2019 pick&mix


The first book in the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club historical fantasy series.

Publication year: 2017
Format: Audio
Running time: 13 hours 39 minute
Narrator: Kate Reading

I very much wanted to adore this book. I liked it and will probably continue with the series but it has a writing style which no doubt will make it almost unreadable to some people. You see, the characters critique the book while it’s written. This sounds like a cute or even charming style, and it is, at first. But ultimately, it robs the book of any tension. We know that the characters will not only survive the fight scene, they all become such good friends that they feel free to give snarky comments while reading the (presumably) first draft. I don’t actually think that most readers open a book just to see how high the body count will be (unless that’s part of the genre of the book, of course) but it takes away even the illusion of tension. Similarly, when we meet the characters who are commenting (and we do meet most of them along the story) again we know immediately that they’ll become good friends. These interruptions also constantly remind the reader that she, or he, is reading a story, preventing any sort of immersion in it. They happen all the time. All the time.

So, the book’s major selling point are the characters and their relationships. Luckily, I really liked them. I also adored the idea of the book.

Mary Jekyll’s mother has just died. Her father died years ago and left them almost penniless. First thing after the funeral, Mary must fire her staff. But since the housekeeper Mrs Poole is critiquing the manuscript we know that at least she will stay with Mary. Mary finds out that her mother has an account on another bank, paying to a “Hyde”. Mary knows that her father’s former friend and murderer Mr. Hyde died some years ago but now she realizes that he might be alive, after all. That’s significant because there’s a reward for information about Hyde. Since Victorian London offers poor and very poor choices to a penniless, orphan girl, she wants to get that reward. So, she goes to UK’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes to get help. He and Watson agree to help, out of civic duty, if nothing else. Mary and Watson go the Magdalene Society (for fallen women and unwanted girls) where Hyde is supposed to be. But instead of Mr. Hyde, they find 14 year old Diana Hyde. She’s abrasive and scornful of the nuns so the Society doesn’t want to keep her anymore, so they foist her on Mary.

Mary also gets some letters that were addressed to her father and using the clues in them, she finds out that there’s a secret society in London that is doing something horrible. With the help of Holmes and Watson, Mary and her friends start to unravel the mystery. Holmes is also trying to solve horrible murders in Whitechapel. Could Hyde be responsible?

I adored the idea of this book. The daughters (and other creations) of famous male literary figures coming together and having adventures as friends. Some of them view themselves as “monsters” who don’t have really a place in society, especially in the Victorian era.

They’re all very practical women. Most of them must be, to survive. Mary has taken over the household money because her mother had been seriously ill for years. Diana lived practically on the streets for some years. Catherine Moreau had to keep a level head to survive on Moreau’s island and later to simply support herself alone. The other two had similar circumstances. They all express their frustration with the limits that the Victorian culture puts on women. Yet, the book has a lot of humor, too. For once, Sherlock and Watson are clearly both the sidekicks to these colorful women.

I had a lot of fun listening this book and Kate Reading’s narration was as wonderful as ever.

The book has lots of quotable parts.
“No wonder men did not want women to wear bloomers. What could women accomplish if they did not have to continually mind their skirts, keep them from dragging in the mud or getting trampled on the steps of an omnibus? If they had pockets! With pockets, women could conquer the world!”

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A stand-alone fantasy/SF novella.

Publication year: 2018
Format: Audio
Running time: 6 hours 44 minute
Narrator: Nancy Wu

Yên has wanted to be a scholar but when she failed her university entrance exams, she lost her passion, even though she’s hoping to retake the exams in a couple of years. Now, she’s just helping her mother, the village healer. But they live in a village where only the most useful members are allowed to survive. Because this world was used and abused by beings called the Vanishers who have now gone. They left behind an planet filled with diseases and pollution. The healers, like Yên’s mother Kim Ngoc, are doing what they can but their magic is too weak heal everyone.

When Yên’s friend falls ill, the only way for Kim to heal her is to summon the local dragon. The dragon comes in the form of a noble but cold woman. She heals Yên’s friend but in return demands a life. She expects to get the girl she healed but the village elders consider Yên to be far more expendable. By threatening Yên’s mother, they get her to volunteer.

Yên expects the dragon to kill her. But to her amazement, the dragon has two children who require a tutor. Yên agrees. She fears the dragon but is also attracted to her. The children are unruly but polite to her. The palace exists in a spirit realm and is shifting around her. It has rooms where she shouldn’t go because she could die there. And the dragons themselves have many secrets.

