book reviews by Althea

Leave a comment

The Invisible Library – Genevieve Cogman ***

The Invisible Library
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘The Invisible Library’ feels like the author made a conscious effort to Include All The Cool Things. Starting with, of course, a secret extra-dimensional library with All The Books, connecting parallel universes, and librarians who are secret agents traversing these worlds in search of rare manuscripts. I mean, would it be POSSIBLE to write a book with that concept and have it be a bad book? I’m not sure, but it would be Very, Very, Difficult. This is absolutely a very enjoyable book.

Cool as a library with All The Books might be, this particular library is not quite as high-principled as it at first might seem. In particular, their acquisitions policy is a bit suspect. If they can’t beg, buy or borrow, they’re not above stealing. And that’s pretty much junior librarian Irene’s mission: get a certain book (a collection of fairytales) at any cost. To accompany her, she’s assigned a new trainee, a young man called Kai. Together, they’re sent into a steampunk-style world to track down the book. It soon becomes clear that this mission is a bit out of the ordinary, when people start turning up dead and it seems that the Library’s treasonous arch-nemesis is involved – as well as some plain old jealousy and ‘office politics.’ Why on earth were two such junior Librarians assigned to this hazardous mission?

Part detective story, part adventure-fantasy, the hijinks that ensue are good fun. I’ve already got the sequel in the YA series queued up to read.

Many thanks to Roc and Netgalley for the copy of the book. As always, my opinions are solely my own.
View all my reviews


Leave a comment

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee ****

Ninefox Gambit
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Intelligent, challenging Military SF/Space Opera.

I’d read a few of Yoon Ha Lee’s short stories, so had every expectation of liking this debut novel – and I was not disappointed. (I’m fairly certain that at least one of the short stories is set in this universe, although I can’t quite place which one.)

Captain Kel Cheris is a respected soldier in an extremely regimented, authoritarian and militaristic society. Her talent for mathematics – part of the underpinnings of how this world works – distinguishes her. But when she achieves a stunning victory by a not-by-the-book strategy, her unconventionality may be the end of her career. However, she proposes a shockingly bold plan to her superiors: she asks them to let her try to re-take a contested fortress by letting her team up with one of her empire’s greatest generals and strategists of all time. The problem? General Shuos Jedao is imprisoned, accused of treason, and is possibly insane.

On the face of it, that plot setup sounds fairly straightforward. And on one level, it is. The military tactics and action progress in an exciting manner, with good character development and a really interesting dynamic between Cheris and Jedao.

However, the setting of the book has a whole other level, which is the nature of this world’s reality. Everything here is ‘calendrical,’ meaning in the context of this book that it works based on advanced mathematical formulae. A calendar is like a computer program that determines the rules, physics, and nature of the surrounding reality. This is why this society is so strictly regimented: violating the calendar (heresy) can have severe, fabric-of-reality-affecting repercussions. Competing ‘calendars’ cannot be tolerated, as they cause something like ‘bit rot’ at the edges…

Of course, it’s quite questionable as to whether of not Kel Cheris’ Hexarchate is really the necessity it presents itself as. There seem to be plenty of heretics who disagree. (Like Ann Leckie’s ‘Ancillary Justice,’ this is very much a “from within the Evil Empire” tale.)

The nature of this universe’s physics is in keeping with some of Yoon Ha Lee’s short works, in which, for example, art, or language, can affect the physical reality. Here, it’s mathematics. It’s still undeniably challenging for the reader to wrap one’s head around at first. For myself, I found that everything went a lot more smoothly after I realized that, as physical as this world seems in its depiction, the way everything works makes perfect sense (and seems entirely possible) if you think of it as happening inside a computer-generated virtual reality.

Many thanks to Solaris and Netgalley for the chance to read this excellent book. As always, my opinions are solely my own

View all my reviews

Leave a comment

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Ten – Jonathan Strahan, ed.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Ten
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Ten by Jonathan Strahan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

****“Black Dog”, Neil Gaiman
This story features one of the characters from ‘American Gods,’ but it works perfectly well as a stand-alone – and actually, I liked it better than the novel.
Shadow Moon is an American travelling through rural Britain. We know he’s suffering after the death of his wife, but other than that small tidbit of information, he’s laconic and keeps details about himself close to his chest.
He’s planning on just passing through one seemingly unremarkable small town, when a medical emergency keeps him in the home of the couple who run the local pub. Soon, he’s drawn into an ominous tangle of depression, old secrets and ancient magic.

