2017 pick & mix


11th book in the wonderful October Daye urban fantasy series.

Publication year: 2017
Format: Audio
Running time: 11 and 36 minutes
Narrators: Mary Robinette Kowal

Toby is getting married and her “sister” (death omen) May has organized a bachelorette party for her. In a karaoke bar. At first, Toby is horrified but after the Sea Witch has sung a Disney song (from the Little Mermaid) Toby starts to relax and even enjoy herself. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last.

Amandine is one of the very powerful Firstborn Fae. She’s also of opinion that changelings, the half-fae offspring of humans and fae, aren’t worth the space they take. She’s also Toby’s mother who wanted very different things for her than what Toby herself chose. Amandine has never forgiven Toby for that.

Now, she comes to Toby’s home and demands that Toby finds August. August is Amandine’s eldest child and a full-blooded fae. However, August have been lost for over a century without any clue as to where she has gone. Toby has no interest in obeying her mother and so, Amandine takes hostages: two people who are very dear to Toby and May. Now, Toby has no choice. She has to find her sister whom she’s never met, indeed, whose very existence she didn’t even know about until very recently. And she’s must do so as soon as possible: Amandine is cruel.

First, Toby needs someone related to August. That means Amandine’s full-blooded fae husband who is also one of Toby’s most hated enemies.

This was another very satisfying read. We get to know more about Simon and even about the Sea Witch. One of my favorite troupes is enemies forced to work together and here McGuire uses it beautifully. McGuire even finds a way to separate Toby from most of her allies who are, by now, admittedly quite powerful. It’s also heart-wrenching, especially the end.

Amandine is very arrogant. It seems that she’s forgotten, or suppressed, her time with Toby’s mortal father. I can’t really understand how she could have lived with him because now she expects everything to be of high-fae standards. Maybe she’s just crueler than usual. She’s also very powerful. Maybe more than Toby can handle.

Many of the large cast make an appearance and all of my favorites have a large part to play.

Once again, I want to reread the whole series. Maybe next year…

Quotes:
“I’ve been informed that you’re continuing to play at being a detective,” Amandine sniffed. “It seems an odd thing to spend your time in since we both know that you have no native talents in the area. But if you will persist, it seems you’re able to do me a boon.”
I blinked. “What?”
“I wish to hire you.”

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First in a fantasy series set in a pseudo-Victorian world.

Publication year: 2013
Format: print
Publisher: Tor
Page count: 333
Illustrated by Todd Lockwood

“Be warned, then: the collected volumes of this series will contain frozen mountains, foetid swamps, hostile foreigners, hostile fellow countrymen, the occasional hostile family member, bad decisions, misadventures in orienteering, diseases of an unromantic sort, and a plentitude of mind. You continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart–no more so than the study of dragons itself.”
Isabella is a child who is cursed with curiosity for the natural world. Cursed because she’s a girl and studying anatomy, of any creature, just isn’t proper for a young lady to do. However, Isabella is the only girl child in her family, with five brothers and they live in the countryside so there aren’t too many restrictions on her. At the tender age of seven, she becomes obsessed with dragons. And once she confesses to her father that she’s very interested in the natural sciences, he decides to help her. He allows her to borrow books from his library from time to time, provided that her mother doesn’t know about it.
But when she’s 12, the locals go out to hunt a wolf-drake, Isabella is determined to go with them. She knows how to ride but not how to shoot. She disguises herself as a boy and blackmails her way into the hunting party. Unfortunately, things don’t go well and she has to abandon her studies for years and become a proper lady instead. Then, she has to lure a husband.

This book is written as a memoir so we know that Isabella is able to do very impressive things and survive to a ripe old age to write the books. Often enough, she puts in small interjections, such as how foolish she was when she was young or how she didn’t know something that she knows now. If you don’t like that style, don’t pick up this book!

This also not an action book, either. It focuses on the relationships between the characters and on adventure and discovery. The dragons are very dangerous animals which eat humans and cattle, so it’s hard to observe them. Also, they’re more talked about than seen. But when we do seem them, it’s always special. As a wealthy gentlewoman at a time when she’s supposed to just stay at home and have kids, Isabella encounters and overcomes many obstacles. However, thanks to a supporting husband those obstacles aren’t too much (of course, if they were, there wouldn’t be a book or it would a very different kind of book). To be fair, she also observes how the society restricts men as well.

Isabella is a smart woman but, like her older self admits, she’s also very young and inexperienced at this point. Her obsession with dragons takes over her life, leaving little time for anything else. She can be stand-offish to people around her. But she’s not deliberately cruel, just thoughtless and very, very imperialistic. She doesn’t bother to learn the names of some of her servants and describes them rather uncharitably. She’s also the only woman (or man for that matter) in this book who rises above society’s expectations.