This story has a very complex background and it allows de Bodard to explore not just the issues of colonization but also of consent, racism, and power. The dragon, Vu Côn, turns out to be rather ethical (perhaps not surprisingly) and she tries to teach the children about the ethics of consent between people who have very different levels of power. She’s also a healer and is combating the diseases (or viruses as she sees them). On the other hand, she has a lot of power and is used to wielding it without consulting anyone else. And yet, when the Vanishers were on this planet, Vu Côn and the other dragons were their servants. So, she has seen the power imbalance on both sides.

Again, the background is very complex and needs a careful reading to pick out just what’s happening. I’m hoping de Bodard will explore this fascinating world some more. Also, there are things that aren’t explained enough, such as the magic system.

This is often pitched as a Beauty and a Beast retelling which made me uncomfortable because that story always has too much Stockholm syndrome to me. Clearly, de Bodard knows that baggage and is circumventing it by talking carefully about consent. Excellent!

An SF novella.

Publication year: 2016
Format: Audio
Running time: 5 hours 22 minute
Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller

Dai Viet Empire is at war and it shows in lack of resources and because many of the citizens are away, at war. However, this isn’t a war story. This isn’t an adventure story, either. It’s about politics and two strong women clashing because they resent their place in society and each other.

Linh was the magistrate of the 23rd planet. When war came to that planet, Linh’s assistant managed to convince her to flee. She’s come of Prosper Station where she has kin. She’s used to being a in control and having power; now she must be humble and beg for shelter. That’s very frustrating for her. She has six ancestor’s voices in her mem-implants. They constantly interfere in her thoughts and she must be respectful of them. Linh is also full of regret, especially when she hears what happened at the planet after she left.

The Mistress of Prosper Station is Quyen. However, she feels that she’s only a minor official because she didn’t pass her examinations. In her arranged marriage, she’s the lesser partner who isn’t as educated as her greater partner. However, war has taken many of the greater partners away and now Quyen has found herself in a position which she hardly could dream of. (In this universe, gender has no bearing of if a person is a lesser or greater partner – only if they’ve passed the examinations.) Quyen resents Linh’s intrusion and her station in life, so she gives Linh the chore of teaching young women. Linh, in turn, know that this is a slight and resents Quyen.

However, the station is run by an AI, Honored Ancestress, and it is failing. Also, Quyen’s kinsman (by marriage) has sold (or otherwise lost) his memory implants. One of the “people” in the implants comes from Quyen’s family and now it’s her job to retrieve them.

This is a complex world where familial relationships are honored above anything else. Many people interact very formally. For example, children shouldn’t criticize their parents, not matter what the parents have done. Also, kin is expected to help each other, no matter what. While others find comfort in that, and also in the AI who watches over everyone, others find it very confining. Also, the culture is very class oriented, although they don’t really call it class.

I felt the ending was a bit abrupt.

Linh and Quyen are both flawed people but very human because of their flaws. The world was fascinating and I’m happy to read more about it.

The third novella in the SF Murderbot Diaries series.

Publication year: 2018
Format: print
Publisher: TOR
Page count: 150

After the events of the previous novella, “Artificial Condition”, Murderbot (SecUnit) as it calls itself, is returning to the planet where the huge company GrayCris, which owned SecUnit, first attacked the scientists. SecUnit is trying to get evidence about GrayCris’ wrongdoings. However, to get to the planet where it all started, SecUnit must travel with humans. It poses as a security consultant, an augmented human. Unfortunately, it also is called in when the humans do something stupid, which is too often.

After the emotionally harrowing ride with the humans and another ride with just a bot controlled transport, where it can concentrate on what it loves the most: watching entertainment, it arrives on the station orbiting the planet. The station is supposed to be abandoned but an independent research team is just arriving. SecUnit decides to hide from them, which isn’t very hard. However, the team has with them a bot, called Miki. SecUnit talks with Miki through a feed and so it keep it’s true nature, as a rogue Security Unit, hidden from Miki. However, things go drastically wrong.

I really enjoyed this installment, too. SecUnit is much the same, making sarcastic comments (to itself) and trying to evade dealing with humans. But it now sees how Miki is treated. As a SecUnit, it has been always treated as a thing, either ignored or feared. But Miki is treated very differently and Miki’s personality is quite different from SecUnit’s. Miki is trusting, almost naive (or that’s how SecUnit sees it). We don’t know if that’s the result of original programming or treatment: we don’t know how long Miki has been with these humans or if it has been treated differently in the past. SecUnit makes a very interesting decision at the end so I can hard wait to get my hands on the next book.

