A Wonderfully Creepy Winter Ghost Story: Katherine Arden – Dead Voices

Sorry for the surprise hiatus, guys. I caught a nasty cold in early January and it’s taken a while for me to get well and then work up the gumption to write a review again. But I’m all better now and I have read quite a few books I look forward to sharing with you. 🙂

I admit, it took me way too long to get that each of Katherine Arden’s middle grade horror novels is set during a different season but once I knew that, I planned on reading the books during the “right” time. And the time for this wintery ghost-filled creepiness was now!

DEAD VOICES
by Katherine Arden

Published: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2019
eBook:
256 pages
Series:
Small Spaces #2
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: Winter in East Evansburg, and just after dusk, five people in a beat-up old Subaru peeled out of town in a snowstorm.

Having survived sinister scarecrows and the malevolent smiling man in Small Spaces, newly minted best friends Ollie, Coco, and Brian are ready to spend a relaxing winter break skiing together with their parents at Mount Hemlock Resort. But when a snowstorm sets in, causing the power to flicker out and the cold to creep closer and closer, the three are forced to settle for hot chocolate and board games by the fire.

Ollie, Coco, and Brian are determined to make the best of being snowed in, but odd things keep happening. Coco is convinced she has seen a ghost, and Ollie is having nightmares about frostbitten girls pleading for help. Then Mr. Voland, a mysterious ghost hunter, arrives in the midst of the storm to investigate the hauntings at Hemlock Lodge. Ollie, Coco, and Brian want to trust him, but Ollie’s watch, which once saved them from the smiling man, has a new cautionary message: BEWARE.

With Mr. Voland’s help, Ollie, Coco, and Brian reach out to the dead voices at Mount Hemlock. Maybe the ghosts need their help–or maybe not all ghosts can or should be trusted.

Dead Voices is a terrifying follow-up to Small Spaces with thrills and chills galore and the captive foreboding of a classic ghost story.

Ollie, Coco, and Brian are going on a ski trip with Ollie’s dad and Coco’s mom and some of them are happier about this than others. Brian is all aglow dreaming of going down fast, Ollie is excited as well, and Coco… well, Coco is mostly scared but doesn’t want to be a spoilsport. She much prefers quiet games of chess to sporty outdoor activities. And oh how she hates it when Brian calls her Tiny!

I loved that this second book in Arden’s creepy quartet focuses more on Coco. The first book was all about Ollie (whom I still adore) but now that this trio of friends has formed, it was lovely to learn a bit more about the small and constantly underestimated Coco. The short girl with the pinkish blond hair who is great at climbing and has an A+ brain. I don’t read a lot of Middle Grade books and, just like with the first one in the series, I wish this would have existed when I was little. But I can still appreciate certain aspects of it as an adult.

First of all, the characters are lovely and different from each other and there’s so much to like about each one of them. And not just our three protagonists but the recurring side characters as well. I’ve been a fan of Ollie’s cooking, baking superdad since the get go and the way he takes care of everyone while they are snowed in was just as wonderful as expected. It’s still rare to read about a father figure who behaves in stereotypically mother-like ways. Being a caregiver, loving to feed people and play around in the kitchen. How refreshing! And it was equally refreshing and important how the other characters react to Ollie’s dad. Nobody finds his behavior strange, they mostly just adore his kitchen creations. 🙂

The series plot also moves forward as it looks like Ollie’s dad and Coco’s mom have formed at least a friendship, maybe more. Both Coco and Ollie have feelings about that, very different feelings. But the fact that they are best friends gives the potential pairing a different perspective and you can watch how Ollie is growing and handling the loss of her mother. The absolute loyalty between the three friends gave me endless amounts of joy, especially when they’re each dealing with complicated and new situations that they’re not sure how to handle emotionally.

But let’s not forget that this is actually a horror book. I loved Small Spaces but didn’t find it particularly scary from my adult point of view. This one started out similarly tame – characters think they see ghosts, they have strange dreams, and so on – but oh boy, does Katherine Arden turn it up by the middle! I don’t want to spoil anything for you guys, but even though I knew things would end well for our three kids, there were several moments that gave me chills and where I wasn’t certain at all how they would get out of it. If I had read this as a kid, I would have been creeped out in the best of ways.

I don’t know if each book will focus on a different character (if so, who will be the center of the last one, I wonder), but I really enjoyed getting to know Coco a bit better and especially having her be the one who does the work and saves the day. To be honest, I even got a little emotional at the end there. My instinct was to immediately pick up the next book in the series, but then I decided to stick with my plan of reading each book during the right season. So just a few more months, then I’ll dive into Arden’s springtime novel and hopefully get to see Brian as the hero.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!

Aliens, Music, Queerness, And Dealing With the Devil: Ryka Aoki – Light From Uncommon Stars

This is one of those books that makes you think “no way is all of this going to work” as soon a you read the synopsis. I mean, aliens with a donut shop, an AI with feelings, a trans runaway violin prodigy, a woman in search of souls to sell to a demon, a quest to return to one’s home planet, a magical violin bow… It sounds like too crammed into one book much but what can I tell you? Somehow, it works!

LIGHT FROM UNCOMMON STARS
by Ryka Aoki

Published: Tor, 2021
eBook:
384 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 13 minutes
Standalone
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: Shh… Yes, it hurt. It was definitely not just a bruise.

Good Omens meets The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in this defiantly joyful adventure set in California’s San Gabriel Valley, with cursed violins, Faustian bargains, and queer alien courtship over fresh-made donuts.

Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six.

When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate.

But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn’t have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan’s kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul’s worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline.

As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.

Katrina Nguyen is running away from home. She can’t take it anymore. The abusive father, the unaccepting mother, the fact that her family don’t accept her for who she is. So she packs only what is necessary – including her violin – and finds shelter with a friend.
She soon meets the most (in)famous violin mentor in the world, Shizuka Satomi, who not only recognizes Katrina’s raw talent, but also has her own burden to bear. She has to deliver seven souls – six of which are already done – to hell in order to save her own.
Add to that Lan Tran, owner of a donut shop and mother of four, but also secretly interstellar refugee trying to get back home. Things are clearly complicated.

This was such a great reading experience (technically listening experience as I enjoyed the audio version) because there is so much going on in this book. It’s about music and family, about guilt and desire, about being trans and being a young person in today’s world, about love and all the shapes and forms, and yes, also about aliens and donuts. Because why not?
What I liked about it may be someone else’s annoyance because, yes, there is a lot of stuff here and not all of it gets the same attention to detail readers might hope for. For example, Katrina being trans, how she sees herself, how she grows over the course of the book and changes into a more confident young woman, that’s pretty central to the novel. Lan Tran being an alien who fled her broken home far far away because of something called the Endplague isn’t so central. Sure, Aoki throws in some hints here or there about that but this isn’t the kind of book that is about how space travel works, where exactly Lan’s home is in the universe or generally how aliens are hiding in plain sight on Earth. Just take that part with a grain of salt.

The other thing I really enjoyed was the way Aoki writes bout music and the people who love it. This story deals with violin music in particular but I think the passion that is described can work for any type of music (or art, really). There’s also the darker side of it with competitions that some people take way too seriously, instruments that cost ridiculous amounts of money, and snobbery all over the place. Because Katrina, with her rather cheap Chinese violin, doesn’t play classical music, she plays gaming music! I adored this because, come on, who could resist listening to a young nerd playing the Zelda theme on her violin? But with a degree of internet fame comes the inevitable hate and, as you can probably imagine, as a trans girl, the hate takes on entirely new dimensions.

