personal nightmare fuel. But of course, with a Sanderson book, even nightmare places adhere to certain rules and as such aren’t that scary. You just have to know how to navigate them. Shadesmar comes into play again in Oathbringer and while it doesn’t take up much of the novel, I was so excited to learn more about this place. I have more questions now than I did before but I’ve come to trust Brandon Sanderson to answer them when the time is ready.

As for world-building, need I really tell you again how great it is? I am still fascinated that every book opens the world up a bit more, makes me question new things that happen and want to understand the bigger picture. I believe this could be quite frustrating for many readers and if I didn’t know Sanderson’s works, I might be frustrated too. One question gets answered (sort of) and a hundred new ones appear. One mystical creature becomes a little clearer – spren, for example – and he introduces new ones that make absolutely no sense. Yet.

I did think this book wasn’t as good structurally as its two predecessors. That may be because by now, too many characters are protagonists and Sanderson tried to give each of them enough time and space. In certain scenes, the jumps between characters were decidedly too fast and too frequent for my taste and I get why it was done that way – to convey how stressful and fast the situation is moving forward – but I don’t like being ripped out of a POV every single page (or every minute in the audiobook). I also thought certain plot strings, like Shallan’s involvement with the Ghostbloods, were mentioned only to keep them alive long enough to become important again. Which may only happen in book seven, for all I know.

I realize now that I’ve written quite a bit about this book without really saying much, but that’s the thing. I don’t want to spoil anything, not the quieter character moments that make the series so special, no details about the battles, because I want you all to experience the book the way I did. With no pre-formed ideas about the plot, simply with the knowledge that it’s a journey worth taking and that none of these 1200 pages is wasted.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Reading the Hugos: Short Story

This seems to be a really good year for me when it comes to keeping up and catching up on books I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The fact that the Hugo nominees are stellar this year doesn’t hurt. While I’m currently making my way through the novelette nominees, I’m already done with the short stories and I’m pretty sure I’ve settled on the way I’m going to rank them on my ballot.

The nominees for Best Short Story

  1. Alix E. Harrow – A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Pratctical Compendium of Portal Fantasies
  2. T. Kingfisher – The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society
  3. Sarah Gailey – STET
  4. Sarah Pinsker – The Court Magician
  5. Brooke Bolander – The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat
  6. P. Djèlí Clark – The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

The only short story I had read before the nominee were announced also turned out to be my favorite – if only by a small margin. Alix E. Harrow‘s tale of a witch who works at a library (where else?) and who tries to improve the life of a young boy by putting just the right book in front of him when he seems to need it was moving and beautifully written. It made me remember those early reading days when I first discovered The Neverending Story or got Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as a present. Books have the power to change lives and Harrow uses that knowledge to weave a wonderful tale with just the right amount of magic.

My second favorite – and no surprise to me – was T. Kingfisher‘s tale of a group of  magical beings gathering to tell their woeful tales of a human girl who didn’t behave like she should. We all know when a handsome elf comes your way and makes you fall in love with him, the human should do the pining once he’s gone. But pesky Rose MacGregor won’t have any of it but flips fairy tale tropes on their head. This story was hilarious, refreshing, and features one of Kingfisher’s trademark practical heroines. I adored every single line, some of which made me laugh out loud.

Sarah Gailey’s STET is probably the shortest of the nominated stories but those few pages pack a punch! The story’s form is almost as interesting as its content, written as an academic paper handed in for review. The actual story comes to life in the footnotes (I love footnotes!). Whether this wins or not, I urge you all to read it. On just a few pages, this story made me gasp, think, sent me through so many emotions… Even though it’s not in my top spot, I’d be happy if it took home the Hugo.

Sarah Pinsker’s story was a strange one. I loved the atmosphere it created right from the get go, when a young boy, desperate to learn magic, is recruited to be the Court Magician – a job that takes much more than sleight of hand card tricks. The deeper this new Court Magician sinks into his job, the darker this story becomes. I really enjoyed it, sinister as it was, but while the ending definitely works, I felt there was something missing. So it’s only number 4 in my list.

Brooke Bolander wrote an impressive novelette (also nominated and currently on my number one ballot spot) but while this story was fun and cleverly written, it didn’t resonate with me as much as the others. You get what it says on the tin. The story of three raptor sisters, a stupid prince, a clever princess, some carnage, and a big adventure. I can’t say much more than I liked the story but didn’t love it.

The only story I really didn’t enjoy was P. Djèlí Clark‘s tale. I see what he was trying to do, telling a tale for each of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington, but few of those tales were interesting to me, some of them were quite boring, and there wasn’t any payoff at the end of the story. I look forward to reading his nominated novella but this short story just didn’t do it for me.

