Vonda N. McIntyre – Dreamsnake

Catching up with the winners (and finalists) of the Hugo Awards is a long-term project of mine. It’s been going mostly well, with some works that I disliked. Mostly I see the appeal, though, even if a book is not to my taste. Dreamsnake has won not only the 1979 Hugo but also the Nebula and Locus Award and so it was high up on my list of books I should really check out. It was one of the good ones. 🙂

DREAMSNAKE
by Vonda N. McIntyre

Published: Jo Fletcher Books, 1978
eBook: 288 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Snake travels the land with her serpents, the rattlesnake Sand, the cobra Mist and the rare alien dreamsnake called Grass, whose bite can ease the fear and pain of death. But the blasted landscape of a far-future post-holocaust Earth is a dangerous place, even for such a highly regarded elite healer . . . especially when an unexpected death sends her on a desperate quest to reclaim her healing powers.

A haunting story of an extraordinary woman on a dangerous quest in a far-future post-apocalyptic world.

This is one of those books that starts as one thing and then turns into quite another. We first meet Snake when she is with a desert people with a very sick young boy. Snake’s work – and part of her character – are revealed to us through the healing of this boy. She uses her three snakes, Mist, Sand, and Grass to create a special kind of poison that will heal the boy. The dreamsnake Grass doesn’t deliver an antidote to Snake’s patients, however, but is rather there to calm them, to help them sleep, and – if the person is going to die – to ensure a serene end. Although Snake makes a friend during her stay with the desert people, she loses a snake! Without Grass, Snake isn’t a proper healer anymore so she decides to return to her people, confess the loss of her snake and hope for the best.

Dreamsnakes being incredibly rare – cloning doesn’t always yield results and breeding them just won’t work – Snake starts her journey in shame and worry. There are already too few dreamsnakes to provide every healer with one, and there are too few healers to deal with all the pain in the world. As we follow Snake on her trip, we encounter not only groups of people from vastly different backgrounds and cultures, but also get to explore this post-apocalyptic world and what has become of it.

This was such a cool book! It starts out reading almost like fantasy with Snake going through the process of making her snake produce an anti-venom to the little boy’s disease, and no mention of technology or modern living anywhere. But as soon as Snake leaves and travels from the desert to the mountains, we realize that this is not a medieval-ish setting but rather a futuristic one where alien contact has happened at least once. Because it’s the aliens who have brought, among other things, dreamsnakes.

Snake’s journey, and this book, was almost episodic but never actually felt like it. Sure, the chapters can be summed up as “where Snake meets that person” or “when Snake stays in Mountainside for a while” but she is always working towards her goal of somehow making the loss of her dreamsnake right. What she doesn’t know is that Arevin, the handsome man from the desert tribe who helped Snake with her healing treatments, is following her.
This was the first thing that impressed me in this book. Snake’s time in the desert with Arevin’s people is very short and the scene they share is even shorter. But McIntyre somehow manages to make the tension between them tangible. It doesn’t make sense but I immediately wanted these two to get together!

I was also surprised with the themes that came up in this book and how they were handled. Reminding myself that this book came out in 1978, I was happy to see diverse relationships depicted here. The sick boy from the beginning has several fathers, Snake meets a polyamorous trio on the road, and enjoys some casual sex herself.
Equally, through the lens of science fiction, the topic of euthanasia is raised. Snake states from the start that she wants to heal people, but even she knows that some diseases or wounds are too terrible to heal. And for those cases, Grass is supposed to help people die. It is never even questioned to deny a patient this treatment, which is why Snake feels so broken after losing Grass.

Until about the second third, this isn’t a particularly exciting book, plot-wise. But it is so intriguing to find out new tidbits about the world in every chapter, all organically through the plot and characters, that I was never bored. Snake is a great protagonist with a sense of responsibility, a good heart, and a strong mind. I enjoyed spending time with her, even though the mood of the book is mostly very bleak. Vonda N. McIntyre ramps up the excitement levels towards the end and delivers a pretty thrilling final “episode” that manages to bring everything together beautifully. I may have a ton of unanswered questions about this world and its history but those things aren’t important for this story to make sense and so they aren’t explained.

In the end, this is one of the books where I can’t really put my finger on why I liked it so much, I just did. The setting, characters, story, and writing all worked for me. It may be a quieter science fiction book but it gave me so much food for thought that I prefer it to an action-packed but ultimately empty sci-fi romp. Easily one of my higher up Hugo winner recommendations.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

First Contact With an Empire: Arkady Martine – A Desolation Called Peace

Arkady Martine had the hellish job of following her Hugo Award winning A Memory Called Empire with a book that was, somehow, supposed to keep up. To me, this second book set in the Teixcalaanli Empire didn’t quite live up to its predecessor but rather suffered from middle book syndrome. Nonetheless, I would still recommend it because although it fails to come up with much that’s new, it is still a very entertaining story told through fantastic characters.

A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE
by Arkady Martine

Published: Tor, 2021
eBook:
496 pages
Series:
Teixcalaan #2
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: To think—not language. To not think language.

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

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

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

Mahit Dzmare is back on Lsel station and people there are not happy with her. After the events of the first book, it was clear that the leaders of her home wouldn’t receiver her with open arms. For one, Mahit’s imago machine has been tampered with, leading to the tumultous events of the first book, and secondly, the secret of Lsel Station is now out as the Empire knows about imago technology and might want to use it for their own gain. So, needless to say, Mahit’s mission counts as failed. The question is, though, what they will do with her. Send her back to the Empire as an embassador? Unlikely. Have her disappear conveniently? Maybe. But thankfully, Three Seagrass and the alien fleet knocking on the Empire’s doors come to the rescue. Sort of.