There were many characters to like in this story, first and foremost Katrina and Shizuka Satomi, but I also grew rather fond of Lan Tran and her children – one of which is technically an AI an a projected body, so there’s a whole new can of worms. Shizuka just wants to save herself, her own soul, and she knows that sacrificing young ambitious violin prodigies is what it takes. It’s a totaly coincicence that she’s drawing out handing Katrina over to hell and has nothing to do whatsoever with the fact taht she’s grown fond of the girl…
Katrina is pretty broken at the beginning of the book (when it comes to her ribs, I mean quite literally broken), she feels ugly and undeserving of love, she just wants to belong somewhere and play her music to make people happy. Once Satomi takes her under her wing, a new workd opens up for Katrina and it was both joyful and heartbreaking watching her appreciate such simple things as not being hurt on a daily basis simply for who she is.

I enjoyed every moment of this story, especially the ending. Things appear pretty hopeless, at last for one of the main characters, and I so appreciate when characters are clever and do the right thing. That’s all I can say without spoiling.
But I also have to say that I don’t think this is a particularly good SFF novel. The fantasy and science fiction elements were there but more as afun bonus. Sure, there are discussions of when an AI counts as a person and there is a literal deal with a demon, but the SFF bits aren’t the book’s stongest suit. Very little is explained or even talked about much (Oh, there’s aliens? Cool, I guess.) and it felt like the author was simply having fun with it rather than doing a lot of world buliding or thinking up a magic system. And while that is absolutely fine, the gist of the book would have worked as a contemporary novel as well, which is why I’m not rating it higher. I had a blast listening to the audiobook but it’s not a top SFF novel for me.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good

Not For Me: Alaya Dawn Johnson – Trouble the Saints

It pains me to say that I just didn’t like this book very much. Alaya Dawn Johnson has written one of my favorite YA novels that is criminally underrated – The Summer Prince – but what she was trying to do in this World Fantasy Award winning new novel just didn’t work for me.

TROUBLE THE SAINTS
by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Published: Tor, 2020
eBook:
320 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 4 minutes
Standalone
My rating:
5/10

Opening line: Seven. That’s what we’re starting with.

The dangerous magic of The Night Circus meets the powerful historical exploration of The Underground Railroad in this timely and unsettling novel, set against the darkly glamorous backdrop of New York City at the dawn of WWII.

Amidst the whir of city life, a girl from Harlem is drawn into the glittering underworld of Manhattan, where she’s hired to use her knives to strike fear amongst its most dangerous denizens.

But the ghosts from her past are always by her side—and history has appeared on her doorstep to threaten the people she loves most.

Can one woman ever sacrifice enough to save an entire community?

Trouble the Saints is a dazzling, daring novel—a magical love story, a compelling chronicle of interracial tension, and an altogether brilliant and deeply American saga.

This is going to be a rather short review because I have very little to say about this book. First off, though, it’s not bad. This is most definitely one of those cases where a novel is just not for me and I knew that the entire time I listened to the audiobook. It’s split into three parts, each focusing on a different protagonist.

First off, we meet Phyllis, who works for a crime boss and has killed quite a few people in her time. We learn a little bit about her roots in Harlem, how her “new” life in Manhattan creates tension in her family (don’t forget where you came from) and why she is so gifted with the knives she uses to kill. Because she, like some other non-white people, has Saints’ hands. They are considered a gift and bestow a type of superpower on whoever has them, Phyllis also passes for white which creates interesting situations but, unfortunately, wasn’t focused on enough for me. The same goes for the Hands. The author kept everything super vague and I’m sure that was on purpose but to me, it all felt too intangible, too handwavey to truly immerse myself in this world and its magic.

The second protagonist is Dev, an undercover cop working for the same crime syndicate as Phyllis. He’s also her ex-lover and apparently they are still in love but both pretend not to be because reasons… Again, the way this idea was handled just wasn’t for me. Because the “secret” of Dev being an undercover cop isn’t used to create tension at all. The former relationship between Dev and Phyillis, as so many other things in this book, are simply stated as a fact, without much emotion. I suppose this gives the book a more noir-ish feel but it fell flat for me and kept me from ever connecting with the characters. Which is a shame when they are in danger or get hurt because all I did in those cases was shrug and move on.

Lastly, we follow Tamara, who is gifted with seeing the future or laying Tarot cards or something of the sort. This, too, is kept vague. I couldn’t tell you why but I did like Tamara.

As for plot, I honestly couldn’t tell you what exactly happens in this book. I remember some plot beats but not quite how they are connected, how we got from point A to B to C, or what the point of it all is. And I only read this book a few weeks ago! I debated whether I should even write something about it because there’s so little that stuck in my mind. But I also think that just because this wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it’s not the perfect book for someone else. It did win a World Fantasy Award and I don’t believe that was undeserved.

The writing was good and Johnson did create atmosphere – although the audiobook narration might have helped with that. The fact that said atmosphere didn’t reach me is not the author’s fault. So maybe this book wasn’t for me but if you’re okay with a slow-moving plot and a story that leaves things unexplained oftentimes, then go for it. Johnson has a lot to say about race and guilt and whether some people are more deserving of magic than others. It didn’t reach me but it may just be someone else’s new favorite book.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

Best of 2021: My Favorite Books of the Year

I’m not going to lie, this has been a pretty shitty year. Dealing with this pandemic is starting to take its toll and I think you can tell from my reading choices when things got better and when they got worse. But reading was, in fact, one of the small comforts that accompanied me throughout 2021, so let’s focus on the positives and celebrate all the cool shit I read this year. 🙂

To keep it organized (and to cram in more favorites, hehe) I’ve split this list into categories just like I did last year.


Favorite Books Published in 2021

Novels

Last year was absolutely insane when it came to SFF novels. This year felt like it’s keeping up rather well, with the only difference being that I’m way behind. There are quite a few books I think might end up being new favorites still on my TBR but here are the ones that I’ve already had the pleasure of reading and that all got 5 stars from me on Goodreads. Now that I look at them all in one place, I realize they couldn’t be more different!

All the Murmuring Bones by A. G. Slatter (Angela Slatter) was the first book that made me squee with joy in 2021. It’s part Gothic fairy tale, part family mystery, part coming-of-age female empowerment story and I loved it to pieces! Slatter has been a favorite of mine for a while now but this book, while keeping the fairy tale vibe her short stories tend to have, was a step in a new direction. It took me a while to find my way into the story but once I was there, I found it absolutely fantastic. I can’t wait for next year’s The Path of Thorns.

The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey came next and I knew pretty early on it would be one of my top books of the year. The funny thing is that as I read it, every twist and surprise and every bit of character development cemented the book’s spot on this list. A not very likable protagonist, clones, questions of morality, how far science can and should go, questions of womanhood, a bit of light murder, and great twists until the very end make this one of the most exciting books of the year. It reads like a thriller but offers a lot of food for thought. And I just love Gailey’s writing and their complicated characters.

Nnedi Okorafor published a novella and a novel this year, the first of which (Remote Control) I liked but didn’t love. The novel, however, stole my heart. In Noor, we follow a young woman who has a lot of artificial/robotic body parts. This makes her something of an outsider and eventually she has to flee from the society she wants to be a part of. She meets with a different sort of outsider and together, they not only fight for their basic right to live (!) but also unravel a mystery of epic proportions. This book is short but it really has everything. Great characters, cool science and technology, a kick-ass plot, and deep emotional impact.

