Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis
Every now and then, a random book recommendation I come across on Twitter turns out to be a gem. Last week, I was made aware of The Guns Above, Signal Airship 1, by Robyn Bennis. I liked the sparse description, read the sample chapters, and when they ended, absolutely had to know more. So I purchased the book and continued reading. And pretty much read it as fast as I could.

The Guns Above is steampunk fantasy set in imaginary Garnia, a country in a constant state of war with its neighbours. The reasons are never made clear; it’s just something that has always been done. It’s a pre or pseudo-industrialised world where steam powers factories and airships, but everything else mostly resembles 19th century Europe, down to its hierarchies.

Military is the only place where women get to show their worth, and that only because the country is running out of men to enlist. It’s still not easy for them, and they’ve been given proper commanding positions only a few years previously. Except on airships.

The book begins with the aftermath of a battle. Josette Dupris wakes up among dead bodies with no proper recollection of how the battle has gone, but she’s soon told she was the hero of it, who single-handedly turned the tides for Garnia. As a reward—though reluctantly and only because of the pressure from the newspapers—she’s given an airship of her own to command, an experimental new model, Mistral. She knows it’s just to get rid of her, but she takes it anyway. She’s accompanied on the maiden voyage by Lord Bernat, the nephew of the most important general, who’s been sent there to spy on her and to make her look bad, to discredit her in the press.

Despite the premise, the book is a fairly straightforward military fantasy. The maiden voyage turns into a series of battles, as Mistral and its crew encounter the enemy where they shouldn’t be. The battles are vividly and brutally described, and lengthy, but never boring, even if I couldn’t always keep up with the terminology. And everything ends in one final battle where Mistral gets to show what it’s really made of.

Underneath all the warfare, there is a story of two people, Josette and Bernat. It’s not terribly heavy on emotions. We never learn much about their pasts or motivations, like why she’s in the army or why she hates her mother, or what Bernat’s been doing with his life before being tricked into the army, apart from gambling. But the snippets we get are enough to give us a notion of who they are.

Their relationship carries the book. It’s not a love story, and it’s not even a proper friendship. But the encounters between the two, often subtle, and the bantering, made me really like the two and hope they would become friends after all. Bernat tries his best to fulfil his mission, but having been thrown into all those battles, he grows as a person and begins to admire Josette instead. For her part, Josette doesn’t really change as a character. Her journey is more external, growing into her role as the first woman captain of an airship. She’s tough and unyielding to begin with and those characteristics are only strengthened during the book. But in the end, they sort of come to realise that they work well together. And I found it so compelling, I immediately purchased the next book too.

Monday, May 06, 2019

The True Queen by Zen Cho: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The True Queen by Zen Cho

The True Queen is the second book in Cho’s charming Sorcerer Royal series that began with the Sorcerer to the Crown. It’s a fantasy set in Regency England, though the only clear reference to the period is the war with Napoleon. Magicians are integral part of that war, but magic has been dwindling because the Queen of Fairies has closed the border to her dominion where it stems from. Practicing magic is only allowed to men, the background against which the author reflects the customs and mores of the period. The first book ended with a woman seizing the highest post available for magicians, and becoming Sorceress Royal.

The second book is set a couple of years later, and starts with a completely different premise. It might seem like an odd choice after a successful first book, but it works perfectly well. Two girls wake up on a beach somewhere in Southeast Asia—likely Malaysia, as that’s where the author is from—with no memory of who they are other than their names, Muna and Sakti. Sakti has magic, Muna has not. Their attempt to solve the mystery of who they are leads to England and the Sorceress Royal, but during their trip through the fairyland, Sakti disappears, leaving Muna no choice but to try to solve the mystery alone.

This is Muna’s book. There are many other point of view characters as well, but it’s her story that matters. On her arrival to England, she is mistaken for the sister with magic, and treated accordingly. As the society only frowns at English women using magic, she doesn’t have to hide her skills unlike the women at Sorceress Royal’s new academy. However, as Muna has no magic, she’s forced to fake her way through the society. She forges her way into fairyland too, to save her sister. But somewhere along the way, she begins to suspect that things aren’t what they seem with her and Sakti. The revelations aren’t as huge for the reader though, as they’ve been made pretty obvious from the beginning.

The second book doesn’t deal as much with the unfairness of the English society to women as the first did. It concentrates on the women at The Lady Maria Wythe Academy for the Instruction of Females in Practical Thaumaturgy, and their friendships. Prunilla, the Sorceress Royal, is a side character, and instead the focus is on Henrietta, her best friend. She forms a friendship with Muna, which on her part warms to romantic love towards the end. It’s hinted at earlier in the story, but it’s never made a clear mention of, and Muna’s fate in the story is such, that Henrietta’s love goes unrequited. The second book, therefore, doesn’t have a similar charming romance as the first with Zachary and Prunilla as main characters. I missed it a little, but the book was full without it too.