There are several kinds of dragons in this world. Some we only see once and don’t know much more about them. Sparklings are the smallest, the size of insects. Indeed, they are classified as insects before Isabella starts to study them in earnest. Rock-wyrms are far larger and more dangerous to humans and other creatures. All the dragons seem to share a peculiar feature: their hollow bones disintegrate in sunlight, leaving nothing behind to study after they die. However, sparklings can be preserved in vinegar.

This is an alternate world fiction so things like religion are somewhat different than in our world but their inspirations are quite recognizable. I enjoyed the book and the writing style, which rather reminded me of Amelia Peabody.

I was expecting an excruciatingly long courtship with lots of unsuitable suitors but thankfully that didn’t happen. I’ve read a few reviews and knew beforehand that this first book at least wouldn’t have many dragons in it, despite the name. And I’m also fascinated by treating the dragons as wild, untamable animals. I can’t help but hope that in a later book they might turn out to be intelligent, after all. But I don’t really think that’s likely.

A stand-alone sf/f book.

Publication year: 1993
Format: print
Publisher: ROC
Page count: 384

Traitors has an sf premise: the book is set is another planet which humans colonized centuries ago and the people know it. However, mostly it reads like fantasy. The countries in this setting are islands so you need to have either a ship or an air-born shuttle to go from one country to the next. All high tech is controlled by one nation, Vorgel, and while other nations can use them, the Vorgellians keep tight reins on the tech so nobody else can build anything high tech, anything from laser pistols to shuttles.

The Kingdom is a place where, at the surface anyway, art and artists are regarded highly. However, the Kingdom has a very cruel and rigid caste system. In it, young children are tested for their level of Talent (in any form of art, such as dance, poetry, or music and also in Magic). Those with A-level Talent are then expected to perform so that their performances bring money to the government. Those without A-level Talent are essentially used for scouting rich targets (in foreign countries) and robbing them. Also, a person can have only one Talent and only one A-level Talent in one family. Of course, the Kingdom don’t admit that they steal to anyone outside. Golga is a neighboring country where all frivolous thing, such as fiction and other arts, are forbidden. Supposedly, the Golgans kill all Kingdom members they get their hands on.

Emilio Diante is an A-level Dance Talent. One day, he comes home and finds his family brutally murdered. He knows that the Queen has done it. So, he stows away on a ship, heading for somewhere else, anywhere else. He’s rather become a slave than stay in the Kingdom. However, a mage aboard notices him and the only place where he can stay is Golga. Diante is sure that he will be killed but instead the ruler of Golga, the Golgoth, gives Diante one chance to prove himself and stay. Diante takes that chance. 15 years later, he’s the head of detectives in the Golga capital and one of the ruler’s most trusted advisors. Then, he finds a badly beaten and burned Kingdom woman near the port. He and his closest friend, a wine merchant, take the woman to heal in a resort where they can hopefully rebuild her broken body. On the island resort Diante meets and falls quickly in love with a stunningly beautiful woman. He suspects that she’s from Kingdom but waves away his concerns. That turns out to be a mistake.

As usual with Rusch, I loved the setting. However, this is one of her earlier books and it shows a little.

The various nations we’re given a glimpse of are fascinating. Apparently, the people who founded them, made them opposites of each other. For example, Golga was once part of the Kingdom but the future Golgans rebelled and when they founded their own country, they forbade anything resembling the Kingdom, namely the arts.

Diante is the only POV character so his opinions color everything. He’s a very serious and duty-focused man. He’s only loyal to the Golgoth who trusts Diante. But few others trust Diante. The wine merchant is his only friend and he’s closed himself off from other people so much that he hasn’t had a romantic relationship until he meets the woman at the resort. Also, when he gives someone his loyalty, he has very hard time letting go.

Sheba, the woman Diante falls for, remains a mystery. We don’t see her reasons for her choices. The other major characters change through the story. The Golgoth is another very duty-bound man who will do anything for betterment of his country. He’s also quite different from his reputation in the Kingdom. The wine merchant starts out like a plot device (urging Diante to do something he normally wouldn’t do: take a vacation) but gets deeper during the story. The same thing happens to the wounded woman.

I rather enjoyed this book but it’s not one of Rusch’s best, even though it has some quite unusual twists which I quite enjoyed and the ending was also somewhat unusual (for fantasy).

A Babylon 5 novel, set near the end of the second season.

Publication year: 1996
Format: print
Publisher: Boxtree
Page count: 279

President Clark has rewritten the death penalty for murder into law. The law is applied to both humans and aliens. This is the first time it’s going to happen, and on Babylon 5.

