Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles

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

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES
by Ray Bradbury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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My thoughts on the Hugo Award Finalists 2019

I AM SO EXCITED!!!! Every year, when the Hugo Award finalists are announced, I get all giddy and excited to see what I’ve already read and what I have to catch up on. Ever since I started voting in the awards myself, I have seen a mix of books I loved, books I didn’t much care for and books I hadn’t even had on my radar. This year looks absolutely fantastic and I already have no idea how I’m going to rank these books on my ballot…

Here are my thoughts on some of the categories.

Best Novel

I have read four out of the six nominees, which is much more than I’d ever read when the finalists were announced. I read the first book in both Yoon Ha Lee‘s trilogy and Becky Chambers‘ series and I loved both of them. So it’s time to catch up. As I heard the nominated Chambers book is only loosely tied to the first two books, I’ll probably leave out the second one and go straight to Record of a Spaceborn Few. Chambers’ feel-good characters and optimistic style make me really look forward to the experience. I will also read Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun because if they’re anything as good as the first novel, I want to know. Even though it will make ranking these books even more difficult.

As for the books I’ve already read: I am beyond happy that Cat Valente’s excellent, heart-warming, and hilarious Space Opera made the cut. It was quite a departure from what Valente usually writes, although she does stay true to her style, even if it’s tuned down a bit. I am in no way surprised this book pleased so many people. It is highly original, super funny (I’m still giggling about the alien “invasion” chapter) and full of love and hope and all things good.
The Calculating Stars was a surprise hit for me. I didn’t really expect to like it all that much, and it was definitely not a comfortable book to read, but it no doubt deserves to be on this list. It had great characters, a super interesting setting (alternate 1950ies and 60ies) and dealt with so many themes that make the story exciting even without space battles. Sexism, racism, anti-semitism, mental health issues – it’s all there but it doesn’t bog the story down and it all feels so organic. Which is probably why reading this book was so uncomfortable.
I adored Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and that is why I wasn’t quite so in love with Spinning Silver. That may be slightly unfair because this is a fantastic book with minor structural problems, but it simply can’t  keep up with its predecessor. I loved the protagonists, the love stories, the fairy tale feel of it, but the POV changes (and randomly added POV characters) diminished my reading pleasure quite a bit. And with an author that excellent, I have to nitpick like this.
Now for my slightly more unpopular opion. Trail of Lightning was a lot of fun. I am already looking forward to reading the sequel, but I don’t think that this book is worthy of an award. The only thing that made it stand out for me was the setting and mythology – using Native American myths as a basis is something new to me and I found it refreshing and exciting. But the plot and the characters were very generic. It’s like reading a cozy mystery. You know what you’re going to get and you’re totally happy with that. But I personally wouldn’t throw an award at this book.

Best Novella

  • Martha Wells – Artificial Condition
  • Seanan McGuire – Beneath the Sugar Sky
  • Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: The Night Masquerade
  • P. Djèlí Clark – The Black God’s Drums
  • Kelly Robson – Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
  • Aliette de Bodard – The Tea Master and the Detective

I’ve read only two of these novellas. Artificial Condition is at the top of my list at this moment. While I loved the first two Binti novellas, I thought the third one was the weakest in the triloy and therefore didn’t nominate it. It was a nice ending to the story but nowhere near as good as the first two books.
As for Seanon McGuires series, I’ve read the two previous instalments. I really disliked the first book, Every Heart a Doorway, but felt the second one, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, told a much stronger and engaging story. So I’m curious to see what the third one holds in store.

I’ve heard of the other three books but don’t know any of them yet. The first to catch up on will probably be The Black God’s Drums, simply because I like the sound of it most.

The Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book

  • Dhonielle Clayton – The Belles
  • Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone
  • Holly Black – The Cruel Prince
  • Justina Ireland – Dread Nation
  • Peadar O’Guilin – The Invasion
  • Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road

I have read a whopping single book of this list. The Cruel Prince was quite good and I will read the sequels, but I get the distinct feeling that I will prefer some of the other nominees. I’m currently reading Tess of the Road and (at about 10%) I already know I love this story! Children of Blood and Bone has been on my TBR ever since it came out but since then, I have read some really scathing reviews that make me a little hesitant to finally pick the book up. As a good voter, I will definitely read it, but my high expectations have been lowered considerably. I once read a teaser excerpt of Peadar O’Guilin’s book The Calling – to which The Invasion is the sequel – and remember liking it. I hope I’ll find the time to read both books before voting ends.
As for Dread Nation and The Belles, neither book really spoke to me when it came out but I trust my fellow nominators and will check them both out. A great book you didn’t expect is always a good thing.

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

  • Katherine Arden 
  • S.A. Chakraborty 
  • R.F. Kuang 
  • Jeannette Ng
  • Vina Jie-Min Prasad
  • Rivers Solomon

KATHERINE ARDEN!!! Ahem… So, you may have guessed who I’ll be voting for. I nominated Arden because she absolutely blew me away with The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower. With one book, she became an author whose books I’ll buy witout looking at the synopsis and that’s saying something.
I was also really impressed with R. F. Kuang‘s novel The Poppy War, so she’ll be high on my list as well. My current read is The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty and I’m loving it so far. Which only makes my decision harder.
I have Jeannette Ng’Under the Pendulum Sun and Rivers Solomon‘s An Unkindness of Ghosts on my TBR and look forward to reading them. Vina Jie-Min Prasad is the only author of whom I’ve heard nothing before, probably because (as far as a quick interwebs search goes) she writes mostly short fiction and I’m always behind on short fition.

Best Series

  • The Centenal Cycle by Malka Older
  • The Laundry Files by Charles Stross
  • Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee
  • The October Daye Series by Seanan McGuire
  • The Universe of Xuya by Aliette de Bodard
  • Wayfarers by Becky Chambers

This is the category that I find the most daunting because if you’re not already familiar with a series, that means a lot of reading! I have read the first books in the Machineries of Empire series and Wayfarers but since books in both of these series are also nominated for Best Novel, I will read the sequel(s) as well.
Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle is the next series I’ll tackle after that because I’ve been dying to read Infomocracy anyway. I don’t know how long the first October Daye book has been on my TBR and I’m not sure I’ll manage to read much more than that first book. The Laundry Files have also been on my radar for a while but the only book I’ve read from that series was the novella Equoid which was excellent (book #2.9 according to Goodreads). So I’ll probably also give the first in the series a try. For the Xuya Universe, I’ll kill two birds with one stone by reading the nominated novella The Tea Master and the Detective.

