The State of SFF – March 2021

2021 is moving along FAST and although I’m still waiting for my Covid vaccine (late March/early April sounds realistic at this point), at least SFF publishing is running smoothly again and promises many great books to come out this month.
The land of TV and movies isn’t sleeping either and awards season is getting started as well.

Quickie News

  • The Mythopoeic Award winners have been announced and congratulations are in order. Theodora Goss won the Adult Literature prize for Snow White Learns Witchcraft. The children’s prize went to Yoon Ha Lee for Dragon Pearl.
    line
  • Hafzah Faisal’s novel We Hunt the Flame (the first in a duology) has been optioned for TV. I have yet to read the book but an Arabian-inspired fantasy book by an Author of Color getting an adaptation is definitely exciting. I’m so tired of remakes of the same old stuff when there are so many new and fresh stories out there.
    lineNamina
  • Namina Forna’s The Gilded Ones, a book that just came out, will be turned into a movie. I’ve had an ARC of this book for months but as I’ve heard some very negative things, I’m putting off reading it. Depending on how long I can drag that out, the movie might be done before I ever read the book…
    asdf
  • Gina Carano will no longer be in The Mandalorian because of harmful statements made online. Unfortunately, she has promoted not wearing masks and lied about the US presidential election, among other things. At this point, I still get a little sad when people subscribe to conspiracy theories or post racist shit, but I’ve reached a level of tiredness that prevents me from the outrage I probably should be feeling. Someone was racist/anti-science/hateful/wrong on the internet? Must be Tuesday.
    asd

It’s Time for Hugo Award Nominations!

If you’re a member of this year’s WorldCon or were a member of last year’s WorldCon, congratulations! You can nominated works for the Hugo Awards. And the time to start is now. You can nominate whatever works you liked the best and then come back later and add new ones or swap out others. The nomination period will be open until Marth 19th.

I had a super hard time this year because, for the first time ever, I wanted to nominated more novels than is possible. In other categories I’m relying heavily on my fellow SFF fans to pick the best of last year. I haven’t read many short stories or graphic novels but I’m sure the shortlist will lead me to all the good stuff I’ve missed.

Also, here’s a reminder that Best Fancast is not only for podcasts but also works for other formats such as Youtube videos. I’ve nominated three podcasts and two Youtube channels this year and I hope that others are also trying to open up the category and include a wider variety of fancasts.


Baen’s Bar controversy

I initially had this in the quickie news but, like many things that start small, this has grown a bit too large to talk about it in just a sentence or two.
It all began with Jason Sanford’s report about Baen’s Bar – an online forum for authors by the publisher Baen. From what I’ve learned so far, people on the Baen’s Bar forum talked about the political climate in the US and some comments went beyond just expressing one’s opinion, but actively incited or approved of violence.  File 770 has a good post here that rounds up comments and reactions. Wherever you may fall on the political spectrum and whatever you think about this particular report-turned-discussion-about-free-speech-versus-promoting-violence, I urge you to read more than the pieces I’m linking to here, and to make up your own mind.

In the last few weeks, things have escalated more and more. After being made aware of the accusations, Toni Weisskopf, editor and publisher of Baen Books, temporarily closed the forum and promised to investigate. She was supposed to be Guest of Honor at this year’s WorldCon but has since been uninvited. She is still welcome to attend the convention, of course, just not as Guest of Honor. Obviously, this has made some people upset, among them Larry Correia (remember, the original Sad Puppies guy).
Larry Correia reacted, as he usually does, with an overly dramatic post about cancel culture and how “The Left” is evil and simply can’t appreciate one of the greatest women in publishing. I don’t think very highly of Correia (I have no interest in his books, I disagree with him politically, and I think the way he writes his blog posts only tries to additionally divide an already divided society when we should all be doing the opposite) but I think it’s important to listen to different opinions.

I have no idea how much further this topic will go until this post goes up but I will finally finish reading Sanford’s report in its entirety and then see if anything can be learned of this latest SFF drama…


Shadow and Bone Trailer

Sorry for another Shadow and Bone update but the first proper trailer has arrived and it is making everyone EXCITED! Holy shit, the Shadow Fold looks good!

And the characters are perfect! Even though you see many of the them for just a second or two, you can tell how well they are cast. Inej has amazing “I’ll kill you with one of my 100 knives” energy, Genya looks stunning, the Darkling is gorgeous and villainous-looking as he should be – that character is made of bad boy vibes – and both Kaz and Jesper are just like I imagined them. Alina also seems to be perfect. Her bewildered look in the few scenes we see in the trailer is exactly right. The only one I personally pictured differently was Mal, but hey, I’m not complaining. 🙂

Shadow and Bone“: Erster Trailer zur Fantasyserie im Grishaverse enthüllt – fernsehserien.de

SHADOW AND BONE Trailer Introduces a Dangerous, Beautiful and Magical World

Netflix Drops First 'Shadow and Bone' Teaser Trailer

So yeah, I’m just as excited as the rest of the internet and can’t wait for April 23rd when the show finally arrives. Even if you haven’t set an alert on Netflix yet, I don’t think anyone will miss the release day of this. Now we only have to hope it’s as good as the trailer looks.

Exciting March Publications

February was a good month for SFF publications, so March stood up tall, fixed its crown and is striding along confidently, showing us that it can do even better! At this point, my TBR is so ridiculously high that adding ten-ish more books in March won’t make much of a difference anyway.

ARKADY MARTINE – A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE

Probably many people’s most anticipated release of the entire year, the sequel to the Hugo-winning and absolutely brilliant A Memory Called Empire is finally coming! I’ve been missing Mahit and Three Seagrass and I cannot wait to find out how this story continues. Political intrigue, cultural nuance, great characters, and – so Twitter tells me – a SPACE KITTEN!

45154547. sy475

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.


C. L. CLARK – THE UNBROKEN

The book with the magnificent biceps on it doesn’t just look good, it also sounds fantastic and I have been looking forward to it for quite some time. A princess and a soldier reluctantly working together in a North-African inspired setting, plus assassins, epic stakes, and maybe a bit of romance? Yes, please.

54467051Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought.

Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne.

Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.


KAZUO ISHIGURO – KLARA AND THE SUN

I adored both books by Ishigoro that I’ve read and I really like that a Nobel Prize-winning author decided to write more science fiction. Clearly, the wider world is accepting that the genre has way more to offer than spaceships and aliens (not that those aren’t great).

53292028

Klara and the Sun is a magnificent new novel from the Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro–author of Never Let Me Go and the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day.

Klara and the Sun, the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her.

Klara and the Sun is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?


A. G. SLATTER – ALL THE MURMURING BONES

Angela Slatter, writing as A. G. Slatter here, is a hugely talented Australian author who isn’t nearly known well enough. Her short story collections Sourdough and The Bitterwood Bible gave me All The Feels and I’ve been a diehard fan of hers ever since. This new fairy tale-esque book sounds amazing and I can’t wait to let Slatter break my heart again.

55302933. sy475 For fans of Naomi Novik and Katharine Arden, a dark gothic fairy tale from award-winning author Angela Slatter.

‘Harrowing and beautiful, this is the grim, fairy-tale gothic you’ve been waiting for’
CHRISTOPHER GOLDEN, New York Times bestselling author of Ararat

Long ago Miren O’Malley’s family prospered due to a deal struck with the mer: safety for their ships in return for a child of each generation. But for many years the family have been unable to keep their side of the bargain and have fallen into decline. Miren’s grandmother is determined to restore their glory, even at the price of Miren’s freedom.

A spellbinding tale of dark family secrets, magic and witches, and creatures of myth and the sea; of strong women and the men who seek to control them.


LEIGH BARDUGO – RULE OF WOLVES

The Nikolai Duology comes to an end with this gorgeous-looking book. I liked King of Scars well enough but didn’t love it. Of course I’ll read the series conclusion but I hope it steps up its game a little.

36307674. sy475 The wolves are circling and a young king will face his greatest challenge in the explosive finale of the instant #1 New York Times-bestselling King of Scars Duology.

The Demon King. As Fjerda’s massive army prepares to invade, Nikolai Lantsov will summon every bit of his ingenuity and charm—and even the monster within—to win this fight. But a dark threat looms that cannot be defeated by a young king’s gift for the impossible.

The Stormwitch. Zoya Nazyalensky has lost too much to war. She saw her mentor die and her worst enemy resurrected, and she refuses to bury another friend. Now duty demands she embrace her powers to become the weapon her country needs. No matter the cost.

The Queen of Mourning. Deep undercover, Nina Zenik risks discovery and death as she wages war on Fjerda from inside its capital. But her desire for revenge may cost her country its chance at freedom and Nina the chance to heal her grieving heart.

King. General. Spy. Together they must find a way to forge a future in the darkness. Or watch a nation fall.


AIDEN THOMAS – LOST IN THE NEVER WOODS

From the author of Cemetery Boys (which I haven’t read yet… can you tell my TBR is gigantic?) comes a fairy tale retelling of sorts that pushes all my buttons. Okay, just two of them, but they are big buttons. It’s a Peter Pan retelling and it has a gorgeous cover. Look at the silhouette the trees are making – it’s two faces! And the colors are so pretteeeeh!

44281163. sy475

When children go missing, people want answers. When children go missing in the small coastal town of Astoria, people look to Wendy for answers.

It’s been five years since Wendy and her two brothers went missing the woods, but when the town’s children start to disappear, the questions surrounding her brothers’ mysterious circumstances are brought back into light. Attempting to flee her past, Wendy almost runs over an unconscious boy lying in the middle of the road, and gets pulled into the mystery haunting the town.

Peter, a boy she thought lived only in her stories, claims that if they don’t do something, the missing children will meet the same fate as her brothers. In order to find them and rescue the missing kids, Wendy must confront what’s waiting for her in the woods.


ANNA-MARIE MCLEMORE – THE MIRROR SEASON

March really likes me, I think. Another (probably loose) retelling of a fairy tale, The Snow Queen, with a very pretty cover indeed. I’ve been buying all of McLemore’s books but – you guessed it – I haven’t read any of them yet. This should really be a priority in 2021.
The Mirror Season sounds like it has so much to offer. A girl and boy dealing with trauma and grief, magical pan dulce, disappearing trees. I may just make this my first McLemore book.

51591682

When two teens discover that they were both sexually assaulted at the same party, they develop a cautious friendship through her family’s possibly-magical pastelerĂ­a, his secret forest of otherworldly trees, and the swallows returning to their hometown, in Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Mirror Season

Graciela Cristales’ whole world changes after she and a boy she barely knows are assaulted at the same party. She loses her gift for making enchanted pan dulce. Neighborhood trees vanish overnight, while mirrored glass appears, bringing reckless magic with it. And Ciela is haunted by what happened to her, and what happened to the boy whose name she never learned.

