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

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!

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!

A Family Saga With a Dash of Magic: Zoraida CĂłrdova – The Inheritance of OrquĂ­dea Divina

I have read one previous book by Zoraida CĂłrdova, the first in her Brooklyn Brujas series (which I never continued, shame on me) and I remember really liking it. Now the author has published her first novel for adults and it sounded amazing, so I couldn’t wait to pick it up. Also, look at that beautiful cover!

THE INHERITANCE OF ORQUĂŤDEA DIVINA
by Zoraida CĂłrdova

Published: Atria Books, 2021
eBook:
336 pages
Standalone
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: You are invited to my home on May 14, the Year of the Hummingbird.

The Montoyas are used to a life without explanations. They know better than to ask why the pantry never seems to run low or empty, or why their matriarch won’t ever leave their home in Four Rivers—even for graduations, weddings, or baptisms. But when Orquídea Divina invites them to her funeral and to collect their inheritance, they hope to learn the secrets that she has held onto so tightly their whole lives. Instead, Orquídea is transformed, leaving them with more questions than answers.
Seven years later, her gifts have manifested in different ways for Marimar, Rey, and Tatinelly’s daughter, Rhiannon, granting them unexpected blessings. But soon, a hidden figure begins to tear through their family tree, picking them off one by one as it seeks to destroy Orquídea’s line. Determined to save what’s left of their family and uncover the truth behind their inheritance, the four descendants travel to Ecuador—to the place where Orquídea buried her secrets and broken promises and never looked backed.
Alternating between OrquĂ­dea’s past and her descendants’ present, The Inheritance of OrquĂ­dea Divina is an enchanting novel about what we knowingly and unknowingly inherit from our ancestors, the ties that bind, and reclaiming your power.

It’s a bit surprising to me that this book managed to sweep me off my feet at the end. Because it’s not the kind of story I usually like, the family saga with no clear protagonist, that lets us see glimpses of this family member, then that, painting a big picture rathern than intimate portraits of individual people. I like to dive deep into characters so this book was never really meant for readers like me. All the more impressive how much I ended up liking it.

The Montoya family members each receive a mysterious letter from their grandmother OrquĂ­dea to come to the family house in Four Rivers for her funeral. She’s going to die soon and wants to give them their inheritance. But this is not about money and riches (although some people are very interested in who inherits the house!), but rather about magic and legacy. Because OrquĂ­dea and the entire Montoya family have always been mixed up with a peculiar sort of magic. Whether it’s that OrquĂ­dea’s house seemed to spring up in the valley overnight, the fact that she never left the house, that her children and grandchildren tended to be lucky… it’s all because of a deal OrquĂ­dea made and now that she’s dying, it’s up to her progeny to pay the price.

The story takes a while to find its footing but by the halfway point, I was finally into it. The book’s strongest part is definitely the flashbacks that tell of OrquĂ­dea’s life. Not only is young OrquĂ­dea a sympathetic character with flaws and problems galore, but her story is always interesting, full of magic and heartbreak and hope, and it slowly reveals where OrquĂ­dea’s powers come from and why she was the strange old lady she turned out to be in the end.

The storyline of the present suffered a bit from being about not one, but two, and actually kind of three, characters. Marimar and Rey, cousins and OrquĂ­dea’s grandchildren, as well as their niece Rhiannon are our main characters if this story can be said to have main characters in the present timeline. We see each of their lives a little bit, follow them for a couple of chapters, but never really focus on either one of them. And while the portrayal of these people was expertly done, it’s just not the kind of thing I enjoy in my fiction. Little snippets here and there are nice but I want immersion, I want to follow these characters during their growth, not jump between them. That’s really a matter of personal taste, however, and if you like this sort of story then definitely pick up this book.

The first half of the book also had a pacing problem. We spend entire chapters on the family arriving at OrquĂ­dea’s house and going through the whole inheritance/funeral craziness in a lot of detail, learning about a hundred names we won’t (and, luckily, won’t have to) remember. Although I though CordĂłva did her best with the dialogue, juggling this many characters made this part feel chaotic and not particularly immersive. I much preferred the montage chapters, where we follow one character over a long period of time. It’s a completely different sort of storytelling but CordĂłva does it so well and creates so much atmosphere that this was the part that made me start liking the book.

