book reviews by Althea

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Half a King – Joe Abercrombie *****

A must for any fan of quality fantasy. The style and feel is classic yet contemporary. The setting is a somewhat familiar medieval-esque realm. Prince Yarvi never wanted to be king. He’s a bookish boy with a crippled hand, on the cusp of taking his final examinations to become a Minister. (A celibate scientific/spiritual/advisory position.) However, the unexpected deaths of his father and brother leave him the heir.
He’s willing to step up to the plate and to do the best possible job – but are his subjects willing to accept him as King?

The beginning of the story reminded me quite a bit of ‘The Goblin Emperor,’ another excellent book that I read just recently. (The reluctant heir is a rather familiar trope, in general.)

However, soon enough, the story takes some unexpected twists and turns, becoming a gripping adventure/quest, with Yarvi’s goal being to seize his rightful crown. There are also some quite well-done coming-to-maturity themes. As Yarvi works toward his aims, and convinces those around him to join his cause, the reader is led to think about questioning what one is working toward, why one wants it, and what one is willing to sacrifice to get it. What is most important? Friendship? Loyalty? Oaths sworn?

I liked this as much as the only other full book I’ve read to date by Abercrombie, ‘The Blade Itself.’ Maybe I even preferred it by a shade… This one is being marketed as YA, but I didn’t find anything particularly juvenile about it, other than the main character being youthful.

I was very excited to receive a copy of this book from NetGalley. As always, the source affects my opinions not at all.


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Memory of Water – Emmi Itäranta ****

Blurb comparing a book to Ursula LeGuin? Gets me to read it every time…

Yes, I can see where the comparison came from. It probably reminds me most of the feel of LeGuin’s ‘Annals of the Western Shore’ trilogy. The similarity is not so much in actual content, but in what is dwelled on; the themes and pace.

This will also appeal to those looking for post-apocalyptic YA who are interested in more thoughtful, character-oriented stories instead of just action.

The setting is a dystopian future Scandinavia, which has been under an oppressive Chinese (New Qian, that is) rule for generations. Water is mysteriously scarce, and controlled by the corrupt and brutal military junta. Noria is a young woman who has brought up in the tradition of the tea ceremony, a ritual that helps give peace and stability to people whose lives have too little of those elements. She has a secret. Her family knows the location of a secret fresh water spring. When she is left alone in the world, will she choose to keep her knowledge to herself, even as her friends and neighbors go thirsty?

The themes of secrets, knowledge, sharing and trust run through the story, contributing to a lovely and satisfying tale. No, the author is not as masterful as LeGuin – but few are.

I received a copy of this title through the Goodreads First Reads giveaway. Much appreciation for the book.

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The Buried Life – Carrie Patel ***

I’m not sure the cover is aiming at the correct audience for this book… I expected something dark and dystopian. While I can’t deny that, technically, this is a dystopian world, the story itself is a light and breezy murder-mystery/romance. The decaying underground city of Recoletta, which serves as backdrop to the story, comes off almost as an afterthought. The feel of the setting is one that will be familiar to any reader of contemporary Victorianesque fantasy – I’d recommend it for fans of Leanna Renee Hieber and Gail Carriger.

Our heroine is Jane, an orphaned laundress who has clients among the aristocracy, and a patron who is a news reporter. Her work puts her, coincidentally, at the scene of the murder of one of the leaders of the city.
Inspector Malone and her rookie partner Rafe Sundar are on the case – but it seems that the city Council wants them to shove it under the rug. Instead, Malone recruits Jane as an informant, and keeps looking… even as the plot that’s uncovered spirals up to the highest echelons.

What does the rakish rogue Roman Arnault have to do with the crime? Will Jane’s attraction to him blind her to the potential of his guilt?

Thanks to Angry Robot and NetGalley for the opportunity to read an advance copy of this book!