A Marvellous Light by debut author Freya Marske is something completely different. It’s a fantasy romance set in Edwardian England with one bookish protagonist and one sporty, impulsive one. But despite the romance being stunning (and quite, quite sexy!), Marske put a lot of effort into her world building and magic system as well. I loved the idea of cradling – magic spells require specific hand movements – and the way the magical society works in this story, and I especially love how women, who are considered too weak for difficult magic, use their powers quietly and show how powerful they really are. But, yeah, mostly I loved this for the romance, the sexual tension, and Edwin and Robin’s budding relationship. Can’t wait for the sequels.


Young Adult/Middle Grade

The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He was my first YA crush this year. I was already taken with the author because of the amazing Descendant of the Crane but here she shows that she didn’t just get lucky with her debut but rather that she is someone to watch. This climate-fiction tale of two sisters who have been separated and are trying to find their way back to each other has layers upon layers and is hard to talk about it without spoiling. But believe me when I say that you’ll get great science fictional ideas, intricate characters with difficult emotions, many gasp-worthy twists, and a truly touching story about sisterly love. Plus a little bit of romance. Basically, it’s as amazing as the cover is pretty.

Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko didn’t get to me as quickly as the first book in this duology, but after reading for a while, I noticed how this tale of found/chosen family and heavy responsibility had sneaked into my heart again. I was struck by how well everything falls into place, how Ifueko managed to introduce a lot of new characters and made me love them as much as the old ones. There are still more surprises to discover. If you liked Raybearer, you will also like this book. The ending was just beautiful and I will forever be a Tarisai fangirl.

Little Thieves by Margaret Owen stole my heart and ran away with it like the thief that narrates this novel. This was one of my late-in-the-year five star reads that I totally didn’t see coming. It’s a loose retelling/sequel of the fairy tale The Goose Girl but it very much brings its own ideas to the table. First person narrator Vanja is the best kind of cocky, there are a lot of cool ideas to discover during this tale, and there’s an effortless diversity of sexuality to be found, all with an understated lovely romance, a kick-ass heist-filled plot that piles on the trouble but somehow resolves everything by the end. I am glad that we will get a sequel in (probably) 2023. I wish I could read it right now!


Novellas

My favorite novella of the year comes from none other than Catherynne M. Valente and it was The Past Is Red. This post-apocalyptic story set on the Pacific Garbage Patch – known as Garbagetown – is devastating and hopeful, expertly crafted, with characters that break your heart, prose that sings and dances, and even a great twist. It gave me all the feels and I’ll cherish and re-read it forever. Tetley Abednego is a protagonist who sees beauty in dirt and reminds us that oftentimes the world could be so lovely if only we learned to appreciate it.

Secondly, we have the very different but just as stunning Comfort Me With Apples by Catherynne M. Valente. Hey, it’s not my fault she wrote two brilliant novellas in one year, okay? This one is eerie and atmospheric and best enjoyed without knowing anything about it beforehand. Although the twist at the end is its climax, it has great re-read value because once you know what’s going on you can go hunting for all the clues that you missed the first time. And there are so many of them! Valente shows that she can jump between genres as if it was nothing, all while staying true to her beautiful prose.

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow was another top novella, although it is much lighter than my other favorites. It’s Harrow spiderversing a fairy tale, in this case Sleeping Beauty, and it just worked although I think it will not be for everyone. The writing is easy and filled with references to pop culture and literature, the characters aren’t super deep, but the themes hit home nonetheless. Protagonist Zinnia suffers from a rare disease that will most likely kill her before she turns 21. When she accidentally lands in a parallel world where she meets an actual Sleeping Beauty type princess, things don’t go quite as expected. This was a fun romp, it had things to say about feminism and gender and choosing your own path and I unabashedly loved it even though I would have preferred it to be longer.

And let’s not forget Becky Chambers‘ latest novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built. This was both what I expected and also totally different, if that makes sense. The nonbinary tea monk protagonist felt so utterly relatable it hurt, and while their journey wasn’t filled with shocking moments or daring adventures, it was exactly the quiet, philosophical kind of book we’ve come to expect from Chambers. Then again, it also felt somehow new and fresh. The hopepunk setting, the slowly building friendship between human and robot, it all worked together beautifully and I need the sequel now.

Sadly, these are (yet again) all Tor.com titles and I was determined to have at least one novella from a different publisher among my favorites this year. If you have recommendations, please leave me one in the comments.


Favorite Books Published pre-2021

Once again, I have to thank all the people who nominate books and series for the Hugo Award. The Best Series category, which is still pretty new, has been a treasure trove when it comes to backlist titles that aren’t old enough yet to be classics but not new enough to be the newest hot shit that everyone is talking about. Many of those in-between titles ended up on my list and that makes me super happy.

The Poppy War Trilogy by R. F. Kuang absolutely wrecked me and even though The Poppy War was a re-read, I’m counting it in this category, alongside The Dragon Republic and The Burning God. Because, damn! That’s right, that is the summary of my feelings.
But seriously, I don’t know what impresses me most. The fact that Kuang entered the scene with an unbelievably great debut, that she tackled a very dark period of history, that her characters are multi-faceted and flawed and believable, that her world building is impeccable, her writing engaging… I mean, at this point I’m just describing all the elements of a perfect novel. But you get the idea and I am forever destroyed by what these books have done to my poor heart.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune needs no explanation. Anyone who has read it will know why this heartwarming tale of found family ended up on my list, and people who haven’t read it have probably been told how this is a warm hug in book form a million times. It really is, though, and if you ever feel down and want a story you know is going to lift you up, make it this one. I can’t wait to pick up the book’s spiritual successor that came out this year, Under the Whispering Door.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler has convinced me that Butler will probably always end up on my Best of the Year lists, at least until I’ve read all her books. This is all the more impressive as the book in question is pretty much the opposite of the Klune in terms of atmosphere and vibe. Sure, Butler always conveys that shining bit of hope but the world and setting she uses in this duology is anything but nice. Still, one  of the most impressive and impactful books I read this year.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett was not surprising in any way. It’s fairly early Discworld but it does exactly what Pratchett always does so well. It holds a mirror up to humanity, with humor and heart and respect. This book made me laugh and cry, ponder and wonder, and most of all it made me miss Terry Pratchett all over again. As it tackles religion, which can be a… let’s say difficult subject, we should be all the more impressed how Pratchett managed to make fun of certain aspects of it without ever, EVER, disrespecting people or their faith!

The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal is a bit of a departure from the first two books in her Lady Astronaut series. The plot happens parallel to the story of The Fated Sky, only this time we focus on Earth and the Moon colony as well as on a new protagonist, Nicole Wargin, pilot and politician’s wife and also super capable Moon survival person. This took a while to get going but once the story had taken off, I was reeling from all the amazing ideas. Whether it’s basic survival moves on the Moon or dealing with an eating disorder, or handling politics, it’s all there, it’s all done well and I ended up loving this book much more than I had anticipated.

The Interdependency Trilogy by John Scalzi was one of my biggest surprise hits this year. And my favorite volume of the three was probably the middle book, The Consuming Fire. I usually put a lot of Serious SFF (TM) on here but that’s not the only type of story I love. So this year, I’m adding this hilarious space opera romp by Scalzi because, while maybe not dealing with the deepest philosophical questions of humanity, it was just pure and utter fun! I adore Kiva Lagos and her filthy mouth, I loved the idea of the Flow and I simply enjoyed following all these characters as they are trying to save the world.