Much like the nominees for Best Novel, this is a ballot filled with dramatically different stories, which makes it all the harder to choose a favorite. All of these tales are well written, so my judgement is based much more on personal enjoyment and taste than on quality. Had I read them at a different time in my life, in a different mood, I might have ranked them differently, but for now, I’m happy with my choice. I’d be really happy for either of my top 3 to win the award, but I also wouldn’t mind for my numbers 4 or 5 to take it home. A ballot with only a single undeserving story (according to my personal tastes, I know lots of people love Clark’s story!) is definitely a great one.

I’ll continue to read the nominees and let you know what I think of them. I’m almost done with the novels (one and a half books to go, yay!),  the Lodestar finalists (3 books to go), and the novelettes – 5 to go, but they are quick reads, so you’ll probably hear about them next.

Beauty with little substance: Dhonielle Clayton- The Belles

So far, my Hugo Awards reading has brought me a lot of joy. This is the first book (nominated for the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Novel) that I’m not overly excited about. It was an entertaining book, overall, but there were a lot of things that simply didn’t work. At this point – having read three of the nominated 6 YA books – it’s at the bottom of my list.

THE BELLES
by Dhonielle Clayton

Published by: Disney Press, 2018
eBook: 448 pages
Series: The Belles #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The God of the Sky fell in love with the Goddess of Beauty after the world began.

Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.
But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.
With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

This was a strange reading experience. One the one hand, I have a number of problems with this book, the world-building, the set-up, the “twists”, and the characters. On the other hand, I can’t deny that I was well entertained. The only reason I picked this up is because it is currently nominated for a Lodestar Award (Not-a-Hugo) and I want to support this new-ish Hugo category as well as make a well-informed decision on how to vote.

The story is set in an alternate (or maybe future?) Orléans, ruled by queens officially, but really ruled by beauty. The underlying myth of this world is that some goddess or other did something stupid so now almost all people are born ugly. That means, they have pale grey skin and red eyes. The only exception are the Belles, girls not only gifted with otherworldy beauty, but also with magical blood that gives them the ability to turn others beautiful. Camille grows up as all Belles do. Learning how to use her magic, learning the rules of beauty – symmetry, colors that go well together, flattering clothing, etc. etc. She and her sisters compete in a competition to become the Favorite, the Belle who lives and works at the royal court.

Here, the first problems with world-building arose. The Belles are kept extremely secluded, aren’t allowed reading material that isn’t approved by their care takers, and generally don’t know anything about their world that doesn’t seem to come out of a Youtube make-up tutorial. I was willing to suspend my disbelief enough to say that these girls don’t know anything else, so of course they don’t question this way of life. But what about the rest of the world? The Queen is the official ruler of Orléans, but what exactly does she do? There are not even throwaway remarks about how the country works. I don’t need an academic paper on Orléan’s economy or social structure but if I’m put into a secondary world by an author, I’d like some idea of how it works. Alas, no such luck. The focus remains firmly on Camille and her beauty work.

This beauty work consists in taking appointments for the aristocracy and royalty, making them pretty with the Belles’ magic. Changing hair colors, getting rid of wrinkles, making a nose smaller, breasts bigger, hips wider… you get the idea. That is Camille’s job. It’s the exact same job all of her sisters have, regardless of their status (only one can be the Favorite, after all). While the descriptions of Camille’s beauty work were engaging and fun to read, I kept asking myself again and again what the point was. The entire story takes place within the confines of the palace or places only rich people can go, so everyone is beautiful. The poor can’t afford beauty work, so people’s looks are a clear status symbol. But nobody ever mentions living conditions, where people’s food comes from or what their jobs are.

As for the plot, it was definitely fun to read, but I saw the twists from miles away. The Belles’ secret is obvious very early on in the story and the other mystery becomes incredibly clear as you read along. So the moments that were probably meant to shock me fell flat. That doesn’t mean there weren’t some shocking scenes in this book – beauty work is painful for the person receiving it, and the more you change, the more it hurts. There were moments that made me cringe because while I thought the plot was weak, the writing is actually pretty good.

The ending makes clear that this was always meant to be the first book in a series. While some plot strings are resolved in a way, many others are left open. I don’t know if Dhonielle Clayton plans to open up this world in the second book or if the world-building as such will get better but I probably won’t continue this series. Camille was a nice character to follow but I wasn’t all that interested in the idea of the novel to begin with. Now that the execution of it didn’t impress me, I see no reason to read the second book.

MY RATING: 6/10

The Road is the Destination: Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road

In my quest to read as many Hugo (or in this case, Lodestar) nominated books as I possibly can, I jumped head first into the new-ish YA category with the book I had heard the most about. Opinions seem to go in opposite directions. Either people loved the book or they hated it so much they didn’t even finish. As I happen to like quieter, character-focused books, I was intrigued and quite sure this would be my cup of tea.

