book reviews by Althea

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The Library of Forgotten Books – Rjurik Davidson

**** The Cinema of Coming Attractions
France, the 1960’s. A seaside tourist town. The narrator runs a small gang: shell games, pickpocketing, other petty crimes. The main entertainment for the locals in this town is the titular cinema – which shows not popular films, but glimpses of the possible futures of the audience members. When the narrator meets an aspiring actress, who invites him to attend the cinema with her, both of their futures may change. Beautifully done – the atmosphere of the time and place are perfect…

**** Int. Morgue. Night
An alternate-history Australia, 1951. Here, Charles Sturt’s theoretical inland sea was a reality, and an influx of Asian money and immigration has created a boom of growth, making this Australia more like what we think of when we think of Shanghai, complete with crime and opium dens. Cue a noir mystery: a private eye finds his girlfriend, a hostess at an opium den, murdered. While trying to find her killer, he uncovers a web of schemes and betrayals.


**** Lovers in Caeli-Amur
A philosopher-assassin, devoted to gratificationism [a hedonistic philosophy], starts an ill-advised affair with the young wife of his employer, and finds his heart betraying him. A classic-feeling tale, full of intricate details and finely-crafted ironies.

**** Twilight in Caeli-Amur
A young agent is tasked with collecting the notebooks of a renowned botanist from his elderly widow. (This being Caeli-Amur, botany is also the study of weapons and poisons.) He discovers that more lies beneath the surface than he expected, and that assumptions can be a mistake. A small and quiet, but powerful tale.

*****The Passing of the Minotaurs
Re-read. This is the story that was expanded into the truly excellent ‘Unwrapped Sky.’… (Which is what inspired me to get a copy of this book.)

**** Lost in the Library of Forgotten Books
Comparisons with Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ and Django Wexler’s recent ‘Forbidden Library,’ as well as any number of other variations on this theme, are unavoidable. Here, an oppressive system forces writers to submit their banned works to the Library, where they will be shelved and willfully ‘forgotten,’ never to be read. There are supernatural and malevolent guardians, labyrinthine corridors, and rumors of secrets… Here, one coerced worker and one proscribed author dream of escaping together to Caeli-Amur.


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Oxus in Summer – Katharine Hull & Pamela Whitlock ***

I only just this year discovered that one of my favorite childhood books, ‘The Far-Distant Oxus,’ had two sequels. Of course, I immediately requested both of them through interlibrary loan.

In this, the third book featuring the Hunterly siblings and their enigmatic friend Maurice (the Clevertons only make an appearance at the very end) we find the children still riding ponies and getting into imaginative adventures on the Exmoor moors.

The events are almost episodic, and include rescuing a wild foal, entering a sheep-herding contest, attending an estate auction, participating (well, sort-of) in a scavenger hunt, and more. The writing is vivid and engaging.

However, I’m rating this one lower than the other two, because: a. We never find out anything about Maurice! At all! And b. The book ends in medias res. I mean, it just stops. Just as all the kids are about to do something. I wondered if I was actually missing pages, but after checking carefully, I don’t think so. I’m guessing the authors wanted to give an impression of continuing action after the book stops, a kind of ‘endless summer’… but it was just too abrupt and disconcerting.

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The Mirror Empire – Kameron Hurley ****

Hurley goes epic with ‘The Mirror Empire’!
Previously, I’ve read her ‘God’s War,’ and absolutely love it – it’s one of those books that I randomly recommend to people looking for groundbreaking new sci-fi. Personally, I think I prefer the more personal, closer focus.
As the title might indicate, this is a tale of Empire – Empires, actually. It’s big, sprawling and very, very ambitious.
The main story is one that’s definitely in keeping with the epic fantasy genre: One world is at threat from a parallel world. Through magic, denizens of one world can cross-over to another – but only if one’s doppelganger on the other side has been killed. Cue lots of military action, invasion-planning, and nasty, nasty politicking.
Did I say ‘nasty’? Nearly everyone in this book is a horrible, amoral, vicious person. If they haven’t actually murdered anyone, it’s probably just by coincidence that they haven’t gotten around to it, or no one’s ordered them to kill anyone yet. This is not one for the people who demand ‘likeable,’ ‘relatable’ characters (luckily, I’m not one of those people.)
I have to admit, it even took me a while to get invested in the characters. It takes a while to introduce everyone involved, and to get the scene set. (This is quite a long book.) However, I did feel that the payoff was worth the invested time. I’ll also definitely be reading the sequel (no, nothing gets finally settled here – this is definitely first in a series.)
The striking aspect of the book is the worldbuilding. (As I said, the plot, while good, is fairly standard fantasy fare. The setting, however, is bizarre and fascinating – and not like anything you’ve read before.) The descriptions of poisonous, motile plants and freakish animals are wonderful. There are several very distinct races of people as well, and their cultures and conflicts are painstakingly drawn. Some of the tropes and themes will be familiar to readers of ‘God’s War,’ but many are unique to this book.
Recommended for fans of Glen Cook, Gene Wolfe, and maybe Joe Abercrombie as well.