I also loved how the individual elements all come together in the end, how mysteries are solved and how the magic system (if you want to call it that) is explained. At first this didn’t feel like the kind of book that would resolve things so nicely because everyone seems to just casually accept the weird magic that runs through their lives, and it would have been perfectly fine if it had been left vague, but it ended up making sense internally and all the puzzle pieces fit together. So yes, I loved the ending! And a book that starts out a bit slow or unfocused but gets better continuously is always preferable to a book that does it the other way round.
I liked CordĂłva’s writing when I read her YA debut novel, but now I’m convinced that she has a lot more in store. Whether it’s YA or adult, fantasy or something else entirely, I’ll be waiting excitedly for her next book.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!

Raising the Stakes and Breaking My Heart: R. F. Kuang – The Dragon Republic

It’s hard not to be impressed by the skill with which Rebecca Kuang came onto the SFF scene. With her debut novel, one could have still thought it was a mixture of luck, enugh time to polish the book, or whatever else. But this second book of hers – the difficult middle book of a trilogy, no less – seals Kuang’s place as one of the most exciting and best SFF writers of our time.
Also, she’s really good at breaking readers’ hearts.

SPOILERS FOR THE POPPY WAR BELOW!!!

THE DRAGON REPUBLIC
by R. F. Kuang

Published: Harper Voyager, 2019
eBook:
675 pages
Series:
The Poppy War #2
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: “Come on,” Mingzha begged. “Please, I want to see.” Nezha seized his brother by his chubby wrist and pulled him back from the shallows.

In the aftermath of the Third Poppy War, shaman and warrior Rin is on the run: haunted by the atrocity she committed to end the war, addicted to opium, and hiding from the murderous commands of her vengeful god, the fiery Phoenix. Her only reason for living is to get revenge on the traitorous Empress who sold out Nikan to their enemies.

With no other options, Rin joins forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who has a plan to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new Republic. Rin throws herself into his war. After all, making war is all she knows how to do.

But the Empress is a more powerful foe than she appears, and the Dragon Warlord’s motivations are not as democratic as they seem. The more Rin learns, the more she fears her love for Nikan will drive her away from every ally and lead her to rely more and more on the Phoenix’s deadly power. Because there is nothing she won’t sacrifice for her country and her vengeance

The sequel to R.F. Kuang’s acclaimed debut THE POPPY WAR, THE DRAGON REPUBLIC combines the history of 20th-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating effect.

The war is over yet the war continues. While Rin is dealing with her guilt over having committed genocide and getting more and more dependent on the opium that keeps her Phoenix god quiet, the world hasn’t stood still. Nikan is devastated from the Third Poppy War, the Empress is still sitting on the throne and doing her best to hunt down and kill Rin and the Cike. But Rin manages to team up with the only force that stands a chance against the Nikara Military – the Dragon Warlord, none other than Nezha’s father, who wishes to turn their Empire into a Republic. Even if that means waging more war before, finally, peace can come.

In tone, this book is similar to its predecessor, except where we got at least a short period of relative peace when Rin was being trained at Sinegard, this time it’s war and doom from the get go. Rin and the Cike are in a bad place, her relationship to Kitay is fraught, to put it mildly, and Rin is still reeling from losing Altan.
The fact that Yin Vaisra, Dragon Warlord, picks her up and intends to use her as his own personal weapon in the war against the Empress, comes just right for her. A girl who has never learned how to do anything other than make war, she doesn’t even care that she’s making herself a pawn in someone else’s game. She just wants to kill Daji, avenge Altan, and forget the atrocious things she’s done.

This book, just like The Poppy War, was an event. I literally shook my head in amazement in every chapter at how brilliantly Kuang depicts her characters and their complex, complicated emotions. It’s also quite astonishing that we can still sympathize with Rin who has, let’s face it, killed an entire people all by herself!
But The Dragon Republic isn’t only more battles, a different kind of war (Nikara against Nikara), and Rin drowning her sorrows in opium. Kuang introduces new conflicts, shows us many new aspects of this world, and so manages to fill the almost 700 pages of this book without ever dragging the plot. I don’t quite understand how she managed it but there isn’t a scene in this chonker of a book that I think could be cut without making the book ever so slightly worse.