But when the boy, Lock, shows up at Ciela’s school, he has no memory of that night, and no clue that a single piece of mirrored glass is taking his life apart. Ciela decides to help him, which means hiding the truth about that night. Because Ciela knows who assaulted her, and him. And she knows that her survival, and his, depend on no one finding out what really happened.


GABRIELA HOUSTON – THE SECOND BELL

If, like me, you sometimes read fantasy novels and think that the monster’s point of view would be much more interesting than the hero’s POV, then this could be the book for you. The protagonist is a striga, a person with two hearts who is considered a demon, and the story seems to deal with a mother-daughter relationship.

53194688. sy475

In a world which believes her to be a monster, a young striga fights to harness the power of her second heart, while her mother sacrifices everything to stop her…

In an isolated mountain community, sometimes a child is born with two hearts. This child is called a striga and is considered a demon who must be abandoned on the edge of the forest. The child’s mother must then decide to leave with her infant, or stay and try to forget.

Nineteen year-old striga, Salka, and her mother, Miriat, made the choice to leave and live a life of deprivation and squalor in an isolated village. The striga tribe share the human belief that to follow the impulses of their other hearts is dangerous, inviting unspoken horrors and bringing ruin onto them all.

Salka, a headstrong and independent young woman, finds herself in a life threatening situation that forces her to explore the depths of her true nature and test the bonds between mother and child…


KATE HOPE DAY – IN THE QUICK

I’ve only recently stumbled across this book (yet another cool cover!) and if it keeps what the blurb promises, this will be great! Bonding over scientific work, a mystery in space that needs to be solved, and two difficult characters who have to work together.

54072857A young, ambitious female astronaut’s life is upended by a fiery love affair that threatens the rescue of a lost crew in this brilliantly imagined novel in the tradition of Station Eleven and The Martian.

June is a brilliant but difficult girl with a gift for mechanical invention, who leaves home to begin a grueling astronaut training program. Six years later, she has gained a coveted post as an engineer on a space station, but is haunted by the mystery of Inquiry, a revolutionary spacecraft powered by her beloved late uncle’s fuel cells. The spacecraft went missing when June was twelve years old, and while the rest of the world has forgotten them, June alone has evidence that makes her believe the crew is still alive.

She seeks out James, her uncle’s former protĂ©gĂ©e, also brilliant, also difficult, who has been trying to discover why Inquiry’s fuel cells failed. James and June forge an intense intellectual bond that becomes an electric attraction. But the love that develops between them as they work to solve the fuel cell’s fatal flaw threatens to destroy everything they’ve worked so hard to create–and any chance of bringing the Inquiry crew home alive.

Equal parts gripping narrative of scientific discovery and charged love story, In the Quick is an exploration of the strengths and limits of human ability in the face of hardship and the costs of human ingenuity. At its beating heart are June and James, whose love for each other is eclipsed only by their drive to conquer the challenges of space travel.


News from the blog

My year didn’t start great but February was already much kinder, reading-wise. I did get sick and had to stay home from work… well, I work from home anyway, but you know, stay at home without working, for over a week. That gave me plenty of time to read and even though I often didn’t know what I was in the mood for, I ended up with some good books.

What I read:

  • Everina Maxwell – Winter’s Orbit
    fun romance in space – intriguing world building – slow middle part
  • Neil Gaiman, Dirk Maggs – The Sandman (Audible)
    great voice acting – works surprisingly well on audio – cool world and cool stories
  • Star Wars – From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back
    anthology of 40 stories – some great, some not so much – nice for fans and to discover new authors
  • Andrea Stewart – The Bone Shard Daughter
    fast-paced – cool world building – complex characters – leaves you eager for the next part
  • Susan Cooper – The Dark is Rising
    disappointing – weak main character – hardly any plot – no conflict, no drive – nice writing
  • Nnedi Okorafor – Remote Control
    highly interesting world building – great writing – plot a bit unfocused/unsure what it wants to achieve
  • Tasha Suri – Empire of Sand 
    great world building – intricate characters – weaker middle-part – makes me want to read the companion novel NOW

Currently reading:

  • John Crowley – Little, Big
  • Joe Abercrombie – Last Argument of Kings

I’m still reading Little, Big and I’m still enjoying it. It is not a riveting read, there is very little plot to speak of and so my other books often take precedence. But none of them reach Crowley when it comes to atmosphere or pure strangeness.
I’ve also finally decided to finish the First Law Trilogy. I had forgotten how much I liked Abercrombie’s writing and how fast I can read his books. 670 pages doesn’t sound so intimidating when they’re flying by. Unless he messed up completely on the ending, you can expect a very positive review soon. Also, Glokta is the best!

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

Tropey Romantic Fun In Space: Everina Maxwell – Winter’s Orbit

Boy am I glad every time one of those overhyped books turns out to be actually good! Tor went all out on this one – I swear there wasn’t a single space on the internet that didn’t bombard me with how fun and tropey and perfect this book would be long before it even came out. While the book was far from perfect, it was definitely fun and I wholeheartedly recommend it to people looking for a bit more romance in their SFF.

WINTER’S ORBIT
by Everina Maxwell

Published: Tor, 2021
Hardcover: 423 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “Well, someone has to marry the man,” the Emperor said.

Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut.

While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.

But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.

This is it, the book that was hyped up like crazy for being originally an AO3 story that happily embraces its tropes, such as “there’s only one bed” and “forced marriage”. While I don’t exactly understand that marketing approach, I can tell you that, yes, these tropes are there, but they are neither the strongest parts of this book, nor the most important ones. Everina Maxwell can do way more than just use tropes effectively. I do, however, appreciate that this book may help certain people see that starting (or even staying) in fanfiction is not a bad thing and that it says nothing about an author’s skill or originality.

So, what’s this all about then? Prince Kiem is called to the Emperor who tells him that he is to be married to the recently widowed Count Jainan of Thea because politics. In just a few weeks’ time, a new treaty will be signed between the Iskari Empire and all its vassal planets and for that to work out smoothly, all alliances must be in place and an auditor must be convinced that the alliances were made of free will. The political background is thought out well enough, but as you can guess, it’s not the focus of this story.
Kiem and Jainan are married pretty quickly, and then comes the difficult part: getting to konw each other, getting along, and finding some way to live together, as happily as possible. And this is where Maxwell got to shine.

I loved both Kiem and Jainan, although Kiem stole my heart a lot faster. He is a chaotic, big-hearted, stumbling, talkative guy who seems to never get things right, never be on time, but somehow remains loved by most people and especially by the press. His time is spent mostly at parties and with the press, trying to smooth out whatever went wrong at said parties. Where there’s a scandal, Prince Kiem is usually not far off but he is clearly an adorable guy who means well enough. His personal assistant Bel was also an immediate hit for me. She’s the kind of stoic yet competent person Kiem needs in his life but you can tell right from the start that her cool exterior hides true affection for her boss. She loves her job and she does it well and damn but I love reading this type of character! Also, the world needs to appreciate its assistants more.
Jainan, being quiet and drawn into himself, was a tougher nut to crack. I liked him as well, but his personality took longer to show itself. For a long time, he says almost nothing and even in his POV chapters, all we learn is that he just wants to stay out of Kiem’s way and have the least possible impact on his life. He also lacks confidence and comes across as a bit of a wallflower. Until he gets to talk to someone about engineering, that is. So yeah, Jainan is never unlikable, but he’s so passive that it took a while for me to warm to him. There are reasons for this, just as there are reasons for his behavior, and while it all makes perfect sense, this is the part where you could see that the characters had to bend a little in order to fit certain tropes into this story.

This was the one problem I had with the book. Certain things just dragged on beyond the point of suspension of disbelief. It’s fine that the protagonists misunderstand each other and thus both behave in ways that only make the misunderstandings worse – but only up to a point. Kiem knows that Jainan’s husband died only a month ago and so assumes that Jainan is grieving and that’s his reason for being so quiet and subdued.
Jainan on the other hand believes that a man as well-loved and socially gifted as Kiem couldn’t possibly find him – Jainan – to be an acceptable husband. He feels like he’s not good enough and therefore just stays quiet, hoping not to inconvenience Kiem too much.
It’s a totally okay setup for a slow burn romance but when “slow burn” really means “standstill” for half the book, I just lose interest. For a while, the fact that these two newly married men  barely speak to each other can be explained away. But after a third of the book I started getting annoyed at the ridiculous ways in which they continue to misunderstand each other. It’s like they’re doing it on purpose just to drag the inevitable out a little longer.
Seriously, after weeks of living with another person and seeing how they react to you expressing your opinion, wouldn’t it be natural for you to undertand that it’s okay to keep expressing your opinion?? Actions speak louder than words and humans communicate way more through body language than spoken words. And yet Jainan insists on behaving as if Kiem would freak out whenever they disagree on something, although Kiem has shown him over and over what kind of a person he is.
The author went out of her way to create situations that draw out the moment of truth for the sake of… I don’t know, keeping the readers at the edge of their seats? That part failed for me because as much as I like romantic tension, I still want my stories to be believable, even if they are set on a different planet with futuristic technology.

But around the middle of the book, things finally get going and not only in terms of the romance. The mystery and various other plot threads have been set up nicely in the first half of the book and they are all coming together to create a rather exciting third act. I especially liked how – although they finally did talk to each other and realize that, hey, the other guy also has feelings for me – neither Kiem nor Jainan are suddenly different people. They both still suffer from the same insecurities they had before, but now they each have some hope that there’s someone out there who cares about them and who thinks highly of them. Whether that’s Jainan realizing he is entitled to his own opinion or Kiem understanding that he is, in fact, not stupid or useless, just a bit disorganized, I thought it was really well done and shows character growth in a believable way.

I also quite enjoyed the world building and side characters. Again, the focus of this novel is the relationship between Kiem and Jainan, but these two don’t exist in a vaccuum. I loved learning a bit more about how this galactic empire is set up, what Kiem’s home planet is like and what cultural differences there are between the two protagonists.
I admit I’m not super sure what the Resolution and its auditors are all about or how exactly the larger universe works in this story, but that’s not necessary to understand and enjoy the book.
The revelation of all the secrets, the way the mysteries get resolved and the ending all worked really well, even though I prefer mysteries that give me all the necessary pieces in advance and only fit them together at the end. You know, the kind that makes you go “oh man, I should have seen this all along”. In the case of Winter’s Orbit, there is no way you can guess the solution with the information you are given so the payoff isn’t as satisfying as it could be.