I do follow the other categories, I’ll listen to the nominated podcasts and already watched (almost) all of the movies, but I don’t have that much to say about them. The long fiction categories are the ones that have my heart so I’ll spend my time reading as much of them as I can. But I have to say, this year looks absolutely spectacular in terms of what got nominated. If the books I haven’t read yet are as good as the ones I have, choosing favorites will be difficult. Once I’m all caught up, I may do another post with my ranking. Whether you guys are also voting in the Hugos or not, rest assured that the nominees are an excellent source for recommended reads.

Post-Apocalyptic Family Confusions: Sam J. Miller – Blackfish City

I read and loved Sam J. Miller’s book The Art of Starving last year, so there was no question I’d check out his non-YA novel. This book cemented my opinion that Miller is an author to watch and one whose books I can buy without hesitation.

BLACKFISH CITY
by Sam J. Miller

Published by: Ecco, 2018
Ebook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: People would say she came to Qaanaaq in a skiff towed by a killer whale harnessed to the front like a horse.

After the climate wars, a floating city is constructed in the Arctic Circle, a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, complete with geothermal heating and sustainable energy. The city’s denizens have become accustomed to a roughshod new way of living, however, the city is starting to fray along the edges—crime and corruption have set in, the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside direst poverty are spawning unrest, and a new disease called “the breaks” is ravaging the population.
When a strange new visitor arrives—a woman riding an orca, with a polar bear at her side—the city is entranced. The “orcamancer,” as she’s known, very subtly brings together four people—each living on the periphery—to stage unprecedented acts of resistance. By banding together to save their city before it crumbles under the weight of its own decay, they will learn shocking truths about themselves.
Blackfish City is a remarkably urgent—and ultimately very hopeful—novel about political corruption, organized crime, technology run amok, the consequences of climate change, gender identity, and the unifying power of human connection.

Qaanaaq is a floating city in the Arctic Circle, built by rich men to flee a world devastated by climate change and war. It is run by AI, is heated by geothermal vents, and it’s rife with poverty. Add to that a new-ish disease, “the breaks”, and you’ve got a most intriguing setting, and that’s before anything resembling a plot has even started, before you’ve met any of the characters. Needless to say, this book had me excited from a very early point and kept my interest up through to the end.

The story  is told through four (occasionally more) POV characters who don’t appear to be connected at first but who will be brought together through Qaanaaq’s newest arrival – a woman who rode into the city on a orca, accompanied by a polar bear. Or so the stories go at least. Through the eyes of these very different protagonists, we don’t only get to know them, but we also learn about the city. And the city absolutely counts as a character in its own right.

Fill is a young man who must grapple with the hard truth that he has caught the breaks. So he considers his life as good as over, he is haunted by weird visions or dreams or memories more and more often, and even his wealth cannot help because there is no known cure. With Fill, we see Qaanaaq very differently than with the other characters, because his grandfather is an extremely rich man. So while Fill knows that parts of the city are overflowing with people who sleep in boxes (because there is no living space), he is not affected himself and his thoughts reflect that.
What I particularly liked about Fill’s chapters – I didn’t care for him as a person all that much – was his obsession with the broadcast “City Without a Map”. Nobody knows who writes these texts that talk about their city, show its beautiful and its ugly side, give accounts of things that happen, etc. Each broadcast is narrated by someone else, people without any obvious connection. But these texts were beautiful to read and did wonders for the world-building.

Fill may be a rich boy with little to worry about. Genderfluid Soq, on the other hand, is almost at the opposite end of the city’s wealth divide. They do sleep in a box, hunting job after job just to get by. At the same time, Soq felt  surprisingly savvy and wise to me, although they are very young. Soq works for one of Qaanaaq’s crime bosses and aspires to become on themself one day.

Probably my favorite characters at the start were Ankit and Kaev, the only two that are connected at the beginning of the story. Kaev is a fighter, paid to fight (and sometimes to lose) the spectacular battles that provide entertainment for Qaanaaq’s population. He is also Ankit’s brother but he suffers from some form of brain damage that includes memory loss. So these two never really connected. I loved Ankit because although it’s her job to look the other way when she sees people suffering from the breaks, she just can’t. Working for a politician does that to you.

All of these characters are simply going their own way and doing their own thing when the story begins. What changes everything is the arrival of the orcamancer, who at first is nothing more than an urban legend. But because of this woman, the course of every character’s life changes and – surprise! – they all come together somehow. I won’t tell you the orcamancer’s back story or how everything is connected, but I really enjoyed the revelations in this book.
It was just after the first big reveal that the plot got a bit slow. But like I said, all character get together and find out that their individual plans go pretty well together, so why not team up for an epic ending?

While this wasn’t a very comforting book to read – after all, the world is broken, many lives have been lost, and life in Qaanaaq is nothing more than pure survival for most – but it was an incredibly rewarding, exciting read. Finding out how the city works was almost as much fun as figuring the characters out. The social structures, the politics, the infrastructure of Qaanaaq – everything was just so interesting. And let’s not forget the past! It is often mentioned that the water levels rose, climate change has ruined most of the planet, ressources got low, there was war all over the place, and only some escaped to a place they could still live. Some things are almost like legends in people’s mind, like the nanobonded, people who have a mind-connection with animals and can control them. Were they real? Did they die out? How? All of these questions are not even the main plot but I wanted to find out the answers, so even when the plot slowed down a bit, I was never bored.

There is so much more to discover in Qaanaaq than I’ve talked about. The technology (chin implants to translate the numerous languages represented), the diversity, the orca and the polar bear… I could go on and on. But because I’d rather not spoil the fun for you, I will simply say I highly recommend this book and I totally think it should take home and award or two.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!

Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars

I didn’t think I’d enjoy this book as much as I did. From the description, it sounded like a quiet kind of story, one that is more about the people in the background of cool science fictional stuff, rather than the heroes who actually go on adventures. What I learned is that “hero” is subjective and Elma and her friends turned out to be my personal beloved heroines by the time I was finished with this book. It’s also my favorite of Kowal’s books so far and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

THE CALCULATING STARS
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published by: Tor, 2018
Ebook: 431 pages
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Do you remember where you were when the Meteor hit?