I loved the introduction of some new viewpoint characters, especially Eight Antidote, the former Emperor’s 90% clone, currently an 11-year-old boy. His exploration of his city, the way he learns about the Empire, about politics, about how people work and how manipulative they can be, was just so much fun to read. Eight Antidote felt like a child but at the same time brought this immense wisdom with him. Most importantly, however, he has a good heart and quickly makes up his mind about what’s right and what’s wrong and everything in between. Through his eyes, we get to see what’s happening in the city of Teixcalaan and what’s up with Nineteen Adze.
But we also get to meet Nine Hibiscus, woh is commanding the Teixcalaanli Fleet currently fighting the aliens. Although I wouldn’t consider her a major character, her relationship with her most trusted friend Twenty Cicada carried most of the emotional impact of this book for me. Mahit and Three Seagrass, in the meantime, join up with the fleet in order to make contact with those aliens. If you ask yourself whether these two are truly the most qualified people in Teixcalaan to do that, you are right. But Arkady Martine explains that away pretty quickly. They soon figure out that, although it’s really nothing like human language and has… interesting effects on them, the aliens do communicate. As soon as they’ve worked out a way to communicate back (at least they think that’s what they’re doing), they go on a mission to see if they can bring peace to the Empire without having to engage in huge battles and losing thousands of Teixcalaanli lives.

“She hadn’t been doing nothing. She’d been trying to recover her balance, her sense of herself, the shape of a life—any life—that could encompass both Lsel Station and Teixcalaan, two Yskandrs and one of her and whoever they were going to be.”

Now here’s the thing. I had certain expectations for this book and I know that is completely unfair and the author must have felt a ton of pressure anyway. I understand that and I acknowledge it. But that doesn’t change that I had those expectations and many of them were left unfulfilled. You see, they weren’t even crazy expectations. What I wanted the most was deeper world building. I wanted to learn more about all those small aspects of Teixcalaan that we only got to see a little in the first book. It was fine to just get snippets of information in Memory because that book had its own plot and didn’t need to go off on a tangent about the Sunlit, for example. But this second book, with a much less straightforward plot, with multiple POVs and settings, was the perfect chance to tell us more about that.
We learn very, very little new stuff about the Teixcalaanli Empire in this book, and most of it has to do with how the military operates. I found that interesting, don’t get me wrong, especially the part about the Shards (no spoilers!). So there are new ideas here that fit well into this galactic empire but, compared to the first book, there’s not much to dsicover. The feeling of that sprawling, well thought-out world Martine gave us in the first promised more to come and gave the impression that the author knows much more about that world and just didn’t tell us yet. Well, she’s still not telling us I guess. Not everyone needs to be Tolkien and actually have an answer to every single world-building question a reader could have. But in a 500 page book, I would expect a bit more than just one science-fictional idea (and one that isn’t new, at that). That’s not too much to ask, is it?

But the Teixcalaan novels aren’t really about the sci-fi technology or the aliens. They are about culture and identity, about belonging somewhere and maybe wanting to belong somewhere else. And in that aspect, Arkady Martine excels yet again! Mahit Dzmare is still utterly in love with the culture that’s trying to suppress and even erase her own. She knows that’s not quite right but she can’t help herself. And her relationship with Three Seagrass doesn’t make things easier. The dynamic between these two has changed considerably since the first book. Where they used to be embassador and cultural liaison – a pair with a clear hierarchy and power structure – they are now more than that. Things got personal but that also means they are more complicated. Does Three Seagrass still think of Mahit as a barbarian? Even if she thinks this lovingly (“my barbarian”), can such a relationship really ever work out? Shouldn’t both people involved feel that the other is their equal? It’s questions like this that the book tackles and handles really well. Without giving any straight answers – because there aren’t any – Martine makes you think and ponder for yourself.

But in this book, another culture (or even species) enters the floor. And although these aliens aren’t super original either, they pose an interesting question for Mahit and the Teixcalaanli Empire. Because we know what the Empire does – it conquers and takes and grows. And, as is the case with Mahit herself, it makes its citizens love it for that. But what if you can’t even communicate with the beings you are fighting? Seeing them as animals or lesser beings is easy when you don’t share a language, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t living beings who deserve respect.

The weakest part of this was the plot. Spread out between multiple POVs, nothing much really happens. Because Arkady Martine is an amazing writer, I enjoyed the book and was never bored, but looking back at it, I can’t say it brought the story that much forward. This is very much a middle book that advances a handful of aspects but leaves us mostly where we started. And if it weren’t so damn well written I would have rated it much lower but the author already made me care fo these characters in the first book and I still care about them now. So although I think it isn’t anywhere as good or original as A Memory Called Empire, I am looking froward to the next book in the series and will continue to recommend it to everyone who likes science fiction that makes you think.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good

Religion on the Discworld: Terry Pratchett – Small Gods

Ah, Discworld! Going back for another adventure is like coming home to a comfortable bed after a long trip. I’m still saving up my unread Discworld novels but after one year of pandemic, various lockdowns, vaccination frustration (mainly because I’m still unvaccinated and the world is a corrupt shithole that would rather save rich people than the ones most vulnerable), it was time for a comfort read. A book I knew would make me smile and give me back some hope in humanity. Enter Terry Pratchett.

SMALL GODS
by Terry Pratchett

Published: Corgi, 1992
Paperback: 400 pages
Series: Discworld #13
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: Now consider the tortoise and the eagle.

‘Just because you can’t explain it, doesn’t mean it’s a miracle.’

In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was: ‘Hey, you!’ This is the Discworld, after all, and religion is a controversial business. Everyone has their own opinion, and indeed their own gods, of every shape and size, and all elbowing for space at the top. In such a competitive environment, shape and size can be pretty crucial to make one’s presence felt. So it’s certainly not helpful to be reduced to appearing in the form of a tortoise, a manifestation far below god-like status in anyone’s book.