But I am not judging this book on being a great mystery novel, I’m judging it on whether it entertained me and delivered the space romance it promised. And in that respect, I really can’t compalin. Apart from the drawn-out part of wilfully misunderstanding each other, the relationship between Jainan and Kiem was well done. I cared about both of them (and Bel, don’t forget Bel!) and I wanted them to realize that they are both good people who can have a wonderful life together.
For people who read more romance than me and whose expectations may be a bit higher, there is only one romantic scene in this book and it’s not particularly steamy. This romance is more on the sweet side, not the hot and sexy one. So depending on your mood, this may work for your or not. Do I think this is a groundbreaking or award-worthy book? Well, no, but neither was it silly or too light on the world building (which could happen when the focus lies too heavily on the romance). I had a lot of fun reading it and I’m interested to see what Everina Maxwell comes up with next.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

Star Wars Anthology – From A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back

This Star Wars anthology retells the events of The Empire Strikes Back from different points of view. That much is clear from the title and – if you’ve read it – its predecessor, but for me this was a first foray into the world of Star Wars anthologies. I had read a few novelizations many, many years ago but other than that, I just re-watched the original trilogy a lot. To get stories from minor, sometimes VERY minor side-characters is such a cool idea that I couldn’t resist. The result was mixed but the positives outweigh the negatives.

FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
by various authors

Published: Del Rey, 2020
eBook: 561 pages
Series: Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….

From a Certain Point of View strikes back! Celebrate the legacy of the groundbreaking Star Wars sequel with this exciting reimagining of the timeless film.

On May 21, 1980, Star Wars became a true saga with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. In honor of the fortieth anniversary, forty storytellers recreate an iconic scene from The Empire Strikes Back, through the eyes of a supporting character, from heroes and villains to droids and creatures. From a Certain Point of View features contributions by bestselling authors and trendsetting artists.

This is quite a big book and no way am I going to tell you about each single story and how I liked it. As with any collection of short stories, especially ones by different authors, I liked some, loved others, disliked a few and felt meh about a handful. I’d say that’s a pretty normal reaction to a piece of writing that is made up of 40 different people’s ideas and styles. Nobody is going to like everything, but then again, there will be something for everybody.

I admit I picked this up primarily because I wanted to read Cat Valente‘s story about the exogorth (that worm thingy in the asteroid field) called “This Is No Cave”. I had heard wonderful things about it and those early reviews weren’t wrong. It is astonishing that Valente manged to make me feel for this creature that gets a full 5 seconds of screentime and whose backstory never really crossed my mind. But she gives Sy-O a backstory and it totally worked. I watched Empire again just yesterday – I knew so many side stories now, after all, and wanted to see if I recognized all the characters from this book (I didn’t) – and I felt a bit of a twinge when Sy-O appeared because now I had seen that part of the story from their perspective. And things aren’t as simple as they may seem.

But, and this is as surprising to me as it is to you, the Valente story was not my favorite in this anthology. In fact, three stories tied for my first place and they are all pretty different.
Django Wexler wrote “Amara Kel’s Rules for TIE Pilot Survival (Probably)” which delivers exactly what the title promises but with layers! Amara Kel is an Imperial pilot who knows how to stay alive. So far, at least. She lets us know her rules for survival not just by making a list but by telling us stories for each bullet point, stories that paint a picture of her life, her hopes and dreams, the woman she loves, and, almost as a side note, the events of Empire that happen to be going on at the same time. I loved everything about this story. The voice is lighthearted and funny, the protagonist is super easy to like, despite working for the Empire, and the story has a well-rounded ending. It got 4.75/5 stars from me.

Bildergebnis fĂĽr faith in an old friend star warsJust like this next story, although for different reasons. “Faith In An Old Friend” by Brittany N. Williams is told from L3-37’s perspective, a droid-turned-part-of-the-Millennium-Falcon and for that alone, it feels more like a real part of Star Wars history, rather than just an aside to Empire. I had to look L3 up to remember exactly who she was but it honestly doesn’t make much difference whether you remember her or not. This story witnesses a few key events from Empire and while it was fun to watch Leia’s heartrate increase when Han is around, all while she pretends to dislike him, the heart of this tale was all about L3. Her history, especially with Lando, her consciousness, and her alliance with the rest of the Falcon’s droid brains. This story really touched me and it did a fantastic job of tying in movie scenes and quotes. Another 4.75/5 stars.

Lastly, “The Whills Strike Back”, the very last story in this anthology, ended up as my third favorite. It’s about the opening scrawl and that’s really all I want to say. It was hilarious and self-aware and made watching the movie again all the more fun.

So these three were my absolute favorites, but there were many more stories that I liked a lot. My overall problem with many stories in this anthology was that they were rather unimaginative. However, in the hands of a great writer, even a not-very-original story can be impressive. I’m thinking of Seth Dickinson’s “The Final Order”, a story which doesn’t exactly hold any surprises in store but which completely blew me away with its writing. I seriously have to read The Traitor Baru Cormorant soon if this is what Dickinson always writes like.
Charles Yu’s “Kendal” similarly impressed me, as did “Against All Odds” by R. F. Kuang. That wasn’t a surprise because Kuang is amazing but it’s still worth mentioning.
“A Good Kiss” by C. B. Lee was one of the few stories that stood well on its own. It’s about Chase Wilsorr, a human on Hoth who runs errands and feels like a loser because he’s not as heroic as, say, Luke Skywalker. He also has a crush on another man. Lee tells a full story here that happens during the evacuation of the Rebel Base at Hoth and while I didn’t think the writing was overwhelming, I loved how fun and altogether nice this story was.

I don’t want to focus very much on the stories that didn’t work for me. But I was a bit surprised to find some authors I knew among my least favorites as well as others that I hadn’t read yet but had been looking forward to. Mark Oshiro’s story wasn’t for me but I’ll probably still try one of their novels. Mackenzi Lee has written The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue which I found entertaining enough. Her short story for Star Wars left me cold and unimpressed.

Generally speaking, I enjoyed this anthology. Reading a story or two before bed was quite nice, even though some stories were better than others and even though at one point, I felt like we’d never get off Hoth. The stories are arranged in chronological order to fit the events of the movie. But given the amount (or lack) of side characters in any given scene, there are about a billion stories set on Hoth, hundreds on Imperial ships and in Cloud City, and a mere few set in different places. I understand why that is but I think that with a little creativity, more could have been done. I mean, there is a story here from the point of view of the cave on Dagobah! And remember Sy-O, the exogorth? Or the Millennium Falcon’s droid brains? Oh well, you can’t have everything I guess.

So would I recommend this book? Sure, if you like Star Wars. With most of the stories, I had no idea who exactly I was reading about but whether I ended up liking a story or not, it put me in a mood to watch the old movies again. I discovered some new authors that I’d like to read more of, and I enjoyed having a book to read in small increments. So unless you hate Star Wars, you can’t go wrong picking this up.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

 

Mysteries, Colonialism, and Revolution: Andrea Stewart – The Bone Shard Daughter

Whenever a book is surrounded by lot of hype, I get suspicious but it also depends on what kind of hype we’re talking about. If the hype starts well before publication date, it’s likely just good marketing and may lead to disappointment on my part when actually reading the book. BUT if the hype begins slowly, building up more and more as more people read the book,  then that’s probably because it’s a good book that appeals to a great many people. In the case of The Bone Shard Daughter, I believe the hype is honest and comes from readers’ true feelings rather than a well-oiled marketing machine, although the latter definitely helped.
Long story short: This is a book everybody seems to love and I am part of everybody now.

THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER
by Andrea Stewart

Published: Orbit, 2020
eBook: 438 pages
Audiobook: 13 hours 44 minutes
Series: The Drowning Empire #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: Father told me I’m broken.

In an empire controlled by bone shard magic, Lin, the former heir to the emperor will fight to reclaim her magic and her place on the throne.
The emperor’s reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.
Lin is the emperor’s daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognise her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.
Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright – and save her people.

This was exactly the kind of fun, thoughtful, epic SFF I had been hoping to get based on the buzz surrounding it. It has everything you could want from a fantasy novel, although I am still confused about it being shelved as YA on Goodreads. If fast-paced equals YA these days, then I guess okay, but other than that, the only reason I can see is that it was written by a woman and I had hoped we’ve come far enough to understand that women don’t automatically write YA… Oh well, whatever you want to call it The Bone Shard Daughter is amazing. Let me tell you why.

It is set in an archipelago ruled by an Emperor whose family is the only one that can use bone shard magic. With this magic, he can create constructs – animal-like creatures with his will embedded in them – that can do anything from run the country to serve in a construct army. The magic works with bone shards (duh) that are inscribed with a command which is then inserted into the construct, which in turn has to follow this command. So although it’s clearly magic, I love that there’s an undertone of logic to it. Creating a complex construct is almost like writing a computer program where different commands can’t contradict each other if the construct is to work properly, etc.
But this magic comes at a price, and it’s not one the Emperor pays, but rather his citizens. In regular tithing ceremonies, bone shards are extracted from the people’s children – those shards have to come from somewhere, after all. And whenever a bone shard is used in a construct, it slowly saps the life energy out of its original owner…

On Imperial Island, we follow Lin, the Emperor’s daughter, as she is working to prove herself worthy for the succession. When Lin was a child, she caught a mysterious sickness that made her lose most of her early memories. This sickness came with Bayan, the Emperor’s ward and Lin’s competition for the throne. There are many things Lin doesn’t understand: why Bayan’s memories seem to return more quickly than her own, why her father won’t grant her more keys to explore the palace and learn to do bone shard magic, why the things written in her recently discovered diary don’t make sense…
I can’t talk too much about Lin’s story line without giving things away. But it’s a thrilling plot with  many twists along the way. I must admit I guessed one of them quite a bit before it was revealed but that didn’t diminish my reading pleasure in the least. With or without plots, there was so much in Lin’s story to keep me entertained. Through her, we learn a lot about how bone shard magic works, as well as the way the Empire operates. I also enjoyed her relationship with Bayan, strained and mercurial as it is. And Lin doesn’t seem to be okay with the way her father exploits his own people for making constructs. His pretext is that the Alanga – a powerful magic people defeated by the current dynasty – may come back one day and he needs to defend the empire.

So the power dynamics in the empire are set up pretty clearly but Andrea Stewart doesn’t leave her world quite so black and white. On Nephilanu Island, we follow the governor’s daughter Phalue who is in love with Ranami – who in turn is part of a rebellion wanting to make life better for the lower classes. While the same power dynamics are at work here (albeit on a smaller scale), I loved how Stewart shows a different aspect of it through the eyes of different people. Both Phalue and Ranami have POV chapters which makes it all the more interesting to see their story unfold. Phalue has grown up privileged but she’s only now coming to terms with what that really means and what life is like for other people, including the woman she loves. Much like Lin, she faces some tough decisions between a comfortable life at the cost of others’ happiness and a revolution that may cost her her own safety.