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.
Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

When a meteor hits the planet, Elma and her husband don’t suspect just what an impact this event will have on their lives and the lives of every other human on Earth. They “only” think about the family members they have suddenly lost and wonder how their lives are supposed to continue after this. These first chapters were really hard to read, which is in large part due to Elma’s voice. Mary Robinette Kowal writes as if Elma were really talking to us, telling her story to a friend. There is an immediacy to the text that makes you like Elma from the first moment, so her losing almost her entire family at once hit me pretty hard even though they were characters we hand’t even met.

It doesn’t take long, however, for Elma to figure out just what devastating effects the meteor will have on the Earth as a whole. Apart from waves of refugees, people who have lost everything, food shortages and devastation along the coast, the future doesn’t look much brighter. The threat of climate change in this novel feels all too familiar. Elma explains beautifully how, in the next few years, things may look okay, but the Earth is going to be uninhabitable within decades. The voices of “What global warming? It’s snowing today” made me just as angry in this book as they do in real life.

But Elma and her husband Nathaniel pick up the pieces of their lives and make the best of it with the skills they have. They both happen to have PhDs, so they can both do their part to pave the way to space for all mankind. And this is where the setting really shines – if you can say that. The book starts in the 50ies and although it is made clear from the start that women have been pilots in the war, and that there are numerous competent women mathematicians (as well as other professions), they are treated anything but equal. Don’t even mention black people!

This unfair treatment made me so angry while I read but it also made one hell of a story! Elma faces a ton of situations in which things are presumed about her because she is a woman, in which she deals with stereotypes about Jews, in which her competence is questioned based on nothing but her gender. She herself messes up lots of times with her black friends. She makes mistakes, assuming things because of their skin color or simply forgetting that – hey, black people are also around! This actually made Elma even more likeable. She never has bad intentions, she is simply learning something that is new to her and that means making mistakes. I have been in situations where my own ignorance made me say something stupid, as I suspect many other readers have. You may not intend to be mean but words have consequences, whether you meant well or not. Making mistakes is part of it and we can all count ourselves lucky if we have friends like Elma’s who let us know when we said something idiotic.  Watching Elma learn these things, watching how her world and circle of friends grew richer through it, was almost as beautiful as seeing how humanity first ventures into space.

There were so many more things I loved about this book. Elma’s relationship with Nathaniel was simply beautiful. Here are two people with understanding for each other and each other’s flaws. Elma deals with crippling anxiety whenever she has to speak in front of a crowd or reporters or generally is the center of attention. I can relate so well! And so, it appears, can her husband although he doesn’t suffer from anxiety. It was just so lovely to see this married couple be there for each other, give each other space when needed, and talk things over without any drama. Also, it’s just refreshing to have a protagonist with a solid, loving relationship rather than adding some forced tension by throwing in a love triangle/divorce/cheating husband/whatever. Nathaniel is Elma’s safe haven and that’s something I suspect many people aspire to so it was really nice reading about it.

But not all people respect Elma and the other women the way Nathaniel does. They way the women in this story are treated when they want to join the male astronauts made me furious (yet again). Proven facts are simply ignored – such as women having an easier time dealing with G-forces – and instead it is taken as a universal truth that women are weaker and space “just isn’t for them”. They’re good enough to do all the calculations for the big boy astronauts but actually give them a chance to go into space themselves? What would people think? A lot of this book shows the narrow bridge women have to walk if they want to achieve anything. Be too demanding, you’re hysterical. Stay quiet in the background and let your work shine for you, you’ll be ignored or erased. So finding the right balance between making yourself heard but not so loudly that powerful men can call you hysterical is what Elma had to learn. It means staying quiet when you know how to solve a problem, it means being five times as good as a man when applying for a job, it means letting others ridicule you and smiling about it. As angry as this book made me, it also made me really happy to watch Elma persist and never give up on her dream.

This is also a book that shows female friendships, not in some way where everything is always peachy and nobody ever fights, but in a realistic way. These diverse women are kind of in the same spot – although one has to mention that Elma’s black and Asian friends are even more excluded than the others – so they stick together. Not all women in this book are perfect angels, they each have a personality and some of them are not nice people at all. But the general message that women can be friends, even when they’re competition (like for a spot on a space ship, say) is one I wholeheartedly agree with.

Mary Robinette Kowal has managed to write a book that works really well on so many layers. It explores women’s roles in what to this day is stereotypically “a man’s job”, it explores racism and antisemitism, grief and love, mental illness and dealing with pressure. It is peopled with excellent characters whom I grew to love without even noticing. The story is riveting although this is by no means what I’d call an action story. I have very little to nitpick, except maybe that I found Elma and Nathaniel’s dialogue that lead up to them having sex a bit cringeworthy (rocket ready to launch… ahem). But that’s a super minor complaint and also a question of taste rather than writing quality. I loved this book and will definitely check out the sequel to see what heppens with Elma, Helen, Ida, and all the others.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Quietly powerful: Ursula K. LeGuin – The Left Hand of Darkness

Last year, through no reason at all, I started reading a newer book and an older book at the same time. There are still so many SFF classics I need to catch up on and, somehow, combining and older and a newer read worked really well. It led me to this amazing book, which led me to a LeGuin shopping spree.

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS
by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published by: Gateway, 1969
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: The Hainish Cycle #4
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

Genly Ai is an ethnologist observing the people of the planet Gethen, a world perpetually in winter. The people there are androgynous, normally neuter, but they can become male or female at the peak of their sexual cycle.They seem to Genly Ai alien, unsophisticated and confusing. But he is drawn into the complex politics of the planet and, during a long, tortuous journey across the ice with a politician who has fallen from favour and has been outcast, he loses his professional detachment and reaches a painful understanding of the true nature of Gethenians and, in a moving and memorable sequence, even finds love . . .

A while after I started reading this book, I discovered that it was part 4 of something called the Hainish Cycle. Don’t let that scare you away. I haven’t read any of the other books and this one stands quite well alone, although it gives you glimpses of what the other books may be about.

The story is set on Gethen, a winter planet populated by an androgynous people who can become male or female when they reach a certain time in their sexual cycle. They may become male once, female the next time, but the rest of the time they appear neuter and thus, all equal. This may seem like an obvious choice for a feminist writer to make a point about gender equality and it could have come across as a cheap trick – but with someone of LeGuin’s caliber, the people’s gender identity (or lack thereof) grows naturally from the story.