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Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key – Kage Baker *****

Pirates loom large in the collective imagination – and even larger in my childhood world of the imagination. Considering that, I’ve been a bit nonplussed at how few good pirate novels there are. Of those that exist, a good number are for a more juvenile audience than I’ve gradually become.

However, ‘Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key’ is A Classic Pirate Novel. It might not qualify as Great Literature – but it fires a broadside straight at all the targets it ought to, swashbuckling its roisterous way through a thoroughly fun (and never a bit serious) adventure.

Our narrator, John, has just come off the account, having returned from Captain Morgan’s sack of Panama aboard a privateer, with less to show for it than he’d hoped. Still, his savings, he figures, will cover the outlay to get his own bricklaying business opened. A respectable, if modest life awaits… or so he thinks.

When John delivers a letter from his dead shipmate to a bereaved mistress, she tempts him with a tale of a vast sum of treasure, just waiting to be picked up. If only John will accompany her, she’ll split the booty with him. John, while a charming enough man, is – if not quite as dumb as a sack of the bricks he hoped to lay – rather gullible. Soon, his life savings is invested in Mistress Waverly’s schemes, and a rollicking, shipboard venture is underway.

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The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2014 – Rich Horton, ed.

A good – and very extensive – overview of the short SFF published during the year. Recommended for anyone who enjoys quality SFF and is interested in keeping up with the current writers…

**** “Soulcatcher” by James Patrick Kelly (Clarkesworld)
A woman is on a mission to rescue her sister, who’s been made the pet of a charismatic alien. But what is the sister doesn’t want to be rescued? Thought-provoking story, which does an excellent job of evoking large and strange worlds, with an economy of language.

*** “Trafalgar and Josefina” by Angelica Gorodischer (Trafalgar)
Already read, in ‘Trafalgar.’ If you like this short piece, it’s definitely worth picking up the book.…

*** “A Stranger from a Foreign Ship” by Tom Purdom (Asimov’s)
A hired investigator with the ability to switch bodies develops some sympathy for the woman who’s his target. Sc-fi noir.

**** “Blanchefleur” by Theodora Goss (Once Upon a Time)
Theodora Goss rocks at creating fairytales. Her stories have everything one expects from the classics, mixed with original twists and a modern sensibility. Here, a traumatized young man has to leave his childhood home and work his way through three odd apprenticeships, with the reluctant aid of a magical cat. Along the way, he heals and learns a lot about what really matters in life.

*****“Effigy Nights” by Yoon Ha Lee (Clarkesworld)
Already read, in Johnathan Strahan’s annual ‘Best Of’ anthology. “This one is just lovely. A dreamlike city of magical words is under attack by a vicious general. To defend the city, the Warden uses stories of past heroes, brought to (temporary) life through magic to protect their home. On surface level, this is a beautifully realized SF story of conflict – but it’s also an ode to the abiding value of the written word; and how there are some things which should never be sacrificed.”

** “Such & Such Said to So & So” by Maria Dahvana Headley (Glitter & Mayhem)
An allegory about alcoholism, with cocktails personified as alluring dance partners/lovers, in an absurdist-surreal-noir setting. Not really my thing.

** “Grizzled Veterans of Many and Much” by Robert Reed (F&SF)
In the near future, a procedure is developed where a person can be put into a kind of hyper-state where the brain works overtime. The drawback is, it kills you after a few days or weeks. However, in subjective time, hundreds of years could pass. Those in the ‘transcendent’ state push out new scientific discoveries and works of art to the world, changing civilization. It becomes more and more popular, but one young man hates everything about the trend. Interesting ideas, but I felt there were a lot of logical holes in the scenario, and the ‘thought-provoking’ ending didn’t really work for me.

** “Rosary and Goldenstar” by Geoff Ryman (F&SF)
Already read, in Johnathan Strahan’s annual ‘Best Of’ anthology. “Hmm. I loved Ryman’s ‘Air,’ and very much expected to love this. But – I didn’t. This is precisely the sort of use of historical and fictional characters that just rubs me the wrong way. Shakespeare, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Tycho Brahe, etc, get together to discuss the stars. There’s something about how poetry can be more accurate than math. It just didn’t do it for me.”

