Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016: Book #10

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 BadgeTitle: Through Splintered Walls (Twelve Planets #6)

Author: Kaaron Warren

Publisher and Year: Twelfth Planet Press, 2012

Genre: speculative fiction, horror, Australian

 

Through Splintered Walls - coverBlurb from Goodreads:

From Bram Stoker Award nominated author Kaaron Warren, comes Book 6 in the Twelve Planets collection series.

Country road, city street, mountain, creek.

These are stories inspired by the beauty, the danger, the cruelty, emptiness, loneliness and perfection of the Australian landscape.

‘Every Warren story is a trip with no map.’ – Gemma Files

‘Her fiction shifts across genres smoothly and intelligently, never settling for the easy path… she doesn’t flinch.’ – Andrew Hook

‘As with most of the best horror writing … the power of Warren’s strongest stories comes from the mirror they hold up to our everyday practices and prejudices.’ – Ian McHugh.

 

My review:

This review is presented as part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016, and as part of the Journey Through the Twelve Planets Reading Challenge


I’ve been thinking about how to approach my review for this collection. It’s definitely one of the more challenging books I took on reading this year – it took me months to work up to it, quite a while to read through (because I am just not very good with horror at all), and then I’ve been sitting on trying to think how I review this book. It’s a masterful collection of horror stories. This is an excellent standard and example of non exploitative and non-gratuitous horror. The horror within these pages is all to real, all to accessible and relatable – that’s what makes it horrific.

I think I will talk about this book in two parts. I will talk about the first three short stories because they worked really well together as an introduction to Warren’s work. They were creepy and horrific but not so much that I worried about falling asleep at night. My heart went out to the protagonist in ‘Creek’, but the standout of these shorts for me was ‘Road’. It was equal parts creepy and caring but I really liked it.

To talk about ‘Sky’ wow… I don’t even know how. It’s an exceptional novella. I think it goes up there with one of my other reading experiences ‘Wives’ by Paul Haines as something I’m definitively glad to have read, but never want to revisit and might need a support group having now read it. Actually I found a lot of parallels in the reading of ‘Sky’ and ‘Wives’, the familiarity of an Australian cultural background to the story was very real to me – as was the way that setting was presented as a kind of innate horror in and of itself. Whether Warren intended it or not, the entire background of the protagonist, where he came from, his family, Canberra and the town of sky were all coded as horrific to me from the beginning. This novella was a like a slow boil of horror and scary.

That’s true of the last page which absolutely gutted me, and nailed home the depth of the horror involved and how slow-boiling that had been. I can still remember the description on the page, can recall the images that came to mind and the emotion that came with them and I’m *gutted* all over again. Congratulations to Warren because wow, that’s visceral and I’ll never forget it. (Late at night I wish I could!)

I think one of the things that really got to me about this book, and all the stories within it, was that at every point there seemed like there could be a turning point, and uplift in the story and I kept looking for it, kept hoping for it and there were nods to it, suggestions of it, but then especially with ‘Sky’ it never eventuated – and in such a way that really drove home the story and its horror. I think it is absolutely a testament to Warren’s skill that I kept looking and hoping and reaching, until the very last moment. At every point I was firmly within her grasp. Hooked.

I am not someone who ‘enjoys’ horror, but I think it is valuable to sometimes read outside my comfort zone and to challenge myself. Is it horror I don’t like, or merely some kinds of horror. Okay, so it’s horror in general, but sometimes it’s worth it anyway. I think that’s where I am at so far – and that’s part of my experiment in reading these collections is that several of them include stories that are embedded in the horror genre, it is a chance to explore my experience of the genre without traumatising  myself too badly in the process. Also, since each collection is so far of outstanding quality, i can rely on the curation of the stories to be worth my time to try out in my exploration and that counts for a lot with me too.