Much like other aspects of the culture Genly Ai discovers on Gethen, the world-building itself is done so effortlessly, by showing instead of telling. While the gender thing may feel complicated to someone like Genly – who is male and always looks male (which makes him appear as constantly at the peak of his sexual cylce to Gethenians, or constanlty aroused) – Gethenian politics and social norms seem even stranger. This is just one aspect that made this book so great. It introduces you to a humanoid people on a planet that has similarities to ours, except it’s always cold, always winter. But the social structures, the genders, the sexual identity of its people are just different enough to give you the same sort of culture shock Genly must be feeling.

There are other things that I had a lot of fun discovering with Genly and trying to piece together in my mind. Oracles, prisons, tensions between nations… but those are just things that happen on the sidelines, between the actual plot. And that, although one might say not very much happens, is just as thrilling. Genly is on Gethen to observe, to let the people know that there are others out there in the vastness of space, that they are not alone but rather welcome to join a greater unity of people. One of the people Genly has to do with on Gethen is Estraven, whom he does not fully trust and who we, as readers, also can’t really put our finger on until the story progresses.

Genly Ai may be the offical protagonist of this novel, but it was Estraven I kept wanting to follow, to learn more about. Through their adventures together, the reader gets to know both of them better as they get to know each other and each other’s cultures better. What LeGuin does here with language is just beautiful. There are no long expositions, no explanations even, simply us readers quietly watching Genly and Estraven and the planet Gethen doing what they do and learning through them. The descriptions of the eternal ice and the winter landscapes were lovely, but it was the relationship that builds up over the course of the novel that really intrigued me.

I could read all sorts of things into this book and that makes it enjoyable even after having finished it. It’s the sort of book you should read with others, to discuss afterward, to see what others saw when they read it. I suspect every reading will give you a different experience (although I have yet to try that out myself) and every person will get something different from the book. But despite having only read it once, I understand why it won all sorts of awards and why it counts as a classic of science fiction. It is a truly remarkable work of fiction.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

My Favorite Books of 2018

It’s been very quiet around here. Life required almost all my attention most of this year so I didn’t have much time for blogging. What time I could snatch away from work, I used for reading or spending with loved ones. BUT I did read, I even reached my Goodreads challenge goal, and I discovered some amazing books. And because it’s that time of the year, I want to share them with you.

Female authors: 66,1%
Male authors: 33,9%

My favorite books published in 2018

Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera

I love everything Cat Valente writes but I especially enjoy when she tries something new. Space Opera, while still clearly penned by Valente, is so damn funny! It’s like that Rick and Morty episode where Earth has to prove it’s worthy of staying alive by winning a music contest. But with aliens that come out of Valente’s incredibly creative brain, a washed-out rock star as a protagonist, and the most hilarious “Hey, I’m an alien and yes we exist and also you better find a great musician to compete in intergalactic Eurovision” speech you could ever imagine. I laughed until I cried, it’s that funny. But the book also has a lot of heart and will simply leave you a happier person after reading it.

Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver

I didn’t love this as much as Uprooted but it does count among the best books published this year that I read. I felt Novik didn’t do a great job distinguishing the voices of her characters and I don’t see why so many needed to have POV chapters in the first place. But the three protagonists all grew rather dear to me, in their own way, and I adored the conclusion to the story. It may start out as a retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin” but it takes pretty epic turns and grows into something much bigger. Again, I much preferred Uprooted, but Novik’s fairy tale retellings, even when they’re not her best, are still better than most others out there.

Brandon Sanderson – Skyward

I haven’t loved everything by Sanderson so far. What I’ve loved I adore, but there are some books that I just didn’t feel (Steelheart, White Sand, I’m looking at you). Skyward however, is one of his books that you want to eat up in one sleepless night, following Spensa pursue her dream of becoming a pilot like her father. It does everything a good YA science fiction novel should do. A fast moving plot, secrets within secrets (because it’s Sanderson, let’s not pretend there are no seriously surprising plot twists on the way), and have I mentioned the talking space ship?

R.F. Kuang – The Poppy War

I’m still reading this (I’m about one third through) but it is already so damn good that I just know it will end up on this list anyway! Rin is such a compelling character and the world is a pleasure to explore. I have some idea of where the story is going, but mostly, I’m clueless about the bigger picture and I love it. The setting is something you don’t often see in fantasy and I’m surprised that martial arts can be fun reading about instead of watching. But it totally works and as soon as I’m done writing this, I’ll go back to reading the book.

 

My favorite books published earlier but read in 2018

Katherine Arden – The Girl in the Tower

The follow-up to my favorite book of 2017 (The Bear and the Nightingale) had a tough job keeping up with its predecessor. But Katherine Arden didn’t let up but delivered a more than worthy second instalment in ther Winternight Trilogy. Vasya’s journey continues and takes her to the big city. Her relationship with the mythical beings she can see grows, the world suddenly seems bigger, politics are more and more important. Where the first book happened mostly in Vasya’s village, this one opens up. With that new setting come new wonders to discover but also new threats and dangers. I loved this almost as much as the first book and I already pre-ordered the final instalment, due in January!

 

Ursula Vernon – Digger

This massive graphic novel took me a long time to get through. My hardback edition is… let’s set rather unwieldy. At almost 900 pages, it’s not the kind of book you read on a commute. But Digger crawled into my heart nonetheless and now I don’t know what to do with myself, comics-wise. It’s the story of a wombat who digs herself a tunnel that leads to unexpected places. On her quest to find the way back home, she meets hyenas, monks, a spirit child thing (it’s adorable!) and gets mixed up in the politics of a god that is also a statue. Plus, there are prophetic snails, lots of wombat jokes and Ursula Vernon’s trademark practical characters. I just love how pragmatic Digger is and how she tackles problems, makes friends, and is just so lovable all the time. The ending made me cry on several occasions because these characters grew so dear to me and I didn’t want to let go. I do want more Ursula Vernon books however.

T. Kingfisher – Bryony and Roses

Here’s the second Ursula Vernon (writing as T. Kingfisher) book to make this list because she is just that awesome. This is her retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” and it is everything I had hoped for. Bryony – a practical young gardner – stumbles upon the Beast’s castle, figures out pretty quickly there’s something wrong, and does her best to break the curse. The two protagonists develop a bond that is believable and the solution was quite original, nothing I’ve read in a Beauty and the Beast retelling before. I also have to mention Bryony’s sister – who only appears very shortly but is one of those characters I wish I could meet and have a long chat with. And then hug.