The charm of the book isn’t in romance. It’s in the language that’s straight from Jane Austen by way of Georgette Heyer. Many have tried to emulate the style, but few have succeeded. Here, it happens effortlessly and beautifully. There’s nothing stuffy about it, and there are no anachronisms or jarring wrong tones marring the delightful language. The narrative tends towards omniscient, so even though there are dedicated point of view chapters, the narrator often shifts to another character during the chapters. But even that works fairly well.

In a book this good, there aren’t many flaws. My only negative note concerns Muna and how well she settled into English society. She’s been a servant in a paradise island, but nothing about the English society strikes her as odd. She doesn’t associate with the servants but assumes her role as a guest easily, she doesn’t comment on other things than the cold weather, and she takes to wearing English dresses easily. Not even the corset gets a mention. But it’s a minor detail and doesn’t take anything from my enjoyment of the book. I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next book in the series.


City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

I also read City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab, one of my favourite authors. This is a smaller book aimed at middle grade readers about Cassidy who can see ghosts. She travels to Edinburgh with her family and ghost friend Jacob, and discovers that an old town has much more ghosts than her small town. And not all of them are benign.

The book started a bit slowly and I’m not sure it can keep the interest of a pre-teen reader well. Even I struggled to continue. But once the story gets properly under way, there’s action to the end. It was well written and spooky enough for an easily-scared adult. There’s a TV series being prepared based on the book, where the character has been changed to a university student; a pity really, as there are no good paranormal series for younger audience.

The other books I tried to read this month were both misses, though I was slow to admit it. It took Cho’s book with its excellence in storytelling to make me realise that the books really weren’t any good. They’ll end up in the not finished pile, never to be spoken again.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem is the second book in Lee’s Machineries of Empire sci-fi trilogy that started with Ninefox Gambit. The first book introduced a multi-system space empire that rigorously follows calendric rituals that control their impressive space machinery and create magic-like effects, like a hive-mind that controls the soldier cast. They’re in a constant war against a mysterious alien enemy, and the heresy within their own system, as deviations from the calendric rituals causes the entire system to break down. I didn’t like the first book, mostly due to a messy plot, uninteresting characters and chapters in points of view of characters that die at the end of them. I therefore almost didn’t pick up Raven Stratagem when I noticed it in my local library.

I’m glad I gave it a chance. The second book is much better than the first. The arch-traitor Shuos Jedao has taken over a swarm—a space fleet—and though he seems to be aiming it against the enemy and winning too, the politicians want him destroyed. During the most of the book, the plot follows the attempts to take Jedao down, only to turn into something else in the end, elevating it above the ordinary.

The narrative was vastly better than in the first book. There were no mathematical calculations dominating the action (the first was heavy on them), the enemy that was a no-show in the first book made an appearance, making the endless warfare seem justified, and there were fewer POV characters, none of which die just to advance the plot. The only character that didn’t get his own point of view was Jedao, which was odd, considering that he’s the main character. The lack is explained at the end, but it kind of felt more like a cheap trick to fool the readers than anything else.

In general, the author keeps the cards so tight that the plot starts making sense only in the last couple of chapters. It’s not necessary a bad thing, but there were stretches in the middle that seemed fairly pointless and dragged the narrative quite a lot, only to make sense at the very end. I think I would’ve enjoyed them more if the plot hadn’t been so obscure.

The characters are all heroes in their own point of view and villains in everyone else’s, which makes them interesting. It also keeps the reader guessing to the end, as everyone is prone to betray everyone else. Despite that—or because of it—the main characters were fairly likeable and I rooted for them all, although only superficially, as I feared to the end that they would all get killed like in the first book.

All in all, Raven Stratagem was an interesting book, with a world vastly different from other sci-fi out there. I’ll definitely read the last book too, what I couldn’t have imagined doing after the first book.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third in Chambers’s sci-fi series set in the same universe with loosely connected characters but no common plot. And sadly, it’s the least interesting of them. A huge disappointment even, especially after the delightful A Closed and Common Orbit, a story of an AI struggling with its identity.

The book is set on a space fleet of humans who have left the earth centuries ago and now try to maintain their traditional way of life in a universe where they’re no longer alone, and where settling on planets is a viable option. It has five point of view characters, each with their own chapters. There’s an old archivist entertaining an alien visitor, a harried mother of two, a teenager rebelling against his environment, a young woman in charge of the dead, and a young man from outside the fleet. Each character is perfectly ordinary, living a perfectly ordinary life. And that’s the problem with this book.