If  you are someone who wonders if you hate all horror stories or if there is more to the genre for you, I highly recommend this collection. If you are already a fan of horror – particularly the insidious kind that seems all too plausible and normal, then this is also for you. ‘Through Splintered Walls’ is creepy and disturbing and scary. It’s brilliantly written. I’m so glad I read it, even if I now need a support group.

 

Thorn - coverReview:

Title: Thorn

Authors: Intisar Khanani

Publisher and Year:  Self published, 2014

Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy, romance

Blurb from Goodreads:

For Princess Alyrra, choice is a luxury she’s never had … until she’s betrayed.

Princess Alyrra has never enjoyed the security or power of her rank. Between her family’s cruelty and the court’s contempt, she has spent her life in the shadows. Forced to marry a powerful foreign prince, Alyrra embarks on a journey to meet her betrothed with little hope for a better future.

But powerful men have powerful enemies–and now, so does Alyrra. Betrayed during a magical attack, her identity is switched with another woman’s, giving Alyrra the first choice she’s ever had: to start a new life for herself or fight for a prince she’s never met. But Alyrra soon finds that Prince Kestrin is not at all what she expected. While walking away will cost Kestrin his life, returning to the court may cost Alyrra her own. As Alyrra is coming to realize, sometime the hardest choice means learning to trust herself.

 

My Review:

I fell into this book and devoured it pretty much in one sitting. I then bought all the other novels available by Intisar Khanani. This was excellent, the kind of fantasy story that is highly enjoyable, beautifully written and extremely rewarding to read. I’m not familiar with the fairytale that this retelling is based, but it definitely has a fairytale feel about the story that I appreciated.

I loved the way Alyrra navigated her circumstances and I absolutely love that there was no ‘instantaneous love connection’. Instead, Alyrra and Kestrin although they are intended to marry are divided by magic and their ability to even get to know one another is hampered. Where in other stories Alyrra’s inherent goodness might have seemed a little two dimensional, here her ability to cope with the changes in her circumstances are true to her character and growing up experiences. Although she has had an abusive upbringing, Alyrra herself is not broken, but does realistically demonstrate traits that show her mistrust and the effect her past has had on her.

Although Falada’s character is the most fanciful in the story, I love horses in fantasy stories and so I was wholeheartedly willing to go with it, and I am glad that Alyrra got to have a friend while she was finding her feet as a goose girl. I liked that Falada wasn’t omnipotent, or overpowered but merely another sentient race – magical to be sure, but bound by realities that meant Alyrra’s own future was in her hands. I loved that this was consistently reinforced to her. And more than that, I love the way that Alyrra was happy to consider giving up on being a Princess all together, and embracing her change in circumstance as a chance to start anew and have a life she though she would like better. I appreciated the emphasis of being royalty and the duty involved in that position – whether one wants it or not.

I also liked the way Khanani explored differing power relationships and consequences of privilege between Alyrra as the goose girl and Kestrin as the prince. It’s very obvious that he comes from the mindset that he doesn’t intend harm and wants to find the truth and so he is in the right, no matter what difficulty it may cause Alyrra. I also loved the exploration of conceptions of justice in the book – the King’s justice versus the Thieves justice – similar in that they have limited reach to a specific area of the population, but different in terms of flexibility and willingness to follow through on holding people to account.

For me the ending was a little rushed and I would have liked to see that fleshed out a little more, the encounter between Alyrra and the witch, their return and the consequences of that. However, I was also immediately sad that I couldn’t read on to see what happened next – I do hope there are more books in this universe at some stage. I loved that this story was about growing up, coming into one’s self, and exploring ideas of belonging, justice, and family. It was a delight to read, I highly recommend it for reading.

A Closed and Common Orbit - coverARC Review:

Title: A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2)

Authors: Becky Chambers

Publisher and Year:  Harper Voyager, 2016

Genre: space opera, science fiction

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

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 no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible world of Rosemary Harper, a young woman with a restless soul and secrets to keep. When she joined the crew of the Wayfarer, an intergalactic ship, she got more than she bargained for – and learned to live with, and love, her rag-tag collection of crewmates.