In such instances, you need an acolyte, and fast: for the Great God Om, Brutha the novice is the Chosen One – or at least the only One available. He wants peace and justice and brotherly love. He also wants the Inquisition to stop torturing him now, please…

Terry Pratchett’s writing always gives me warm and fuzzy feelings and somehow manages to regrow my hope in humanity. I have read just over half of the Discworld novels and with every one I finish, I get a bit sadder that there are fewer left I haven’t discovered yet. Then again, Discworld is not only re-readable but practically begging to be re-read because there are always references and jokes and little asides that you don’t get on your first read. What I’m saying is I am so grateful for Terry Pratchett and his books and this one is giving me a major book hangover and I want to just continue reading Discworld for the forseeable future.

As the title suggests, this book deals with religion on the Disc, specifically with Omnianism (at least at the beginning). We follow young Brutha, a novice at the Citadel, who has no aspirations to become anything higher than that because he has no aspirations at all. He is perfectly happy doing the jobs nobody else wants to do because he is secure in his faith and knows that somebody’s got to sweep the floor and pull out the weeds in the garden. People think he is slow or even stupid when in reality, Brutha is just quite and not particularly eloquent. He is alsounbearbly honest and people just don’t know how to handle that. When, one day, an eagle drops a tortoise into the Citadel garden where Brutha is working, and said tortoise turns out to be the Great God Om who immediately curses Brutha and everyone else who comes near him, things change. Brutha is the only one who can hear the tortoise-who-says-he’s-a-god and Om realizes that his mighty smiting powers aren’t what they used to be. In fact, no smiting is happening at all, no matter how hard Om tries.

Om, Brutha, and we readers are confronted with a mystery. Omnia is, after all, an entire country built on Omnianism, the belief in the One True God Om and his Teachings. Everybody prays to Om, there are priests and high priests and even a Quisition that takes care of non-believers in their own way (you have one guess). And since gods get their strength from the number of people who believe in them, Om should be perfectly able to do all the smiting he wants. And also to take a more elegant animal shape. Bulls or swans come to mind, so why is he stuck as a tortoise, the least dignified creature imaginable?
You’ve got to love Terry Pratchett for putting complex Roundworld ideas and concepts onto the Discworld and making them not only interesting but also funny. It becomes obvious very quickly that belonging to the church in some way does not equal believing in Om. Whether it’s fear of the Quisition and its terrifying leader Vorbis, or simply not thinking about it too hard and just doing what everyone else is doing (saying the prayer but not feeling it, and so on) – rituals and words may have originated from belief but they can very well exist without belief.

As with any Discworld novel, there are myriad little jokes and references, many of which I surely missed. But I did giggle at “Fedecks, the Messenger of the Gods” and the very familiar but slightly different Cut-Me-Own-Hand-Off Dhblah. Brutha and Om form a sort of friendship by necessity. Om realizes that he better hold on to the one true believer he has and Brutha is just a good guy who’s always willing to help. I came to care about Brutha so damn much and it goes to show again what a masterful storyteller Terry Pratchett was. Here you have a character who is presented as slow, whom others consider unintelligent, but who has the purest of hearts! And as is often the case with people who are underestimated, there is more to him than meets the eye. Because although he may not be able to read or write, Brutha has an excellent memory and can recite any of the great books written by Om’s prophets.
Brutha’s abilities are soon noticed by Vorbis, head of the Quisition, and he decides to take Brutha on a trip to Ephebe, the neighbouring country where many gods are worshipped. On this journey, we don’t just see the relationhip between Brutha and Om grow, we see a lot of charachter growth in general. Om is coming to terms with his own past actions and his frail existence as a (now) small god, Brutha is learning that church and belief aren’t the same thing, and Vorbis… well, Vorbis is the type of villain who is easy to hate and even easier to fear, mostly because he is so realistic!

[…]That on the whole, and by and large, if a man lived properly, not according to what any priests said, but according to what seemed decent and honest inside, then it would, at the end, more or less, turn out all right.

Humor is super subjective, we all know that. But there must be something about Terry Pratchett that almost everyone likes. Maybe it’s that he does so many different types of humor. There’s puns, there’s situational humor, there are funny lines and jokes, and there’s the comparison to our world that can make you laugh. So even if you hate puns, there’s still plenty of other funny stuff for you to enjoy. I’m someone who can be left quite cold when authors try their hand at quippy banter (or let’s say I only like a very particular type of quippy banter) but I giggled a lot throughout this book! I did laugh at the puns, I grinned at the references I got (someone shouting “Eureka!” and someone else asking if they’re going to take a bath), I laughed at Om’s outrage at being a tortoise

Bishops move diagonally. That’s why they often turn up where the kings don’t expect them to be.

The theme of this book is religion, or rather organized religion versus true faith, and how the two are not the same thing. But dealing only with religion, corrupt priests, in/exquisitors, and misguided novices, isn’t enough for Terry Pratchett. In Ephebe, things get rather philosophical. Meeting Didactylos (the Discworld’s Diogenes) and Urn was so much fun. Through these two, something that looks a lot like our Greek philosphy turns up on the Discworld, and through Urn’s interest in mechanics and playing around with steam, you can see the first hints of an industrial revolution. And adding the atheist soldier Simony into the mix gives a nice rounded picture of the diversity of belief. Because although this book is very funny, Terry Pratchett never makes fun of religion or people who believe. He doesn’t judge faith, he only judges those who misuse it for their own personal gain, who pretend to believe in order to have power over others.