As a character-focused reader, I particularly enjoyed seeing the relationships betweent he characters evolve and change. Don’t get me wrong, this world is still damn dark and not everyone suddenly turns into friends just because they’re fighting on the same side of this war. But I’m a sucker for Rin and Kitay’s friendship, strained as it may be, and I never thought it would happen, but I am totally behind Rin and Nezha becoming friends (or maybe even more). Even Venka, who wasn’t exactly the most multi-layered person, grew on me up to the point where I’m rooting for her. And I think it’s because Kuang manages to make all her characters, villains and “good” people alike, so complex and real that it hurts all the more when one of them dies, that their betrayals are felt so much deeper, that their sacrifices touch our hearts more. In case you haven’t guessed yet, this book made me cry again. On several occasions.

The world of Nikan and its pantheon also has more to offer than we first thought. Not only does Rin learn more about her gods and where her own powers come from, we also meet people from different places and cultures and it made the whole world of this book richer. On the one hand, there are the Ketreyids from up north, Chaghan and Qara’s people, about whom I won’t say much because spoilers.
On the other hand, the Dragon Warlors has invited the Hesperians to follow along on his war campaign in the hopes of gaining their help. They promise a fleet of ships but only if the Nikara can prove they are “civilized” enough to merit Hesperian help. Oh, and of course they’d like to study Rin and her superpowers. The Hesperians’ presence was super sinister throughout the entire book and I can only imagine that things will get even worse before they get better (if they do get better).

The ending was once more this culmination of events that put my emotions through the meat grinder. Between big battles, strategic decisions, dangerous missions, betrayal, sacrifice, almost-deaths and actual deaths, I had barely time to breathe. The final chapters of this book left me half-angry, half-sobbing and mostly convinced that this series as a whole will not end well. If you don’t mind feeling like shit because the characters you’ve grown to love live through horrible, horrible things, then by god, pick up this series! I’ve reluctantly started the final volume and I both desperately want to know what happens but also don’t want it to end. It’s that kind of trilogy and no matter how things turn out, it’s not one I’ll easily forget.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

Africanfuturism at Its Best: Nnedi Okorafor – Noor

I was so lucky to be granted a review copy of Nnedi Okorafor’s newest (and one of her best!) books. Thanks to DAW for the e-ARC. It is much appreciated, especially since it turned out to be truly brilliant. Nnedi Okorafor achieves in 200 pages what other authors can only dream of achiving in twice as many. The future she paints is vivid, believable, and peopled with diverse characters. I really, really loved it.

NOOR
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published: DAW, 16th November 2021
eBook:
224 pages
Standalone
My rating:
9/10

Opening line: I would never do this again. But for the moment, I survived.

From Africanfuturist luminary Okorafor comes a new science fiction novel of intense action and thoughtful rumination on biotechnology, destiny, and humanity in a near-future Nigeria.

Anwuli Okwudili prefers to be called AO. To her, these initials have always stood for Artificial Organism. AO has never really felt…natural, and that’s putting it lightly. Her parents spent most of the days before she was born praying for her peaceful passing because even in-utero she was wrong. But she lived. Then came the car accident years later that disabled her even further. Yet instead of viewing her strange body the way the world views it, as freakish, unnatural, even the work of the devil, AO embraces all that she is: A woman with a ton of major and necessary body augmentations. And then one day she goes to her local market and everything goes wrong.

Once on the run, she meets a Fulani herdsman named DNA and the race against time across the deserts of Northern Nigeria begins. In a world where all things are streamed, everyone is watching the reckoning of the murderess and the terrorist and the saga of the wicked woman and mad man unfold. This fast-paced, relentless journey of tribe, destiny, body, and the wonderland of technology revels in the fact that the future sometimes isn’t so predictable. Expect the unaccepted.

I believe the last time I was this taken with a Nnedi Okorafor book was when I picked up Binti and marveled at how much a truly great author can pack into such a little package. Noor is longer than a novella, but for a novel it’s still pretty slim. Don’t let that fool you into thinking it doesn’t have teeth, though. There is a lot to discover between its covers and I’m still reeling a bit. I also pre-ordered a hardback copy, just to give you an indication of how impressed I am.