*** “The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Clockwork Phoenix 4)
In a far-future, a woman traumatized by the loss of the memories of her dearest sister makes some radical decisions and joins a cult based around bizarre and dangerous bio-modification. Gradually, unexpected layers of motivation and intention are revealed. Hmm. That description makes the story sound significantly less weird than it is. It’s a very odd and original story. Very good writing, but I found it a little inaccessible, emotionally, where it felt it ought to be strong.

*****“The Dragons of Merebarton” by K.J. Parker (Fearsome Journeys)
At this point in history, it seems that all possible permutations on the story of the dragonslayer might’ve been covered. But Parker finds a fresh-feeling angle and fully brings her character to vivid life: an aging, retired knight who’s suddenly called upon to gear up and try to rescue his locale from an unexpected scourge. Realistic and touching.

** “The Oracle” by Lavie Tidhar (Analog)
A exploration of the idea of emergent AI, and the possibility (and ramifications) of meshing AI with human intelligence. Interesting ideas, but I didn’t get into it as a narrative.

**** “Loss, With Chalk Diagrams” by E. Lily Yu (Eclipse Online)
In a near future, a medical procedure has made it possible to erase feelings of grief and trauma. Most people do this as a matter of course, as needed. However, the two women of this story, Rebekah and Linda, best friends since childhood, have never opted for the procedure. Linda takes a very ‘gothic’ attitude of embracing her pain as giving meaning to the positive things in her life. Rebekah is more ‘mainstream’ in attitude. Their two lives take different paths, and when Linda kills herself, Rebekah reassesses her decisions. There is a lot of subtle complexity of emotion here, and the story is a good jumping-off point to evaluate one’s own attitude toward life…

*****“Martyr’s Gem” by C. S. E. Cooney (Giganotosaurus)
Cooney is a new author for me – but I’ll be keeping an eye out for her work! This beautiful story has the flow of a fairy tale, but with the feel of a vividly-realized fantasy world. When a bachelor is unexpectedly summoned for marriage by a wealthy woman who’s far out of his league, he half-expects that there must be some catch. And indeed, she tells him that this marriage is merely part of her plan for revenge. The way events transpire is emotionally complex – but ultimately satisfying.

**** “They Shall Salt the Earth With Seeds of Glass” by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Asimov’s)
Very, very nice. A post-apocalyptic Earth has been invaded and occupied by enigmatic aliens who have taken over for unknown reasons of their own. However, one of their agenda items is ‘social rehabilitation,’ which in practice seems to manifest as casual brutality and incomprehensible laws. One of the ‘rules’ is that all fetuses must be carried to-term (after which, it is suspected that the aliens may experiment on them.) In this scenario, a woman must help her sister try to obtain a forbidden abortion. The perspectives here are definitely underrepresented in fiction, and although this is a rough read, emotionally, it’s also refreshing to see.

*** “A Window or a Small Box” by Jedediah Berry (
An engaged couple find themselves in a strange and alien world, where nothing is quite as expected. They just want to find their way back home before the impending date of their wedding. After all, the tents are already rented, and the place settings planned… The story works as a metaphor for developing maturity and finding one’s place in the world/settling for reality. The surreal style didn’t quite win me over, though.

*** “Game of Chance” by Carrie Vaughn (Unfettered)
This reminded me a bit of Brust & White’s ‘The Incrementalists’ – however, I felt this was better-executed. A secret group of people out-of-time try to use small, indirect magics to shape the flow of history and create a better world. However, their grand plans for revolution do not meet with enormous success. One of their number does not share their grand vision – instead, she concentrates on small improvements judged less than worthwhile by her colleagues…

*** “Live Arcade” by Erik Amundsen (Strange Horizons)
Playing an enigmatic videogame leads a reluctant youth to grow as a person; to broaden his cultural understanding and social circle. Very contemporary. Recommended for fans of ‘Ready Player One.’