The biggest surprise, without a doubt, was how much I enjoyed Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. You may recall how much I disliked Gideon the Ninth, how I found it messily plotted, with flat characters (one exception being Gideon herself) and told in unnessecarily convoluted prose. The prose is still overly verbose and showy, but everything else about Harrow has taken me by storm. Damn, I want to know what happens next, how all these crazy revelations impact the world, and where this story will lead us eventually. And so I find myself actually happy that the trilogy has grown into a 4-book-series and that we’ll get Nona the Ninth in 2022. Yay!

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers was just lovely! I had really liked Small, Angry Planet but I bounced off Spaceborn Few for a long while (the ending turned it around but overall, my opinion was rather meh), so I didn’t have the highest expectations. And then Chambers just goes and tells not one, but two hearbreaking stories in one novel. My eyes were perpetually wet as I listened to this on audiobook and it is now by far my favorite book in the series.


I am not feeling too great about the pandemic at the moment (not that I ever felt great about it, but you know what I mean) but at least I am happy with what I read in 2021.

Top of my TBR: Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chen, Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune, Summer Suns by Lee Mandelo, The Chosen and the Beautfiul by Nghi Vo, The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

If you’ve posted a best of the year list, let me know in the comments. I love looking through other people’s favorite reads of the year. I’m especially interested in 2021 publications that I might have missed and should prioritize. 🙂

Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Series

I love this category and I hate this category. This year, I was quite lucky in having read at least the first book each in five out of the six series but as we know, the first book isn’t enough to properly judge whether a series/trilogy as a whole should get a Hugo. But with WorldCon being moved to December, this was also the first year where I had enough time to properly catch up and even finish most of the finalists!

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

I am so glad this category exists even though it makes me gasp at the amount of pages it wants me to read every year. This year was also the first one where I thought a bit more about why this category exists and whether it’s fulfilling its original purpose. Cora Buhlert has some excellent thoughts on this (that’s why she is a finalist for Best Fan Writer) and I absolutely see where she’s coming from.

Best Series is meant for those books/series that usually wouldn’t have a shot at a Best Novel Hugo even though they might be deserving. If you loved the 10th Dresden Files book or the 14th in the October Daye series, it’s unlikely it will become a Best Novel finalist and, even if it did, how many voters unfamiliar with the series would read through the previous 9 (or 13 or however many) instalments to get to this particular one?
But in the Best Series category, you can nominate that series precisely because book 14 was so great. And other people might nominate it based on the instalment they’ve just read – whether that’s book 3 or book 8 – if they think that the series overall is worthy of a Hugo.

But what we’ve seen in the few years since the category has been around is, yes, some long-running series like the ones I described above, but also lots and lots of trilogies, many of which had volumes nominated for Best Novel as well. And look, I myself am guilty of this. I nominated The Winternight Trilogy and I nominated The Murderbot Diaries as series as well as some of their individual instalments for Best Novel. And on the one hand, that’s because I don’t have any super long-running series that I follow (unless you count The Stormlight Archive, which I suspect will unfold its true brilliance once the final book is out and that’s when I plan to nominate it (unless it starts sucking along the way, of course)). On the other hand, I nominated those trilogies because they didn’t manage to get their single volumes onto the Best Novel ballot, so I feel vindicated.

But however you look at this category, it’s an important one that makes the Hugos just a little bit better and more modern and more interesting than they used to be.


The Finalists for Best Series

This category grows on me more each year. Last year, it led me to discover two series (one trilogy, one quartet) that I have since continued because they are really damn good. This year, it forced me to continue lots of series I had already started AND introduced me to a trilogy I would’t have picked up at all if it weren’t for the Hugos but ended up loving.

I think my biggest difficulty in this category is the question whether I should be voting for the series I had most fun reading or the one I think is most accomplished or some mix of both. Maybe I should go for the one where I think it being a series makes it bettern than each of its instalment on its own? Because, let’s face it, the most accomplished is easily The Poppy War Trilogy. It’s ambitious, incredibly well written, and all the more impressive because Kuang is such a young writer. But it’s also super dark and not as easy to digest as, say, a John Scalzi trilogy or a Murderbot book.

I wasn’t that happy about Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon being nominated for both Best Novel and the series for Best Series at first, mostly because the first book already won a Hugo. But the Lady Astronaut series actually did what I wish every series would do. It got bigger and better and more fun along the way. The Calculating Stars deserved its Hugo win and I loved the book by itself, but it was also super uncomfortable to read because it shows just how unfair the world can be. The Fated Sky continues to show what it’s like belonging to a minority (or, you know, being a woman) and all the unpleasantness and injustice that comes with that, but it was also more fun to read. Not everything was always terrible and it focused on space travel and real-world science a bit more. It ended up being my favorite of the series so far. Then I picked up The Relentless Moon, and even though it took me a while to let go of Elma and Mars and instead follow Nicole Wargin on the Moon, I ended up falling completely in love with that book! So yeah, this is a series that gets better and bigger along the way and is thus a perfect finalist in this category.

Murderbot is a similar case but not quite, because this year is the first time that the series has an entry that is a full-length novel. I’d like to think that even if that novel hadn’t come out and Martha Wells had continued writing only novellas, Murderbot would have made the final ballot for Best Series anyway. Here my feelings are almost reversed to The Lady Astronaut series. I feel just slightly less inclined to vote for the Murderbot book in Best Novel because I think the series as a whole is better than the novel on its own. I wouldn’t have loved Network Effect as much if I hadn’t already known Murderbot and its backstory. So if I had my way, Martha Wells would not win the Best Novel category (which is incredibly strong this year) but would win Best Series. Except maybe not this year (I’ll explain why later) but definitely in a few years. We know that Murderbot is here to stay – at least for a few more years – and if the quality of Wells’ writing stays at this level, the series will definitely be nominated again. And I absolutely want it to win a Best Series Hugo because it is deserving and also a perfect example of what I think this Hugo category should be for.

It feels a little unfair for me to even rank the October Daye series at this point because, although I read another instalment this year, I am so far behind that I can’t possibly judge the current state of the series. I have read three out of fourteen (!) volumes and if the other voters nominated it based on the strength of its most current book and not just because they like the author, then I have no way of knowing whether I agree with them. I still enjoy the series – although the first book was the best and they got slightly weaker from there – and I want to continue reading it. I guess it will show up on the ballot again in two years and maybe by then I’ll have caught up a bit more. At the point I am right now, it’s a fun Urban Fantasy series that I enjoy but nowhere close to the other entries on the ballot in terms of originality, quality, or impact on the genre. Maybe that will change as I continue reading and that’s why I feel my ranking may not be very fair but I’m judging as honestly as I can given the books that I have read.

Thanks to this ballot, I finally finished The Daevabad Trilogy and mostly agree with other readers that it’s a great trilogy with a satisfying ending. S. A. Chakraborty is an author I will watch because not only did she write a story about djinn, bringing a refreshing perspective into the fantasy genre, but she also does politics and court intrigue really well. Her writing style is engaging and I enjoyed all three of these books, even if the middle one felt like a filler and the last one was too long and a bit slow for my taste. So here comes the hard part again. My esteem for this trilogy is pretty high and I will pounce on Chakraborty’s next book, whatever it is. But in comparison to some of the other finalists, it didn’t feel as innovative and doesn’t get me equally as excited, and so ends up in the lower area of my ballot.