*****“City of Ash”, Paolo Bacigalupi
Previously read at:…
The short story is a companion piece to ‘The Water Knife.’
To quote Bacigalupi: “Based in the same universe as THE WATER KNIFE. A bit from Maria’s perspective, before the novel starts.”
Here, Maria Villarosa, a young refugee from drought-stricken Texas, is still hopeful. her father has recently landed a good job working on the Taiyang arcology, and there’s the possibility, dangled before them like a cool drink of fresh water, that the position might lead to being able to emigrate to China.
If you liked the novel, this is a must-read. If you haven’t read the novel, this works both as a great introduction to the premise, and as a fully-realized stand-alone story. Like ‘The Water Knife,’ the story is a terrifyingly believable vision of the near future, and terribly heartbreaking. Great stuff.

****“Jamaica Ginger”, Nalo Hopkinson & Nisi Shawl
Cute and enjoyable steampunk story. The ending wrapped up a bit quickly and felt a bit unrealistically upbeat, but if the story was continued into a novel, I’d definitely read it. Our young heroine is the underpaid worker of a clockwork-manufacturer. Little do his customers know that she’s the one that does nearly all of the work, and comes up with all the innovations. Her pay certainly doesn’t reflect her contributions. With her Pa ill, her family situation is getting more and more desperate. Will she have to give up on the boy she’s sweet on, and become her boss’ mistress out of financial considerations?
We end on the brink of what is sure to be an adventure.

***“A Murmuration”, Alastair Reynolds
This is science fiction, in the sense that it is fiction about science. Specifically, it’s about the stresses of cold hard research and the scientific process on the all-too-human people doing that science.
The specifics – an investigation into the physics of birds’ flock formations – is interesting, but it’s mainly an exploration of a mental breakdown.

****“Kaiju maximus®: ‘So Various, So Beautiful, So New’”, Kai Ashante Wilson
Available for free, here:…
“Kaiju,” of course, refers to the Japanese film genre featuring battles between giant monsters. (I used to work at a club where the band “Kaiju Big Battel” played frequently, so I can’t see the word without thinking of their shows.)
Here we meet a family, one of whom is a Hero, travelling out of humanity’s safe dwelling caves to do battle against a destructive alien monster.
The story is intercut with a couple of different kinds of texts. Some are notes from a geneticist, talking about the project to change some humans into “heroes” in order to fight the alien menace.
The others are like video game strategy notes, talking about how much XP and power a character can get from their companions.
The story seems to have been inspired by the idea of “lending strength” to someone, and how one might “take strength” from their family bonds – here the idea is taken quite literally.
I liked the story, and thought it got quite a lot of complex and fascinating ideas into a short amount of space. However, I wished that the main narrative had been clear enough to dispense with the need for the ‘genetics notes,’ and I also thought that the ‘video game notes’ weakened the story rather than strengthening it.

****“Waters of Versailles”, Kelly Robson
Previously read at:…
New author Kelly Robson has been getting quite a bit of buzz for this novella, as well as the short stories which she recently had published, and I think it’s very well deserved. This is going to be an author to watch – she’s got a way with words!
Sylvain is an ingenious man with an eye for the main chance. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead – whether that’s a carefully planned seduction or sucking up to a well-placed aristocrat. In this alternate-18th century Versailles, his efforts have so far had good results. Sylvain has introduced the flush toilet – and the associated plumbing – to the court, and his facilities have become the hottest new thing.
However, his water lines have a disturbing tendency to spring leaks, and his efforts to keep everything running become more and more frantic. It turns out that Sylvain isn’t an engineer or plumber at all. Rather, his entrepreneurial vision depends on magic – and a captive.

*****“Capitalism in the 22nd Century, or AIr”, Geoff Ryman
Previously read in Horton’s ‘Year’s Best.’
The anthology this originally appeared in was dedicated to Samuel Delany, which is why I skipped it – I’ve just never been able to become a fan. I’m not sure how this story relates to Delany, though. Rather, it seems to be a sequel, of sorts, to Ryman’s short story/novel, “Air: Or, Have Not Have.” The novel shows us the inception of a totally wireless Internet. In this story, we jump ahead and see where that innovation has taken the world. The theme: The artificial intelligences that humans create to serve us will eventually become our masters. It’s an arguably over-done theme, but this is a very well-done, excellent iteration of it.
Two Brazilian women have scrimped and saved and had irreversible medical procedures done in order to be able to join a secret, illegal colony mission to a distant planet. The story itself follows their frantic, fearful journey to the spacecraft. Along the way, though, we explore power structures, interconnectivity, and cost/benefit relations. The most obvious is that between human and the AI networks that they depend on. The second is more traditional, political power structures, between a dominant economy and the smaller ones surrounding it. And finally, we also find out that the relationship between two individuals that we initially saw as cooperative equals are not quite that, either. Subtle and thought-provoking… I thought it was excellent.