AO just wants to live a quiet life without being judged on sight. She’s an auto mechanic in Abuja where people have come to know and accept her for who she is. She may not like that they call her “more machine than human” because that’s just not true, but at least she is accepted as a member of society and can go about her business like anyone else. Until, that is, shortly after her boyfriend had left her, she goes to market to buy some food and a handful of men decide that she is an abomination and must be punished. Well, it’s not smart attacking a woman with a bionic arm… A few heartbeats later, AO is looking at the result of the men’s violent attack and realizes she has to run. Police are never going to see her side and so she flees north into the Sahel desert and closer to the natural disaster known as the Red Eye, a huge sandstorm that only few managed to survive.

It is on her rather aimless journey that she meets a man who feels equally uprooted, who has lost what he considered his normal life as well and is being hunted as a terrorist. So AO joins this man, DNA, and his two steer GPS and Carpe Diem and they try to find a new purpose together, a reason to live, and a place to be accepted just the way they are.

I loved everything about this story, beginning with its incredible protagonist AO who probably has more than a little Nnedi Okorafor in her. If you’ve read her non-fiction TED book Broken Places & outer Spaces (which I highly recommend, btw) you’ll know that Okorafor lost the use of her legs at a young age and regained it only through hard work and a lot of pain. It’s not quite the same as her character AO but there pere parallels and certain descriptions that made me think it’s not all imagination but some of it was real, lived experience. When AO decides to replace her crushed legs with bionic ones, people aren’t exactly supportive and part of the reason for that is that you can only make those legs work if you withstand a lot of pain. AO sees the world through a red fog of pain for a long time before she can walk with ease.
I also adored DNA – short for Dangote Nuhu Adamu – the Fulani herdsman in the desert, who loves his steer dearly but who also has a nomadic family. Unfortunately, the Fulani are seen as little more than terrorists by other people when all DNA wants to do is live quietly with his steer, maybe a wife someday and some kids, with no ambitions for riches or glory. Much like AO, he is simply looking for acceptance in a world that refuses to see him as he truly is.

I’d always had it coming. In the dark this was all clear. I emerged from the warm protective darkness of my mother’s womb poorly made. A mess. And then years later, fate had unmade me. How dare I embrace what I was and wasn’t, and build my self?

Speaking of the world – Nnedi Okorafor packed so much world-building into this book, it’s hard to believe. Starting with the Red Eye, that eternal sandstorm that has changed the lives of people living nearby dramatically, to the constant presence of Ultimate Corp who harness the Red Eye’s wind power to send energy to other places around the world. The way technology, the internet, drones, and bionic limbs work in this world, was also highly interesting. It all goes together so well and paints the picture of a real, lived-in world, a believable portrait of the future with both good and not-so-good sides. Another thing I loved (even though we’re used to it from Okorafor’s fiction) is the focus on Africa, Nigeria and its surrounding countries in particular. Sure, you might say that’s the whole point of Africanfuturism, but it is still refreshing when the US or Europe are only mentioned in passing as places that exist but that are not the center of this story.

As much as Nnedi Okorafor has to say about making yourself into the person you want to be, about freedom, about big corporations getting rich on the backs of cultures they think worthless, about preserving a way of life, and finding friends and maybe even love in the most unlikely situations, what she also does is write a damn good action scene! Because although I haven’t mentioned it yet, Noor‘s plot kicks serious ass right from the start and with hardly any pauses. Whether it’s entering a deadly sandstorm, making crazy plans to save someone in need, being confronted with an army of drones, or surviving a physical attack – I held my breath many times while reading this book. And then came the twists which made me gasp out loud. Add to that the moments of emotional resonance, the quieter character-focused scenes, and you’ve got a novel that does pretty much everything right.

I already know I will nominate this book fo r a Hugo Award next year. It was so impressive on so many levels and mixes themes and subgenres in a way that only Okorafor does. If you like her writing already, go and buy yourself a copy right now. If you’re new to her fiction, this is a great starting point. In fact, if you even remotely like science fiction and fantasy, pick this up and join me in cheering for Nnedi Okorafor and the way she gets better and better over the years.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!