Damn you, Scalzi, I thought it was a safe bet that I could put The Interdependence Trilogy safely in the lower half of my ballot. And then you go out and write three books that are fun, exciting, finished way too quickly, and make me want to read more of the same. This trilogy was the only one I hadn’t even tried prior to the finalists being announced and I didn’t have high expectations. And look, this may deal with a galaxy-spanning empire but it’s not exactly deep. Which doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, this may have been my favorite of the ballot when it comes to pure enjoyment. I can totally see myself re-reading it when I need something exciting that makes me laugh out loud, cheer on the good guys and cackle when the bad guys get what they have coming. Granted, it can’t keep up with some of the other finalists in terms of scope or ambition, but it has great ideas, highly engaging writing, and it gave me several hours of pure fun! Plus, Kiva Lagos and her filthy mouth are everything!

The last series I tackled for this year’s ballot was The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang. I had read the first book when it came out, was deeply impressed but not very hyped to read the next book – not because I didn’t like it but because it gets so very dark! So I did a re-read to refresh my memory this year and then went on to read the whole story in one swoop. It was both rewarding and terrible because my already very insecure ballot got mixed up even more. I mean, how could I not put this in my number one spot? The first book was even better on a re-read and that doesn’t happen often! The second book upped the stakes, didn’t feel like a middle book at all, and ripped out my heart several times over.
How can an author so young write a debut that is this brilliant? And as if it’s not enough that the writing is amazing, the characters multi-layered and difficult, but it’s also got rich world building, is inspired by real historical events, explores dark and important themes, and pushes the boundaries of the genre. I didn’t finish the third book before the voting period ended (I read it very slowly because (1) I was scared of the ending and (2) I didn’t want it to end), but I was certain that Kuang would deliver a bombastic end to her trilogy and deserves my top spot.

My ballot:

  1. The Poppy War
  2. The Lady Astronaut
  3. The Murderbot Diaries
  4. The Interdependency
  5. The Daevabad Trilogy
  6. The October Daye Series

Voting is now over but here are my thoughts from just before I finished up my ballot:

Okay, so a lot of this ballot is a mess and I have no idea how to rank these and not feel shitty about it. The Poppy War will stay on top, that much is certain. No matter how I twist and turn it, there is simply no way I can justify putting it any lower.
My bottom two series will stay where they are as well even though I might still swap them. Spots 2 through 4 are giving me a headache of epic proportions, however. I think I like Murderbot more than the Lady Astronaut, but here’s where my brain goes into strategic mode. I really, really, really want The Poppy War to win and I think Murderbot is its strongest contender, so by raking Murderbot one lower than I normally would, can I give The Poppy War a slight edge? I also want Murderbot to win but that series is still ongoing, unlike The Poppy War which has its last chance of winning this year. And since none of the individual novels won (which is a shame), I want it to win Best Series even more.

I realize that this approach may not be how other people vote (and that’s fine) but this ballot is so hard to rank that this is the only way I feel halfway comfortable with. All of that said, I will be more than happy if Murderbot or The Lady Astronaut series win this year. R. F. Kuang will likely write another masterpiece and let us shower her with Hugos sooner or later.

That’s it folks!
I didn’t get to the Astounding Award this year. I probably could have managed it but I honestly felt a little burned out on reading so many books because I “had to” (you know what I mean). I’m currently reading by mood and enjoying the hell out of it. But I’m not going to lie, I already look forward to doing this craziness all over again next year. 🙂

I hope you enjoyed this series of posts. Now let’s all be excited for the awards ceremony and cheer on those finalists!

What an AI’s life is worth: Becky Chambers – A Closed and Common Orbit

So I’m reading the Wayfarers series very much out of order but that’s one of the great things about it: you can pick up any novel you like and get a full story without missing anything. The only recommendation I would make is to start with the first one, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet if you don’t want any spoilers at all. Having read three out of the four novels, this one is my favorite by far.

A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT
by Becky Chambers

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 2016
eBook:
385 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 4 minutes
Series:
Wayfarers #2
My rating:
8.5/10

Opening line: Mimetic AI housing is banned in all GC territories, outposts, facilities, and vesels.

Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has to start over in a synthetic body, in a world where her kind are illegal. She’s never felt so alone.

But she’s not alone, not really. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall Lovelace, is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.

Together, Pepper and Lovelace will discover that, huge as the galaxy may be, it’s anything but empty.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible imagination of Becky Chambers and has been nominated for any number of awards and accolades, including the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction, the Tiptree Award, the Kitschies Golden Tentacle and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the stand-alone sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and is perfect for fans of Firefly, Joss Whedon, Mass Effect and Star Wars.

When Lovelace was put into a body kit at the end of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, she lost all memories of who she was before. She knows she is an AI, she was built to be a ship’s computer, and that her previous version wanted to live in a human body. With the help of brilliant engineer Pepper, Lovelace now finds herself in such a body (not really human, but close enough) and has to accomodate to this new life she has entered. Not does her programming make it impossible for her to lie – which is unfortunate when you’re residing in a body kit quite illegally – but she also has to learn how to navigate the world from this new vantage point.

This book follows two perspectives in two different timelines and I honestly couldn’t tell you which one I liked better because they are both so amazing and offer such interesting glimpses into Becky Chambers’ universe. The present day story follows Lovelace, or Sidra as she calls herself, as she learns to ropes of being human (well, pretending to be), how to move in her new body, how to adjust to having only the narrow vision her eyes allow her, rather than the view through numerous camera lenses. Simple things like not seeing things from the top down anymore – as a security camera installed in a room corner would – or not being able to taste food and drinks can really throw her. But in addition, there’s the whole bigger question of what makes someone “human”. Sidra struggles with many things but learns to enjoy and even love others. In perfect Becky Chambers fashion, Sidra’s story is an introspective one but with enough new and interesting things to discover for us readers. I loved reading about the various alien species and their cultural and physical differences as well as the things that unite them. There is definitely some magic in Becky Chambers’ universe!

The second timeline follows Jane 23, a 10-year-old girl who lives in a place where she and many other Janes sort metal parts into scrap and useable bits, where her day is strictly timed, where the mothers oversee their work. Until, that is, Jane glimpses something thorugh a hole in the wall that she didn’t know existed. It’s a big blue ceiling and a room that doesn’t seem to have an end… . Jane 23 wants to escape the life she’s leading and finds help in a very unlikely place. This event will change the course of her entire life and have repercussions that are still felt many years later.
I don’t want to say very much about this story line because I found it so touching and I loved watching it evolve and slowly catch up to the present. What I can tell you however, because it’s never a secret in the book, is that Jane 23 is Pepper as a child. Now finding out how Jane 23 turned into Jane who then turned into Pepper, that’s the interesting part. It’s also incredibly moving, poses lots of philosophical questions about personhood, family, and agency.

The two other Wayfarer books I have read hit me in very different ways. I loved The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet but there were quite a few characters to keep track of and so I think I wasn’t as emotionally invested in either one of their stories. Then Record of a Spaceborn Few took forever to get going. I adored the ending and the message but a big part of that book felt like a slog. So not a favorite. But this! This book right here did everything right and hit all the right notes for me. Following two protagonists allowed me to get to know both of them very well, to care about them and to admire them for who they are. But the alternating chapters also guaranteed a nice pacing. There was even a bit of action in this book.

I loved every part of this story but the ending brought me to tears. There’s a reason this is everyone’s favorite Wayfarer book and I should have listened to you all long ago and read it much sooner. But I’m glad I read it now, during a time when a story of found family, finding your home and a place where you belong is exactly what I needed.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Truly excellent!