***“Emergence”, Gwyneth Jones
In a future where AIs are fully sentient beings, a cop who happens to be one of the oldest born-humans still alive tracks down a petty criminal you happens to be a young AI. But things go unexpectedly wrong, and she must re-evaluate her life expectations. The brief summary makes it sound like a crime story, but it’s really more of an exploration of a potential post-humanist society.

****“The Deepwater Bride” by Tamsyn Muir
Previously read in Horton’s ‘Best…’
There’s been quite a bit of work coming out lately with Lovecraftian influences updated for a modern setting. For example, Daryl Gregory’s ‘Harrison Squared.’ I think that this story would definitely share an audience with that one.
Hester has never been one of the ‘cool’ girls – she’s always been a bit peculiar, and it shows, even though the kids at school might not know that she’s part of an ancient family of seers and chroniclers, and that he life’s destiny is to document the coming of a leviathan horror which will lay waste to the land (including demolishing WalMart.) But when Hester meets a girl named Rainbow who’s a disturbing but alluring combination of trendy and sociopathic – and who may be doomed in the coming upheaval – her objective standpoint as observer and documentarian may change.

***“Dancy vs. the Pterosaur”, Caitlin R. Kiernan
I’ve read more than one of Kiernan’s stories featuring Dancy Flammarion, the albino drifter who’s guided by an angel to do battle with various supernatural beings. Here, she has a brief encounter with what seems to be a dragon – and also, an encounter with a scientifically-minded young girl with an ambition to become a herpetologist. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it was the best of these stories: it was barely the equivalent of a chapter in Dancy’s saga; the science-vs.-religion debate didn’t really cover any new or interesting angles, and it was missing both climax and resolution. I still really enjoy Kiernan’s writing, but didn’t find this to be the strongest example of it.

*****“Calved”, Sam J. Miller
While this story has a future setting, the setting – while extremely well-drawn – is not essential to the plot. It really a story about a father’s relationship with his son. The father – the narrator – is forced by poverty to work a job that takes him away from home for months at a time. His now-teen son is growing away from him during those absences, becoming more and more distant. The father wants nothing more than to recapture their closeness – but isn’t sure how to go about it.
It’s heartbreaking – and utterly believable. Reminded me a bit of the excellent Maureen McHugh.

***“The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”, Elizabeth Bear
Previously read in ‘Old Venus.’
I’m not getting the connection to the David Bowie song referenced in the title…
Other than that, this is a pretty good sci-fi adventure. An exo-archaeologist goes on a dangerous solo mission in an attempt to find a lost city: and, in the process, ‘prove’ herself to her over-achieving lover. A fight with alien megafauna features prominently. I loved all the details here – the setting, the ‘throwaway’ details about technology, future social attitudes, plant and animal life. However, the central psychodrama involving the main character and her lover didn’t really grab me.

***“The Machine Starts”, Greg Bear
Previously read in ‘Future Visions.’
Experimental quantum computing leads to unforeseen side effects among the team of physicists working on the project. More ‘cautionary’ than I expected.

****“Blood, Ash, Braids”, Genevieve Valentine
Previously read in ‘Operation Arcana.’
Historically interesting, AND a rousing good tale. A group of Russian WWII fighter pilots, all women, are assigned horribly dangerous missions. A bit of witchcraft may help them stay alive…

*****“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers”, Alyssa Wong
Yes, the vampire genre has been done to death, but every so often we still get a twist on it that is fresh & original. Here we are given a tale of love and predation among Asian women in present-day New York City. (Bret Easton Ellis meets Amy Tan? 😉 I also think this would appeal to fans of Tanith Lee).
I liked the nuanced treatment of relationships between the characters, and the idea that a vampire might be irrevocably affected by the person whose essence they consume. Wong is definitely an author I’ll be keeping my eye out for in the future.

*****“The Lily and the Horn”, Catherynne Valente
Previously read at:…
In a fairytale-like future, wars were eschewed as pointless, wasteful exercises of violence. Battlefields merely resulted in mass death – why not instead settle conflicts by a contest of poison?
Thus began the tradition of wars fought at a dinner table. Of course, human nature being what it is, it wasn’t long before these toxic dinners no longer involved merely two rival leaders. Soon, the leaders sent proxies in their stead. Then, many proxies. So – mass death of the innocent is still bound to occur, but some things have changed. Since poison has always been the traditional realm of women, he now have schools where some women train to be well versed in the uses of exotic poisons – and others who become experts in ways of combating poison’s effects and knowing the antidotes.
In this world, Valente tells us a tragic love story.
Lush and lyrical language encases fascinating and well-developed ideas – and a plot which is moving and lovely in itself. Loved it.

