The first book in a steampunk series.

Publication year: 2004
Format: print
Publisher: HarperCollins
Page count: 322

Matt Cruse is a cabin boy aboard the luxury airship Aurora which travels from Lionsgate City, US, to Australia. He loves his job and dreams of being a sailmaker, like is father was. His father worked aboard the Aurora before he died in an accident. Matt is restless on the ground; only aboard an airship can he feel truly alive and also close to his father.

One night, he sees a balloonist nearby. He doesn’t answer any hails, so Matt volunteers for a daring rescue hundreds of miles up in the air. The old balloonist is in a really bad shape but right before he dies, he manages to tell Matt about beautiful creatures in the air. Matt hasn’t seen such things and thinks the balloonist is raving.

A year later, young lady Kate de Vries comes on board the Aurora. She happens to be the old balloonist’s granddaughter and she’s determined to prove that the strange air creatures are real. Matt likes her and he wants to help her. But then the air pirates raid the Aurora.

When I got this book, I didn’t realize it was YA. Matt and Kate are both quite young, even though not children anymore. The nice side effect is that the book has very minimal courtship romance elements.

The captain has promised Matt that he’ll be made a junior sailmaker when an opening comes. However, when a position opens up, it’s goes to another: the son of one of the owners of the air ship line. Matt is bitter but continues his work. He doesn’t really like the passengers because his dream is to work on Aurora and someday, maybe, command it. The passengers aren’t interested in the ship and just want a smooth ride which should be as short as possible.

However, Kate is inquisitive and curious. She wants to know about the ship and that really wins Matt over. Of course, Matt is poor, and Kate is rich, so they both know that nothing can come of their relationship. Also, Matt starts to get jealous of Kate pretty soon. Kate’s chaperone Miss Simpkins is a hilarious figure: she’s dramatic and commanding but also likes to sleep quite a lot. However, Kate is very determined to get what she wants and somewhat spoiled, too.

The story focuses on exploration and adventure which are both things I like quite a lot. It’s quite straight-forward story with a little bit of commentary on the women’s station (especially young women) and the divides between the wealthy and the poor. But mostly adventure.

It doesn’t end in a cliffhanger.

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Top 5 Wednesday is GoodReads group where people discuss different bookish topic each week. This week, the Top 5 Wednesdays topic is Favorite Mash-ups.

— You know those comp titles they list in synopses that read something like “perfect for fans of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones”! What would be some of your favorite mash ups, that would make you pick up a book? “A mix of ________ and ___________.” Remember, you can also incorporate games, tv, movies, etc. Get creative!

At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to come up with anything but after seeing what some of the others have come up with I realized that there are quite a few mash-ups I’d like to see more of:

1, Ocean’s 11 and fantasy
I just love heist stories and there aren’t enough of them in fantasy and sci-fi. A group of (semi)pro criminals band together for a (big league) heist.
So far, I’m only aware of Patrick Weekes’ Rogues of the Republic series. Anything else? Please!

2, Ocean’s 11 and science fiction
Now these are far more common. But I still think they’re more common in TV than in books. I adore Firefly and Farscape. Even Star Trek the Next Generation has a heist double-episode (Gambit 1 and 2). So, where are the books???

I’m, of course, extremely excited that Titan Books will be publishing Firefly books! First will be out in October!

3, Steampunk and Ancient Rome
The steam engine was apparently invented in the 1st century in Roman controlled Egypt. So, how about an alternate reality book (series?? Pleeeeeease!) where Heron’s invention spreads (instead of being squashed because apparently then there wouldn’t be enough work for the slaves which would lead to a rebellion. Bah.) and we get to see steam powered Roman airships.

4, Urban fantasy and ancient Rome/Greek/Egypt/China/India
A grumpy/sarcastic person investigates strange happenings in downtown Alexandria. A female main character would have to be filthy rich / extremely well-connected / really clever but that would just be gravy and perhaps add some comedy.

5, Cozy mystery and secondary world fantasy
Urban fantasy is already well-established and they often have mysteries for the main characters to solve. But they tend to be focused on fighting so every now and then I’d like to read an Agatha Christie style mystery in a fantasy world. You know, a polite human detective that interviews the dwarf and the elf and the dragon in human form to find out just who poisoned the centaur.

I know of Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy books but are there others?

A science fiction novella where the main characters is a Murderbot.

Publication year: 2017
Format: ebook
Publisher: Tor
Page count: 144 in GoodReads

The story is set in a future time where humans have spread to several planets. The story follows a Security Unit, SecUnit, who is an android with both mechanical parts and cloned biological parts. It’s designed for security on various sites. Despite the fact that it’s (it doesn’t have gender nor sexual parts) clearly a thinking and feeling being, legally it’s the property of the company and not a person. SecUnit’s are called Murderbots and that’s what this SecUnit calls itself.