Not the Best Stormlight Book But That Doesn’t Say Much: Brandon Sanderson – Rhythm of War

I have to put this right at the beginning: When I say this wasn’t my favorite Stormlight book but, in fact, my least favorite volume so far, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good book in general. Brandon Sanderso has a gift and his very worst stories are still better than a lot of what else is out there. So now that that’s out, we can talk about why I wasn’t as into this book as I was into the other three.

RHYTHM OF WAR
by Brandon Sanderson

Published: Tor, 2020
Hardback:
1232 pages
Audiobook:
45 hours
Series:
The Stormlight Archive #4
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: Of course the Parshendi wanted to play their drums.

After forming a coalition of human resistance against the enemy invasion, Dalinar Kholin and his Knights Radiant have spent a year fighting a protracted, brutal war. Neither side has gained an advantage, and the threat of a betrayal by Dalinar’s crafty ally Taravangian looms over every strategic move.

Now, as new technological discoveries by Navani Kholin’s scholars begin to change the face of the war, the enemy prepares a bold and dangerous operation. The arms race that follows will challenge the very core of the Radiant ideals, and potentially reveal the secrets of the ancient tower that was once the heart of their strength.

At the same time that Kaladin Stormblessed must come to grips with his changing role within the Knights Radiant, his Windrunners face their own problem: As more and more deadly enemy Fused awaken to wage war, no more honorspren are willing to bond with humans to increase the number of Radiants. Adolin and Shallan must lead the coalition’s envoy to the honorspren stronghold of Lasting Integrity and either convince the spren to join the cause against the evil god Odium, or personally face the storm of failure.

As with many sprawling epic fantasy series, it’s getting increasingly difficult to talk about the newest one without spiling events of the previous volumes. There will be no spoilers of Rhythm of War here, but there may very well be spoilers for the three books that came before.

There were a lot of things I loved about this book but there were also an unusually high number of elements I didn’t, and the trademark Sanderson twist and emotional gutpunch didn’t really have that much of an impact this time. I think this book’s biggest problem is its lack of focus. Every Stormlight book so far followed all the main characters but one of them was the central character of that particular book. First it was Kaladin, then Shallan, then Dalinar. This time it is supposedly Venli, so we get some flashback chapters from her perspective, but they didn’t feel like they painted as much of a cohesive picture as the flashbacks in previous books did for their respective charcters. I didn’t feel like I learned great new thing about the character or like she grew because we examined her past together. Venli was pretty much as we know her and her growth is triggered by the present, not the past.

But that’s not the only focus and pacing problem. Juggling this many characters spread all over the map(s) hasn’t been a problem for Sanderson before, but this time, he struggled. Kaladin is still my favorite so I don’t mind spending hundreds of pages with him, even if he is going through depression and thus, not exactly fun to read. But the jumps between storylines often felt too long apart, some characters barely get mentioned at all.
Shallan and Adolin go to Shadesmar to try and convince the Honorspren to continue bonding with human Radiants. This is a pretty cool idea that delivered one of the best moments of the entire book at the end, but most of the time I kept forgetting that this plot was even still going on. Like we were introduced to their side quest early on, then followed Navani, Kaladin, and Venli for a loooong time, then quickly checked up on Adolin and Shallan and it felt like they hadn’t progressed at all while we’ve been battling Fused, creating new inventions with Stormlight and fabrials and examining our relationship with our own people and the war that is raging over Roshar. This gets better later in the book, but spreading some characters’ story out so thin with this much space between chapters made it feel like the B plot despite it being actually a really good story in its own right with huge implications for the world at large.

Now what I did like was one thing that everyone loved and one thing many people liked the least (I guess I’m weird). First of all, the way Sanderson desrcibes and examines mental health, or rather mental illness. Because Kaladin – and many others – suffers from what they call battle shock. He wakes up screaming, his dreams are full of death and battles, he gets distracted during real battles, and doesn’t find much joy in living anymore. Bridge Four has evolved, some characers have left, ohers have been promoted, they’re not the found family they used to be and it’s hard on Kaladin. He’s also dealing with the rift between him and his father. So while Kaladin’s story line was tough to read and far from lighthearted, it was also the most rewarding. Not only does Kaladin become the first therapist of Roshar, but the way his feelings are talked about hit home deeply. We’re still in the middle of a panedmic and isolation is something many of us are dealing with in one way or another.

The part that most people found too long but I absolutely adored was the Navani chapters. I maybe should have mentioned that the entire A plot basically evolves around Urithiru being attacked and shit hitting the fan really hard. Our heroes and heroines have to be extra clever if they want to get out of there alive and take back the city from the Fused. Navani developes this intriguing… relationship with Raboniel, one of the Fused, that feels honest whenever a new scientific discovery is made, but is also rife with betrayal because those two are mortal enemies on different sides of this war. I loved both watching Navani’s mind come up with new and interesting ways to use natural resources for science (she’s the biggest nerd on Roshar!) and following the relationship between these two powerful women. You can never be sure whether you can trust the other. Sometimes working together benefits both, but who knows when the backstabbing will start up again? It was exciting and I quite liked how this plot line ended. Again, hugely impactful things are discovered that will definitely be important in the next book.

Dalinar and Jasnah’s plot was the one I found weakest, maybe because we also only check up on them every 500 pages (or at least that’s what it felt like). It’s not like important stuff doesn’t happen – it absolutely does – it just felt more like interludes than proper POV chapters. Speaking of interludes, there are a couple of great ones here, including two of the most interesting people, Taravangian and Szeth.
Normally, the ending offers this big, world-shattering revelation in all of Sanderson’s books but this time, that didn’t happen. There were rather a few smaller moments, no less impactful emotionally but not as climactic as we’ve gotten used to. Adolin’s story had a big glorious moment of awesome, Kaladin’s felt more like relief, Navani’s was predictable but still cool, and one moment that I can’t say much about, gave me total chills and made me fear for all of those characters and what will happen in the next book. Rhythm of War could be called a set-up book for that reason. Pieces have been moved into place but, sorry Mario, the epic showdown is in another castle.

At this point in the series, I am getting a little annoyed with the lore, history, and background konwledge I would need to keep fresh in my mind at all times to fully understand what’s going on. Let me say that I did catch a pretty big connection to the Mistborn series as well as one to Warbreaker (though the latter may have been first revealed in the previous book, I don’t remember) but reading other people’s thoughts showed me that there is a ton of stuff I completely missed, simply because I didn’t sit down for the Roshar history lesson you apparently need for that. You’d think that in a book 1200 pages long, everything I need for full enjoyment and understanding would already be included, but alas. And on the one hand, that’s okay. I still have some extra material for the Stormlight Archive on my TBR pile and I like getting these extra glimpses into this big world but even without that, I can tell you that by now it’s not just about finding Easter Eggs anymore. If you haven’t read Mistborn and Warbreaker, you may be accidentally catching spoilers for those books by reading Stormlight first…

So all things considered, this was my least favorite of the Stormlight books but as I said in the title, that’s not saying too much. Because a bad Sanderson book is still well written with deeply human characters, impeccable world building and a killer ending. It’s just not quite as good as the ones he did before is all. Oh and just because he can, Brando threw in an epilogue that gave me all sorts of goosebumps and raised my expectations for the fifth book – and the end of the first cycle – extremely high. My guess is the time we spent setting up stuff in this volume will pay off hundredfold in the next book. We’ll see…

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good

A note about this book’s Graphic Audio version: Unfortunately, Graphic Audio, whose adaptations I have been enjoying for years, did a pretty bad job this time. Because of Covid-19, some actors couldn’t do their part (or not in the time frame the company wanted?) so they replaced the actress who plays Shallan with someone not Shallan-y at all. It’s not that I dislike the new voice actress (she was in Mistborn Era 2 and I adored her in that role) but if you do a full cast audio version of a story this big, you should try to avoid main character voice changes at all costs! The narrator also changed but while I prefer Dylan Lynch, the original Stormlight narrator, I thought the new one did a commendable job too.

