It's been a while since the last of these
, Pitchhwars left me with very little time for reading when it kicked off in September, and I haven't really gotten fully back into the fiction mode since. On the other hands there's still three months worth of books to cover, so this may take a while - in fact it's taking me so long to get through them all I've decided to split the post in two, look for the rest of it later this weekend.SF/F
I seem to have given up the re-read of Pratchett's Watch
books. I'd like to restart, but realistically have no idea when that will be.
Accessing The Future,
ed Kathryn Allan
I think I finished this, it was on the go when Pitchwars started, but I really want to go through it again and review each story as I read them, and figure out what it is I would have done differently, because I was left more unsatisfied than I expected. I suspect it's that I'm more overtly political a crip than the writers who did get through the submission process, certainly my submitted story was much more about using SF as a mirror for contemporary attitudes towards disability than most of those that did make it through.
Cold Magic, Spirit Walker Book 1
, Kate Elliott
See the link above for my review of the first half of the book. The second half kicks off with the Cold Mages realising they've kidnapped and married off the wrong one of the Hassi-Barahal sisters, they should have been going for Bee, not Kat. Unfortunately a quickie divorce is out and Kat finds her new and very unwanted husband ordered to kill her. Some unexpected aid allows her to escape, but that leaves her somewhere near the French coast and needing to walk back to quasi-Portsmouth in time to warn Bee (though fortunately the ice age scenario means she doesn't need to swim the Channel). And all while being hunted by the mages, her not-so-ex and their troops. There's unexpected friends, unexpected allies, unexpected betrayals, and a completely unexpected half-brother, whose existence leads Kat to realise she's never known the truth of her own heritage. The alarums and excursions continue all the way home, and don't stop then, but now it's Kat and Bee on the run together, the Cold Mages hot on their tale, until things take another twist and a new faction emerges. The writing continues as good as I thought it was in the first half and I'll definitely be seeking out the rest of the trilogy.Skinwalker: Jane Yellowrock Book 1:
This was a recommendation from my Pitchwars mentor (i.e. homework), the why of which rapidly became obvious. Jane is a vampire hunter for hire in a world where a limited number of paranaturals are known to society, vampires being the obvious one. Jane, however, is one of the unknown species, she's a shapeshifter, and she has a secondary personality resident in her head, a big cat. This makes her a direct parallel to my werewolf cop Aleks, whose wolf also takes the form of a secondary personality (though Suka is non-verbal, where Jane's Beast isn't). The plot in this first novel in the series has Jane hired by, of all people, the Vampire Council of New Orleans. A rogue is killing tourists, cops and vampires, and the leaders of the vampire clans want them stopped (dead tourists are bad for business when you run the New Orleans whorehouses).
I wasn't an immediate fan, Jane quickly runs into a classic bad-boy on a motorcycle (she rides a chopped Harley herself) and insists on referring to him as 'The Joe', which I found plain irritating, but she slowly grew on me. I did like the attention to detail, Jane isn't restricted to one shape, though her big cat is easiest, and she doesn't always manifest at the same size, but there's a mechanism to handle that built into the worldbuilding (I just had Aleks and Suka manifest as a very
big wolf). Jane's the classic tough loner, though being an ex-feral child, and probably a Cherokee skinwalker, are interesting variations on the norm. It quickly becomes obvious Jane is in for a tough fight, the rogue has abilities other vampires don't, abilities more akin to Jane's, but she isn't exactly short on weapons herself. One aspect I found interesting was the sheer number of people she befriends, ranging from the girls at 'Katie's Ladies', to Katie herself (never mind that Katie is a vampire clan leader), Katie's security/factotum Tom and his counterparts with just about every clan across the city, and a local Cherokee shaman. There are a lot of action sequences, but along the way Jane makes some unexpected discoveries about her origins and there is a completely unexpected bit of sub-plot involving a vampire priestess that links the origin of the vampires with, in some as yet unexplained fashion, the Christ story.
It's serial urban fantasy, but a pretty good example of the breed.
K B Spangler
I love Spangler's A Girl and Her Fed
web-comic, and absolutely adore the spin-off Rachel Peng
technothrillers. Her new novel takes Hope Blackwell, protagonist of AGAHF, and gives her a novel in which to shine. It starts with the maguffin from the latest Rachel Peng novel, a previously unknown fragment of the Antikythera Mechanism
, which Rachel retrieves and Hope gets to see because her husband (the Fed) is Rachel's boss. Despite that the novel actually starts with Hope face down in her living room with a policeman's boot pressing her into the carpet. This isn't because she's being arrested, it's to protect the four thugs who made the mistake of breaking into her house to assault her. Hope's a flutter-brain at times, and physically tiny, but she's also a world-class martial artist with a violent streak (and they brought a crowbar).