The third, and for a long time my favorite, plot string follows Jovis, notorious smuggler and accidental savior of children. Jovis just wants his wife Emahla back but all he knows is that she was kidnapped and taken onto a dark ship with blue sails, a ship he has been hunting for years now, without ever catching it. On one of his stops, he saves a young child from the tithing ritual and also, purely by accident, a strange cat/ferret/seacreature that jumps onto his boat. After delivering the child back to safety, the strange creature – now called Mephi – stays with Jovis and will bring much joy and surprise to both Jovis and the readers of this book.
Jovis slowly turns into something of a legend, a man who snatches children away just before the tithing, saving them from having their skulls cut open and maybe dying in the process (like Jovis’ own brother when they were kids). But Jovis never loses sight of his quest and he never stops yearning for his wife, even when he sees that revolution is brewing in the empire and he may be needed to help it along.

There is one more POV character named Sand, but she appears so rarely and her chapters are kept so mysterious that I don’t want to give anything away. Just remember she’s important and may serve as a catalyst for the bigger story arc of the trilogy/series.

I had so much fun reading this book! Not only is the world building really interesting, there’s also a very cool magic system that I loved to explore. And the characters all came across as believable people with a history and hopes and dreams. Jovis especially grew dear to me, and not only because of his relationship with Mephi. I mean, who can resist a good animal companion? But Lin also goes through quite a few revelations, learning things both good and bad, and handling them capably but not perfectly. I can’t stress enough how wonderful it is to read about intelligent protagonists who aren’t perfect. Lin is clever and thinks ahead, but she’s also a young woman without a lot of life experience (and some of what she does have is missing along with her memories!), so she makes mistakes but her mistakes are understandable and only make her more relatable.

The world building already has so much interesting stuff to offer in this first volume, but it promises much more for the later books. The empire’s history is hinted at many times but we don’t get any real details about who the Alanga were and why they were so powerful. Many questions remain unanswered about the constructs or why only the imperial family can use bone shard magic, why Jovis’ wife was kidnapped and what that ship with the blue sails is all about. But even without answers to those questions, The Bone Shard Daughter delivers a satsifying ending to its three plot strings, all while making it clear that this is only the beginning and there’s much more epicness to come.

The only critique I have about this book is that things almost happen a bit too quickly. Normally, when I call a book fast-paced it’s a compliment. And I definitely recommend The Bone Shard Daughter for its quick plot(s), but because this novel isn’t only about the plot but has so much more to offer in terms of world building and character development, I almost wished there were more quiet moments that let me dive deeper into these aspects. Don’t get me wrong, Stewart does a masterful job of introducing her world and characters without long expositions or info dumps and that feat deserves all the praise. But every time we switch POV, it feels like the plot has already moved along at breakneck speed and we don’t get time to settle down with the last bit of new information we’ve learned before the next twist comes along. A little time to breathe in between epic revelations, action sequences, daring nightly excursions, etc. would have been nice.

It’s a flimsy complaint to make but it did have an effect on my reading experience. You see, I’ve noticed that I remember some books in much more detail than others and I’ve been trying to pin down why exactly that is. It’s not always the big, chonky ones that stick in my memory more (you’d think spending 500 more pages with a story will make it last longer in your brain, right?), nor is it necessarily the ones that I raced through because I was so excited and engaged. The Bone Shard Daughter was one of those books I never wanted to put down. I liked all the POV characters, I was engaged in the plot and sub plots, I wanted to learn more about the world and its magic and history, I wanted to unravel all the secrets, I wanted the characters to be okay, and those are literally all the things I hope for when I open a new book. But something was still missing. I read this book so quickly that I never felt I could truly fall into the world, if you know what I mean. It’s not like in a Robin Hobb book where I get so immersed in the world that plot becomes secondary.
I can’t tell yet because I’ve just finished this book but I suspect I’ll need a “previous on” when the next book comes out and I don’t remember any of the details I need. But no matter whether it sticks in my memory or not, reading this was an absolute pleasure and I wholeheartedly recommend it to lovers of SFF, especially ones looking to get out of a reading slump.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good

 

Why James McAvoy is a God (or at least one of the Endless): Neil Gaiman – The Sandman (Audible Original)

So here’s a little confession. I read the first three volumes of The Sandman ages ago and then never continued. I believe it was because at the time, I was still a student and didn’t have a lot of money to spend on books, let alone pretty expensive graphic novels. But now that I’m all grown up I want to dive back into this amazing universe and I needed a refresher. What better way than to relive the first three volumes as an audiobook?

THE SANDMAN (Vol. 1 – Vol. 3)
by Neil Gaiman & Dirk Maggs

Published: Audible, 2020
Audiobook: 10 hours 54 minutes
Series: The Sandman Audio #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: June 1920. The office of the senior curator of the Royal Museum.

Hailed by the Los Angeles Times Magazine as “the greatest epic in the history of comic books”, The Sandman changed the game with its dark, literary world of fantasy and horror – creating a global, cultural phenomenon in the process. At long last, Audible and DC present the first-ever audio production of the New York Times best-selling series written by acclaimed storyteller Neil Gaiman (who also serves as co-executive producer). Adapted and directed by multi-award-winner (and frequent Gaiman collaborator) Dirk Maggs, and performed by an ensemble cast with James McAvoy (It, Parts One and Two, X-Men: First Class, Split) in the title role, this first installment of a multi-part original audio series will transport you to a world that re-writes the rules of audio entertainment the way that The Sandman originally re-defined the graphic novel.

When The Sandman, also known as Lord Morpheus – the immortal king of dreams, stories and the imagination – is pulled from his realm and imprisoned on Earth by a nefarious cult, he languishes for decades before finally escaping. Once free, he must retrieve the three “tools” that will restore his power and help him to rebuild his dominion, which has deteriorated in his absence. As the multi-threaded story unspools, The Sandman descends into Hell to confront Lucifer (Michael Sheen), chases rogue nightmares who have escaped his realm, and crosses paths with an array of characters from DC comic books, ancient myths, and real-world history, including: Inmates of Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum, Doctor Destiny, the muse Calliope, the three Fates, William Shakespeare (Arthur Darvill), and many more.

A powerhouse supporting cast helps translate this masterwork into a sonic experience worthy of its legacy, including Riz Ahmed, Kat Dennings, Taron Egerton, Samantha Morton, Bebe Neuwirth, Andy Serkis, and more. Setting the stage for their performance is an unprecedented cinematic soundscape featuring an original musical score by British Academy Award winner James Hannigan. Fans will especially revel in a new twist for the audio adaptation: Neil Gaiman himself serves as the narrator. Follow him as he leads listeners along a winding path of myths, imagination and, often, terror. Even in your wildest dreams, you’ve never heard anything like this.

I didn’t expect to love this as much as I did but I want to say right away that I wouldn’t recommend this audiobook to people who have never read the comics before. It’s been a very long time for me but I did remember the most important bits as well as some characters and subplots. And that helped enormously with keeping the plot lines straight, remembering which character was related to whom and how that fits into the greater timeline and so on. Going in with no prior knowledge is not something I would do!

So, now that’s out of the way, if you have read the comic books – the first three have been adapted here – then chances are you’ll be as impressed as I was that comic books can actually make good audiobooks. It seems strange that a medium which relies so much on the visual aspect could translate to audible content so well. With Neil Gaiman as the narrator, images are still being drawn in a way, except in your mind instead of on the page. And while it’s definitely a very different experience from reading the books, it was in no way a lesser one.

Also, just let me get this out of the way before I explode: James McAvoy is SUCH A FANTASTIC ACTOR! I know, I know, lots of great actors out there and lots of them do voice acting, blablabla. But the reason I’m so taken with McAvoy’s portrayal of Morpheus is that I remember him as the lead role in another Neil Gaiman audioplay, done by the BBC. Neverwhere (extremely highly recommend, btw) was a brilliant audioplay in which McAvoy played the slightly lost but good-hearted protagonist who stumbles into a magical London beneath the London we know. I have listened to that audioplay many times and so McAvoy’s voice kind of belonged to Richard Mayhew in my brain. I was worried that suddenly hearing him as Morpheus wouldn’t work for me. I was very wrong!
Not only does he change his voice enough for the characters to sound completely distinct, but everything about the way he delivers lines is different too. Morpheus’ way of talking has a certain cadence to it, a gravity that reflects his nature as an Endless. I realize it’s their job and all but I still can’t get over how well certain actors can slip into different roles and appear as completely different people, especially when they do it with nothing but their voice. So. James McAvoy: Voice God!As for the story itself, I won’t go into a lot of detail here. It starts out with a group of power-hungry men trying to capture Death and thus, ensuring eternal, or at least prolonged, life for themselves. Instead of Death, however, they find themselves with a disgruntled Dream on their hands whom they keep captive for many decades. With Morpheus stuck in his prison and nobody else to do his job, a series of events is set into motion that will ripple out for many years to come.
So Morpheus is trying to break out of his prison and set the world right again. That means finding some important objects, punishing the creatures who’ve been doing mischief while he was gone, and righting wrongs wherever possible.
After that, it isn’t so much Morpheus that we follow but we rather jump around following a cast of other characters who – in some way or another – are connected to Morpheus. It could be someone who has suffered from Morpheus imprisonment, someone who threatenes the Dream realm, someone who is simply in a certain place at the right time… I don’t want to spoil any of the episodes for you but be warned that the audiobook, just like the comics, does feel episodic. There are some longer plots that carry on through several episodes but generally, you can enjoy this one chapter at a time and get a well-rounded little story.

The intertwining stories can get confusing at times and although the voice actors do a brilliant job, it wasn’t always easy to keep them apart. I also admit that I didn’t even recognize many of the famous voices in this production. I know what Taron Egerton sounds like normally, as well as Michael Sheen, Samantha Morton and Andy Serkis – I’ve seen movies with them and I should recognize their voices. But I guess that’s another sign of them being really good actors who can change their voice just enough for the not-overly-attentive listener to not notice who they are.
I will be listening to the next instalment as well when it comes out, although I definitely plan to read the comic books first. At certain times during the audiobook I was glad that I had an image in my head of what Morpheus looks like. I mean, him and Death are both striking characters with a very distinctive look. Hearing a description just isn’t the same as seeing it on the page. So, I’ll get myself the next three issues as soon as I can and then I’ll look forward to both the next part in the audiobook series (if indeed they make another one) as well as the TV show!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

 

Apparently, This is a Classic: Susan Cooper – The Dark Is Rising

Last year, I decided to catch up on some classic SFF that I hadn’t read yet because it’s so easy to get swept away by new publications. I started Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence and I found the first book quite nice. Not groundbreaking, but fun enough. The second book is a Newberry Medal winner and appears on all the lists of best fantasy ever so I had high expectations. Having read it, I honestly don’t know if me and all those other people have read the same book.