The sound design also suffered. Jasnah’s voice sounded way too deep, Pattern’s vibrations were suddenly different, and everything sounded just a bit worse, a bit cheaper than it did before, whether it was voice and music volume, or sound effects. And what I really don’t understand – because you don’t need a specialist or sound technician for that – is the change in music! Why are there suddenly tracks that sound like 90s video game battle music? I swear I got childhood flashbacks of when I used to play Secret of Mana on the SNES.

I hope Graphic Audio finds its way back to the quality they used to provide, otherwise this was my last time listening to a Stormlight book via their adaptation. As a longtime fan of Graphic Audio, I would have preferred to wait another year for the adaptation to come out in good quality with the actors we’ve all come to know and love rather than this messy version. I also find it interesting that the (respectful but honest) three-star-review I posted on their site didn’t make it through moderation…

A Trilogy That Lost Its Way: Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Shattersteel

My hopes were high for this final part in the Her Pitiless Command trilogy, Sriduangkaew’s take on the Snow Queen fairy tale, set in South East Asia, with queer characters started out really, really well. Sadly, the second book already lost momentum and direction. This conclusion to the series fared no better and felt to me like the author just wanted to get it over with.

SHATTERSTEEL
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Published: Apex Publications, 2021
eBook:
160 pages
Series:
Her Pitiless Command #3
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: The prosthetic arm never seats quite right, despite countless adjustments.

For her entire life, Nuawa has made herself a weapon to assassinate the Winter Queen.

She failed. Her secrets are laid bare and she has lost everything.

The queen keeps Nuawa as a tool, and soon a sacrifice as she brings her ultimate goal to fruition: to harness the divine power of her makers that’ll make her lover General Lussadh immortal.

But Nuawa isn’t done fighting yet.

I could technically copy and paste my review of the second book in this trilogy, Mirrorstrike, because everything about that one still holds true with this final instalment. Except, this time, my patience was more tried, this one is the ending of the story so I had higher expectations, and it’s also just a little bit more chaotic and less coherent than its predecessor. But okay, I guess, let’s get into it.

Nuawa and Lussadh are getting married – hooray for the happy couple – so the first half of this 160 page novella is about them being lovey dovey and having lots of sex. Which, you know, is fine if that’s what you’re in the mood for and I actually found the sex scenes to be very well written. But the reason this book even exists – to tell the story of Nuawa fighting the Winter Queen – is completely ignored for almost half the book.
The romantic dialogue also makes me cringe every time because Sriduangkaew likes using big words and so her characters tend to make grand statements with polysyllabic vocabulary. It sounds over the top and overly dramatic to me but that’s a matter of taste and your mileage may vary.

One more thing that made reading this hard was the use of various different pronouns. It’s great to read about a world that includes all sorts of genders and relationship constellations, but using she/her, he/him, they/them, xe/xer, and ey/eir/em in a book this slim felt like overkill. Especially because sometimes, when we were in Nuawa’s point of view and she just met a character for the first time and couldn’t know what pronouns ey used, she was thinking about that person as ey/em, and that just felt strange. Like how do you see if someone goes by they/them, ey/em, or something else entirely?? So again, I love the inclusion but it didn’t feel organic.

Something that is a fact, though, rather than personal preference, is the lack of plot. Now that the trilogy is finished, I have come to the conclusion that the author had a great idea, wrote the first book, and then didn’t quite know where to go from there. Everything feels so up in the air, every scene on its own reads okay but there is very little connecting these scenes to each other. The whole Snow Queen theme got lost along the way and it reads like the author pantsed her way through it all and then just left the book as it was. I get it, writing a book is difficult and writing a trilogy even more so, but that’s what editing and drafting is for. Also, maybe spend at least half a page reminding your readers of what happened before? Yes, the book then might be 200 pages long but those would be pages well used.

The characters also never quite recovered after the first book. In Mirrorstrike they already felt like shadows of themselves, occupied mostly with swooning over each other rather than what they’ve been spending their entire lives doing up until then. Nuawa from Shattersteel is barely recognizable as Nuawa from Winterglass anymore. The same goes for Lussadh. I did enjoy some minor characters in this book but they don’t get enough time to shine because this is still a very short book.

The resolution to what was set up in the first book is relatively simple and had a deus ex machina feel to it. Nuawa originally set out to destroy the Winter Queen, avenge her people, and free her land and she went a good part of the way on her own strenght and intellicenge. Sadly, she lost her agency along the way as well, so it’s not really even her to battles the Winter Queen at the end but someone else. Any satisfaction I might have felt in finally achiving the big goal was dampened by the fact that Nuawa was, at best, a messenger rather than the saviour of the people.

All things considered, I’m mostly disappointed. I will forever love and adore Winterglass but I don’t see much of a reason to recommend books two or three. They add very little to the world building and characters. What little plot they offer is merely a convoluted vehicle to get to the ending (defeat the Queen and have a relationship with Lussadh, that’s all there is to it, really). I’ll give Sriduangkaew another chance and try her Machine Mandate series but as much as I enjoy beautiful language and deep characters, the books I read still need some kind of plot. And this one couldn’t decide what it wanted to be when it grew up so now it’s a jumbled mess of pretty words.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Adventure, Thievery, Love, and Found Family: Margaret Owen – Little Thieves

Who’d have thought that, this late in the year, I’d stumble across two five-star-reads one right after the other? (I know who thought so, because both books are Illumicrate picks, so the Illumicrate team knew what they were doing!) This fairy tale retelling/sequel/twist of the Goose Girl from the point of view of the villain has a little bit of everything and a lot of heart. Even if the protagonist would never, ever admit that. This is YA the way I love it, with magic and silliness but also depth and a believable romance and characters that grow while staying true to themselves. I highly recommend this and I’m so glad it’s part one of a series!

LITTLE THIEVES
by Margaret Owen

Published: Henry Holt & Co., 2021
Hardcover: 512 pages
Series: Little Thieves #1
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: Once upon a time, on the coldest night of midwinter, in the darkest heart of the forest, Death and Fortune cam to a crossroads.

Once upon a time, there was a horrible girl…

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

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

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

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

Vanja Schmidt is a terror and a joy and she tells us her story not just from her own perspective but with her very personal style as well. That means we get to follow a slightly cocky but undoubtedly brilliant young girl who has taken the place of Prinzessin Gisele, is now impersonating her and following a plan that will ultimately lead her to freedom. You see, Vanja also happens to be the goddaughter of Death and Fortune who expect her to choose one of them to serve for the rest of… well, forever, I guess. So the plan is to make (meaning: steal) enough money so Vanja can leave the country and its beliefs and make a life for herself somewhere else. Except then things get even more complicated when she steals from someone who is protected by one of the Low Gods. Eiswald, the god of the forest, curses Vanja to become her greed. Which means that rubies and diamonds sprout from her body unless she “gives back what she took”. And off goes the adventure!