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

 

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

A Closed and Common Orbit is an incredible follow up to the standout A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Chambers has outdone herself in bringing to life a whole new set of characters. They’re familiar faces, but the story has shifted away from the crew of the Wayfarer and now we follow the journey of Pepper and AI Sidra – formerly known as Lovelace. One of the aspects of this novel that I appreciated most right from the beginning was the emphasis on names and their importance to an individual in how they express themselves. Names have history, they have a loadedness, they can be given, applied, attached, chosen, searched for, and I imagine they could even be grown. Here there’s no ceremony or poignancy around our AI protagonist choosing her name – it’s a necessity and aside from a comment from Pepper about names having weight and importance and that it would be nice to have more time, it’s not really possible and one must be chosen. And so we meet Sidra, almost as she starts to meet herself really.

The story of Sidra is one where an AI protagonist comes to terms with being in a body that doesn’t feel like her own, in a story and a narrative that she’s expected to build, but which she feels at odds with. And yet, despite the ways in which her inherently technological nature is reinforced, so to is her sentience. She struggles with some of the aspects of self-determination, and embraces others and I truly think that the writing of this kind of AI body is one of the best I’ve seen in that it tackles some of the ways in which plonking an AI into a humanesque body isn’t a like to like transition. Instead, overlays of memories and associations, textures, and sensations are used as associations with stimulus that Sidra comes across – particularly when eating or drinking. It’s a great touch.

I love the way that even as we explore Sidra coming-of-age we also look back into Pepper’s history, including how she met Blue. And here, once again Chambers gives us the depth of a story that is at its core optimistic, but where there is depth, and consequence – bad things happen and they must be acknowledged and dealt with in some way. Giving Sidra space and opportunity to explore her future is in some way Pepper’s way of coming to terms with her own past and it’s a lovely  narrative circle, we immediately identify with the nobility of Pepper’s aims, and our hearts weep with her in how confronted she is by this as well, searching for her own long lost AI companion.

There is so much to love about this book, and it’s similar in what was there to love in the first book. Stories of found and chosen family, of friendship and relationships that are negotiated and complex. Within the story there is queerness and differences in gender identity explored, but it’s not trite or token, but built into the story and character interactions without also ever being ‘the point’ of the character to be ‘the genderqueer one’ – it’s simply one personality trait amongst many inherent to the character, and this is true of the others as well. It’s warm and refreshing and it means I can see myself in the story – even if I’m not explicitly there, I’d fit, I’d make sense, I wouldn’t be the villain, nor outcast necessarily and that’s always a win for me. There’s spaceships and video games, virtual reality, storytelling, tech and hacking, politics and cultural differences between groups of sentients. There is so much scope in this universe that Chambers has created and I can’t imagine a book in this universe that I wouldn’t jump at the chance to read.

If you enjoy space opera, particularly with an optimistic view, you will enjoy this. If you enjoy books with heartwarming characters you can fall in love with and feel bereft without, you will enjoy this. If you want a coming-of-age story with a difference, with sentient AIs and everyday-heroes then you’ll enjoy this. The writing is delightful, I read this voraciously and loved every second. The book came to life for me and I want to reread it again already – it’s incredible and again, one of the best books I’ve read this year.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - coverReview:

Title: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1)

Authors: Becky Chambers

Publisher and Year:  Hodder and Staughton, 2015 (Originally published through Createspace Independent in 2014)

Genre: space opera, science fiction

Blurb from Goodreads:

When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The Wayfarer, a patched-up ship that’s seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want: a small, quiet spot to call home for a while, adventure in far-off corners of the galaxy, and distance from her troubled past.

But Rosemary gets more than she bargained for with theWayfarer. The crew is a mishmash of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptillian pilot, to Kizzy and Jenks, the constantly sparring engineers who keep the ship running. Life on board is chaotic, but more or less peaceful – exactly what Rosemary wants.