The Tuchanq are an alien race who were conquered and abused by the Narn, after their war with the Centauri because they needed their planet’s resources. However, the Narn ruled very cruelly and when they left, the planet was used up. A delegation of Tuchanq comes B5 to look for help. Several governments, Earth and the Centauri among them, are eager to help and the Tuchanq have to decide which people to turn to. However, soon after they come to the station, they get into a brawl and Ivanova decides to stun everyone involved. This turns out to be horrible mistake because the Tuchanq don’t sleep. For them, unconsciousness is the same as death. When the stunned ones return their consciousness, they’re effectively insane. The other Tuchanq can help them but they don’t get to one member of their delegation in time: she slips away intent on wanting a life for the life she has lost. So, she kills a human. Unfortunately, the human has a PPG gun and makes a big mess, plunging a cargo hold into vacuum. The human dies and the alien is apparently brain damaged. But because she killed a human, President Clark is adamant of punishing her and orders Sheridan to go through with a modern Western style trial. The racial (or species) tension on the station is running very high.

Apparently, this is a book about the cons of death penalty. I’m a pacifist and live in a country without death penalty so he’s preaching to the choir in my case. The only character in this book who supports the death penalty is Garibaldi, because it’s his job to uphold the law. All the others view it as a horrific aberration. Yet, quite a few people, both human and others, are killed and the only death viewed with any significance in the Tuchanq killing the human and then the upcoming execution. This seems a bit strange and limiting, too. The aim of the book is quite ambitious but unfortunately it falls short. Also, the plot would have probably worked better in another universe. This book makes Sheridan and some others somewhat different from their canonical selves. Also, there are some strange and inconsequential differences to canon. For example, Lyta Alexander makes a brief appearance during which we learn that this Lyta has been deaf her whole life, unlike the real B5 Lyta. Also, this G’Kar is married to J’Ntiel who gave him the book of G’Quan which was her family’s heirloom.

The Tuchanq are an interesting species. They’ve gone through a terrible occupation under the Narn but they’ve managed to keep their culture. They’re also physically quite different from humans (and Narns). For example, they’re a lot taller and have spikes which they use to say yes or no. They also have no eyes. In fact, I sort of think that they were wasted in a one-shot tie-in book because there’s no chance they’re seen again.

Unfortunately, the plot has some holes. The people at the station seem divided along the lines of “love the alien” and the Home Guard who hate all aliens on principle. Nobody seems to be interested in if the alien murdered someone or not, which seems more than a bit weird. Of course, humans are known for getting sidetracked in pretty much every issue. Clark is adamant at wanting a guilty verdict and a quick execution, no matter what. Nobody is really concerned with the law, even those who are supposed to uphold it. And like I mentioned, the other killings aren’t even mentioned about much less prosecuted. Also, people seem to know stuff they couldn’t have known. There’s a second plot line with Londo and G’Kar (who are as entertaining as ever) which at first glance seems fine, but when I started to think about it, doesn’t make any sense. The B5 characters are also uncharacteristically unsympathetic to the murdered man’s widow, especially Sheridan who is also a widow and so should have behaved quite differently.

Somewhat entertaining but the problems kept me from fully enjoying the book.

The second book in the series.

Publication year: 2016
Format: Audio
Running time: 15 hours and 23 minutes
Narrator: Jordanna Max Brosky and Robert Petkoff

It’s Christmas time and three months has gone by since the end of the previous book. Theo and Selene are still together and their relationship is pretty much the same; Selene struggling with her feelings and keeping Theo at an arm’s length away.

Selene isn’t a fan of Christmas, indeed, she loathes it. Fortunately, there are some women in distress whom she can help instead of beating up Christmas tree sellers. But soon, the police calls her and Theo to a grisly murder scene and they have so much investigative work on their hands that they almost forget the upcoming holiday, especially when they realize that the murdered man was a former Greek god.
And when a man in a winged cap attacks Selene, she realizes that her extended family is in danger.

Selene DiSilva is Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunt and the protector of the innocent. She’s remained chaste and alone for hundreds, thousands of years. It’s hard for her to be in a relationship and she doesn’t take Theo into account of her plans at all when he’s somewhere else. She’s fierce and fiercely independent. She’s also a shitty girlfriend and I’m not talking about sex or the lack of it, but her complete lack of consideration for Theo and his feelings. I began to wonder why he puts up with her. Granted, the book actually addresses this which is great.

Theo is the same nerdy ancient history professor. He does research and also gets to be pretty heroic. He’s very accommodating of Selene and her standoffishness but fortunately, he does have his limits, too. He also has two female friends whom I enjoyed a lot.