Hope's also a medium, with Ben Franklin as mentor/spirit guide (all long since explained in AGAHF - Franklin picked her as his physical proxy to keep an eye on the continued development of the US) , and when Rachel turns up with the artefact the alarms go off, because there's suddenly a possibility the Antikythera Mechanism is an artefact adrift out of time, something produced by a powerful ghost who continued working after their death - which is a problem as causality tends to shut down timeloops where that happens and stomp them into dust. There's a pretty obvious candidate, Archimedes, but ghosts can't really travel outside their home country, so Hope finds herself despatched to Greece to track down where the artefact came from.
Hope takes her two usual sidekicks with her. Mike Reilly is another medium, though in his case from a long line of mediums - who hate him for being gay (but not as much as they hate Hope for not belonging to one of the old medium families). Unlike Hope he espouses a policy of non-violence, which doesn't stop him being an even better martial artist than she is, it just means he practises Aikodo rather than Judo. And then there's Speedy. Someone decided to see how far he could get with selective breeding/genetic engineering for intelligence (similar to the Russian experiments with foxes
), and koalas have a lot of room for improvement. At generation 26 he got Speedy, and who euthanized who got reversed... Speedy is 3 feet of hyperintelligent, pissed-off, sex-obsessed koala, with a talent for languages, code and patterns, so he's along to translate.
Once our heroes are in Greece, they quickly pick up a pair of guides, warring cousins who are both on the shady side of legit, if not outright tomb raiders. They also pick up Hope's usual entourage of tails and potential kidnappers - her husband's agency is really
not popular. Both sets of add-ons serve mostly to provide light entertainment; threatening two top martial artists is a sure step towards getting your nose eaten by an angry koala. And then Hope acquires another artefact, a pair of beads, and the story takes an unexpected step.
The beads once belonged to Helen of Troy, but the stories have forgotten who she was first, Helen of Sparta, and a Spartan princess was no simpering beauty. Helen's tale isn't quite done, and she needs Hope to finish it.
The dual narrative is unexpected, Hope tracing clues in the present. while reliving parts of Helen's story each time she sleeps, and much as I love Hope, I think it is Helen's story which is the more compelling one.
The conclusion takes an unexpectedly dark turn, and once you've seen the cover you'll know where it ends, but it does it in a way that's true to both of the stories leading up to it. One slightly odd aspect stylistically is that the story is presented as Hope narrating it in the first person, and she isn't averse to breaking the third wall. However that's entirely in accord with her character. It's a very different story to the Rachel Peng novels, because Hope is privy to a side of the AGAHF universe that Rachel isn't, but still one I very much enjoyed and I hope there'll be more to come.Indexing: Reflections,
Reflections picks up where the original Indexing left off, and Reflections is very much the theme of the work. Not only is glass a recurring issue, not only is this very much a reflection of what happened in the previous book, but we need to look in the mirror at various characters, and off course mirrors aren't exactly an unknown motif in faiy tales,
If you haven't read the first book, the series conceit is that fairy tales are real and are conrtinually trying to manifest themselves. Charged with stopping the mass deaths that usually entails are the agents of the ATI Management Bureau, where ATI is the the Aarne-Thompson Index
of catalogued fairy tales. Henry (Henrietta) Marchen and her team of agents work for the Bureau in an unnamed East Coast city, and the best agent to stop a fairytaile is one who has already escaped one (for now). Henry is a Snow White, forever marked by her complexion, and waking each morning to the sound of bluebirds beating themselves to death against her bedroom windows in frantic attempts to reach her and love her. Her team also features a Cobbler's Elf (Jeff, her lover), a Pied Piper (the very young, but very powerful flautist Demi), and Andy, solid, reliable, just your baseline human. It's completed by Sloane, the only Evil Stepsister in the ATI, who treats incoming fairy tales as an opportunity to work out her fury with her fists and her boots.
Like the original Indexing, Reflections started as Amazon Singles, being released a chapter at a time. Each chapter is therefore structured much like a short story, with a definite beginning middle and end as yet another fairy tale manifests, but this time it's clear much earlier that there is an overall arc, and that the whole arc has been very solidly planned.
It starts with the team under investigation, as Henry's new active status (she bit an apple in Indexing) possibly leaves her too vulnerable to lead. That brings in HR's Ciara Bloomfield, a Bluebeard's Wife, who may just be roguish enough to be Henry's match. No sooner is that out of the way than the team is faced with a breakout from Childe, ATI's enchanted prison, a breakout that ultimately proves to be centred on Birdie, the ATI archivist gone bad who was their opponent in the first book, and she's taken the opportunity to build herself a little team.
Birdie's first move shows up when Henry's brother Gerry calls for help, with word of a Gingerbread House manifesting outside the school where he teaches (Gerry would have been Rose Red to his twin's Snow White, but for the minor fact of being born male in a female body - the result is someone stories keep trying to latch onto). Non-Fiction
Benched as too vulnerable to Birdie's wiles, the team try a Hail Mary play that leaves Henry fighting a lone battle, and Ciara in charge. And all the time Birdie is moving her plan closer and closer to its ultimate target.