Until the crew are offered the job of a lifetime: the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel to a distant planet. They’ll earn enough money to live comfortably for years… if they survive the long trip through war-torn interstellar space without endangering any of the fragile alliances that keep the galaxy peaceful.

But Rosemary isn’t the only person on board with secrets to hide, and the crew will soon discover that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.

 

My Review:

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is without question one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I am sad that it took me so long to get to it. Optimistic space opera, space ships, friendship, found family, a wonderful array of characters I fell in love with immediately and the most interesting take on wormhole construction yet.

This book hits almost every button I think I have for stories that make me fall in love instantly. I got galactic civilisations, thoughtful interesting alien cultures which were neither tokenised nor stereotyped. Space travel and flight really involved the travelling part and that was an excellent part of the story narrative. I loved that I got a sense of what it was like to be part of a crew on a ship where there could be many weeks between docking into ports and what that looks like in terms of interpersonal skills and ship management. Oh, the emotional intelligence work involved here it was just gorgeous! I’m all a-swoon about it.

Rosemary is our main point of view character and she’s initially quite a mystery, she withholds so much of herself that you almost risk not liking her, and then it all kind of comes tumbling out and instead you want to make her a cup of tea and make friends. I loved the interactions between the other crew members and each other, especially resolving conflicts, of which there is a major one and it was particularly satisfying in how that eventuated.

I loved the way that bad things happen, there is injustice, corruption, greed, and struggling, but that this is handled deftly by the author and that there is the feelgood emotional payoff in resolution or simply in acknowledging the reality and letting it be there – without making it worse or hammering it in such a way that leaves me raw. There’s a realism in the way it’s presented that I value, but it’s not out to traumatise me, it’s not the point of the story, it’s just part of the ordinary background that makes up a world. You can tell a story and have it focus on the positive outlook, without shunning conflict, upset, or bad things happening – you go through everything with the characters, but the author brings you safely out the other side. There’s comfort and catharsis in that. It’s a big reason why I fell so hard for this book and why it’s an instant favourite.

I love the way in which this is a story of inclusiveness, but it’s never heavy handed. There are queer relationships and characters, disabilities and differing sometimes clashing cultural and racial considerations that are all noticeable, but not as tick boxes. They’re part of a three-dimensional texture about this book, they build on the story and the characters, they’re never trite.

This book is like taking a deep breath of fresh air, and being hugged by all its wonderful words. I’m so in love with this.

Break the Chains - coverARC Review:

Title: Break the Chains (The Scorched Continent #2)

Authors: Megan O’Keefe

Publisher and Year:  Angry Robot, 2016

Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy, steampunk

 

Blurb from Angry Robot:

(Not sure why it’s not up on Goodreads but anyway):

A year has passed since Detan set the skies above Aransa on fire, and the armies of Aransa’s new dictator Thratia are preparing to knock on the door of his aunt’s city, Hond Steading…

As the city that produces the most selium – that precious gas that elevates airships and powers strange magic – Hond Steading is a jewel worth stealing. To shore up the city’s defenses, Detan promises his aunt that he’ll recover Nouli, the infamous engineer who built the century gates that protect the imperial capital of Valathea. But Nouli is imprisoned on the Remnant Isles, an impervious island prison run by the empire, and it’s Detan’s fault.

Detan doesn’t dare approach Nouli himself, so his companions volunteer to get themselves locked up to make contact with Nouli and convince him to help. Now Detan has to break them all out of prison, and he’s going to need the help of a half-mad doppel to do it.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Break the Chains is a fantastic follow up to Steal the Sky. This is what anticipating a new fantasy series should feel like! I really enjoyed the first book in this series Steal the Sky last year and so I was delighted to be invited to review the second book, and I’m definitely looking forward to the third!