Many thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read an advance copy of this book. As always, my opinions are my own.

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Solaris Rising 3 – Ian Whates, ed.

***** When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
This piece reminded me a lot of S.P. Somtow’s Chronicles of the High Inquest. I almost felt that this could be an incident happening on the outskirts of that empire. Here, two planets in the same system are at war. It’s a secret war, because if higher authorities hear of their little spat, both planets will lose what independence they have. People die while both sides try to maintain their terrible secrets.
This short piece has a remarkable amount of interesting elements in it, which all work together: A complex and believable political situation, a fresh and original depiction of future technology, a rich (and lushly glittering) depiction of a world and culture that feels fully developed. And that’s just the background: the main focus is on the emotionally and ethically complex interaction between two women, Etiesse and Pahayal – which bring the grand schemes of worlds quickly down to the personal level. Masterfully crafted and aesthetically lovely.

*** The Goblin Hunter by Chris Beckett
A naive and idealistic young woman arrives to work for the ‘Indigenous Protection Agency’ on a colony planet. She just doesn’t understand why the colonists insist on slaughtering the native aliens, who, after all, aren’t interfering with the colonists’ activities at all. She’s in for a rude awakening, and perhaps a glimpse into the ugliness that lies within.

** Homo Floresiensis by Ken Liu
Disappointing – I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Ken Liu so far. usually, he’s great at distilling ideas into story. And there are interesting ideas and issues here: it’s about the conflict between habitat protection and local cultures, and the ethics of contacting isolated tribes. However, the piece comes off as overly didactic – more of an essay letting us know what Ken Liu thinks than an story that the reader can connect with. [Also, there are no major speculative elements here.]

*** A Taste for Murder by Julie E. Czerneda
In a future where bio-modifications have run rampant, an investigator looks into the death of a high-profile socialite. Everyone knows she was killed by a bio-mod – but was it an unfortunate medical accident, or part of a plot connected with her work as a food taster? Classic mystery genre meets sci-fi elements.

*** Double Blind by Tony Ballantyne
A group of people have signed up for a medical experiment (or have they been coerced into it?) In a quarantined isolation room, they’re directed to give themselves injections of a test substance. Things don’t go well, in this horror story that depends on a deep distrust of the pharmaceutical industry.

** The Mashup by Sean Williams
One day, weird spheres start appearing and following everyone around. What are they, and why is this happening? Don’t expect to find out.

** The Frost on Jade Buds by Aliette de Bodard
Family / political conflict focusing on two sisters, set among orbital habitats with a future-Vietnamese culture, threatened by the greater power of a Galactic civilization. With mind ships. According to the introduction, this is set in an established universe, so perhaps if I had a bit more background I wouldn’t have felt that a lot of elements were introduced overly quickly. The flow of the story didn’t really grab me.

*** Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus by Alex Dally MacFarlane
Non-traditional narrative. Rather than a story, this is a series of descriptions of ‘posters’ and ‘popular images,’ presumably from an archive, which gradually reveal information to the reader about this expedition to Saturn’s moon.

*** Red Lights, and Rain by Gareth L. Powell
Sci-fi with a bit of a paranormal-investigation feel to it. A woman’s in an Amsterdam bar, expecting to meet a man. It’s not for a date… but saying why would be a spoiler…

**** They Swim Through Sunset Seas by Laura Lam
A researcher on an alien planet captured a young specimen of a native species for scientific observation. Lack of communication and a universal desire for freedom culminated in violence and tragedy. Now – perhaps the desire for revenge might also be a universal trait.