This time we get to see more of Selene’s celestial family. Her twin is a rock star and they have a strained relationship at best. Many other (former) gods appear, too. I really enjoyed them.

The book is mostly told from the POV of Selene or Theo. There are also some shorter chapters from the POV of one of the conspirators. This structure worked well. The audiobook has two narrators and they change according to the POV.

The book has a couple of things I don’t really care for, such as jealously and the female friend who turns out to be in love with her male friend. Also, I’m not a fan of bickering couples. But overall I really enjoyed this second book, too. It doesn’t end in a cliffhanger, exactly, but I’m very excited for the next book.

The third Babylon 5 book, set during the middle of the second season, before “Coming of the Shadows”. It draws heavily on the first season episode “The Parliament of Dreams”.

Publication year: 1995
Format: print
Publisher: Boxtree
Page count: 232

G’Kar receives a data message where the daughter of his old enemy Du’Rog swears the blood oath against him. The Shon’Kar is a powerful part of the Narn culture and G’Kar is very much afraid. Shortly, he leaves the station in a one-man craft which explodes before reaching the jump gate. Garibaldi suspects murder and it seems that G’Kar’s craft was tampered with. He investigates but before any conclusions can be drawn, Sheridan sends Garibaldi and Ivanova to the Narn Homeworld, to participate in G’Kar’s funeral and to tell everything they know about the ambassador’s death to the Narn ruling body, the Kha’Ri. Na’Toth will travel with them and also a new character Al Vernon whom Garibaldi meets just before he leaves. Vernon used to live in the Homeworld and offers up himself as a guide to the two humans. Garibaldi accepts but is determined to keep a close eye on him.

Of course, G’Kar isn’t dead. He faked his own death in the hopes of resolving things with Du’Rog’s family, one way or the other, before he’s really killed. He travels to the Homeworld, too.

Most of the book is set in the Homeworld, which was a fascinating place. Temperatures are really cold during the night and really hot during the day, in the same place. This doesn’t seem to bother the Narns but does bother the humans a great deal. We’re shown the rigid caste system of the Narns; people who don’t make it are shunned and live in horrible slums which are practically lawless. The Rangers who are supposed to keep up the law are bullies.

We also meet G’Kar’s wife Da’Kal who is apparently a well-connected woman whom G’Kar loves – but whom he just cast aside when he moved to B5. I don’t think there was ever a mention of G’Kar being married in the series.

This was another quick read. It was mostly enjoyable but there were pretty significant typos, like Garibaldi’s and G’Kar’s names exchanging places. Also, I rather liked Da’Kal but G’Kar’s abandonment of her made him a really callous character. I also really like Mi’Ra who was Du’Rog’s spirited daughter hellbent on getting her revenge on G’Kar. So, interesting alternate version of G’Kar.

The first book in a space opera series.

Publication year: 2004
Format: Audio
Running time: 13 hours and 45 minutes
Narrator: Cynthia Holloway

Kylara Vatta is the youngest of the Vatta family who owns a very successful space shipping firm. But Ky wants to be a soldier and so she goes to the military academy even over her family’s objections. However, another cadet tricks her and she’s kicked out in disgrace. She’s now an embarrassment to her family so they want her out of sight. At least until everyone forgets her troubles and her mother can marry her off.

However, her father and brother conspire to give her a star ship to captain. The ship is an old one and in fact Ky is expected to take it to a scrapyard. But along the way, she finds opportunities to trade and takes them. Unfortunately, the ship breaks down and leaves her and her crew in the middle of a war, without a functioning FTL drive, so Ky will have to grow up fast and think quick.

This is Ky’s coming of age story as a captain. For her maiden voyage, she’s been given a very experienced crew. She knows that and learns to rely on them, even though at first she wants to do herself everything she can. Her previous experience at the academy serves her well and even though she isn’t a teenager, she still has some flaws to overcome. Other people don’t expect much from her because of her youth and those who know about her previous blunders think that she wants too much to help other people. But she’s very resourceful and a no-nonsense character. She also has a dark side.

The other major characters are the crew members. One of them Ky has known off and on her whole life. I also rather enjoyed a certain senior Vatta captain when he made an appearance later in the book. Ky’s family is very supportive of her but they definitely treat her like a little princess who needs to be rescued. But that did mean that even if Ky had screwed up, her family would have bailed her out which diminished the danger somewhat.

However, only Ky herself is really a memorable character. Also, the story devotes more time to business dealings and trying to get enough money for repairs than action. I was a bit thrown by the fact that this universe uses ansibles for communication because I though Ursula Le Guin invented them.

Even though this is the first book in the series, it doesn’t end in a cliffhanger. But I enjoyed the book enough that I’ll continue with the series.

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