I love the characters in this series, and what I love about Detan, Tibs, Ripka and the rest this time is that we’re seeing a progression in their stories and personality. I also appreciate that we get a hint into the way they’re forming connections between each other as well, including respect for each other bit by bit. Seeing Ripka challenged by her prison experience was really interesting, partly because she was the prisoner and partly because she can’t turn off her ‘Watch Captain’ view and she notices all the ways in which she would do things differently. She does use this to her advantage, but some of it is simply evaluation through the character’s eyes. I love the band of women she falls in with and the way she works with Enard (we met him as ‘New Chum’ in book 1) to find a key to dealing with the Empire’s influence is fantastic.

I love the way Detan and Tibs work together and let nothing stand in their way to go and rescue Ripka as per the plan they made. He is single-minded in his determination to be trustworthy and to succeed in this plan and it makes him endearing and lessens some of the egotism that was present in the first book. Actually, even though I don’t think Detan grew or changed too dramatically in this book, he was confronted with himself a lot, and subsequently the reader learns more of how he came to be such a person and how he and Tibs are so bound together. This story of friendship in all directions was very satisfying to read.

Actually overall I have to say one of the best qualities of this series and these stories is the emphasis on loyalty and the way that is explored – it’s not just friendship, and it’s not just duty. It’s both of those things and more, but it makes for a very satisfying story to read. The worldbuilding continues to be interesting and we see more of the surrounds beyond the city in which we first met our band of rogues. I love this slow unfolding – it adds to the character of the story, the Empire begins to take shape and the politics and ramifications unfold gently – they’re not a focus of this book so much, not really. Although I wonder if that will be a strong theme in the third (and I presume final) book in the series. There are elements that speak to diversity in this book and the series, but they’re soft and not overt – either in that lovely background but clearly signposted way, or as a plot point (which gets tiresome). I get the strong sense that not all the characters are white, but I am not sure and that could be wishful on my part. There are several female identifying characters, some younger and older characters, and there are characters from different class backgrounds. I didn’t note any queer identifying or disabled characters – which I will say is a shame because I think this world is a ripe setting for it – and if we can have airships, then surely queer and/or disabled characters is not a stretch?

This is a book that you cannot read as a standalone, it follows the events in ‘Steal the Sky’ and leads into the events of the book to come. But the series is excellent and I’d recommend it highly – especially with such a solid second book following a stand out first book.

Tremontaine - season one - coverARC Review:

Title: Tremontaine (The Complete Season 1) (The World of Riverside #0.5)

Authors: Ellen Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, Paul Witcover

Publisher and Year:  Serial Box, 2016

Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy, romance, serial fiction

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Welcome to Tremontaine, the prequel to Ellen Kushner’s beloved Riverside series that began with Swordspoint! A Duchess whose beauty is matched only by her cunning; her husband’s dangerous affair with a handsome scholar; a foreigner in a playground of swordplay and secrets; and a mathematical genius on the brink of revolution—when long-buried lies threaten to come to light, betrayal and treachery know no bounds with stakes this high. Mind your manners and enjoy the chocolate in a dance of sparkling wit and political intrigue.

Tremontaine is an episodic serial presented by Serial Box Publishing. This collected omnibus edition gathers all 16 episodes from Season 1.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

What isn’t to love about sword wielding women, politics, hot chocolate, frocks, parties, manners and physics? The serial format of Tremontaine works very well, it’s clear that the background world and universe of Ellen Kushner’s is beloved by all the authors that are invited to play in the world for this story. I’d fallen off the appeal of epic fantasy for a while, but between this and An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows, I’m excited about this genre again!

In particular I love epic fantasy that involves complex political intrigue and lots of diplomacy, talking around things, layers, and consequences too far reaching to see clearly. I also love characters that are engaging and interesting, sometimes I love the because I identify with them, and sometimes because I’d love to fall in love with them, and other times because they seem so wonderfully wicked – there are all these kinds of characters in Tremontaine and more.