Patricia A. McKillip – The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

This year, I took the time to catch up on some older SFF because usually, new releases get all the attention and I miss out on all the great stuff that’s been there for a few decades. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld blew me away. It’s a quiet but powerful story about Sybel and the mythological beasts who live with her, isolated on her mountain. When a human child is thrust upon her, everything changes. She learns to love the child, but him being the son of one of the kings  vying  for power, it is clear that young Tamlorn will be pulled into a war. This book is powerful not so much because of its surface plot but because of what isn’t said. The way her animals react, the way Sybel bases her decisions on things that happen to her, the way the characters’ emotions toward each other change and grow over time – it was a delightful read and, as my first McKillip book, makes me want to read much more by her.

Robin McKinley – Deerskin

I read a lot of fairy tale retellings this year because in stressful times, we go back to what is most comforting. The previous McKinley book I’d read didn’t exactly convince me (maybe it was because I’d seen the Disney movie of Beauty and the Beast too many times or because I read it during a bad time, I don’t know), but I gave her a second chance and – boom – she made it straight into my favorite books of the year.
Deerskin is a tough book to read. If you know the fairy tale it’s based on, “Donkeyskin”, then you know that bad things happen to the protagonist early on. McKinley managed to get through those parts without ever being gratuitous but that didn’t make them any less horrifying to read. But the bulk of this book is a journey of healing for protagonist Deerskin. The bond between her and her dog was beautiful to read, and way more intense than the slowly growing romance between her and the prince. As hard as the reading experience was, I loved everything about this. The way Deerskin has to fight hard every day to keep living, the way magic was inserted into the story, the way it ended. This is why I give authors second chances – I would not want to have missed out on this gem of a retelling.

Ursula K. LeGuin – The Left Hand of Darkness

I don’t know why I didn’t read more LeGuin sooner. Maybe because, much like with McKinley, I didn’t totally love Earthsee and therefore kind of avoided other LeGuin books. What a mistake!
I didn’t really know what to expect of this book and simply dove in without much research. And again I was rewarded. What impresses me most is how much substance LeGuin managed to put into a book that is relatively short. World-building and politics happen almost by themselves without much description or info dumping. The focus lies on the characters (which is probably why I loved it so much), but you still get such a vivid feeling of the surroundings, the political setup, the wider world that’s out there. I kind of expected difficult prose and a slow read, but I raced thorugh this in a few days because it was so very compelling.

My favorite books that were everyone’s favorites last year

There’s a reason I love SFF book awards. They draw my attention to books I may have missed or that didn’t catch my eye with their covers and descriptions but may well be worth a read. I spend a good part of this year catching up on last year’s top books, award nominees, and other bloggers’ favorites.  A very rewarding undertaking.

Sam J. Miller – The Art of Starving

What a strange and yet utterly wonderful book. I read it on the beach in Greece but my mind was totally with Matt and his starving-induced superpowers. This book does not (!) glorify eating disorders – quite the opposite. I loved Matt’s voice, the way he is clearly lost in his own skin but so sure that has all the solutions. I don’t want to give too much away, but I enjoyed every page.

Sarah Rees Brennan – In Other Lands

Oh my god, what a delight. This is Fairyland as I’ve never seen it before – through the eyes of Elliot, a young boy with no interest in becoming a Fairyland warrior whatsoever. He is sarcastic, always gets himself in the most trouble he possibly can, and somehow still keeps his two friends (at times frenemies) throughout his time in magic school. Again, this book focuses on its characters, the fantasy setting is just sprinkles on top, although Elliot does have a weird obsession with mermaids. Although he is infuriatingly dumb at times, I loved Elliot so very much. Sometimes you want to take him by the shoulders and shake sense into him, but his flaws make him all the more lovable. I also love that this is a standalone novel that you can read, enjoy, and get the full story without commiting to another 10000 pages.

Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage

It came as no surprise to me that I loved the first instalment in The Book of Dust, featuring a baby Lyra and Malcolm Polstead as protagonist. Pullman just has a way with words that makes you fall into a story. The characters are charming, the plot intriguing, the connection to the original His Dark Materials trilogy is there, but not so overwhelmingly that it takes away from Malcolm’s own story. This was another feelgood book and  I can’t wait for the next in the series.

Theodora Goss – The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

Everybody raved about this book last year and now I see why. I have been a fan of Theodora Goss’ writing since reading In the Forest of Forgetting but this being her first novel, I didn’t know what to expect. Rest assured, Goss found a cast of characters with charming and distinct voices (voices that frequently interrupt the story to comment on it) and she managed to write a mash-up of classic SF stories in which women take the lead. Dr. Jekyll’s daughter, Frankenstein’s second creation, a woman created by Doctor Moreau…. they all come together here to form a sort of found family and solve a series of mysterious murders. Okay, Sherlock Holmes helps a little.
Although it is completely different, I felt similarly happy while reading this as when I read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It has that feeling of belonging despite being an outsider. I loved it.

What I still Want to read from 2018

There are – as there are every year – several books published in 2018 that I didn’t get to but really want to read soon. Here are the ones at the top of my list:

  • Tasha Suri – Empire of Sand
    Everybody is raving about is, including people whose opinion I trust, so it needs to go on my TBR asap.
  • Natasha Ngan – Girls of Paper and Fire
    Everything about this screams “read me”. The cover, the synopsis, the fact that I got a gorgeous hardcover copy here at home.
  • Anna-Marie McLemore – Blanca & Roja
    I’ve been meaning to read McLemore for a while (I have like five of her books here, all unread) but this is the one that screams the loudest to be read soon. Plus, it’s a fairy tale retelling.
  • Rebecca Roanhorse – Trail of Lightning
    This is a book I would never pick up normally but the way the entire internet is going crazy for it makes me want to try it for myself. Covers like this (urban fantasy with weapon wielding girls) usually put me off. But the synopsis sounds good and I’m pretty sure that everybody whose reviews I read can’t be wrong.
  • Mishell Baker – Impostor Syndrome
    I loved the first two books in this series and I need to finish it soon. Although no more new books with Millie will make me very sad.
  • Theodora Goss – European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman
    Obviously.