* Faith Without Teeth by Ian Watson
Picking on Communism just seems kind of old, these days. This story felt like hyperbolic WWII propaganda or something. Not saying that any political system should be exempt from criticism, but this was just… clunky, in a gross-out way. I also felt like it made fun of the ignorant, rather than striving to understand differing perspectives.

*** Thing and Sick by Adam Roberts
In the genre of isolated-team-members-go-crazy-and-hate-each-other. I found both of the geeky dudes annoying. A petty incident where one guy hides the contents of a letter from home from the other, escalates. And maybe there’re aliens.

** The Sullen Engines by George Zebrowski
While I am actually fully in agreement with the idea that cars are unacceptably dangerous devices, I wasn’t won over by this tale of a woman who develops the inexplicable ability to zap those car engines to a remote desert location. Too much suburban angst and enuui.

*** Dark Harvest by Cat Sparks
Starts off really strong, with a compelling portrayal of tough military men finding themselves out of their depth when assigned to a tour on an agricultural farming planet. However, I found the ending to be overly mystical and inconclusive. This might work really well if expanded to a novel.

** Fift & Shira by Benjamin Rosenbaum
I felt like this tried too hard to be boundary-stretching, with its portrayal of aliens with different genders, family structure and communication methods – while the story itself wasn’t very compelling.

*** The Howl by Ian K. MacLeod and Martin Sketchley
A woman seeks out an elderly man who was once a friend of her mother’s (and, we suspect, may be her father). He’s reluctant to talk to her about his past as an RAF pilot, but she’s persistent, and old memories (and old tragedies) are dredged up… Very well-written.

**** The Science of Chance by Nina Allan
While looking into a case of a lost child found alone at a train station, an investigator gradually becomes convinced that the child somehow slipped through time, and is somehow connected to a terrible bombing incident that happened thirty years earlier. Really nicely done: compelling characters, incisive psychology, and lovely use of ambiguity.

*** Endless by Rachel Swirsky
In the future, tranhumanist beings strive to keep in touch with their ‘humanity’ by experiencing virtual ‘deaths’ from the past. One of these people is obsessed with reliving the experiences of the young women who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

While I didn’t love all of these stories, there were a few excellent ones here. I’d still highly recommend the collection as a whole, as the authors selected here are nearly all major names in the genre today; it gives a good overview of the diversity of work coming out of the field.

Thanks to Solaris and NetGalley for the opportunity to read an ARC of this collection. As always, my opinion is my own.

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We Are All Completely Fine – Daryl Gregory ****

There are a few people out there that therapists must see as hard cases. Lone survivors of terrible tragedies, damaged in both mind and body. Sometimes, they refuse to talk about what happened. Sometimes, they insist on explaining that what happened to them had some supernatural element to it – clearly a kind of self-delusion to avoid facing reality.

But one psychologist, Dr. Jan Sayer, has put out her professional feelers to try to contact and form a group therapy meeting with these victims. Half a dozen people, from different walks of life, with different dark secrets, agree to meet. The one thing they have in common is malfunction. But together, what they could uncover is… well, it’s both slyly humorous and pretty horrific.
Think Lovecraft meets serial-killer, with a nod to the superhero-team genre. Add in a spooky cult, some cannibalism… it’s got it all, ‘American Horror Story’-style.

I didn’t like this quite as much as Gregory’s recent ‘Afterparty’ (which I loved.) This feels like it was written a bit more quickly – it’s a short book, and a fast read. But it is very good.

Much appreciation to NetGalley for the opportunity to read an advance copy of the book. As always, my opinion is my own.

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Fool’s Assassin – Robin Hobb ****

(Fitz and the Fool, #1)

What a great book!
The most striking thing, to me, about this work is how very well Hobb balances small, quotidian dramas with world-shaking events. She understands perfectly how, from an individual’s perspective (and especially, from a child’s perspective) the small things can actually be the big things. And her writing is good enough that even the small things keep the reader on the edge of one’s seat (although this is not to imply that big things aren’t happening here as well).