THE DARK IS RISING
by Susan Cooper

Published: Puffin, 1973
eBook: 272 pages
Series: The Dark is Rising #2
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: ‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him. 

This night will be bad and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.

It’s Midwinter’s Eve, the day before Will’s eleventh birthday. But there is an atmosphere of fear in the familiar countryside around him. This will be a birthday like no other. Will discovers that he has the power of the Old Ones, and that he must embark on a quest to vanquish the terrifyingly evil magic of the Dark.

The second novel in Susan Cooper’s highly acclaimed Dark is Rising sequence.

Will Stanton is turning eleven just a few days before Christmas and strange things are happening. Birds behave weirdly, his wish for snow seems to be coming true, even though snow doesn’t usually stick around in his home town, and a homeless man appears to be following him around.
It doesn’t take long for Will (and us readers) to find out that Will is an Old One, a person involved in the epic battle between the Light and the Dark. No further details are given because I guess labeling things “good” and “evil” is enough. Will meets Merriman – whom we know from the first book – and is taught a little bit of the awesome powers he now possesses, such as making a fire out of nothing or talking with other Old Ones telepathically. Merrimen does not, however, tell Will not to use those powers because it draws the attention of the Dark… Which just seems like a cruel joke, considering any 11-year-old with the sudden power to make a fire would immediately try that power on his way home through the snow.
So Will does, gets into danger, and gets saved by Merriman who then gives  this vital bit of information to Will. And sadly, that whole introductory part of the book tells you exactly how the rest of it will go.

Will is the Sign-Seeker and he is entrusted with a quest by Merriman and the Lady and some other Old Ones, who happen to be Will’s neighbours. Six signs, shaped like a circle with a cross in the middle have to be found and put together. Again, that’s all they tell the boy. No clue as to where to start, what to do, who to talk to, how to use his powers to help him on this quest… not even any information on why the signs are important or what this battle between Light and Dark is all about. Nothing in this book is ever properly explained and therefore, nothing really makes sense. There are these signs and they get cold when evil is around and Will has to protect them somehow? He also gets this ancient book to read which conveniently pours all the knowledge he nees magically into his brain (forgetting that some of it might be interesting to the readers as well) but which doesn’t change anything about Will’s behaviour, powers, or the way he continues on his quest.

About that qBildergebnis fĂĽr the dark is rising cooperuest: it may say that Will has to “seek” these magical signs but Will  doesn’t actually do anything in this entire book. Will comes across people who either straight up give him one of the signs or at least tell him exactly what to do to get to it. Will gets in danger occasionaly but those scenes also fell flat because he is immediately rescued by a convenient other Old One (they pop out of the ground whenever the plot requires it). So any tension there might have been is taken out by the author. Will is the most passive protagonist I’ve read in a long time and I don’t see why I should like him. There’s nothing about him to like (or dislike, for that matter). He is just a blank human-shaped something that does what he’s told by complete strangers who say they are the Light and he’s one of them and then he collects signs on his belt and hopes someone will save his ass when the Dark gets too close to him. Let me tell you, this was the opposite of engaging and exciting.

The part I enjoyed the most was actually the non-fantasy aspects. Will’s family is huge and while I have no idea which of the 12 siblings is which I really loved reading about their Christmas excitement, their childish banter, their joy at opening presents and so on. They go carol singing at one point and although there’s really nothing all that special about that part, I found myself enjoying the book way more than during any of the epic blahblah that was happening in between. Again, twelve siblings is a lot and most of them didn’t even get to speak, but the ones that do even felt like real characters with a distinct personality. Chatterbox Mary or calm and reliable Paul come to mind. They felt way more alive than Will ever did.

So to sum it all up, this book has three gigantic problems: a passive protagonist, no world building whatsoever, a thin plot without any real stakes.
What worked was the writing itself. I found the prose quite nice and it built up a great atmosphere of this wintery landscape and of Will jumping around in time – oh yeah, the Old Ones can just go through time somehow but don’t ask me how because with one exception where they go through an actual door, nobody explains how this works or if Will could do it by himself or whatever.
The whole quest never feels like a quest because Will just goes about his everyday life, doing whatever he would be doing anyway and then suddenly magic happens to him and one of the Old Ones is there and hands him a sign or tells him how to get it. He goes and gets it and we’re back to regular life until the whole thing starts over again until finally, all six signs are collected and can be united. Because reasons.

When I had finally reached the end of this tedious repetitive bore of a book, I felt quite cheated because there wasn’t even a big epic fight at the end. Sure, Will faces the Rider (kind of the boss of the Dark, at least in this book) and for the first time has to make a decision on his own, but then – conveniently as everything in this story – things just fall into place and Will can go back to doing whatever he was doing before. Merrimen and the Lady – whoever the hell she really is – conclude that now another one of the four big objects has been restored. The first one was the Grail from the first book which means two more are coming. So I guess that means two more books with “quests” and then, finally, the showdown between the Light and the Dark?

Look, I enjoyed the first book well enough but I would have just let it stand on its own if this series wasn’t hyped as such a classic of children’s literature, mentioned in the same breath with Narnia. If this second volume is any indication of how the series will continue, I’ll just call it quits here and go back to those new releases where plot and character and world building actually matter.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Quite bad

The State of SFF – February 2021

Ah, 2021. We had such high hopes for you. Of course we all knew, the pandemic wouldn’t suddenly go away but progress has been… let’s say sluggish, at least in my country. Well, at least my grandfather has been vaccinated already and the rest of my family is waiting their turn, doing the same stuff we’ve been doing for the last 10 months. Working from home whenever possible, wearing masks, barely going outside. At least there are books, right?

Quickie News

  • The Dunk and Egg novella prequels to A Song of Ice and Fire are in early development at HBO. I personally look forward to this much more than any other spinoffs because these novellas are really good and a fun, lighter addition to the world of Westeros.
    line
  • Author Storm Constantine has passed away. She is best-known for her Wraeththu Chronicles, which begin with The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit.
    line
  • Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow might be coming to FX. I’ve just recently read this book and it ripped my heart out. So I’m very much rooting for an adaptation, especially one written by Queen’s Gambit showrunner Scott Frank!

Wheel of Time Concept art revealed

This reminds me that I should maybe finally start reading The Wheel of Time, something I’ve been planning to do for ever and somehow never managed. If you’ve somehow missed the news, Amazon is developing The Wheel of Time as a TV show and fans are rightfully excited.
Now, some concept art has been revealed that evokes the exact epic fantasy feelings I have been hoping for. Although I haven’t yet read the series, I am super excited for the TV version. Now somebody please kick my ass into gear and make me read The Eye of the World.

The Wheel of Time Preview Honors "The Eye of the World" Anniversary

Shadow and Bone (Netflix) first look

Shadow and Bone First Look Photos and Characters Posters Released by NetflixWe’ve got a first look at what the Grishaverse Netflix show will be like. So far, character posters and some stills have been revealed and no matter if you’re part of the Grisha fandom or not, you have to admit that the costumes look fantastic!

I can’t wait for April 23rd (my Netflix reminder has been set for weeks) to discover how the cast will tackle their roles as well as how the two storylines of the Grisha Trilogy and the Six of Crows duology will be intertwined. Maybe they’ll do a Witcher and simply mix scenes set in different time periods, having the audience figure it all out. Or maybe they changed the plot so characters who never meet in the books do so in the show? I have no idea but I am excited!

jaspar, inej, and kaz draped in shadows

Exciting February Publications

You guys, February is going to be awesome! There’s a good mix of authors I already know and new-to-me authors but all of them have books coming out that tickle my interest. Also, this month’s covers are pretty stunning, don’t you think?

EVERINA MAXWELL – WINTER’S ORBIT

I am beyond excited for this space opera romance where a prince has to marry a guy to save the world (I guess) and then they fall in love. Marketing promises a trope-feast of the best kind and I cannot wait. Also, this is the UK cover because I like it more than the US version.

54811115. sy475

Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut.

While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.

But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.


T. L. HUCHU – THE LIBRARY OF THE DEAD

Edinburgh, ghosts, and a cynical teen. Need I say more?

52205603. sy475 Sixth Sense meets Stranger Things in T. L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead, a sharp contemporary fantasy following a precocious and cynical teen as she explores the shadowy magical underside of modern Edinburgh.

WHEN GHOSTS TALK SHE WILL LISTEN

Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghostalker – and they sure do love to talk. Now she speaks to Edinburgh’s dead, carrying messages to those they left behind. A girl’s gotta earn a living, and it seems harmless enough. Until, that is, the dead whisper that someone’s bewitching children – leaving them husks, empty of joy and strength. It’s on Ropa’s patch, so she feels honor-bound to investigate. But what she learns will rock her world.

Ropa will dice with death as she calls on Zimbabwean magic and Scottish pragmatism to hunt down clues. And although underground Edinburgh hides a wealth of dark secrets, she also discovers an occult library, a magical mentor and some unexpected allies.

Yet as shadows lengthen, will the hunter become the hunted?


GENEVIEVE GORNICHEC – THE WITCH’S HEART

A witch falls in love with Loki and that’s really all I need to know. But this also has a more literary feel to it, so maybe we’ll get a Norse mythology version of what Madeline Miller does with Greek myths?

53438195

When a banished witch falls in love with the legendary trickster Loki, she risks the wrath of the gods in this moving, subversive debut novel that reimagines Norse mythology.

Angrboda’s story begins where most witches’ tales end: with a burning. A punishment from Odin for refusing to provide him with knowledge of the future, the fire leaves Angrboda injured and powerless, and she flees into the farthest reaches of a remote forest. There she is found by a man who reveals himself to be Loki, and her initial distrust of him transforms into a deep and abiding love.

Their union produces three unusual children, each with a secret destiny, who Angrboda is keen to raise at the edge of the world, safely hidden from Odin’s all-seeing eye. But as Angrboda slowly recovers her prophetic powers, she learns that her blissful life—and possibly all of existence—is in danger.

With help from the fierce huntress Skadi, with whom she shares a growing bond, Angrboda must choose whether she’ll accept the fate that she’s foreseen for her beloved family…or rise to remake their future. From the most ancient of tales this novel forges a story of love, loss, and hope for the modern age.