TESS OF THE ROAD
by Rachel Hartman

Published by: Random House, 2018
Ebook: 544 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: When Tessie Dombegh was six and still irrepressible, she married her twin sister, Jeanne, in the courtyard of their childhood home.

In the medieval kingdom of Goredd, women are expected to be ladies, men are their protectors, and dragons can be whomever they choose. Tess is none of these things. Tess is. . . different. She speaks out of turn, has wild ideas, and can’t seem to keep out of trouble. Then Tess goes too far. What she’s done is so disgraceful, she can’t even allow herself to think of it. Unfortunately, the past cannot be ignored. So Tess’s family decide the only path for her is a nunnery.
But on the day she is to join the nuns, Tess chooses a different path for herself. She cuts her hair, pulls on her boots, and sets out on a journey. She’s not running away, she’s running towards something. What that something is, she doesn’t know. Tess just knows that the open road is a map to somewhere else–a life where she might belong.
Returning to the spellbinding world of the Southlands she created in the award-winning, New York Times bestselling novel Seraphina, Rachel Hartman explores self-reliance and redemption in this wholly original fantasy.

Tess Dombegh is lady-in-waiting to her twin sister, so the latter can find a suitable husband at court, even though Tess is the older twin. The Dombegh family keeps that fact a secret, however, because, there is something in Tess’ past that would disgrace them all. Once Jeanne, the younger twin, is married, there are few options for Tess and neither of them appeals much to her. So she does what any spirited young woman in her place would do – she runs away from home on a quest to… nothing in particular, but really everything, as it turns out.

It is so easy to fall into this book, to get sucked into life at court, the dynamic between Tess and the rest of her family, but the first few chapters are a little deceptive. They are fast-moving, include lots of dialogue, and introduce Tess to the readers. So far, so good. Except the rest of the book continues in a very different tone. I personally loved it but I can see how other readers may feel cheated out of the quippy relationship drama they may have come to expect from the beginning. But the bulk of the novel is really what it says on the tin. It’s Tess. On the Road. She and her childhood best friend – a quigutl (lizard-like people) named Pathka – walk along together, finding ways to feed themselves (stealing, doing chores for dinner, even proper jobs), and they meet new people.

There are so many layers to this book and so much to love about it, I hardly know where to start. As she’s the heart of the tale and also in the title, I’ll go with Tess herself. It is very clear that something inside Tess is broken. She is bitter, she constantly hears her mother’s reprimanding voice in her head, she feels like a failure and a bad person, like she is unworthy of love. I don’t want to spoil what her big secret is, even though most of it comes out pretty soon in the book. Tess learning to live with her past and making the best of who she has become is really what this is all about.
Pathka, her best friend, has his own quest to follow and while it starts as a red herring, it also becomes much more important than expected. Pathka wants to find the mythical World Serpents, giant creatures said to roam underground caverns. But as they are only legends, Tess assumes, Pathka is on an equally spiritual journey as herself.

Like any good road trip story, there is a variety of people to be met, helped, escape from, and befriend. Rachel Hartman really showed her skill here, because  this could have felt episodic quickly. Tess walks, gets to a town/farmhouse/quarry/whatever, meets some people and interacts with them, then walks on. But it never did feel episodic, quite the opposite. The characters our two wanderers meet are quite diverse. Whether it’s a senile old man in the clutches of two villains, an order of nuns, a group of roadworkers, a proper prostitute (who makes Tess blush furiously!), a girl in need of rescue, monks protecting an ancient secret, or old friends… there are many stories contained within this larger one. And every story both teaches Tess something abut the world and about herself. The nagging voice in her head grows quieter, she stands taller, she slowly learns who she is.

I can’t express how touching certain moments of this book were. Although Tess is definitely not interested in romance, there is so much love in this story. Love between sisters – real love, that includes ugly fights – or love between friends like her and Pathka. Love for stories and adventure, and above all love for the Road and a desire to see what else the world has to offer. Not only Tess showed kindness to strangers, but strangers showed her kindness as well, and these seemingly random acts of humanity always make me a bit weepy. Yes, there are people who do bad things (whether that makes them bad people per se is up for anyone to decide), but there are also good people who will stand up for others and help those who need it.

If I haven’t made it clear enough yet, this was a fantastic book. I wasn’t a fan of the quigutl language – even as a German speaker, there were too many consonants in a row for my taste – but I did like the world building, especially the variety of Saints and their (sometimes crazy) teachings. Seeing the household Tess grew up in makes it much more understandable why she feels the way she does. If you’re taught all women are good for is suffering and doing their duty, then enjoying even the littlest thing makes you feel guilty. Tess has even bigger problems because according to her mother’s favored Saint, Tess is basically going straight to hell.