But the thing that always, always gets me most with Terry Pratchett is his characters and his deep insight into humanity. I cannot tell you how much I love Brutha and how he grew on me over the course of this story. I’ve made this book sound like it’s full of talk about religion and gods and philosophy, but don’t worry, there is also a rather exciting plot. Apart from Brutha’s journey to Ephebe (on a ship!), there is also a trip through the desert – as befits the theme of the novel – and a thrilling climax. There’s lots of danger and moments that made me hold my breath, mostly because I feared for Brutha and, occasionally, for Om.
I held back tears on several occiasions, especially when Brutha realizes something ugly about the world. Because what he does after that realization is understand that, while other people may be greedy and ruthless, that’s now what he is like. So even when he has the chance to let a properly evil person die, he won’t do it. Why? Because it’s not right!

I think every reader of the Discworld novels has their favorite sub-series (mine is the Witches). This book is a standalone, meaning there will be no more stories about Brutha or the other characters. That doesn’t mean that some familiar characters don’t show up. Some of you may remember a certain History Monk named Lu-Tze and – of course – Death himself. I am a little sad that this is the only book with Brutha I’ll ever get to read but it was so impactful and so much fun that I don’t doubt I will re-read it someday. And now I’ll curl up and nurse my book hangover while poring over my Discworld Mapp and maybe cooking something from Nanny Ogg’s cook book.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Bloody excellent!

So That’s Why They Call it Grimdark: Joe Abercrombie – Last Argument of Kings

Finishing series is so satisfying that I thought I’d get right on it again in 2021. Picking this chunky tome led to some serious review delay but was also so much fun that I can’t begrudge Abercrombie any of his 670 pages. I said I’d read this book soon after the second book but that was one of those book blogger lies that we like to tell ourselves. 🙂
It’s been 6 years since I read Before They Are Hanged. But I guess better late than never, right? Especially when the ending is such a bombastic, fun thrill-ride!

LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS
by Joe Abercrombie

Published: Gollancz, 2008
Paperback: 670 pages
Series: The First Law #3
My rating: 7.75/10

Opening line: Superior Glokta stood in the hall, and waited. 

The end is coming.

Logen Ninefingers might only have one more fight in him – but it’s going to be a big one. Battle rages across the North, the King of the Northmen still stands firm, and there’s only one man who can stop him. His oldest friend, and his oldest enemy. It’s past time for the Bloody-Nine to come home.
With too many masters and too little time, Superior Glokta is fighting a different kind of war. A secret struggle in which no-one is safe, and no-one can be trusted. His days with a sword are far behind him. It’s a good thing blackmail, threats and torture still work well enough.
Jezal dan Luthar has decided that winning glory is far too painful, and turned his back on soldiering for a simple life with the woman he loves. But love can be painful too, and glory has a nasty habit of creeping up on a man when he least expects it.
While the King of the Union lies on his deathbead, the peasants revolt and the nobles scramble to steal his crown. No-one believes that the shadow of war is falling across the very heart of the Union. The First of the Magi has a plan to save the world, as he always does. But there are risks. There is no risk more terrible, after all, than to break the First Law…

If you’ve read the first two books in the First Law Trilogy, you already know that Joe Abercrombie is great at writing characters but not so great when it comes to plot. The second book especially was about a quest that led to… nothing. Sure, you could argue that he was using fantasy tropes and turning them on their head but it’s also not very satisfying for a reader to follow a group of misfits on a Super Important Quest and then return home empty-handed. Which is exactly what happened and which is also where this final book picks up again.

Any lack of plot in the first two books (at least concerning some of the story lines) is gone now. Whether you follow Collem West, Dogman and his crew, Sand dan Glokta (oh, how I love Glokta!), Logen Ninefingers, Jezal dan Luthar, or Ferro Maljinn – they each have stories that clearly move forward and even have some spectecular exciting action sequences. Obviously, I can’t spoil any of them but while some are more epic than others, you can expect Big Things to happen for each of our main and secondary characters.

Which leads me, yet again, to my favorite part about this book and this series and Joe Abercrombie’s writing. His characters, while certainly not always lovable, are so life-like and believable that it’s honestly just fun hanging out with them even if they end up doing nothing (like in book 2 for example). The way he flawlessly changes voice and style creates this atmosphere that comes with each character. Logen’s repeated phrase “Say one thing about Logen Ninefingers” for example, or the way Ferro calls white people “pinks”, Jezal’s almost boyish naivetĂ© and, of course, Glokta’s sarcastic thoughts – they are all pretty simple devices if you think about it, but they are so effective. You open the book at any page and you know immediately which character you’re following.

And that’s just me appreciating the craft of it. What really stole my heart are the characters themselves which is a feat in an of itself. Because, let’s face it, they aren’t just “not perfect”, they each do things that are pretty despicable or at the very least morally questionable. My, and everyone else’s, favorite Sand dan Glokta is a torturer, let’s not forget that. Other people’s pain leaves him cold, maybe because he is in constant pain himself, but that shouldn’t excuse his lack of empathy but rather increase his compassion. It doesn’t, because although I love him dearly, he really isn’t a good person!
On the other hand, Jezal dan Luthar, that arrogant, self-absorbed, prancing moron, actually grew on me. The events of the second book did one thing – they made him want to become a better person. The quibbles I had with his sudden change don’t apply here because we clearly see that he wants to be better, we also see him struggling and not immediately doing it. His reunion with Ardee West which happens early on in the book didn’t go at all how I expected and neither of the two acted in a way I saw coming. I like when books surpsise me and when characters seem to have a mind of their own. Even if I don’t agree with that mind.
I also found a new appreciation for Logen in this book. Up until now I thought of his inner struggle and his self-castigation as just a thing he does because he “has a dark past” or whatever. From what we’ve seen of him so far, he’s actually a decent guy who just happens to get into terrible situations that often require killing in order to get out alive. In Last Argument of Kings, however, we see a different side of Logen, one that puts this series firmly in the grimdark subgenre.