NAMINA FORNA – THE GILDED ONES

I’ve had an ARC of this book for months which means I’ve been excited for just as long. As with a lot of YA books, I feel an underlying dread that it could be the same cheap old story in new clothing, but I am quite hopeful that this will turn out to be great. That cover is definitely a stunner!

40024121. sy475 Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.

But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.

Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.

Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she’s ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be–not even Deka herself.


ALIETTE DE BODARD – FIREHEART TIGER

You can’t really go wrong with Aliette de Bodard but when you mention The Goblin Emperor and Howl’s Moving Castle in the blurb, just go ahead and take my money.

53317495. sy475 Award-winning author Aliette de Bodard returns with a powerful romantic fantasy that reads like The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle in a pre-colonial Vietnamese-esque world.

Fire burns bright and has a long memory….

Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.

Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.

Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?


SARAH GAILEY – THE ECHO WIFE

I love Sarah Gailey’s writing so much! They come up with new and interesting ideas, not least of them a husband cheating on his wife… with herself. I can’t wait to see how Gailey tackles clones and murder and whatever else they’ve put into this book. This is one of my most anticipated releases of the year.

52383387

“When they said all happy families are alike, I don’t think this is what they meant…”

Evelyn Caldwell’s husband Nathan has been having an affair — with Evelyn Caldwell. Or, to be exact, with a genetically cloned replica.

After a morning that begins with a confrontation and ends with Nathan’s body bleeding out on the kitchen floor, the two Caldwell wives will have to think fast—before sharing everything includes sharing a jail cell.

The Echo Wife is a non-stop thrill ride of lies, betrayal, and identity, perfect for fans of Big Little Lies and Killing Eve.


BECKY CHAMBERS – THE GALAXY AND THE GROUND WITHIN

February is good to us! Becky Chambers brings us a new Wayfarers novel so our need for cozy space opera, diverse characters, and a plot that doesn’t rely on action or blood and murder will be filled. Plus, the trope of being stuck in a place with complete strangers that you slowly get to know better totally works for me.

54727327. sy475

With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop.

At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through.

When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other.


NICOLE LESPERANCE – THE WIDE STARLIGHT

This is my February wild card. I have no idea whether this book will be as great as I hope but magical Northern Lights, a mysteriously disappearing mother, and a journey through a Northern setting sounds too good to miss.

45011202. sy475

The Hazel Wood meets The Astonishing Color of After in this dreamy, atmospheric novel that follows sixteen-year-old Eli as she tries to remember what truly happened the night her mother disappeared off a glacier in Norway under the Northern Lights.

Never whistle at the Northern Lights, the story goes, or they’ll sweep down from the sky and carry you away.
Sixteen-year-old Eline Davis knows it’s true. She was there ten years ago, on a frozen fjord in Svalbard, Norway, the night her mother whistled at the lights and then vanished.

Now Eli lives an ordinary life with her dad on Cape Cod. But when the Northern Lights are visible over the Cape for just one night, she can’t resist the possibility of seeing her mother again. So she whistles—and it works. Her mother appears, with snowy hair, frosty fingertips and a hazy story of where she’s been all these years. And she doesn’t return alone.

Along with Eli’s mother’s reappearance come strange, impossible things. Narwhals swimming in Cape Cod Bay, meteorites landing in Eli’s yard, and three shadowy princesses with ominous messages. It’s all too much, too fast, and Eli pushes her mother away. She disappears again—but this time, she leaves behind a note that will send Eli on a journey across continents, to the northern tip of the world:

Find me where I left you.


News from the blog

January was not great. It wasn’t terrible either, but unfortunately I picked up some books that I had high expectations for and that I ended up disliking. On the other hand, I finished a trilogy, re-read an old favorite (still good) and liked one book more than I had expected.

What I read in January:

  • Stina Leicht – Persephone Station
    unfocused – bland characters – terrible dialogue – cool ideas
  • Alechia Dow – The Sound of Stars
    cheesy romance – half-assed world building – repetitive plot
  • Various Authors – Faraway
    great twists on fairy tales – sometimes dark – good writing – Soman Chainani rocks!
  • Naomi Novik – A Deadly Education
    slow start  – cool monsters – lots of open questions – shouldn’t have liked it but somehow did
  • Holly Black – How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories
    nice little addition to the Folk of the Air Trilogy – not groundbreaking but good – lovely illustrations
  • Marissa Meyer – Supernova
    epic ending to the trilogy – loooong middle part – not my favorite but liked it
  • Michael Ende – The Neverending Story (re-read)
    fantastic ideas – writing style felt kind of distant – still great after all these years

Currently reading:

  • Neil Gaiman – Sandman (full cast audiobook) (re-read)
  • John Crowley – Little, Big
  • Various Authors – From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back
  • Nnedi Okorafor – Remote Control

I have two current reads that I consider longer projects. The Star Wars anthology is a chonker of a book and I’m not reading it all in one go. A few stories here or there is working well for me. That’s particularly nice when I’ve had an exhausting day and just feel like reading a few pages of something. And thanks to the anthology I’ve already discovered some authors that I want to read more of.
Little, Big on the other hand is taking me longer because it’s the kind of book you need to savor. It’s not about the plot so much as about discovering what the hell is going on and just enjoying the ride. And let’s not forget the language is beautiful and sometimes makes me linger and just admire how well Crowley can string a sentence together.

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

Uninspired Feminist Space Story: Stina Leicht – Persephone Station

Man, this is not a good start of the reading year for me. I had been looking forward to this book so much and yet here I am, trying to find the words for another negative review. I’m running out of ways to express my disappointment…

PERSEPHONE STATION
by Stina Leicht

Published: Saga Press, 2021
eBook: 512 pages
audiobook: 11 hours 55 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 5/10

Opening line: The clatter of heavy power-assisted armor echoed off the rocky hills as the corporate mercenaries lined up behind Serrao-Orlov’s latest representative. 

Persephone Station, a seemingly backwater planet that has largely been ignored by the United Republic of Worlds becomes the focus for the Serrao-Orlov Corporation as the planet has a few secrets the corporation tenaciously wants to exploit.

Rosie—owner of Monk’s Bar, in the corporate town of West Brynner—caters to wannabe criminals and rich Earther tourists, of a sort, at the front bar. However, exactly two types of people drank at Monk’s back bar: members of a rather exclusive criminal class and those who sought to employ them.

Angel—ex-marine and head of a semi-organized band of beneficent criminals, wayward assassins, and washed up mercenaries with a penchant for doing the honorable thing—is asked to perform a job for Rosie. What this job reveals will affect Persephone and put Angel and her squad up against an army. Despite the odds, they are rearing for a fight with the Serrao-Orlov Corporation. For Angel, she knows that once honor is lost, there is no regaining it. That doesn’t mean she can’t damned well try.

Let me start with the thing that started out as something I didn’t even notice all that much, then turned into something that became annoying and finally into the One Thing That Drove Me Absolutely Nuts every time it came up. And that is the way Leicht writes dialogue and – to some degree – how audiobook narrator Maria Liatis reads it.
We all learn in school (early on!) that you don’t start every sentence of a story with the same word. We also learn that not every piece of dialogue has to be accompanied by a “he said/she said”. Well, Stina Leicht and her editors must have skipped that lesson because, oh boy, the amount of “she said” in this book is staggering. And I’m sure if I’ve read a phyiscal copy I would’t have minded so much because the brain mostly skips over these parts and doesn’t read them out each time. Maria Liatis, reading the audiobook, did however, and that reading aloud of the dialogue showed just how terrible it is. Leicht also has this quirk of ending one line of dialogue with “Angel said” and starting the next sentence with “Rosie said:” which puts two “she saids” right after each other and made me want to rip my hair out!  And don’t get me wrong, it’s not only the “she said” parts, it’s also what people say and how they say it. In case you’re worried that I’m just weird and this is a very “me” nitpick, I hear ya and I have brought examples.

“You okay, boss?” Enid asked.
“I’m good,” Angel said. “Check on Lou.”
“I’m trying,” Enid said. “The ship is a real mess.”
“Fuck,” Angel said.

That’s one lone example you say? Let me add another one and trust me, there are many more where that came from, I’m just choosing the ones that don’t contain any spoilers for the purpose of this review.

“Sukyi?” Angel asked. “Damn it! Report in!”
“Enid?” Lou asked over Kurosawa’s com system. “You ready?”
“Yes,” Enid said. “Try not to let them start another fire.”
“Doing the best I can,” Lou said.

You see, it’s not just a ridiculous amount of repetiton, it’s the exact same pattern of “word” she said “some more words”. I don’t know if that’s a stylistic choice or a matter of taste but I absolutely hated it. Sure, others may not care as much, but this took me out of the reading experience (which I can’t imagine the author wanted) and made me think about bad writing instead of the story at hand.

As for the plot, I’m sad to report it’s thin and the action sequences are badly told. Persephone is a backwater planet about which we don’t know very much. In the town Brynner lives crime boss Rosie, who runs Monk’s Bar where all the crime families gather and Rosie makes sure they behave themselves and don’t start a war among the people of Persephone. I actually liked Rosie, even though we don’t get to see enough of her!
Because of an alien POV we also know there’s an indigenous species living on Persephone. A species who will be exploited and used by Vissia Corsini, head of the evil Serrao-Orlov corporation if someone doesn’t do something against it. Vissia wants something from the alien Emmisaries that they don’t want to give so, naturally she plans to destroy them instead. Rosie has something to say about that and hires Captain Angel de la Reza and her ragtag crew to protect the Emissaries and fight against Vissia, even if going against her huge corporation is a suicide mission…
There’s also a side plot

This is marketed as a “feminist space opera” and, yes, almost all the characters are female, but I personally think there’s a little more to feminism than leaving out men and putting women or nonbinary folks everywhere. In fact, no matter what their gender, I find it most important that an author makes me care about their characters and Stina Leicht made hers unfortunately flat.
The biggest problem is that we just get to know so very little about them. The author slaps a marker on each and that’s the thing that defines their personality. Angel misses the military since she’s been kicked out, Suyki is dying of an Old Earth disease, Lou is the quirky, chipper pilot, Enid the quiet, sarcastic sniper. Rosie is the only one whose values and reasons for doing what they do came out a bit. Although their motives take a while to be fully revealed, it’s clear that their heart is in the right spot and they see the evil being done (or threatening to be done) by the powerful people of Serrao-Orlov.
And to be fe fair, you do get to know snippets of some other characters’ lives over the course of this book but mostly they are just cardboard cutouts whose hopes and dreams, whose fears and worries and plans for life remain unknown to the reader. What little we do learn is told through heavy-handed exposition. And that’s a shame because I really looked forward to falling in love with the crew of Kurosawa. I ended up liking Lou anyway because, come on, what’s not to like? She’s a super tropey character and we’ve all seen the likes of her a billion times before, but that’s just because it’s such a popular character type. I like a girl who sits in the pilot’s chair of a ship, looking at an impossible flying maneuver with her tongue sticking out between her teeth while everyone else expects to die in the next few seconds. Even if that’s all there is to her.