Oh, yes and I quite enjoyed the plot of humans and bots running around scared on a supposedly empty space station with a couple of twists thrown in.

The first book in the Daevabad fantasy trilogy inspired by Middle-Eastern folklore.

Publication year: 2017
Format: Audio
Running time: 19 hours 36 minute
Narrator: Soneela Nankani

Nahri is a young street hustler. She poses as a soothsayer and a healer who can summon and banish spirits. But it’s all just for show; she doesn’t believe it. She lives in 18th century Cairo which has been invaded by the Franks who fight Turks over the ownership of Egypt whose people they despise. She’s an orphan; her parents died when she was young, leaving nothing. She speaks many languages and dreams of being a real doctor.

But when she performs a mock-summoning, something very strange happens: she summons a real daeva, a powerful spirit. That act also brings strange and strong enemies who can even summon the dead. Nahri is forced to trust Dara, the daeva, who is furious at her and put her down all the time. But Dara also says that he knows what Nahri is, so she’s intrigued almost despite herself. However, Dara says that the only place were Nahri can be safe is Daevabad, the city of the daeva. Despite her protests, he essentially kidnaps her, and takes her to a wild flying carpet ride.

The other POV character is Prince Alizayd, or Ali. He’s the younger son of Daevabad’s king. He’s also a djinn, a magical being, like all his family and most of the people who live in the city and country. He’s lived and grown up in the military and so has lived quite a sheltered life. He’s aware, of course, of the injustices in the city and has tried to help in his own way. The shafits are people who are half-human and the djinn oppress them mercilessly: they can’t leave but they also can’t work. Ali is trying to help them but because of his family, he must conceal himself. But then things go terribly wrong and in the end, Ali is summoned to live in the palace.

This is a very ambitious work with very complex world-building. The history of this world is woven with history, especially Islamic history. The djinns are divided into lots of fractions and races, which complicated the reading. Apparently, the print book has a glossary but they audio doesn’t. The writer also uses occasional Arabic words for clothing. This isn’t a book you can just breeze through. However, this also means that much of the book is spent exploring these cultures and tensions.

Ali and Nahri are very distinct from each other; one might call them even opposites at the start. Ali is a very religious young man and a dutiful son to the king. He’s lived almost monastic life and scorns the pleasures his station would give him. Nahri has lived on the street almost all her life. She hasn’t had anything that Ali takes for granted. Yet, they’re both bright, curious people. They’re also loyal and want good for other people. Nahri is a very pragmatic person while Ali is an idealist.

Dara is a very interesting character. He’s very old and has spent centuries as a slave, so his outlook is quite different from the others.

For the most part, I enjoyed the book and the complexities of the djinns. However, I didn’t care for the start of a romance because I didn’t see at all (except that as a case of Stockholm syndrome). For me, there was also the disconnect between Islamic religion being younger than some of the characters who are supposedly following it. The stories about Djinn are also older than that religion. Devas are divine, other-worldly beings from Hinduism and Buddhism.

The ending leaves everything wide open. I already have the second book.

The fifth book in the Invisible Library fantasy series.

Publication year: 2018
Format: print
Publisher: Pan books
Page count: 418

After stealing a book from world where she was first imprisoned for witchcraft and then escaping the dungeons, Irene is expecting a quiet evening with her former apprentice Kai and Peregrine Vale, the greatest detective in this pseudo-Victorian alternate world. But another Librarian has disturbing news and needs Vale’s skills. A very high-ranking dragon has been murdered and it happened at the worst possible place and time. The fundamental forces of this series’ universe, the dragons of order and the Fae of chaos, are trying to get together a peace treaty. Or at least some of them are. There are factions on both sides who would prefer that not to happen or possibly even a full scale war between them. So, the murder investigation is going to be a very delicate matter, involving high-born Fae and dragons who both have very clear ideas about their own importance. Luckily, neither side has any problems with working with a woman. That prejudice is limited to the place, which is 1890s Paris in as neutral a world as could be found. A world which is in balance between chaos and order.