As I mentioned already, this book brings all the plot that didn’t happen in the previous ones. There’s a lot of war, several epic battles, sieges, court intrigue, marriages of convenience, secrets that come to life, yearlong plans that come to fruition (or failure, depending on your perspective), and of course magic.
The magic system, if you want to call it that, is probably the series’ weakest aspect but I don’t think Abercrombie even wanted to create a magic system like Sanderson does. That’s not the focus of these books. I also enjoy when magic is something wild and uncontrollable, when it can’t be quantified or put in a neat table where spell X does Y and so on. That’s a little what it feels like here. Maybe there are rules to this magic, but they are so beyond the characters that we, the readers, definitely can’t make sense of it. Depending on what you want from a fantasy book, this may put you off. There is little enough magic as is and what little there is doesn’t make sense. But it looks cool. 🙂

Now I’d really like to talk a little about the ending but I have a no spoiler policy here, so this may not make much sense to people who haven’t read the book. The various plot strings lead to endings of very different kinds. You could say some characters’ stories end mostly well, others really bad, others somewhere in between. What you can’t say is that this book has an overall Happy Ending and I was glad about that. It would not have fit with the tone of these books and Abercrombie’s Lord Grimdark title. But I do have to say that I found certain parts quite unsatisfying.
Some characters reach a sort of point that feels like an end, but it is clear that for them it’s only one further step in their lives and things may still go to shit later. Other characters we just leave mid-story with hints of what’s to come next for them but no clear answers as to what actually happens. I both liked and disliked that. I loved how real it made this book feel. After all, when people disappear from our lives, that’s exactly what it’s like. You may not have seen your school friends since graduation and you may know what they planned to do with their lives but you have no idea what they actually did with their lives. I think my slight dissatisfaction stems from the way fiction tends to be written. We are so used to nicely wrapped up tales that end at a well-rounded point in a character’s life that any deviation from that norm grates somehow.
The overall ending, by which I mean the way this fictional world is left when we close the book, also felt like a lesson. Even if I tried to spoil it, I couldn’t exactly tell you whether I consider it a good or a bad ending. It’s as morally ambiguous as the characters and it doesn’t feel like an end.

Although this is a big book that took me quite a while to read, I enjoyed myself the entire time. There was a part, somewhere in the second half, that dragged on a bit and gave me the feeling that things just weren’t moving along at all. But other than that, there’s not much to complain. It’s been too long since I read the first two books in the trilogy but at least from my general memories of them, I think Joe Abercrombie has developed a whole lot between these books and I will continue reading what he writes. I hope his newer books feature more female characters and ones with a broader variety of personality.
But when I’m next in the mood for a grimdark world where everyone could stab you in the back, where things generally turn out the worst way possible, and where you can find yourself liking a ruthless torturer, I’ll be sure to pick up my next Abercrombie.

MY RATING: 7.75/10 – Very, very good!

The First Law Trilogy:

  1. The Blade Itself
  2. Before They Are Hanged
  3. Last Argument of Kings

Prescient and Hopeful: Octavia E. Butler – Parable of the Talents

It’s probably not a good idea to read post-apocalyptic books when the very real-world pandemic has just passed its first anniversary but if you do, make sure you choose Octavia Butler’s post-apocalyptic books! Having read and loved the first book in the Earthseed duology, Parable of the Sower, recently, I knew this would be dark and I knew I would like it anyway. Much like its predecessor, it manages to be both terrifying and hopeful.

PARABLE OF THE TALENTS
by Octavia E. Butler

Published: Seven Stories Press, 1998
Hardback: 410 pages
Audiobook: 15 hours 26 minutes
Series: Earthseed #2
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: They’ll make a god of her.

Octavia Butler tackles the creation of a new religion, the making of a god, and the ultimate fate of humanity in her Earthseed series, which began with Parable of the Sower, and now continues with Parable of the Talents. The saga began with the near-future dystopian tale of Sower, in which young Lauren Olamina began to realize her destiny as a leader of people dispossessed and destroyed by the crumbling of society. The basic principles of Lauren’s faith, Earthseed, were contained in a collection of deceptively simple proverbs that Lauren used to recruit followers. She teaches that “God is change” and that humanity’s ultimate destiny is among the stars.

In Parable of the Talents, the seeds of change that Lauren planted begin to bear fruit, but in unpredictable and brutal ways. Her small community is destroyed, her child is kidnapped, and she is imprisoned by sadistic zealots. She must find a way to escape and begin again, without family or friends. Her single-mindedness in teaching Earthseed may be her only chance to survive, but paradoxically, may cause the ultimate estrangement of her beloved daughter. Parable of the Talents is told from both mother’s and daughter’s perspectives, but it is the narrative of Lauren’s grown daughter, who has seen her mother made into a deity of sorts, that is the most compelling. Butler’s writing is simple and elegant, and her storytelling skills are superb, as usual. Fans will be eagerly awaiting the next installment in what promises to be a moving and adventurous saga.

If, like me, you thought Parable of the Sower was depressing and hopeful at the same time, then prepare yourself for more of the same, except, you know, different. Unlike the first book, this one isn’t told just through Lauren’s diary entries and her Earthseed verses. You still get those, but they are framed by Lauren’s daughter’s first person narration as she reads her mother’s diary and the Books of Earthseed. Interspersed among those are a few written words from Bankole as well, turning this book almost into a little family history.
I immediately liked the mixture of new perspectives with the familiar narration of the first book, especially because the audiobook narration was done really well by all three narrators. (I went all out for this book, getting the gorgeous hardback copies of the duology plus the audiobook for this one.)