Another problem I had with the audiobook – and this is really audiobook only and doesn’t change my opinion of the story or characters – was the way Maria Liatis read the characters. I generally enjoyed her voice and narration but she is not good at voicing distinct characters. Which may be partially the author’s fault for making everyone talk the same way. Rosie and Enid get a slightly deeper voice and I could usually tell when they were speaking. Lou gets a slightly more high pitched excited tone, but all the others – and that leaves quite a few of them, some alien, some human – sound exactly the same. Apparently, Liatis tried to make Suyki sound distinct by giving her a case of occasional British-like accent. I swear, that accent is there one sentence and completely gone the next, sometimes it appears and dissapears within the same line of dialogue, sometimes the narrator seems to have missed a “Suyki said” while reading and accidentally not said the line with the accent… I don’t know what but it was a mess.

Now I feel bad enough for having said so many negative things about this book, so please let me share the positives! The main ideas of the plot and the characters aren’t new or original, but Stina Leicht put together some interesting themes and SFF ideas that made the world of Persephone more intriguing.
Probably most interesting to me was the way AI and AGI were incorporated into the story. The ship Kurosawa is intelligent and communicates with its crew, but much cooler than that is the  AGI Kennedy Liu whose consciousness isn’t in a ship or a computer but rather in a human body. Which is totally illegal but does give her some cool powers that regular humans (obviously) don’t have.
I also liked Angel’s Combat Assistant which can enhance her fighting by releasing adrenaline into her body, or giving her calming medication when her heart rate is too high, etc. I was a little surprised that so few characters had a CA because even without using it for battle, that seems like a very useful futuristic gadget to have. So I loved that idea but would have liked to see it incorporated more into the world.

Spending more time with – or at least learning about – the Emissaries, the indigenous species of Persephone, would have been great as well. Through some rather clunky exposition, we do learn some aspects of them and that was enough for me to like them and stand behind Rosie’s mission to protect them. Apart from the fact that humans came to their planet and now want to force this peaceful people to do things they do not wish to do, the Emissary characters we get to know better were very likable. Maybe even a tad romanticized.
But I loved little ideas like them being able to change their shape (so they can look human when talking to other humans) but generally not being human-shaped. They also communicate by smell, which I’ve never seen done before in an SFF story. Oh yeah, and they have some great abilities which I won’t spoil here but obviously the bad guys want that knowledge for themseves, which kicks off the entire meagre plot.

I think the author just took on too much for a single book. The world building has potential but we never get quite enough of any of its aspects. Rather than obsessing with diversity rap, I would have liked to get to know just a couple of characters better so I could care about them. There’s also a distinct lack of interpersonal conflict. Sure, friendships (especially among women) are wonderful, but everyone is just so damn nice all the time and these supposedly grimdark crime people always do the right thing. I never really believed that we were on a seedy underbelly type of planet and the cast are all criminals. There was no moral ambiguitiy, no tough questions to answer, no conflict. The villain is bad, everyone else is pure good and that’s that.

2021 has started as a mediocre reading year for me, but let me contrast this not-great book with the really bad one I’ve read recently. The writing, although not my cup of tea, was worlds better and if it’s to your taste, this book is very readable. For a chunky novel, I did get through it quickly enough and I will probably try another of Stina Leicht’s books. Other than Alechia Dow’s novel (The Sound of Stars was… really not good), this felt more like a book by a talented author that could just have used some more editing and a bit more flesh to its plot. I thought most of my problems were a matter of taste but other reviews are also quite mixed… So while I wouldn’t recommend The Sound of Stars to adults, especially ones who read a lot of SFF, I would still cautiously recommend Persephone Station. Maybe read a sample chapter to see if you like it first, though.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

Second opinions:

Monsters, Magic, and Complicated Friendships: Naomi Novik – A Deadly Education

Originally, I had planned to read this as soon as it came out because, come on, a magic school novel by Naomi Novik? Gimme gimme gimme! But then early reviews started coming in and they were very mixed. People said the first half is only info-dumps, there are problems with the diversity, and the protagonist is unlikable. So these reviews put me on guard and that actually helped me enjoy the novel when I maybe wouldn’t have liked it as much otherwise.

A DEADLY EDUCATION
by Naomi Novik

Published: Del Rey, 2020
eBook: 336 pages
Audiobook: 10 hours 59 minutes
Series: The Scholomance #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life.

Lesson One of the Scholomance: Learning has never been this deadly.
A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets.
There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere.
El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.

Okay, a few surprising things that made up my first impressions of this book:
Protagonist Galadriel – El for short – is not in her first year at Scholomance and it’s not the beginning of term when the story starts. I know this sounds like nothing special, but I have come to expect certain story beats from a Magic School novel and Naomi Novik decided to ignore them all. So the book begins when El is already well established in the Scholomance, knows the rules, knows some fellow students, and has a plan on how to survive up until and through graduation.

The problem is that this takes out a lot of the fun of the Magic School trope and makes it difficult to discover any actual plot until much later in the book. We’re thrown into this world, trying to learn how everything works, why things are the way they are, what’s the point of this strange school in the middle of the Void. El’s antisocial sarcastic voice may lead us through her monster-filled daily life, but there didn’t really seem to be a goal, other than “survive graduation”. That sounds badass, sure, but routine, no matter how monster-filled, doesn’t make for a compelling plot.
What kept me going nonetheless was El’s utter disgust and annoyance at having her life saved by a boy named Orion Lake. I wanted to find out why El would be so opposed to someone helping her when she needs it and also whatever Orion has done to her to make her hate him so. We weren’t off to the best start, but that seed of curiosity was there.

After a while, things become a little clearer, we learn more about how the school operates and what rules this world’s magic abides by. We also learn of a lot of things, creatures, jobs, and terms that aren’t explained yet but I guess Novik is keeping those for later books in the series. But those reviews I read weren’t wrong. The beginning of the book is mostly just a vehicle for getting information across to the reader. It could have been done in a more exciting way but I also can’t say that I ever felt bored. Sure, it wasn’t elegant but the information did get through and I was eager to learn about this crazy world where kids are sent to a school that is literally trying to kill them (not that Hogwarts didn’t have yearly murderous events, but come on). There are no teachers or supervisors. Assignments just appear in class, the school itself moves and changes in order to make life as hard as possible for the students. The library switches out books if you’re not looking, monsters fall from the ceiling, your food might be poisoned, and all things considered, the Scholomance is just not a very nice place to be…

What finally made this book gripping enough to make me go “just one more chapter” a dozen times in a row was the middle part and the characters. Although mentioned early on, it takes a while for them to become actual people, even El. Her off-putting, mean, and rude behaviour starts making sense the more you learn about the world. And the slow budding of friendships between her and some other students were well done. Her strange bickering relationship with Orion, whom she dislikes but who keeps saving her life and then being smug about it, her careful friendship with Aadhya and Liu, they were all lovely to watch, especially because they felt like individual friendships, not El simply joining a pre-existing group.
There was one scene that clearly stands out to me and probably added an entire star to my rating of this book. It happens around the middle and it is so good and so exciting and shows a side of El’s character that I had been hoping to see but had started to doubt existed. I know I’m super vague again but you guys! I do NOT want to spoil this part. It made me stay up late and pre-order the second book.

Towards the end, a sort of last-minute plot does come up to give the characters something to do other than just exist and survive. I enjoyed that part well enough even though it felt like a late addition to a novel that didn’t yet know what it wanted to be about. Naomi Novik has built an interesting world – at least judging from what little I know of it – and put some characters in it that have potential. I’m not sure how I feel about the Prophecy hanging over El’s head (we learn way too little about that, so I’m sure it will be back later in the series), but I did love the social commentary the Scholomance allows.
You don’t survive on your own, so alliances are the way to go. Some kids – the privileged ones, born into an enclave – appear at school already part of such an alliance. They share mana, they watch each other’s backs, they train and fight together to survive graduation as a group. The enclave-less students are either cannon fodder or they are granted the great honor of doing the work nobody else wants to do in order to maybe get a spot in an enclave. It’s not a particularly subtle metaphor for our own world but I found it worked really, really well and showed just how unfair it all is. How unprivileged people are being kept unprivileged, how the rich protect themselves and their own, how if you’re working your way up from the bottom you have to do 100 times more than someone who starts at the top simply by virtue of being born… That’s an aspect that truly grabbed me and it’s one more reason I want to continue this series.

There has been some controversy surrounding this book’s diversity. Well.. that sounded wrong. The controversy was about the use of the word “dreadlocks” and the fact that some evil magical critters (calle maleficaria) nest in the hair, implying it’s dirty and vermin-infested. I understand how that is hurtful to people with locs and Naomi Novik has apologized for her mistake. That’s really all I can say about that. We’ll have to see if she does better in the next book. I for my part am convinced she will be extra careful from now on.
The characters themselves are also meant to represent a wide range of people from all over the world. I love that thought but there wasn’t a lot of time to establish them as there’s always a monster trying to eat someone or an assignment to do. El is a half-Welsh/half-Indian girl, although there is very little mention of her Indian heritage. I liked learning about the Welsh side of her upbringing because, well, it was really interesting, not so much because she’s from Wales but because what we learn of her childhood is quite unusual and explains a lot about El’s personality. El’s fellow students come from all over the world and I loved how having different language skills makes an actual difference for your survival at school. If a spell only exists in Arabic or Hindi, then people who speak it are at an advantage – which is a super nice change to everything being English or tailored to English-speaking folks. In a place that is as skewed toward the wealthy and privileged (which come from places like New York or London), it’s nice to see that things other than money and “birthright” can help someone advance or at least give them a fighting chance.

My feelings about this book are very confused. I enjoyed reading it, even the parts that clearly could have been done better. Even the muddled, aimless beginning, even El’s unnecessarily gruff ways, even the bits where little happens. I loved some other parts and learning more about the world, seeing El manage to make some friends and finding a way to live by her own rules. But I know that Naomi Novik could have written this book much better with proper plotting from beginning to end, with better developed characters and just a teensy bit more info about why this world works the way it does. The rational side of me understands all of this but there was still something about this book that grabbed me. I try to analyze my own feelings about books but this time, I just can’t put my finger on it and I can’t explain it. I just liked it, okay!
I will definitely read the next instalment because now that all the set-up is done, I’m confident I’ll get all those things that were neglected here: deeper character development, more in depth world building, and a thrilling plot right from the start. Also, that mini-cliffhanger at the end didn’t hurt.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very Good!