That’s it for my 2018 reading year. I hope you had a good one as well and may we all have an excellent reading year 2019!

Excellent but kind of unfinished: Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Winterglass

I can’t resist a good fairy tale retelling, especially if it comes wrapped in a cover like this! And at 130 pages, this promised to be a quick read which is good to keep motivation for reading challenges up.

WINTERGLASS
by Benjanun Sridunagkaew

Published by: Apex Book Company, 2017
eBook: 130 pages
Standalone (?)
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: On the night of Nuawa’s execution, she saw the Winter Queen for the first time.

Winterglass is a sci-fantasy about one woman’s love for her homeland (Sirapirat) and her determination to defeat the Winter Queen who has overtaken the land.
The city-state Sirapirat once knew only warmth and monsoon. When the Winter Queen conquered it, she remade the land in her image, turning Sirapirat into a country of snow and unending frost. But an empire is not her only goal. In secret, she seeks the fragments of a mirror whose power will grant her deepest desire.
At her right hand is General Lussadh, who bears a mirror shard in her heart, as loyal to winter as she is plagued by her past as a traitor to her country. Tasked with locating other glass-bearers, she finds one in Nuawa, an insurgent who’s forged herself into a weapon that will strike down the queen.
To earn her place in the queen’s army, Nuawa must enter a deadly tournament where the losers’ souls are given in service to winter. To free Sirapirat, she is prepared to make sacrifices: those she loves, herself, and the complicated bond slowly forming between her and Lussadh.
If the splinter of glass in Nuawa’s heart doesn’t destroy her first.

This book was both a bit of a rush and a pleasure cruise. In the prologue alone, so many details are introduced that don’t make sense yet. The protagonist, Nuawa, just a little girl, is sent into an execution device called a ghost-kiln. But her mother – who is to be executed with her – gives her something to swallow, something sharp and icy, and Nuawa survives.

Nothing much makes sense at first, but throughout the story of (now grown-up) Nuawa, readers get to explore this strange science-fantasy world, in which human souls are used to generate power, where the Winter Queen has conquered formerly lush and warm places and turned them to ice, where nobody seems powerful enough to defeat her. And of course that is Nuawa’s goal. To kill the Winter Queen, who is not only responsible for turning her home into a cold place but for killing her mother as well. But Nuawa is the embodiment of patience. Many assassin’s have failed but Nuawa doesn’t plan to be one of them.

I found this a strange reading experience because it was at once a slow read, focused on character development, and at the same time things happend very quickly, rushing you through the plot to the end – which didn’t really feel like the end of the story, merely a first chapter of something bigger.

But let’s start with the story’s strong points. I loved the world building, maybe even because the reader gets thrown into it and we have to figure things out for ourselves. For Nuawa, having grown up in it, her world is self-explanatory. For us, there are many strange things and customs to discover. It’s a beautifully diverse world, filled with weird little details that enrich the story greatly. In a fight, Nuawa can slice through her oponent’s shadow, inflicting pain (and even death) on them. Sexuality seems very fluid, as well as gender identity – there is a variety of pronouns used for different characters. There are methods, appearing magical but presented as a sort of science, to protect your body against harm, and I found this all highly original and interesting. So discovering this world definitely whetted my appetite for more.

My favorite part, by far, were the characters. Although Nuawa is not exactly someone who warms the heart, her determination and strength mader her into an intriguing protagonist. She pursues her goal at any cost – there was one particularly harrowing scene which demonstrates just how far she will go. It sent shivers down my spain and made me question if I should even like Nuawa. Equally interesting was General Lussadh, the Winter Queen’s best soldier and lover. I could have read a whole book just about Lussadh!
When Nuawa and Lussadh meet, there is an instant spark – which is probably due to them both having one of the Queen’s mirror shards in them, but I like to believe that there’s also a bit of regular old attraction mixed into it. Either way, reading about these two not so different characters was the absolute best.

The story itself is pretty straight forward. Nuawa enters a tournament and wants to battle her way to the top, to become one of the Winter Queen’s soldiers. She hopes that getting close to the Queen, she will get a chance at killing her, ending her country’s enslavement to winter once and for all. And battle, she does! I will not go into detail here, but I found the fight scenes pretty awesome, especially because they show the science-fantasy quality of the book so well.

If you’ve read anything by Sriduangkaew, you know that she’s got a firm grip on language and knows how to use it to great effect. She describes scents and sounds so beautifully to make you feel like you’re there, at the place she’s talking about, standing just next to the protagonist. You can just fall into the story, which is no easy feat when the story is so short. To create a full world on such a little amount of pages is something few authors can do.

But the ending… if you can call it an ending. I do not know, at this point, if this novella is meant as the beginning of a trilogy or series but I sincerely hope so. There is a story arc here, without a cliffhanger. But the story is far from finished. Both Nuawa and Lussadh’s relationship  as well as Nuawa’s quest (and it is a quest!) simply stop at the end of this book, without even a hint of being resolved. My rating of this book depends a lot on whether it is the first part of a series or meant as a standalone. Reading this was pure pleasure but I just want more! If there is more, you can go ahead and add a full point to my rating.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Second opinions:

Sad but beautiful: Adam Silvera – They Both Die at the End

I suppose everybody has their own coping mechanisms when it comes to loss and grief. That reading is one of mine may not be a surprise but I was myself a little weirded out by the fact that I found myself actively looking for books about death or people dying. Having already read The Fault in Our Stars, this one came to mind because everybody was talking about it and I really liked the cover. So, I tackled this adventure (if you want to call it that) and I got pretty much exactly what I expected. And for what it’s worth, it helped.

THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END
by Adam Silvera

Published by: Harper Teen, 2017
Ebook: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Death-Cast is calling with the warning of a lifetime—I’m going to die today.

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure and to live a lifetime in a single day.

Mateo Torrez gets the dreaded call that everybody will get some day. He knows from the ring tone that Death-Cast is on the line, informing him that he has less than 24 hours to live. Death-Cast knows when people die. They don’t know how or when exactly, but within a 24-hour-frame, they know and let you know so you can make arrangements.