If anything Reflections is even better than Indexing, and I really want to reread the two of them together. Reflections is one of those rare first person stories where you can't be certain the narrator, Henry, will make it out alive, particularly as the narrative does occasionally switch POV. One definite piece of fan-service is Sloane's origin story, but it's fan-service that's absolutely essential to the plot. We knew Sloane was a hero, I'm not sure we realised how much of one. There are hints that a third volume is possible, there's a quiet tragedy working it's way out in the ATI office beneath the noses of the team, and there's one line very late in the narrative that has two possible readings - maybe I'm just being a little paranoid, maybe I just misread it, but Seanan McGuire is getting to be very good at what she does, and I don't put deliberate ambiguity beyond her.
I've actually read a few hefty non-fictional books in the last couple of month, concentrated on my interest in the engineering side of military history. I also worked my way through about 20 Kindle samples in the days before Christmas looking at naval history/naval architecture books I might want to buy in future, and in some of these books that's 50 or more pages worth - but no reviews until I read the full things!US Secret Projects 1: Fighters and Bombers of World War 2,
Tony Buttler and Alan Griffith
280 pages, A4. The Secret Projects series has been running for a good few years now, covering aircraft projects that never saw service and putting development programmes in perspective, taking advantage of the documentation now released into national archives. We're certainly into the teens in terms of volumes, but the series recently switched publisher from Ian Allan to Crecy. The '1' for this volume is a little bit of a misnomer, there have already been two previous US volumes covering post war aircraft, but it may mean a second WWII volume is projected. This is quite spectacularly good. I rate books of this type by how many aircraft they cover that I've never heard of, with anything in double figures being a good result. This has a project that's new to me on almost every page, many with either period or redrawn three-view art. There are a few minor howlers, the sketching of the overall US development and procurement plan is weak - but that's because no one can find the relevant documents in the archives, and I think they need a better line editor (me!) but definitely a good buy.Japanese Secret Projects 2: Experimental Aircraft of the IJA and IJN 1922 - 1945
Edwin M Dyer
160 pages, A4. Oh dear. What a contrast. Where US Secret Projects is utterly good, this is utterly a mess. Volume 1, with the same author, was pretty good, so I think the basic problem is they've stretched the fragmentary Japanese archives to their limits, and then gone on to try and get another volume out of it. There are a handful of aircraft new to me, but the structure is dire. It's supposedly one chapter per aircraft project, but we find ourselves bouncing back and forth between Imperial Japanese Army and Navy Projects, suddenly switching from late war to 20s projects, and throwing into the middle of it a chapter on the Japanese nuclear programmes (rather good, expands on stuff I've seen elsewhere, but not an aircraft) and another on a Japanese directed energy weapon project that is a) even more out of place, and b) far too credulous. And within the chapter you often find that 75% of the prose deals with another aircraft entirely, often a well known one that the supposed subject relates to, but on a couple of occasions just an aircraft with a similar role. Clearly there just wasn't enough data to fill the book with actual secret project stuff and they've resorted to padding it. For one aircraft it actually admits there is no direct documentation whatsoever, just a couple of indirect references to say it was built, so we get a chapter talking about the German aircraft that inspired it. Again needs a better editor, but this time to the point I think the manuscript should have been sent back for another draft, with instructions to completely restructure it.
British Destroyers and Frigates, the Second World War and After,
350 pages, A4. Coverage starts with the Tribal class on 1934 and runs all the way up to the current Type 45s. I've just finished this and I've been reading since Christmas Day, it being my present to myself. This is pretty dense and really one for the serious student of naval history/naval architecture. Friedman is American, a former naval analyst, with a score of serious books behind him, including equivalent volumes on US ship classes, and he knows all the right people and archives (I love that one of these is called 'The Brass Foundry' - it's an outstation of the National Maritime Museum) to research his subject properly. He's written these books by going back to the origina requirements, the original design and history documents (the 'ships covers') and the original workbooks of the actual designers. He very occasionally misses a minor nuance of British politics, but far more often the story he's teling adds nuance, such as British post-war strategy being built on a belief we were definitely going to go to war with Russia, with 1957 as the 'year of maximum danger'. I was half-way through a re-read of his British Cruisers volume before Christmas, so I'll be picking that up again, and I'll probably follow it with the volume on WWI and interwar destroyers, which I'll likely get on Kindle to judge whether it's worthwhile given the heavy use of large and detailed drawings of the ships and the extensive use of footnotes. Destroyers was more readable than Cruisers as they've switched to inline footnotes, whereas all the footnotes in Cruisers were at the back of the book and often half a page or a page in length. OTOH Friedman's prose isn't always the clearest. I'm sure he knew what he meant, but sometimes there are multiple interpretations possible of the words that made it to the page. Again, needs a better editor.