It’s part of a contract to protect a group of seven humans who are surveying a new planet. Another survey group is set somewhat nearby (on a planetary scale). However, the Murderbot’s company buys all parts as cheap as possible so when things start to go wrong, at first Murderbot suspects equipment failure due to shoddy parts. The first anomaly is a huge lifeform trying to eat the scientists. Such a thing should not have been on the planet. Mapping is also faulty. Things escalate even though the Murderbot would rather sit in it’s cubicle and consume entertainment feeds.

The Murderbot is the first person POV character. It has hacked the governor module which is supposed to order it to keep peaceful and to obey the humans. However, the Murderbot just wants to be left alone and watch the entertainment feeds. Everything it knows about interacting with humans it has learned from the feeds. It’s pretty nervous around humans and doesn’t want any face-to-helmet faceplate interaction with them. Face-to-face talk is even more awkward for it. However, pretty soon it doesn’t have a choice.

This was highly entertaining and enjoyable read. Of course, the world’s background isn’t fully explained. The scientists are pretty reasonable people but want to consider the Murderbot’s feelings which it doesn’t want. Happily, there are more Murderbot stories on the way.

“I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,00 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.”

“Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings. The idea was so painful I dropped to 97 percent efficiency. I’d rather climb back into Hostile One’s mouth.”

“I was also planning to use the time to watch some Sanctuary Moon and recharge my ability to cope with humans at close quarters without losing my mind.”

Written by an anonymous Chinese author and translated by Gulick.

Publication year: 1976
Format: print
Publisher: Dover Publications
Page count: 223 + translator’s prescript and postscript

Apparently, this is a translation of the first part of an 18th century Chinese manuscript. It’s a detective story but more in line with Western detective fiction than in the usual Chinese tradition. It’s loosely based on a historical regional magistrate and set during the Tang dynasty. Gulick’s prescript describes how different usual Chinese mysteries were at least at the time. While it was fascinating to read about their features, they sound very different. However, I don’t know if I would actually enjoy reading one. In the postscript he gives out his reason not to translate the latter half (it’s apparently Judge Dee’s exploits at Court and not a detective novel at all) and what alterations he made to the translation.

In the story, Judge Dee, who is a regional magistrate known for his honesty, tackles three unrelated murder cases at the same time. He usually sends his trusted minions to do the legwork of questioning or snooping around. However, occasionally he must do some questioning himself, too, undercover, of course. But mostly he deducts and questions people.

The first case is a double murder: two traveling merchants are found dead on the street. The local warden accuses a local hostel owner, Koong, of the murders because the merchants had stayed in his hostel. However, after talking with Koong, Judge Dee realizes that Koong isn’t a murderer and starts to look for another suspect. The second case the judge finds on his own: while he’s undercover looking for clues to the first case, he stumbles upon a household of two widows: one is the widowed mother to a son who died a year ago under circumstances that the judge thinks are suspicious. The son’s widow is a recluse who refuses to meet anyone and this apparently further proof of a misdeed. In the third case, a bride has seemly been poisoned during her wedding night.

Most of the time, Judge Dee calls people to his court and questions them there, under torture, if necessary. The Chinese legal system was quite different from Western ones. There are no lawyers. The judge can call witnesses if he wants. However, if the judge puts an innocent man (a woman) to death, he can be beheaded, as well. He’s also under scrutiny from the people around him. All courtly matters are public so there’s usually a large crowd of people watching everything he does, such as the questioning or examining bodies. Also, without actual forensics, Judge Dee has to rely on his wits and judge of character when questioning people.

This was a very interesting read and a fascinating glimpse into the (probably at least somewhat fictionalized) workings of ancient China and its legal system. The characters come from many different social classes, from high officials to humble workers and even outlaws. Judge Dee is feared by most of the people he questions but he’s also respected. He can, and does, torture people but thinks that he has good cause to do so.

Unlike in Western books usually, the three mysteries aren’t related to each other, except that they’re brought to Judge Dee’s attention before he can solve the first one. They’re pretty hard to crack. Some of the cases have supernatural elements, such as the ghosts of dead people and dreams which the judge can use as actual evidence. The book has also some illustrations. Three of them have been made by von Gulick and the rest are apparently ancient woodcuts.

The writing style is pretty straight-forward and easy to read. The chapters are short and point-of-view is omniscient.

Van Gulick wrote more than a few Judge Dee mysteries himself, too. I haven’t read them but now I’m wondering if they’re any good.

Collects Black Widow vol. VI issues 1-6.

Writers: Mark Waid and Chris Samnee
Artist: Chris Samnee

This collection starts with an explosive first issue when S.H.I.E.L.D.’s director Maria Hill declares the Black Widow an enemy of S.H.I.E.L.D. and that she must be apprehended at all cost. Natasha is in the helicarrier and has to fight her way out. Quite a few agents are rather eager to kick her face in.