**** “Social Services” by Madeline Ashby (An Aura of Familiarity)
Previously read in Strahan’s ‘Best of’ anthology. “Absolutely a horror story. A future social worker, among her many house calls to check up on abused and at-risk children, is sent out to a creepy house in an abandoned luxury development. What she encounters there may be far beyond what her training has prepared her for. Don’t read this if you’re planning on going into social work!”

**** “Found” by Alex Dally MacFarlane (Clarkesworld)
A small community of asteroid-dwellers struggles to survive – and the struggle isn’t going well. However, when the community is found and promised ‘rescue’ by a larger settlement, a lone spice-trader is filled with apprehension rather than joy. Everything known will soon change… A nicely presented depiction of ambiguity on several levels, and difficult decisions.

*****“A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” by Ken Liu (F&SF)
This beautiful story starts out as a gentle romance between two middle-aged individuals. It continues as an alternate-history exploration of what might’ve happened in world politics if, after WWI, Japan and the United States has collaborated on a pneumatic train running under the Pacific. And it further develops into a searing commentary on human rights abuses and the power of individuals’ speaking out against injustice. Impressive.

**** “Ilse, Who Saw Clearly” by E. Lily Yu (Apex)
A creepy fairy tale of a mysterious magician who comes to town one winter, offering replacement eyes at very reasonable prices. It’s the story of the young woman who opts not to purchase new eyes, and who then goes on a quest to try to remedy the fallout of her neighbors’ decisions. At the end, the reader just has to say, “That figures.”

* “It’s The End of the World as We Know It, and We Feel Fine” by Harry Turtledove (Analog)
I have yet to read anything by Turtledove that I’ve liked. You might as well read this article:…. This story is a re-statement of the article, written in an annoying, chatty tone of voice. It contains nothing not implied by the original.

*** “Killing Curses, a Caught-Heart Quest” by Krista Hoeppner Leahy (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet)
There are some very nice elements here in the fairy tale of a man born to be a curse-killer, and the curse that tears apart his own family… but I felt that in some respects, it tried just a little too hard to be ‘weird,’ to a point where keeping track of who was what distracted from the story.

*** “Firebrand” by Peter Watts (Twelve Tomorrows)
In the future, a wonderful innovation has allowed for a solution to the fossil fuel crisis. There’s just one drawback: the technology seems to contribute to spontaneous human combustion. Of course, the company tries to cover this up… and the PR reps hired to do so have minor ethical misgivings. Fun, with a clever ending I didn’t see coming.

*** “The Memory Book” by Maureen McHugh (Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells)
A young Victorian witch does some really unethical and selfish magic and causes misery to everyone around her. Creepy; nicely written… but I have very, very high expectations of McHugh, who’s one of my favorite authors. This didn’t quite meet those expectations.

*** “The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls” by Howard Waldrop (Old Mars)
Several levels of nostalgia are wrapped into this piece, which posits a future Mars settler embarking on a Kon-Tiki style expedition to recreate a legendary journey undertaken by an extinct Martian, eons past. One for the fans of Golden Age sci-fi.

*** “A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain” by Karin Tidbeck (Lightspeed)
This is another one that didn’t quite live up to my very, very high expectations. I didn’t love it as much as anything in Tidbeck’s ‘Jagannath’ collection. It’s a dark and surreal meta-meta-fiction piece about a strange theater group acting out supposedly-true stories for an unseen audience…

*** “Out in the Dark” by Linda Nagata (Analog)
In a universe where people travel by making copies of themselves, rules about one-active-body-per-individual are strictly enforced. When an allegedly new immigrant seeks citizenship, an investigation is opened. Is she really an immigrant – or an illegal copy? A nice exploration of theoretical ethics and compassion.

*** “On the Origin of Song” by Naim Kabir (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Told in the format of a selection of documents from the archives, a story gradually emerges here, of an enigmatic researcher who has travelled to a country to investigate a culture where everything is accomplished through song… something unheard of in his own land. A strange piece, but compelling.