 

A Tropey Sci-Fi Romance: Alechia Dow – The Sound of Stars

I picked this up because I’ve seen it on a few recommendations lists and I haven’t read that many 2020 YA books yet. Plus, the premise sounded too good to pass up. A girl risking her life for books and an alien who secretly loves human music? How could I resist?

THE SOUND OF STARS
by Alechia Dow

Published: Inkyard Press, 2020
eBook: 432 pages
audiobook: 12 hours 23 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: The invasion came when we were too distracted raging against our governments to notice. 

Can a girl who risks her life for books and an alien who loves forbidden pop music work together to save humanity?

Two years ago, a misunderstanding between the leaders of Earth and the invading Ilori resulted in the deaths of one-third of the world’s population.
Seventeen-year-old Janelle “Ellie” Baker survives in an Ilori-controlled center in New York City. Deemed dangerously volatile because of their initial reaction to the invasion, humanity’s emotional transgressions are now grounds for execution. All art, books and creative expression are illegal, but Ellie breaks the rules by keeping a secret library. When a book goes missing, Ellie is terrified that the Ilori will track it back to her and kill her.
Born in a lab, M0Rr1S (Morris) was raised to be emotionless. When he finds Ellie’s illegal library, he’s duty-bound to deliver her for execution. The trouble is, he finds himself drawn to human music and in desperate need of more. They’re both breaking the rules for love of art—and Ellie inspires the same feelings in him that music does.

Ellie’s—and humanity’s—fate rests in the hands of an alien she should fear. M0Rr1S has a lot of secrets, but also a potential solution—thousands of miles away. The two embark on a wild and dangerous road trip with a bag of books and their favorite albums, all the while making a story and a song of their own that just might save them both.


Oh well, might as well get my first bad book of the year out of the way right now. The Sound of Stars started out quite well. Janelle – Ellie – lives in an Ilori-controlled building where she and her family and friends are locked up and live under tough restrictions. They must not show emotions, all art is banned, and they are kept alive merely to be vaccinated with a strange vaccine as soon as it’s finished. Ellie’s father got an early test version of the vaccine which has left him like a shell of his former self. Her mother, in the meantime, deals with this situation by drinking (which is of course also illegal). 17-year-old Ellie keeps a secret library and loans out books to her patrons. If she is caught, she’ll probably be executed immediately…

M0Rr1s is an Ilori labmade commander who is working on perfecting the mysterious vaccine in order to be used on all humans. But he also has a secret: He loves human music and secretly listens to it. His fellow Ilori would decidedly not approve. When he finds out about Ellie’s library, he confronts her. Not to get her executed but to make her help him get his hands on more music! Naturally, a romance evolves…

In the reviews I’ve read, M0Rr1s is often described as a lovable softie and that’s not wrong. To me, he often felt more like a robot than an alien, to be honest. He’s a fish out of water, unknowing in the ways of humans or how to interact with them. His innocent and curious nature made him easy to like, yes, but I had a very hard time picturing him with a human body.
Which leads to my next issue. The aliens aren’t really all that alien. It’s a widespread problem in science fiction that alien species are just humanoids with maybe an extra limb or different facial features. In this case, the Ilori have a computer panel on their face that lets them communicate via their alien internet. To be more specific, there are two types of Ilori. The true ones (who are vaguely human-shaped blobs of some kind?) and the labmade ones like Morris who look almost completely human, with skin and blood all the usual body parts.
I get that it’s easier to write a romance between two human-shaped characters than it would be between two properly different species. But I was so hoping for the more complicated version of this Romeo and Juliet tale. Where are the books where people and aliens fall in love and the alien doesn’t happen too look like a cute, attractive human?

But my biggest problem with the Ilori was that are against emotions. That’s not a new idea in science fiction at all but I found it weird that a species that clearly feels emotions is so opposed to them. Why? And how would that even work? Feelings are a catalyst for so many things. Fear, anger, love, jealousy, greed – those keep a story going and the Ilori feel them as much as humans do. Pretending not to doesn’t change the fact that emotions inform their actions. So I just don’t see the point other than creating some bogus conflict that lets Ilori execute anyone who actually shows how angry they are instead of putting on a blank face while being angry…

This book is often praised for its inclusivity and I did like some but not all of it. Janelle is a young, fat Black girl who she suffers from anxiety attacks. None of those things felt in any way forced or used for a specific effect. They are just part of who Ellie is. When things get dangerous, and they do that a lot, her anxiety flares up and she uses her method of counting down from five for dealing with it. I don’t know how realistic that method is, but it certainly felt believable and made Ellie into more of a badass in my eyes. After all, who would run a forbidden library when being found out could mean execution? For someone with anxiety to take that risk takes even more courage.
She’s also demi-ace and explains to Morris what that means. In her words (paraphrased), it takes a long time for her to get to know and trust someone and then, maybe, she’ll develop romantic feelings for them. Gender doesn’t matter, but time does. This becomes important later and it’s also the part I didn’t like because… well, it stands in stark contrast to what actually happens in the book.

The bulk of the novel is about Ellie and Morris on a road trip to California (I had so hoped for a road trip in space, but we can’t always get what we want (song title reference totally intended)). They meet both people and aliens on the way, get into dangerous situations, and of course fall in love with each other in no time at all.
That would have been fine, honestly, if Ellie didn’t specifically make fun of this very trope and if it didn’t contradict who she says she is as a person! She snobbishly looks down on book heroines who fall in love after only one day while DOING THE VERY SAME THING HERSELF! What am I supposed to think about that? Look, I know it’s a stupid trope but I don’t mind it if I’m watching or reading a romance. If it makes for a good story, the trope can be forgiven. But using a trope and making fun of it at the same time just doesn’t make sense to me. Especially when it happens to a demi-ace girl who literally just explained how long it takes her to develop feelings!

As much as I liked Ellie at first, she does a complete 180 around the middle of the book and suddenly turns stupid. Morris and her get caught by some Ilori so Morris makes up a story on the spot about her being his prisoner – you know, to keep them both alive. While that is obviously a cover story, Ellie takes his suddenly changed demeanour at face value and starts instantly hating him. The girl who was so clever in the beginning and, by the way, reads books like others breathe air so who must have come across this trope before, can’t figure out that Morris isn’t really suddenly evil but just trying to save her ass from being executed or vaccinated? I just don’t understand that story decision. The plot would have worked just as well if Ellie had played along (and made her look much better), but I guess there had to be some “relationship conflict” that would lead to a fight, so the love birds could come back together dramatically.

Speaking of the relationship. This book is HEAVY on the romance and spends most of its middle part repeating the same pattern over and over. Morris and Ellie are on their road trip, they meet humans and/or Ilori, get in trouble, get out of trouble, sit in the car and talk, and the same thing happens again and again with slight variations. Not only does that get boring pretty quickly, but I also didn’t find their relationship development in the least interesting or believable. As I mentioned, Ellie falls in love way too quickly but there’s also never any real chemistry between the two. Their shared love for books and music only goes so far that she drops book titles and he talks about the artists he likes, and they agree on them being great.
Actually, the worst part of their shared love for the arts is how Ellie SUMS UP some of the best books out there for Morris. What self-respecting book lover would sum up Jane Eyre in their own world?! Don’t you want Morris to experience the pure beauty of that story for himself? And sure, you’re in a tight spot now but it’s all super hopeful and you’re saving the world so WHY SPOIL THE BOOK FOR HIM?

Oh and about those road trip stops. They always work by the same pattern but some of them are definitely more stupid then others. One time, Morris and Ellie are imprisoned (separately) and a human toddler comes along and sings “If you’re happy and you know it” with Morris. The mother, when she finds them, is naturally shocked. After all, her son is standing very close to one of the aliens who are suppressing her entire planet and are killing people left and right. However, because Morris and that kid had a nice little song together, the very same mother then decides to help Morris. I mean, just imagine for one second that Morris wasn’t a good guy but a different Ilori who actually means humans harm. What mother would be stupid enough to trust a complete stranger just because he sang a children’s song with her son?
But all the dangerous situations are like that. Ellie and Morris aren’t completely useless but they always end up being saved by a third party.

Oh and let’s not even start about that deus ex machina ending. It was sooooo ridiculous. The last third of the book is mostly “I love you more” “No, I love you more” “You are the highlight of my day” “I never want to be parted from you” but in between cheesy and way over the top declarations of undying love, the author must have remembered that novels also need a plot. In order to resolve hers, she throws in something that solves all the problems easily and at no cost to the protagonists. And for Ellie and Morris’ further adventures (please don’t write a sequel), Ellie’s parents stay conveniently out of the way and her best friend is suddenly not that important anymore. Because Morris is the center of her universe and that’s really all this book is about.

Audiobook specific thoughts:
It drove me absolutely up the walls that the male narrator (who is doing a brilliant job narrating as such) kept pronouncing M0Rr1s’ name as Em-zero-one-is. Like, I get that that’s his alien name but there’s a reason the author made it look like a name that humans can pronounce. The same goes for most other alien names and titles which mostly just switch out the letter “o” for a zero and the letter “i” for a one. That said, I did love Christian Barillas’ reading in general, and the way he did different voices and accents. He did a great job and I would absolutely listen to more audiobooks narrated by him.
Joy Sunday, who reads Janelle’s parts of the story, didn’t work so well for me. Her tone always sounded annoyed and kind of aloof. She made Janelle sound like she felt she was better than everyone else, although that doesn’t fit the way her character is described at all. I also wasn’t a fan of Sunday’s intonation or the way she pronounces the “g” at the end of every word ending in -ing. It sounded like she said “I was thinkink” or “what are you doink“. I don’t know if that’s something they teach you in narrator school but it annoyed me. A lot.

Look, it always pains me when I pick up a book by a Black debut author and then don’t like it. But this book, honest to god, reminds me of my own first (and very unreadable) book that I wrote when I was 12 years old. This read like a first draft and I cannot understand how it went through the entire editing process without anyone mentioning the flimsy world building, the lack of excitement, or the discrepancies between how the characters describe themselves and how they act.
Every author whose first book I dislike gets a second chance. But much like Kalynn Bayron last year, Alechia Dow will really have to blow me away with her next book. Otherwise I’ll just have to admit that her writing is not for me. I expect more from the books I read, especially in a time when YA has grown so much and can do way more than tell a cheesy plot-less romance.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Quite bad

P.S.: This was on my list of five star predictions which goes to show that synopses and blurbs can only go so far… I’m a little bummed out right now and hope my next prediction turns out more accurate.