This is the seventh big, fat book following the life of FitzChivalry FarSeer. Having followed the series from the beginning (as I have) will definitely enhance the reader’s experience – but I actually wouldn’t say it’s necessary to have read any previous volumes. Hobb is a master of drawing characters in bold yet sensitive lines that get a reader emotionally invested in a character with remarkable rapidity. Warning: if you read this one first, you’ll want to go back and read all the others!

The events here begin some years after we last saw Fitz – he’s now known as Tom Badgerlock, and is a settled holder at the manor house of Withywoods. He’s achieved a certain level of domestic contentment – but, of course, one that is tempered by a number of issues. Looming large among those is his feeling of sadness and loss that his beloved Fool seems to have abandoned him for good. He is also disconcerted by the fact that, due to the side effects of magic, his cherished wife, Molly, is aging faster than he is. In addition, hoped-for children never materialized….

Well, to see where things go from there, you’ll have to read the book. Falling into these pages feels like a long-awaited homecoming. This is, in every sense, a return to Hobb’s best writing. Don’t get me wrong – the Soldier Son trilogy was ok. The Rain Wilds chronicles are pretty good. But this series is the best. Even though there’s plenty of grief and violence here, somehow wrapping yourself in this book feels like curling up on the sofa with a warm, fluffy blanket.
And… like its predecessors, it’s nice and satisfyingly long….

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Stranger Things Happen – Kelly Link ****

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose
The ghost(?) of a man stuck in a strange limbo tries fruitlessly to remember his wife’s name. Through his monologue, a sad story gradually emerges.

Water Off a Black Dog’s Back
A young librarian meets an attractive girl as she’s returning a book in worse-than-dog-eared condition. A love affair quickly starts – but when she takes him home to meet the family, he’s drawn straight into a Southern Gothic nightmare.

The Specialist’s Hat
Previously read in Link’s ‘Pretty Monsters’ collection, as well as in ‘Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic” and in a Year’s Best collection. This is a well-anthologized story! It’s also available free on Link’s site:…
Creepy! Creepy, creepy, creeeeeepy! If you buy, and move into a haunted house, you PROBABLY should check the babysitter’s references, and maybe her ID, too, before you leave your young children with her. Better yet, just get the hell out of that house before it’s too late.

Flying Lessons
“Going to hell, instructions and advice…”
Fractured and reconstructed, a modern myth that follows a kleptomaniac innkeeper’s daughter (well, actually, it’s a British bed & breakfast catering to the tourist trade…) Weird connections, and more than a hint of Eurydice…

Travels with the Snow Queen
An adult retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. Here, Link reimagines Gerda and Kay not as innocent children but as two contemporary adults in a dysfunctional relationship. A strong feminist message is the main takeaway, as Link turns the original story on its head.

Vanishing Act
Hildy has always envied her cousin, Jenny Rose, who gets to travel around the world with her missionary parents. But after Jenny Rose is sent to live with them, her feelings change. Jenny Rose is quiet, uncommunicative – the reader can tell, traumatized – but we see things only from the child Hildy’s perspective. But Hildy is more perceptive than any of those around her, who gradually seem to stop noticing Jenny Rose at all…

Survivor’s Ball, or, The Donner Party
Imagine the weird and unpleasant dream that you might have after watching a TV show about the Donner Party. Your relationship problems, random things from your day, problems with your teeth, and snippets of the TV show are all mixed together into somethings that’s half nightmare and half just… interesting.

Shoe and Marriage
Really, this one is four separate short pieces on a similar theme.
The first is a feminist take-off on Cinderella. The second, a dream/nightmare inspired by televised beauty pageants. The third: What if Imelda Marcos (or someone like her) was actually sympathetic, once you understood her background? Fourth: An encounter with a fortune-teller.

Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water
Have you ever noticed that there’s a certain type of blonde woman? They all look alike. Maybe they’re actually aliens.

Louise’s Ghost
One Louise has the strange ghost of a naked man in her house. Her best friend, also Louise, likes to sleep with cellists. Her young daughter is obsessed with the color green.

The Girl Detective
Is the narrator the plucky girl detective? Or is she detecting the girl detective? Nancy Drew meets the Twelve Dancing Princesses, through a weird kaleidoscope.