But that’s where talking about this book stops being easy. Much like the first book, it deals with many dark themes and comes with a lot of trigger warnings!
Lauren Oya Olamina and her now husband Bankole have been living in Acorn for over five years, the community they built with like-minded people. They support each other, they grow their own food wherever possible, they live together in trust and friendship. And of course, they live by Lauren’s religion Earthseed which has grown a lot over the years. In other parts of the country, people even know about Earthseed as “that cult”. Althought things aren’t exactly idyllic, life is mostly good for Lauren, Bankole and their surviving friends. It doesn’t stay that way…

I will say very, very, very little about the plot of this book. Not because there are so many mind-blowing twists or surprising moments that I don’t want to spoil, but because this isn’t the kind of book where the plot is all that important. Things do happen (and fast!) and they are exciting and terrifying and wonderful and horrible and everything you can imagine. Reading this book for the plot alone will not disappoint you, but that’s not the heart of this novel or, I imagine, any of Octavia Butler’s novels.
In Parable of the Talents, a politician is running for office with the slogan “Make America Great Again” and if that doesn’t send shivers down your spine already, this will: Some of his followers are wannabe Super-Christians who call themselves the Church of Christian America and of course they hate everyone and everything different from their own, narrow world view. Ring a bell? Remind you of anyone? Anyway, add to that a splinter group or a supposedly small, independent part of these Super-Christians, that isn’t satisfied with simply thinking and saying bad things about people of different beliefs, but who actively go after them, beat, rape, enslave, and kill them. It was incredibly chilling, reading about this Church of Christian America and how they try to justify terrible acts (which I can’t imagine any god would condone) in the name of keeping their country “pure”. It would have been chilling at any time, but in the current political climate, it was even worse, simply because what happens in this book doesn’t feel far-fetched at all! We may not have special technology electroshock collars that we use on people to enslave them, but we do have people in this world who believe everyone who doesn’t fit into their own narrow idea of personhood, doesn’t deserve to live. So this may be shelves as science-fiction and near-future but it didn’t really feel like it.

Clashing religions and political unrest aren’t the only themes in this book, however. This is still Lauren’s story and with a baby entering her life, things are about to change. Because we experience the book through flashbacks, we know that Lauren’s daughter grows up to be at least old enough to read her mother’s writing. What we don’t know is whether Lauren herself survives long enough to see her dream of an Earthseed society fulfilled.
I loved how Parable of the Talents approached the theme of family, both blood family and found family. I’m a sucker for found families and the entire duology is pretty much about that, on a large scale. It may start with Lauren building a small community that lives by what Earthseed teaches. But her plan is to convince the entire world that Earthseed is truth and that humanity’s future lies among the stars. Big dreams for a young woman, you may rightly think, but this book tells the story of how such dreams could be realized. Lauren’s approach to teaching her beliefs changes throughout the years and I really enjoyed watching her evolve as a person. I can’t say I always understood or agreed with her, but she is one hell of a fascinating protagonist to read about.

As for the writing style, I enjoyed it as much as I did in the first book. The three narrators each had distinct voices, which was even more obvious in the audiobook than in the paper copy because they were actually narrated by three different people. But I believe if I opened my book at a random point and read a few lines, I could easily tell whose narration I was reading.
I also appreciate how Octavia Butler describes the horrors that happen in her story. It might be tempting for a writer to go into gratuitous detail in the torture or murder scenes, just to elicit emotions from the readers. But Butler went a different route. In fact, the most terrifying events, aren’t described very much at all. They are mostly stated as fact, something that happened, but that we don’t want to dwell on. Considereing this is Lauren’s first person narrative, it makes even more sense to do it that way, because who would recount a traumatic event in vivid detail when they are still under shock?
That said, the sparse descriptions of the various horrors doesn’t lessen their effect at all. I may even have been more shaken by the simple statement of “Yesterday, my friend was raped.” than I would have been if some long-winded description had foreshadowed it. But be aware when reading this book, that although Lauren has a support system now, that doesn’t mean her life gets easier.

The ending of the book came a bit fast compared to the rest, but I found it very fitting and believable. Just like in real life, some things work out the way we hope, and others don’t. Some plot strings lead to nowhere, others aren’t quite resolved, yet others lead to a completely different destination than we had expected. And since I have to stay vague in order not to spoil anything, I’ll just say that I found the way this story wrapped up altogether satisfying. It kept the tone of these books perfectly, showing us that this is an imperfect world with many, many problems, but that there is always hope. And hope can start as the smallest thing. Like a thought in the mind of a young girl, written down in her diary, and tended to until it grows into something so big it might just change the world.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Indian-Inspired Fantasy With Strong Characters: Tasha Suri – Empire of Sand

The days of alternate Medieval Europe as the one and only setting for the fantasy genre are well and truly over. The last decade has brought us increasingly diverse fantasy stories told by equally diverse people whose voices feel so fresh and new because they were left unheard for so long. Tasha Suri is only one among those voices but she demands to be heard. Her debut novel Empire of Sand was so good, you guys!

EMPIRE OF SAND
by Tasha Suri

Published: Orbit, 2018
eBook: 402 pages
Series: The Books of Ambha #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: Mehr woke to a soft voice calling her name.

A nobleman’s daughter with magic in her blood. An empire built on the dreams of enslaved gods. Empire of Sand is Tasha Suri’s captivating, Mughal India-inspired debut fantasy.

The Amrithi are outcasts; nomads descended of desert spirits, they are coveted and persecuted throughout the Empire for the power in their blood. Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an exiled Amrithi mother she can barely remember, but whose face and magic she has inherited.

When Mehr’s power comes to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, she must use every ounce of will, subtlety, and power she possesses to resist their cruel agenda — and should she fail, the gods themselves may awaken seeking vengeance…

Empire of Sand is a lush, dazzling fantasy novel perfect for readers of City of Brass and The Wrath & the Dawn.

There’s a reason Tasha Suri was nominated for an Astounding Award for Best New Writer and everybody seems to love her. It’s because she’s a damn good writer who effortlessly created a Mughal India-inspired fantasy world that feels fresh but still familiar enough for fans of fantasy tropes to enjoy.