My gods did I love this book. It’s a chonker but there is just so much to discover and so many things to love that I was happy to have this many pages to enjoy. If you’re familiar with the Goose Girl fairy tale, you’ll know that our plucky heroine Vanja is actually the villain of that tale. The servant/friend of the real princess who steals her identity and lives in the castle with the lovely prince, all while Gisele, the real princess, lives the life of a servant who takes care of the geese (thus the title) and wants to take back her rightful place by the prince’s side.
Well, in this version, nothing is what it seems or how you remember it. Not only is Vanja not a villain (although her morals are often questionable) but Gisele isn’t the kind of vapid princess you’d expect. And the prince is decidedly not lovely!

What makes this book stand out from other fairy tale retellings and from other YA adventure/romance novels is first and foremost the hilarious yet heartfelt narration by Vanja herself. She’s funny, she’s self-aware, but she’s also a young girl who, more than anything, wants to be loved and accepted for herself. Watching her grow over the course of this novel was simply wonderful and nothing about her development felt forced.
The same goes for the romance which is understated, slow-burn, and believable. There is also a secondary F/F couple that I found adorable and charming. This story also takes place in a world where sexuality doesn’t seem to be an issue. There are very minor non-binary characters, a minor character in an M/M relationship and people don’t assume everyone is cis or straight. It’s not a big deal in the story but I found it lovely nonetheless.

The plot is pretty damn great because it does that thing that I love where it starts with a simple plan that then spirals totally out of control. Where it used to be about Vanja trying to amass a certain amount of wealth, then there’s the added burden of trying to break this curse which – by the way – will kill her by the next full moon. That leads her down the rabbit hole of her past and on the way, she has to deal with this junior prefect who’s investigating the staggering amount of thefts (by Vanja). Oh yes, and she’s about to be married to Adalbrecht of Reigendorf because she’s still impersonating Prinzessin Gisele. So there’s a lot on her plate!

There’s just so much I could be stealing right now, if I didn’t have social obligations with the man who tried to poison me earlier in the week. And if it weren’t for the curse. And, I suppose, the law, though really we all know my concern for that is cosmetic at best.

What really surprised me was how this mostly funny story that doesn’t take itself too seriously then started to show true depth. Not only are the characters multi-faceted and most of them surprised me at least once, but the themes of the book get darker and more serious, Vanja’s personality makes more sense and the tender relationships she builds in this story become so much more meaningful.

I could tell you so much about the world this is set in. There are gods and there’s magic, there are politics galore, people talk with different accents, there are cultural aspects and traditions – just a bit of everything that makes a world feel real. Margaret Owen never overburdens her story with these tidbits but she gives us enough to make her world feel vibrant and rich. I always felt like I knew enough to feel at home but there’s also plenty more I’d like to discover in future volumes, especially about how the whole prefect system works, what their magic entails, and what influence the gods have on everyday humans.

“You know an awful lot of big-boy no-no words for a man of the gods.”

“You are an absolute terror,” he snaps. “At this point I’m frankly amazed nothing else cursed you before now.”

Finally, the thing that can make or break a book is the ending. And again, Margaret Owen stuck the landing and delivered an ending that made me weepy with joy without being cheesy. Things aren’t perfect at the end and sacrifices had to be made, but overall, it is a very satisfying conclusion to this story that shows Vanja, despite her growth, still staying true to herself. Man, I love that girl! At this point, I don’t know if this is a planned trilogy or longer series but if Owen has more stories like this up her sleeve, I’d be fine with 10 volumes or more. What a feelgood romp with surprsing depths.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Edwardian Magic, But Steamy and Gay: Freya Marske – A Marvellous Light

You guys, this book came at just the right time and I unabashedly loved it! Depending on what you’re looking for, this is a real treat. It’s heavier on the romance than the magic but all the elements come together so well that I’m already excited for the sequel. And this book is still brand new so we’ll all have to practice some patience.

A MARVELLOUS LIGHT
by Freya Marske

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
Hardback:
384 pages
Series:
The Last Binding #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: Reginald Gatling’s doom found him beneath an oak tree, on the last Sunday of a fast-fading summer.

Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He’s struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents’ excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what’s been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he’s always known.

Now Robin must contend with the beauty and danger of magic, an excruciating deadly curse, and the alarming visions of the future that come with it—not to mention Edwin Courcey, his cold and prickly counterpart in the magical bureaucracy, who clearly wishes Robin were anyone and anywhere else.

Robin’s predecessor has disappeared, and the mystery of what happened to him reveals unsettling truths about the very oldest stories they’ve been told about the land they live on and what binds it. Thrown together and facing unexpected dangers, Robin and Edwin discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles—and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.

Robin Blyth has a new job and it’s not what he thinks. On his very first day at the new office, in his very first meeting, he gets Unbusheled – which is what magical folks call it when us non-magical people find out that, yes, magic exists alongside the world we knew, and there’s this whole secret world of magicians, including magical police and government and all that jazz. But what starts out with a well-used trope (one I’m personally not tired of yet, btw) soon shows its original ideas.

Magic in this version of Edwardian England is done by something called cradling and that means moving your hands and fingers in specific patterns, as if playing Cat’s Cradle. I loved this idea so so much because it may sound simple – magicians waving their hands about – but it has interesting implications. You need both hands to do magic so any situation where one hand is incapacitated could bee interesting; your movements need to be precise so using an actual physical string can help. But if, like second protagonist Edwin Courcey, you always need to use that string, other, stronger, magicians may look down on you for your lack of power and confidence…
You see, a small idea spun in interesting directions can go a long way toward making a fantasy book exciting.

So Robin’s first day is pretty crazy because after finding out about magic, he promptly gets cursed by a man with fog instead of a face. Edwin, who mostly just wants to make Robin forget about magic and find someone competent for the job, is now stuck. You can’t just send a man out into the world of humans with a curse attached to him, especially when said curse gives him debilitating pain every once in a while. And so the two team up and try to lift the curse on Robin, while also researching whatever happened to Robin’s predecessor. Murder, magic, and mayhem ensue.

We are man’s marvellous light

We hold the gifts of the dawn

From those now passed and gone

And carry them into the night

I loved this so much! The writing is superb, mixing vivid descriptions with wonderful humor, great dialogue, and characters one can root for. The heart of the novel are its mystery and its romance. Man, did I want those two to get their act together and just kiss! And because Freya Marske decided to burst onto the SFF scene with this bomb of a debut, I got my wish eventually. Plus some seriously steamy sex scenes! If that’s something you enjoy, then do yourself a favor and get youself a copy of this book. If sex scenes make you uncomfortable, you can still read the book but you’ll have to skip over some delicious pages.

This book really has everything I needed at the moment. An exciting plot, a great mystery at the heart of it, a killer romance, and characters that you think you know right away, but who reveal layers upon layers of personality the more you read. The one thing I might have criticized was the lack of female characters, especially ones with agency, but Marske adresses this in the coolest, most hilarious way! First of all, it’s a man’s world we’re reading about and even so, women are always present in some way (mostly not very flattering ways, but okay). There are some parts that show just how poweful women can be, though. And towards the end, some female characters get more involved in the story and kick some serious ass. They even make fun of the way the world looks at them as useless ornaments and use society’s prejudices to their own advantage. I’m pretty sure I cheered out loud at that part. 🙂

I was also delighted to find out that this is part one in a trilogy because, although this book ends on a satisfying note, there is a pretty big problem/mystery still to solve and I am here for it! Seriously, if the second book was out already I wouldn’t even have stopped to write this review before picking it up. This book was a delicous romp with a bit of everything I love. It managed to drag some giggles and ooh lalas out of me when I was feeling mostly depressed about the whole Covid situation, and for that it gets extra brownie points. Now, dear Freya Marske, please write many more books like this. I cannot wait to eat them up.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!