*** “Call Girl” by Tang Fei (Apex) (translated by Ken Liu)
A schoolgirl moonlights as… is it as a prostitute? Or as something much rarer and more strange? I hope to be able to read more by this author.

*** “Paranormal Romance” by Christopher Barzak (Lightspeed)
Previously read in Paula Guran’s ‘Magic City’ anthology. “A modern-day witch who specializes in patching up others’ romance was never had luck in love, herself. But when her mother insists on setting her up on a blind date, events unroll in a slightly unexpected and rather cute way.”

*** “Town’s End” by Yukimi Ogawa (Strange Horizons)
A woman employed by a matchmaking agency finds herself serving a quite peculiar clientele. Paranormal romance meets Japanese folklore in this cute tale.

*** “The Discovered Country” by Ian R. MacLeod
In a posthumous virtual reality, a man (or, at least, a consciousness) seeks to rekindle a flame with an ex – a woman whose celebrity and charitable works have endured long past her physical death. An interesting setup, and a few twists I didn’t see coming.

*** “The Wildfires of Antarctica” by Alan De Niro (Asimov’s)
In this future, artists have done Damien Hirst one better. “Artworks” are living, sentient beings: bioengineered and grotesque. But the real evil may lie in the hearts of their collectors…

*** “Kormak the Lucky” by Eleanor Arnason (F&SF)
Previously read in Strahan’s ‘Best of the Year.’
“A story that reads just like something out of the Mabinogion, or a Scandinavian edda… Indeed, it features Egil, of ‘Egil’s Saga,’ although the main character is an Irish slave who, among many other adventures, has to fetch someone from Faerie, Under the Hill. Arnason does an impressive job of writing a story that does not adhere to the conventions of modern storytelling; but is still entertaining to a modern reader.”

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Polynia – China Miéville (short) ****

Browsing the website to find an Ann Leckie story, I noticed a new and free China Miéville piece! Exciting! And it met my expectations.

Two young boys in a near-future London are there when the city experiences a strange phenomenon. Icebergs, which at this point have pretty much melted away in the polar regions, appear in the sky above the city.

No one knows how or why the glacial ice is suspended. Will it come crashing down? Does it mean something? Fear and curiosity take hold. Military expeditions are sent out, and urban adventurers are challenged.

The story is an understated allegory of how the things we destroy may haunt us.

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Fathomless – Jackson Pearce **

This story had so much potential…
Inspired by ‘The Little Mermaid,’ but with a contemporary setting, I hoped the book would have something to say about cruelty and love… I felt that it started out promising; but quickly degenerated into an aggravating teen romance.

There are two main characters:
Celia is a human girl, one of an orphaned set of triplets. She and her sisters have psychic powers, which they mainly use to tease and torment local boys. Celia wants to assert her own identity, but her sisters pressure her to think of herself as part of a unit.

Naida, aka Lo, is a mermaid. However, she and the other mermaids in her group are not a natural phenomenon. Although they all seem to suffer from amnesia, it’s hinted quite early on that they all used to be human girls, until something happened to them. (Don’t hold your breath waiting to find out what exactly happened to them, or why, because you will not find out.)In the very last scene of the book, there’s a sort of half-explanation rushed in, which seems to have something to do with EVIL WEREWOLVES(?) creating the mermaids as a sort of transition stage to them becoming shapeshifters? Eh, what? Why? It was very random.
When a teen boy trips and falls into the water, nearly drowning, both Celia and Lo rush to save him (well, with a few complications), and they meet. Celia hopes to help Lo recover her lost memories, and they strike up a sort of friendship.

They also both develop a totally inexplicable fascination with the nearly-drowned boy (who is boring and has nothing I can see going for him to warrant a crush) and a dull teenage love triangle develops.

I wanted more heartless cruelty, more exploration of all the complex issues raised by the original ‘Little Mermaid’ story, and more logic