The characters aren’t interesting in any way. They don’t get a growth arch, or change in any way. They’re static props living their perfectly normal lives. The chapters are vignettes of their lives in various points in time, with no continuity between the chapters. There are no connections between the characters, except a couple of chance encounters that don’t really have any impact in their lives. So mostly we follow the mother putting her children to bed, the teenager testing his boundaries, and the others at their work, chapter after chapter. Nothing happens.

The book has absolutely no plot. I didn’t even know it’s possible to write a book with no plot. Nothing the characters do has any impact on the outside world, and no outside force impacts them. They just are. There’s a major event at the beginning that in normal book would’ve been the mid-point turn, with the rest of the book dealing with the aftermath. Here, it’s just another vignette with no impact whatsoever, if you don’t count a child having nightmares about it; not exactly a plot event.

Here, the mid-point turn was the death of a point of view character, an underhanded turn that destroyed what little enjoyment I had with the story, as that character was the most interesting one. And then the death didn’t affect the plot in any way. It touched the other characters briefly, they made adjustments accordingly, and went on with their lives. A huge disappointment.

In a word, the book is boring. If the aim was to show that humans are humans no matter where they live, the same could’ve been achieved with fewer chapters—and with a proper plot binding them together. The hugely original environment, the space fleet, is just a prop and an endless source of boring lectures. The characters could’ve been set anywhere, and they would’ve been the same. I don’t know why the author chose to write this book after the highly imaginative predecessors, which makes it even more disappointing than it otherwise would’ve been. The book is nominated for a Hugo Award this year, and I have to assume it’s solely because people liked the previous books so much. This one has nothing to recommend itself.

Friday, April 05, 2019

The Savior by J.R. Ward: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Savior by J.R. Ward

The Savior is the seventeenth book in J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood urban fantasy series, and a solid addition. What makes her books great is how she returns to old characters and continues their stories, in good and bad. This time it was John Matthew’s turn, and his arc was the best in the book, emotional and heart-breaking, as he ponders his likely death and his life. The conclusion of that story-line was especially satisfying.

The love story was between Murhder, a disgraced member of the brotherhood, and Sarah, a human scientist. It wasn’t the main focus of the book though, and they didn’t even meet until later in the story. They both had personal issues to deal with—him with his madness, her with the death of her fiancĂ© and the revelations that brought—and those carried the book nicely. The love story was more of an insta-love type and not terribly interesting, but nice. A great addition to their story was Nate, a young vampire who has been used as a Guinea pig in human experiments, that the two of them rescue.

As is usual, there was also an ongoing story that focuses on the bad guy; this time about Throe who wants to usurp the crown. Luckily it didn’t dominate the book, as he’s not a very interesting foe. The climax of his story seems to tie with Ward’s other series about fallen angels, if I read it correctly, so there’s that to look forward to.

Unlike usually, there wasn’t a new character introduced that will become the focus of the subsequent books. I hope that doesn’t mean the series is coming to its end. There’s still Lassiter, who got his great moment in this book, and who could use his own book. I hope we’ll get that one eventually too, especially if the characters from the parallel series will show up in this one.

All in all, this was a good solid book that I gobbled down in two marathon reading sessions that lasted till small hours of the night. It wasn’t the best book in the series by any definition, but it was better than the two previous books, and it got me to take out the tissues, so I’m happy with it.

***

The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’ve read a couple of other books too that I’ve neglected to write a review of. First one is The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal, the follow up to her great The Calculating Stars novel, an alternative history where the humankind is racing to Mars to escape the dying earth. In this book, Elma is on a three year mission to Mars in the early 1960s, with a cast of characters familiar from the first book.

This was in many ways a better book than the first. The story was more interesting, Elma wasn’t an onlooker in her own life, and the plot was more compact. But Elma was still a bit of a scapegoat to everything that is wrong in her society, which was annoying, and the story’s focus was more on those larger issues than the mission itself. And again, the most interesting story arch was given to Stetson Parker who really grew in this book and turned out to be a great character. He reads like an enemy-turned-love-interest, and he probably would’ve been that if Kowal hadn’t fixed Elma’s marriage with the novella that started the series, where Elma and her husband are old people in Mars. A wasted opportunity there, in my opinion. But despite the flaws, the book stayed with me for a long time, so much so that I had trouble finding anything interesting to read that would match it.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

This was partially remedied by Binti, a novella by Nnedi Okorafor. It’s a sci-fi story of an African girl, Binti, who is accepted to a prestigious university on a different planet. She’s the first in her family to leave earth—or her home village even—and she does it in secret, fearing her family’s reaction. On her way there, the ship is attacked by a tentacled alien race and she’s the only survivor, thanks to a device that allows her to understand them. It’s a story of prejudice, hate and acceptance, with a highly imaginative world and an interesting main character. The ending is a bit long, but it brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. I’ll likely read the follow-up stories too.