The synopsis (and title!) should have prepared me for at least some of what was to come but those very first pages already hit me in the guts hard. Many people don’t know when they die and they won’t be informed in a timely manner so they can say their goodbyes, maybe write a will, or give away their beloved dog to someone they trust. But with my own recent loss, it went somewhat similar. Doctors informed us my grandmother had “not much time left” – without science-fictional/magical companies – which are never explained, btw – that’s as close as we get in the real world. Everybody got to say their goodbyes, talk about what was going to happen after she was gone, she got to give away her stuff to her preferred people.
And just a few weeks later, I find myself reading about someone, an 18-year-old kid, with his dad in a coma and his mother long dead, in the same situation my grandmother was. Except he didn’t have a lifetime of memories to look back on. In fact, Mateo is such an anxious teenager that he didn’t leave the house much and lived more through internet forums, games, and books than through his own experiences. As a fanatic reader and a big fan of the couch myself, I can relate.

The other of the titular “both” is Rufus Emeterio, and his entrance into this story is a little misleading as to his character. He is in the process of beating his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend to a pulp when his own phone rings with that terrible, dreaded ring tone. Recently orphaned himself, he only has his found family – consisting of his best friends and ex-girlfriend – to say goodbye to, but even that goes wrong. Rufus may be way more outgoing and open than Mateo, but the loss of his parents and sister left deep scars and changed who he was in a matter of heartbeats. Discovering who these boys were and what made them tick was the one part of the book that could be called fun, although the dark cloud of their impending death hangs over everything.

In a world where some big company knows when everybody dies, there is also an app for Deckers (people who already got the call) to make their last day count. The Last Friend App is supposed to connect people, have a last adventure, have a last night of wild sex, do whatever they please so they don’t have to be alone in their final hours. I kind of loved how touching this idea was, and how it uses technology for something good. But Adam Silvera has been on the actual internet and gives us glorious examples of all the messed up shit that can be found literally everywhere. When Mateo first tries the app, he gets messages that range from careless and insulting to immoral and disgusting. People looking to score cheap furniture from the soon-to-be-dead, others looking for sex without consequences, some looking to sell drugs, and yet others that just seem to be intrigued by the idea of chatting to people who are about to die – it’s all there and it’s all sickening.

But, as the cover suggests, Mateo and Rufus do connect via the app and, after getting to know each other a little and checking off Mateo’s to do list, they actually become friends. Mateo’s goodbye from his best friend Lidia and her daughter Penny made me cry more than anything else in this book. While Rufus tells his friends immediately that he is going to die and wants a funeral (while he’s still here) with eulogies and goodbyes and everything, Mateo keeps it secret, not wanting to burden Lidia or ruin their last day together. But that’s the thing about people who truly love you: they know when something’s wrong.

I won’t go into the details of what Mateo and Rufus do on their last day because the things themselves are actually meaningless. Sure, there’s a little VR adventure, going out of their comfort zones in different ways, opening up about their secrets, and talking about their lives and the ones they’ll leave behind. What really matters – and we all know this already, deep down – is the people you love. Thinking about death and dying, I mean really thinking about it, is hard enough, but doing it when you’re only 17 or 18 is just heartbreaking. Five stages of grief aside, it just feels so unfair! There wasn’t enough time to experience so many things. And I don’t mean big stuff like travel the world or see your grandkids grow up. Even little things like fall in love for the first time, get your first kiss, graduate from school, have sex. Plus, all of the more individual stuff, no matter how silly. If I died tomorrow, I would never find out how A Song of Ice and Fire Ends which may well be the least of my worries, but still!

It’s a bit slow to start but once the book finds its footing, it is a powerful story that hurts a little more with every new chapter. Apart from Rufus and Mateo’s point of view chapters, we get others from side characters. People the two boys meet on the street, their friends, people who work at Death-Cast… They are short chapters, but they flesh out the world a bit and remind us that Rufus and Mateo aren’t the only ones in it and not the only ones suffering. Many others got the call the same night they did, and someone had to make those calls. Famous people die too. Money does not equal happiness. People react very differently to finding out they’re about to die… Lots of small in-between chapters make this novel more accomplished, more than “just” the story of two teenagers who are about to die. They also give more meaning to Rufus and Mateo’s last day because they show that little things have an impact on others, whether it’s giving money to a beggar, smiling at someone on public transport, or any of a million other tiny things you might do without even noticing.

I half-expected this book to be cheap, to use teenage death, which is obviously a big tear-jerker, as a selling point. But I doubt that the author intended that because of how delicately he handles the topic. The boys’ last day doesn’t go perfect. They don’t get to do all they wanted to. They get to do some of it. They even get to experience new things, discover something about themselves, grow so much in such a small amount of time. And the more I read about them, the more I found myself hoping (just like they did themselves) that the title was just there to mislead us readers. They were going to make it, somehow. Death-Cast made a mistake, they can change their apparently pre-destined fate. And I won’t tell you what does happen at the end, whether the title is true or a lie, because I think that little bit of uncertainty, that sliver of hope, is not only what made this story richer. It’s also what keeps us going every day.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Second opinions:

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Catherynne M. Valente – The Refrigerator Monologues

It is a good year when a new Valente book comes out. This year, we are extra lucky because in September, we’ll get another new Valente novel which is about the Bronte children and the fantasy world they made up together – so exactly the kind of book you’d want from Cat. In The Refrigerator Monologues, Valente leaves her usual turf of fantasy, myth, and fairy tale and delivers something new, fresh, angry, and beautiful. Although it may lack the emotional punch of her fantasy tales, it will leave you uncomfortable and thoughtful in the best of ways.

THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES
by Catherynne M. Valente
illustrated by Annie Wu

Published by: Saga Press, 2017
Hardcover: 160 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I’m dead. The deadest girl in Deadtown.

The lives of six female superheroes and the girlfriends of superheroes. A ferocious riff on women in superhero comics

From the New York Times bestselling author Catherynne Valente comes a series of linked stories from the points of view of the wives and girlfriends of superheroes, female heroes, and anyone who’s ever been “refrigerated”: comic book women who are killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad, disabled, or had their powers taken so that a male superhero’s storyline will progress.

In an entirely new and original superhero universe, Valente subversively explores these ideas and themes in the superhero genre, treating them with the same love, gravity, and humor as her fairy tales. After all, superheroes are our new fairy tales and these six women have their own stories to share.