One thing I found quite curious while reading was how, whenever I put the book away, I wasn’t at all giddy to pick it up again. It’s not the kind of book that makes you want to know What Happens Next, it’s more a book that makes you think and thinking is best done while not reading a story. When I would pick it up again, I was hooked immediately every time and couldn’t quite understand why I wasn’t more excited to continue reading. So that’s not a bad thing, just something I found curious and more about myself than the book. The only negative thing I could say about this book is that some of the flashbacks didn’t feel  quite right. Tess and Will’s prank on a fellow student, for example, felt weird and like it didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the story. I would have preferred some other anectode of Tess’ former life, but that’s really nitpicky of me and shouldn’t keep you from reading this book.

The ending was the one thing that could have ruined it. You’ll have guessed from my rating that it didn’t. Indeed, Hartman managed to find the perfect bittersweet spot (more on the sweet than the bitter side) that hit all the right notes and ended this story the exact way it should: with a beginning.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – DAMN EXCELLENT!

Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles

I’ve been slacking in two departments this year. One is science fiction novels, as I’ve been leaning heavily on the fantasy side, and the other is older SFF. Last year, reading one newer book and one older one was a very rewarding experience for me. But as new releases and award ballots come floating in, it’s easy to forget the classics. Thanks to the Sword & Laser Podcast, however, I finally picked up this Bradbury book and – again – was positively surprised at how much I liked it.

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES
by Ray Bradbury

Published by: Doubleday, 1950
Ebook: 263 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.

The strange and wonderful tale of man’s experiences on Mars, filled with intense images and astonishing visions. Now part of the Voyager Classics collection.
The Martian Chronicles tells the story of humanity’s repeated attempts to colonize the red planet. The first men were few. Most succumbed to a disease they called the Great Loneliness when they saw their home planet dwindle to the size of a fist. They felt they had never been born. Those few that survived found no welcome on Mars. The shape-changing Martians thought they were native lunatics and duly locked them up.
But more rockets arrived from Earth, and more, piercing the hallucinations projected by the Martians. People brought their old prejudices with them – and their desires and fantasies, tainted dreams. These were soon inhabited by the strange native beings, with their caged flowers and birds of flame.

This story of humanity colonizing Mars is presented as a fix-up novel, a collection of connected short stories, that each show different aspects of the migration to Mars, starting from the very first efforts to even reach Mars, the first settlements there, dealing with the locals, and questioning the meaning of humanity and life itself.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Fix-up novels are usually not my thing because I like to get to know a set of characters and then follow them for a while. Here, you meet a character and they’re gone by the next story. Sure, some are mentioned later on, but you only really follow a character for as long as their story lasts. But The Martian Chronicles worked for me. I loved that it started with the Martians, the aliens living on the Red Planet before humans arrived in their shiny metal rockets and started messing shit up.

The book goes along chronologically, beginning with the first few (failed) missions to Mars. But they were intriguing in how they failed. While the people on Earth may believe the rockets never even arrived, us readers get to find out that they did arrive, but things weren’t as simple as putting a flag in the ground and building a house. Humanity’s arrival also has other, unforseen, consequences for the local population – and that’s not even considering that humans plan to do what they’ve always done and just take someone else’s land for their own and drive away the people who lived their before…

As colonization progresses and more and more people come to live on Mars, more and more questions arise about history. We meet characters who feel great concern at what has happened on Mars, who look at the ruins of Martian buildings with awe. Then there are others who want to make a fortune and build a completely new life for themseves on this new planet. And let’s not forget the threat of war down on Earth. Remembering this book was published in 1950 helps a lot in putting things into perspective and gives an interesting glimpse into the issues and fears of that time.

And while we’re on the subject of the book being “of its time”, there is a highly controversial story included here – “Way in the Middle of the Air” – that has been edited out of some edition (or so I hear). The story deals with an unabashed racist, a despicable piece of human garbage, as he watches pretty much all the black people from his home town pack up their stuff and decide to leave for Mars. While others have called the story racist, I felt that Bradbury was always clearly on the side of the black characters and hated his protagonist as much as I did. I found the story hard to read (not only because of the frequent use of the n-word), but I didn’t think the story as such was racist. Only the shit-for-brains protagonist was and although worse things could and maybe should have happened to him, the story doesn’t exactly end well for him.

There were some things about this book that felt at the same time silly and very Golden Age of Science Fiction. The fact that astronauts landing on Mars can simply walk around without space suits, breathe the air and experience no difference in gravity – it was weird, at first, but with a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief, I got used to it. I would have liked to read more chapters from the Martian’s point of view or at least featuring them in a more prominent way, and I definitely would have liked more (or even a single) female characters who were more than just that important guy’s wife or somebody’s mother – women with jobs, women with hopes and dreams for this new life in Mars… you get the idea.

But again, considering this book as a product of its time, and judging simply on reading enjoyment, I quite liked. My foray into older SFF has once again been rewarded.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good