Next issue starts a week earlier, with Hill and an experienced S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Elder are on a secret cemetery. They’re attending the funeral of a young agent and Elder blames Natasha for her death. At the same time, ominous figures are trying to murder Hill and Elder but fortunately Natasha is there to keep Hill and Elder alive. But it all turns out to be a trap for Natasha. She’s knocked out and brought to a place where Platch Live or “Sleeping lion” blackmails her to work for him. Reluctantly Natasha agrees and in plunged back into her early years at the Russian Red Room.

First off, the art is gorgeous and it doesn’t have nearly as much cheesecake as Birds of Prey. Natasha is smart and tough and in full spy mode. Unfortunately, that also means that she’s keeping lots of secrets and betrays pretty much everyone. On the plus side, she makes daring escapes and shows off her other ninja-skills.

Top 5 Wednesday is GoodReads group where people discuss different bookish topic each week. This week, the Top 5 Wednesdays topic is Favorite Jokesters.

In honor of April Fools (a bit late but hey, I don’t control when Wednesdays fall), talk about your favorite jokesters, pranksters, and funny characters.

This was another hard topic because often it’s hard for a single character to be funny, (except Mark) so it’s hard to pick just one person. But here goes:

1, Loiosh by Steven Brust
Loiosh is the familiar to Vlad Taltos. They have a mental connection so they can silently joke and snark to each other pretty much all the time.

2, Mark Watney by Andy Weir
Mark is one of the first astronauts on Mars. He gets left behind by accident and tries to survive with potatoes and humor.

3, Loki by various authors
Loki is pretty ridiculous in the original Norse myths, at least compared to his Marvel incarnation.

4, the crew of starship Intrepid in Redshirts by John Scalzi
I wasn’t able to pick just one of them. Redshirts is a parody of Star Trek, especially the nameless security people who die all the time. It’s also a comedy.

5, Spider-Man by Marvel
Peter Parker fights crime with puns and powers.

Tough travelling feature has moved to the Fantasy Hive.
This month the theme is mothers.

Many of the mothers in fantasy (and science fiction) genres, especially in older books, tend to be absent, no matter if they’ve treated their kids well or badly.

Snow White’s mother
Is a prime example of them. As far we know, she was a good and kind mother, a good queen, and a good wife. But we never see her nor do we even know her name. The same goes for Cinderella’s mother, even though in some versions she was a good witch who tried to protect her daughter even after death.

The evil stepmother
Is the other side of the coin in many fairy tales. The fairy tale heroines are plagued by terrible stepmothers who can be also witches or sorceresses (such as Snow White’s stepmother) or not (such as Cinderella’s stepmother). They treat the heroine badly while treating their own daughters well, if they have offspring of their own.

However, these days we do have mother figures who aren’t so absent:
Briar Wilks by Cherie Priest
She’s a single mother because her husband is (presumed) dead. People hated her husband, Levitictus Blue, and so she and their teenaged son Zeke are friendless. When Zeke goes in to the zombie-infested Seattle to look for his father who is rumored to still be alive, Briar goes after him.

Toby Daye by Seanan McGuire
Although Toby has a teenaged daughter, she’s not in her life anymore, so we don’t really see Toby as a mother much. However, when Toby thinks about her daughter, she’s loving and sad. When she has to, she does everything she can to protect her daughter.

Amandine by Seanan McGuire
Toby’s mother is, in a word, terrible. Amandine is a very high-born elf and she hardly deigns to even notice Toby, except when Amandine wants something from Toby. That’s because Toby’s father is a human and therefore she’s merely a changeling half-breed.

Ista by Lois McMaster Bujold
In “the Curse of Chalion” Ista isn’t a prominent figure even though her children are. That’s because Ista is under a curse. However, she’s trying to protect her kids. Unfortunately, for years people have been assuming that she’s mad and treating her so. In “Paladin of Souls” Ista get her own life going. While she’s still a mother, her kids are grown and have their own lives.

Nanny Ogg by Terry Prachett
She’s the mother and grandmother of a whole clan of Oggs. We mostly see her commanding her offspring, their spouses and kids imperiously.

Carina Mitela by Alison Morton
Carina was originally just a girl who grew up is US. However, when she found her real birthright as a Roma Novan citizen, she moved there and even married a Roma Novan man. She’s an officer in the elite Praetorian Guard Special Forces but in the second book she’s also a mother. When she has to go undercover to expose a plot, her family’s well-being is one of the most important factors in that decision. She also has an awesome grandmother, Aurelia, who heads her whole politically powerful family.

However, I think that the most memorable mothers are from comics:
Martha Kent
Perhaps the epitome of “good mother”, she raised Superman, together with Jonathan. She clearly has a very firm sense of morals, and is an understanding and caring mother.

May Parker
Even though May doesn’t have kids of her own, she (and Ben) raised young Peter after his parents died. She’s still around and looking after him even when he’s now an adult.

And I couldn’t end this list without:

Joyce Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Before she knew that Buffy was the Slayer, she had hard time with Buffy’s mysterious comings and goings. However, when she did learn about Buffy’s destiny, she supported her.