In Deadtown, the underworld, whatever comes after death, six women meet to talk about their lives, their involvement with famous superheroes, and what led them to Deadtown (read: killed them horribly) anyway. With superhero movies still going strong, the trope of the refrigerated woman has become quite well known – it’s when a superhero’s girlfriend, wife, or even a villainess is brutally murdered for the simple reason that our hero needs a kick in the ass to make his own story move forward. Whether it’s to avenge a beloved (and now very dead) girlfriend or whether the girl is just a pawn in the boys’ superpower games, it’s never about her and she doesn’t get a voice. Cat Valente gives these women that voice.

Framed by the women meeting in Deadtown – which, although the book doesn’t spend much time on world building, a really cool place to read about – each gets to tell her own story. And – surprise! – it turns out they all had a story before whichever superhero entered their world. While all heroes and heroines, villains and the six women themselves have new and original names, anyone who has read a comic book or seen a few Marvel or DC movies will recognise most of them immediately. There’s your Gwen Stacy and your Harley Quinn, Mera (whose name I had to look up because all I knew about her was that she was Aquaman’s wife, which goes to show just how important this book is.) and Phoenix, as well as the original refrigerated woman from Green Lantern.

Each gets to tell her story in turn and here’s where my love for this book begins. Because it may be fun figuring out which superhero you’re reading about, but it is even more fun how every woman tells her story in her own voice. Pretty Polly (the Harley Quinn of this universe) talks just like you’d imagine she would. Kind of sweet-ish and girly, with a fair bit of madness added to the mix. Blue Bayou sounds angry, Paige Embry is just totally endearing, and Julia Ash (whose villain’s is aptly named Retcon) felt kind of resigned. The voices always fit and the stories these women have to tell are engaging and intriguing for more than one reason. First of all, they’re just interesting stories. Secondly, they would have fit so beautifully into their respective universes – why isn’t there space in a Spider Man movie to show Gwen Stacy as more than just the hero’s girlfriend. She had a life before him and she had a life with him, just like all the others. Their demise was incredibly heartbreaking, although obviously we know from the start that they die and if you remember the original comic books how they die. To me, that’s just another sign of how amazing a writer Valente is. If you know what happens and how it happens, and all she does is give you a little background info, give the character who is about to die a little agency and personality, and it hits you deep in the guts anyway, then yeah… that’s a great writer!

Other than the stories themselves, I loved what little we get to see of Deadtown. Like everything that is there has to be completely dead in the world of the living. So Deadtown citizens eat extinct animals and only get to read books that are gone from our world. And I loved the little aside how Deadtown is never gonna get Harry Potter. Because despite the dark subject matter and the inevitable horrible deaths of the protagonists, there is also a lot of humor in this book. At 160 pages, it runs very short and I would have loved to get more of the same (then again, when I talk about a Valente book, when do I ever not say that?), but I urge you to buy yourself a hardback copy anyway because the stories are accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Annie Wu. Each character gets an illustration of her own and the style is just perfect. Like an old comic book but with amazing character design. The book itself is also a lovely object that will sit proudly on any shelf. I know I’m a broken record but CAT VALENTE IS THE BEST AND I LOVED THIS BOOK WITH EVERY FIBER OF MY BEING!

My rating: 8/10 – Excellent!

Second opinions:

 

I love Murderbot: Martha Wells – All Systems Red

Let me talk to you about Murderbot, the delightful protagonist in Martha Wells’ novella All Systems Red. If you’ve been reading a surprising amount of tweets professing their undying love for something called Murderbot, and asked yourself what the hell was wrong with people, I can assure you everything’s fine. We are simply all completely enchanted by a fictional character, who is also a robot with human parts and feels awkward in social situations. You see, it all makes sense.

ALL SYSTEMS RED
by Martha Wells

Published by: Tor.com, 2017
Ebook: 144 pages
Series: The Murderbot Diaries #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.

A murderous android discovers itself in All Systems Red, a tense science fiction adventure by Martha Wells that blends HBO’s Westworld with Iain M. Banks’ Culture books.
In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

If you manage to read that opening line and not continue, you have more willpower than me. You are also about to miss out on a great story with a stand-out protagonist. I haven’t read a lot of books narrated by an artificial intelligence (if any), but if I had to pick a favorite AI, Murderbot is definitely it. The moment it realizes it is no longer bound by its usual restrictive software – which basically forces it to do its job and nothing else – it uses this newfound freedom not to go on a rampage, but to download thousands of hours worth of soap operas. Because why not?

After the lovely introduction to my new favorite robot hero, it’s time to learn a bit more about the science fiction world of this story and the mystery that kicks off the plot. Murderbot is a security unit, there to protect a group of scientists on a mission to check out a new planet. Murderbot has all sorts of opinions about its humans, and the mix of fondness and awkwardness makes it all the more relatable. Sure, it’s a machine, but there is definitely something human there as well. I can’t really describe it, you simply have to read it yourself, but Murderbot felt so very real to me. If you’ve ever been at a party where you only knew one person and suddenly you had to make small talk with complete strangers but aren’t very good in social situations, you know what Murderbot feels like. Never mind the fact that it’s got weapons that could kill the entire room in a matter of seconds.

The mission is interrupted by an unexpected attack by… something. As the scientists try to scout out new areas, they find out that their maps aren’t complete and maybe even false. Something is definitely not right and Murderbot is doing its best to help figure out the mystery. The pacing of the plot is spot-on, going effortlessly from Murderbot’s introspection (and its hope for a few quiet hours to continue watching its entertainment) to action scenes. I also loved that the world building was done so well. No info dumps, just some tidbits here or there, leaving the reader to put the pieces together for themselves.

While Murderbot is the heart and soul of this novella, the human cast was pretty interesting as well. It’s not just about figuring out why things are going wrong with the mapping system, it also asks questions about free will, trust, and what makes a human human. Murderbot is mostly machine but capable of human emotions, of preferring some people over others, because it finds them more likable. And the people it’s assigned to become aware of that, they see that it’s not just a machine and have to make decisions accordingly. You wouldn’t feel any emotional attachment to your coffee machine (unless you’re as dependent on caffeine as I am) but a walking, talking machine that watches TV shows and protects human lives of its own free will, that’s a different story.

Since this is a very short book, the mystery is solved quickly and I wondered what kind of ending Martha Wells had chosen for this story. As lighthearted as it feels, this is a complex read that asks many questions and lets the readers reach their own answers. The ending could have messed it all up (spoiler: it didn’t). I am already giddy with excitement for the next instalment of this series and I hope we’ll get many more adventures with Murderbot. Because I love Murderbot!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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