I should point out that I haven’t actually read the other novels that this one is a prequel for, but given how much I enjoyed this book I will absolutely be looking forward to Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword!  This is a short review, mainly because I loved it without reservation, the story, worldbuilding, characters, blending of authorial styles were all fantastic and delivered to me an exceptional reading experience. More fantasy like this, with diverse characters who are queer, not all white, who come from different backgrounds and storylines with ‘villains’ who are complex and interesting characters too – you can’t just think of their wickedness, instead it’s tempered with compassion for them, sympathy and understanding for how they’ve gotten into the narrative dilemma they’re in. I really can’t wait for Season 2.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 BadgeAustralian Women Writers Challenge 2016: Book #9

Title: An Accident of Stars (The Manifold Worlds #1)

Author: Foz Meadows

Publisher and Year:  Angry Robot, 2016

Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy, queer fiction

 

An Accident of Stars - coverBlurb from Goodreads:

When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole in reality, she finds herself trapped in Kena, a magical realm on the brink of civil war.

There, her fate becomes intertwined with that of three very different women: Zech, the fast-thinking acolyte of a cunning, powerful exile; Viya, the spoiled, runaway consort of the empire-building ruler, Vex Leoden; and Gwen, an Earth-born worldwalker whose greatest regret is putting Leoden on the throne. But Leoden has allies, too, chief among them the Vex’Mara Kadeja, a dangerous ex-priestess who shares his dreams of conquest.

Pursued by Leoden and aided by the Shavaktiin, a secretive order of storytellers and mystics, the rebels flee to Veksh, a neighboring matriarchy ruled by the fearsome Council of Queens. Saffron is out of her world and out of her depth, but the further she travels, the more she finds herself bound to her friends with ties of blood and magic.

Can one girl – an accidental worldwalker – really be the key to saving Kena? Or will she just die trying?

 

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This review is presented as part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016.

An Accident of Stars is a very solid debut novel from Foz Meadows, it truly brings epic and portal fantasy to life. This book is equal parts the start of an epic story and a coming of age story. This is also a story that disabuses you of the notion that nothing *truly* bad can happen to your heroe(s) in a novel, because there are consequences experienced by protagonist Saffron, and other key characters throughout the novel.  There’s a depth and realism to the story because of this commitment in storytelling, and yet it doesn’t ever approach ‘grim dark’ to me, just solid storytelling.

One of the things I love most about this book is the sheer diversity of characters in this novel, they come from so many different backgrounds, they have different experiences of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, skin colour, cultural backgrounds. Rather than being mashed together uncomfortably, these elements come together quite seamlessly in the central rebel compound where Saffron finds herself in the beginning of the novel. I loved that an older woman, who was far from perfect was the rebel leader. There are so many women in this book, and the male characters all came with personalities that I am interested in, with stories of theirs I wanted to explore – rarer than you  might suppose these days. This novel is a triumph to diversity – I’m sure there are improvements, nothing can be everything to everyone but I think this makes a good effort at doing so.

There is a lot going on in the story, as the readers we share in Saffron’s confusion as things unfold – twists and turns in how things affect the rebels, the potential impact on Saffron her self. There’s physical, emotional and political battles involved in this story – it’s multifaceted which gives the story depth, things happen do not happen in a vacuum or in isolation. The storytelling well thought out and executed, making this a satisfying read.

If I have one criticism it is that the book is a debut novel and the writing does reflect this, I found it clunky in places, and in others it threw me out of the reading experience. This is a minor criticism though as overall it is a well polished first novel, and everyone is allowed to grow over time. There is always a starting point – this is an excellent one. I also thought this book was nicely self-contained, you don’t *have* to read the next book if you don’t want to or don’t like series. There’s the opening and minor-cliffhanger for more story but you could absolutely ignore that without any issue. I am looking forward to the next book though because I’m interested to see where the characters go from here and how the broader story unfolds.