Mehr lives a privileged but difficult life. Her father is a wealthy nobleman but her mother – now exiled – belonged to the Amrithi, a nomad people that is outcast from the rest of  society. They are seen as a sort of witches who are, at the same time, looked down upon and feared. For when the daiva come, it is the Amrithi whose blood can keep them at bay.
I fell completely and utterly in love with the world of this novel during the first few chapters. Through Mehr’s eyes, we are introduced not only to the Empire itself but also to some of its societal intricacies. Mehr is called to her little sister Arwa’s room because a daiva (a spirit) is scaring her. With confidence and grace, Mehr handles the situation and shows us not only how competent she is but also how deep her love for her little sister runs and how difficult her life is. Because the girls’ stepmother doesn’t want Arwa to grow up learning about her mother’s culture and beliefs. While it’s too late to keep Mehr from following “heathen” rituals, the younger sister can still be “saved”.

The plot kicks off when Mehr is married off to a man for the usual reasons. Political power, being rid off the half-Amrithi girl, you know the deal. But when Mehr is picked up by the Empire’s mystics and meets her future husband Amun, she soon learns that there is way more to her impening union than meets the eye. Her Amrithi heritage is not only knowing and performing certain rites, or even having special blood that can keep dangerous daiva at bay. And if Mehr doesn’t want to be used by power-hungry people, she and Amun will have to come up with something fast!

Although I wouldn’t consider certain aspects of this book as a spoiler, I am keeping things very vague for those of you who like to be completely surprised. Because let me tell you, this book has a few good surprises up its sleeve.
I loved most things about this story, so I’ll start with the one  I found the weakest: the plot. It starts out well enough, promising an exploration of a rich world with several cultures juxtaposed, societal norms, and a killer premise (force marriage and leaving a beloved sister behind!). Then comes a plot twist and after than, unfortunately, follows a bit of a dragging middle part. At the end, the plot picked up again but it was fairly predictable what would happen. So I was most intrigued at the very beginning. The kind of intrigued where you think about the book constantly when you can’t read it. After the main story was all set up, however, I lost a bit of interest. I still enjoyed reading the book when I picked it up but that urge to go read immediately when I get the chance was gone. Buuuut that was only one aspect of this book and literally everything else about it was phenomenal.

Possibly my favorite thing was the world buildling. Granted, I’m a sucker for non-European settings in fantasy, so I’m easy to please. But, Tasha Suri does more than just set her story in South Asia and give her characters Indian-inspired names. She built an entire world that feels real and lived-in, like it has centures of history that we don’t get to read about but whose influence and impact we feel on the page. I especially loved how easy it was to learn about the differences between Mehr’s Amrithi culture and the predominant cultures and/or beliefs in the Empire. Although they’re not described in great detail, it’s clear that different areas of the Empire aren’t all the same. Just like any kingdom/empire/country large enough, its people aren’t one big homogenous mass but each area has its own little rites, fashions, and behaviours.
I was super impressed how well the world came to life in this debut novel!

Adding to that, Tasha Suri also writes fantastic characters. I was immediately rooting for Mehr, not only because of her bond to her little sister and her strong wish to keep her mother’s heritage alive inside herself, but also because she is mentally strong, hopeful despite the odds, and loyal to a fault. The man she’s supposed to marry, Amun, may come across as gruff at first but at least I found it obvious from the start that there is more to him than you may think at first. His character was a lot of fun to read because his personality slowly unfolded over the course of the story. I really liked him and getting to know him better and better was a joy.
But even side characters, ones that appear only fleeingly and ones that recur, feel like proper human beings with their own hopes and wishes and that’s something that many debut authors struggle with. Many manage to write a compelling protagonist but forget that the other characters are supposed to be three-dimensional, too. Not so Tasha Suri. Even the somewhat tropey “evil stepmother” character didn’t come across like a clichĂ© but rather like someone who means well and is doing her best, in her own (maybe narrow-minded) world. Even though she doesn’t get a lot of time on the page, having this kind of side character makes the entire book so much more compelling.

And after all that praise I haven’t even mentioned the magic yet. I won’t say much about it because discovering how it works is part of the plot and even more part of Mehr’s character growth. But to give you an idea of what to expect: This is not a neat Sanderson-style magic system where every move has exactly one outcome and things feel almost mathematical. It’s the kind of wild magic that refuses to be controlled, that doesn’t always make logical sense (because duh, it’s magic!) but that feels all the more exciting for it. I particularly liked that this magic is performed not through spells or brewing something up, but rather through movement of body. Tasha Suri described her magic well enough to convey it as dance-like but left enough room for the imagination. I sometimes saw the rites as a dance, sometimes as a sort of yoga flow, but it’s definitely something I haven’t seen done before and that’s always a plus.

I picked this book up because I was excited for Tasha Suri’s upcoming The Jasmine Throne and didn’t want to wait until June to sample her writing. Plus, when she was nominated for an Astounding Award, I didn’t get to this book and have felt a bit guilty ever since. Now at least I know that her nomination was more than deserved and I may just read Realm of Ash, the companion novel, before diving into her newest work.

MY RATING:  7.5/10 – Very, very good!

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

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

THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER
by Andrea Stewart

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

Opening line: Father told me I’m broken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

 

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

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

A DEADLY EDUCATION
by Naomi Novik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very Good!

 

Fairy Tales With a Twist: Rainbow Rowell, Nic Stone, Soman Chainani, Ken Liu, and Gayle Forman – The Faraway Series (Amazon Publishing)

This series of short stories caught my eye not only because it’s fairy tales with a twist but also because these stories are written by  authors I was already interested in. The only one I’ve read before is Soman Chainani, but I’ve at least heard of most of the others. And. I just can’t walk away from a new fairy tale retelling.