The Library is an intermediary between the two sides and Irene is drafted into the investigation as the “neutral party”. Joining her will be Vale as the investigator and one dragon and one Fae. Naturally, neither wants their own side to be the culprit. To Irene’s horror, she finds a clue which could mean a Librarian is the murderer. A lot of Librarians are on the spot, working with the dragons and the Fae. But can Irene trust even her own superiors?

Like all of the other books in this series, Mortal Word is highly entertaining. However, the focus is on the investigation rather than action, so it feels a bit different from the previous books in the series. Irene has been dreaming of investigating a murder mystery with the world’s greatest detective and at first she’s thrilled but as problems pile up, she finds out that it’s not as fun as she expected it to be.

In the previous book, the Lost Plot, we got to know a bit more about the dragon society and that knowledge is used here. We also get to know more about both the Fae and the dragon society, especially about the people and customs at the very top. Irene and Kai’s relationship changed at the end of the last book and so Kai isn’t here to smooth things out between Irene and the dragons. In fact, Kai isn’t seen much in the book.

Instead, we get Vale and the two representatives. The dragon representative in the investigative team is Mu Dan, a judge-investigator whose position is quite rare in the dragon society because she’s independent rather than serving her family and liege lord. Unfortunately, it also means that she doesn’t have any powerful patrons and so she’s, well, expendable if need be. She’s sensible and practical, for the most part. The Fae representative was a hoot but I won’t spoil it here.

So, the team is very entertaining. Because of the peace talks, the book has a lot of characters but most of them are distinctive enough that I had no trouble telling them apart. Also, the dragons all have Chinese names, and so do their human servants. I also really enjoyed the most powerful Fae who are each a archetype or a stereotype and can compel people to respond to them as if they’re part of the same story.

Irene is put into a very dangerous position and this time she needs to be politically savvy. She also doesn’t know whom she can trust. Keeping Kai away reinforce her sense of being alone.

I think the Mortal Word can be read without reading the series first, but you get the most out of it by starting with the Invisible Library.

The first book in romantic urban fantasy series, the Gale women.

Publication year: 2009
Format: Audio
Running time: 14 hours 1 minute
Narrator: Teri Clark Linden

Allie Gale was born to the Gale family and so to magic, as well. The numerous women in the Gale family are strong with magic and so are the few men. The Gales tend to have 4 or 5 girls for every male child. But Allie doesn’t have any sisters. Instead, she has just one older brother and the family is afraid that he’s so strong with magic that he’ll go rogue. Allie loves her brother David and doesn’t believe that her aunts and nieces are right.

But her more immediate problem is that she’s unemployed, had to move back in with her parents, and Michael, the man she thought would be spend the rest of her life with, has gone off his boyfriend. She’s depressed and aimless in her life. Then she receives a letter from her grandmother, who has a junk shop in Calgary. Apparently her grandmother has died and given Allie the shop. Allie is shocked but none of the older women believe that her Gran is really dead. Allie isn’t thrilled about it but she goes to Calgary to check the place out. Mysterious things are happening and one of them is a gorgeous but snoopy reporter who wants to know all about Allie’s grandmother.

Soon, she’s joined by her cousin Charlie who has wild magic and is a musician. She’s also joined by Michael who is still worried about her… and caught his boyfriend cheating on him.

This was mostly a fun book. It’s very much a romance: Allie and Graham’s relationship is the main thing. Also, it’s about dragons. It’s also about familial love, family sticking together, no matter what (well, mostly).

Yet on have mixed feeling about it because the Gale family’s seriously strange. Only people in the Gale family have magic and so they want to keep the talent in the family as much as possible. Males make the choice of their wife among cousins… and before they choose, they sleep around with everyone. The woman can make a male change their mind and do so. In fact, the aunts are unhappy with Allie because she didn’t change Michael’s mind. However, that would have changed him to a different person and Allie didn’t want to do that.

Women also get more powerful when they age. On the other hand, they need a male spouse to rise to the “second circle” (get more powerful). They’re also expected to have a lot of children. And yet, the family has at least one nuclear family where the women are the spouses (to each other) and share a man. So, not so heterocentric after all.

The actual magic is mostly done with low-key charms, except when, er, dragons are involved. Allie’s cousin Charlie has wild talent which allows her to travel through woods. However, some the magic isn’t really defined much.

I liked Allie and Charlie. I didn’t mind Allie and Graham’s romance. I loved the humor and the pop culture references made be giggle. Still, the Gale family dynamic makes me uncomfortable. But I guess I’ll continue with the series.

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