FARAWAY
by Rainbow Rowell, Nic Stone, Soman Chainani, Ken Liu, Gayle Forman

Published: Amazon Publishing, 2020
eBook: 171 pages
Series: Faraway #1 – #5
My rating: 7/10

Faraway is a collection of retold fairy tales that take the happily-ever-after in daring new directions. Whether read or listened to in one sitting, prepare to be charmed, moved, enlightened, and frightened all over again.

As with any story collection, quality varies and everyone will prefer different stories over others. But I have to say I like the idea for these stories. Each tackling a well-known fairy tale and telling a version “for the here and now”. I don’t know exactly what the authors were told to do, whether they could choose their own fairy tale or were assigned one, but it’s interesting to see how they went in such different directions.

Rainbow Rowell sets her story in a (probably?) post-apocalyptic, strange world and focuses on character relationship. Nic Stone and Soman Chainani both leave their feet firmly on real-world ground, but both chose very dark topics, as befits a fairy tale if you ask me. The two were my favorite stories.

Ken Liu did some amazing world building and set up intriguing characters but forgot to tell a story with them. And Gayle Forman stuck closely to three fairy tale characters who all live in the same fairy tale universe together.

That said, all the stories were entertaining to read and I didn’t hate any of them.

Rainbow Rowell – The Prince and the Troll (3/5)

As my first taste of Rainbow Rowell’s writing, this wasn’t bad. It’s the story of Adam, who lives by the road, which is very lucky because the road is beautiful and safe. Adam meets a woman (a troll?) who lives under a bridge and strikes up a sort of friendship with her, expressed through daily Starbucks coffees.
While the budding relationship was okay to read about, I was much more interested in the world these characters inhabit. We don’t get much information but there is a strange post-apocalyptic feel to it and the road is the only safe place, except not really? Unfortunately, this idea doesn’t really go anywhere and we’re left with a well told but ultimately flat tale. The ending also didn’t feel very satisfying and I didn’t see the point of the little twist, because it changes nothing.

Nic Stone – Hazel and Gray (4/5)

This modern take on Hansel and Gretel  managed to be super dark without ever feeling too dark. Hazel and Gray are young and in love but Hazel’s stepfather forbids them to see each other. Hazel’s stepfather also has wandering eyes and sometimes creeps up on Hazel looking at her decidedly unfatherly. So the two teens sneak away, get lost in the woods, and stumble upon a big house. In hope of finding a phone to use or at least figure out how to get back home, they enter and… well, they find something unexpected that I don’t want to spoil for you.
I really liked this story. It manages to pack a bit of backstory as well as the dark and sinister main plot and while things wrap up rather neatly, I found the conclusion satisfying and the fairy tale twist well done.

Soman Chainani – The Princess Game (5/5)

My favorite story of the bunch! Told through transcribed audio recordings of a police investigation at a prestigious High School, this is the story of a murder investigation. Girls are being killed off in “fairy tale style”. A girl stabbed with a spindle, another with her voice box cut out, yet another stabbed with glass slippers… Former undercover cop Pederson is trying to get to the bottom of it by interrogating the “Princes”, the High School’s jocks and his friends (up until they learned he was a cop, at least). These interviews were chilling to read and deal with topics such as toxic masculinity, High School pressure, gossip, social media, and many more.
I loved everything about this! It is suspenseful, the characters (aptly named after Disney princes) felt real, and the revelation of the killer is absolutely chilling!
Side note: I’m quite curious what the audiobook version of this is like. If you’ve listened to it, please let me know: Are there different narrators for the characters? Is it just one narrator reading in different voices? This would be so cool as an audio drama!

Ken Liu – The Cleaners (2.5/5)

Although my most anticipated of these stories, this turned out to be my least favorite. Ken Liu tells us of three characters in an intriguing world where memories cling to objects, letting the person touching it receive a jolt of emotion. Gui is a cleaner, and one who can do his job easily because he is lacking the power to feel memories or emotions from objects. Clara is also a cleaner but one who works with gloves that sometimes aren’t enough to protect her from receiving terrible memories.
Her sister Beatrice has a heightened sense and works as a lawyer. When she touches an object, she sees full memories rather than just impressions. That’s all very intriguing!
We get snippets of these three characters’ lives and how they deal with their jobs but this story’s problem is that it doesn’t tell a story. It’s just an introduction to a world and characters with no real beginning, middle or end. I would totally read a novel based on this but on its own, the tale just didn’t work for me.

Gayle Forman – The Wickeds (3.5/5)

And the last of the Faraway tales is all about the evil mothers from Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel. These three – now rather aged and much hated by the kingdoms – team up and decide to embrace their wickedness together. If the gossip magazines say they are evil, then why not actually be a little evil? In this story we learn that things didn’t happen quite the way we remember from the original fairy tales and it also makes sure to teach us a Feminist Lesson in each chapter. Now, I’m all for the message, but I prefer it to be delivered with a bit more subtlety than three women with wrinkles smashing a mirror…
I thought each chapter’s message was too obvious and not very original in its execution. The whole “it didn’t happen that way, I’m actually the good guy” idea is so old and worn, I didn’t really care. But the three women do come together in a sort of friendship which is really nice and the ending was actually so good that it turned things around for me.


I find it interesting that my favorite stories are the ones with absolutely no speculative elements to them. That doesn’t sound like me at all, but maybe it’s the combination of fairy tales and a completely different genre that works so well. Fairy tales already have magic. Putting them in a real world setting while keeping some fairy tale elements with feels cleverer than just continuing a fairy tale in its own world.

While this is not a groundbreaking collection of stories, I do wholeheartedly recommend “The Princess Game” and “Hazel and Gray”, and I’m also happy that I now know Nic Stone. I had never read anything by her, nor even heard of her. But someone who handles such dark themes so deftly might even get me to pick up a contemporary YA book. Even if it has no magic in it.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good