***“The Empress in Her Glory”, Robert Reed
Our new alien overlords prefer a hands-off approach. To manage affairs on Earth, they quietly select the best candidate: a widow who works at an insurance company, who writes an obscure blog in her spare time. Well-crafted.

***“The Winter Wraith”, Jeffrey Ford
While his wife’s out of town, a man has the task of dismantling the Christmas tree and putting away the ornaments. It’s always more fun putting up the tree than taking it down, but this time the endeavor becomes more difficult – and creepier – than one would expect.
The buildup here is done really well, a classic ‘home alone’ horror scenario with unexplained and threatening noises and clues, as well as a quite humorous aspect… but the ending really just fizzles out.

*****“Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan”, Ian McDonald
Previously read in ‘Old Venus.’
Ian McDonald has been very hit-or-miss for me. Some of his works I’ve loved; others have left me cold. But – this one’s a hit! A well-known & wealthy artist has embarked on a tour of Venus with her dear companion, ostensibly with the goal of creating artworks inspired by the alien flora. But it gradually becomes clear that the Countess has another agenda: she’s trying to find her long-lost brother. Against a fascinating but seemingly-innocent background of lovely flowers emerges a welter of conflicts involving jewel thefts, dynastic marriages, bloody conflicts, power struggles, and the fomenting of revolution. The richly detailed and gorgeous worldbuilding and the compelling characters made me completely forgive the unanswered question the reader’s left with.

*****“Little Sisters”, Vonda McIntyre
Previously read (purchased from Book View Cafe).
Boy, did this one squick me out.
I think that’s why I started out with 4 stars, but after letting it coagulate, I think it deserves 5. The fact that’s it’s truly disturbing is a good thing.
At the outset, we see a soldier, retrieved and brought back home long after a dangerous and successful solo mission. He anticipates congratulations, honor, and tangible reward for his accomplishments… but not everything transpires as he expects.
Saying too much would be spoiling the well-crafted way in which McIntyre reveals the deeper aspects of the story, but with lean and concise prose, she conjures a strikingly original alien species with a social agenda, power structure and ideals that a reader is likely to find both troubling and believable.
Vonda McIntyre, in my opinion, is an author who has not received the prominence she deserves – and this story shows that she’s still at the top of her game.

****“Ghosts of Home”, Sam J. Miller
In this alternate reality, it’s an accepted fact that every house has its own spirit – a spirit which can manifest in different ways, but which must be propitiated. This hasn’t stopped this reality from having a subprime mortgage scandal very similar to our own. Houses are being foreclosed everywhere, inhabitants forced out and whole neighborhoods left vacant. It’s our narrator’s job (an underpaid, underappreciated job) to go leave offerings to try to calm down the spirits of these empty homes. She’s not supposed to actually talk and converse with the spirits… but of course, one day she does – and that’s the fulcrum point upon which everything will change.

**“The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club”, Nike Sulway
Previously read in Horton’s ‘Year’s Best.’
Perhaps I’d have appreciated this more if I was more familiar with the work of Karen Joy Fowler? I’m not, so I can’t say how it comments on her oeuvre.
As it was, I didn’t really enjoy this story of doomed-to-extinction rhinoceroses puttering about, planning book club meetings, buying things on eBay, checking facebook, and trying to find comfort in each other. Rhinos or no rhinos, this felt like the sort of supposedly-meaningful banal and quotidian chick-lit that I just don’t care for.

***“Oral Argument”, Kim Stanley Robinson
Presented as a one-sided conversation. (Is there a specific name for this writing technique? I feel like there is, and that I’ve forgotten it.) The voice we hear is that of a lawyer/spokesperson who’s been subpoenaed by the Supreme Court for questioning regarding a patent case. Apparently, the scientists he’s representing discovered a technique allowing humans to photosynthesize. And apparently, this technique has caused quite a lot of chaos in society – or has it really?

**“Drones”, Simon Ings
Previously read in Horton’s ‘Best of.’
In a near-future where we’ve wiped out the bees, British society has reshaped itself in strange and disturbing forms. Because, oh yes, the bee plague pretty much wiped out women, too… and men have learned to get along (although, arguably, not ‘well’) without bees or females.
I liked the dystopic, Handmaid’s-Tale-esque feel to the story, but its intentional opacity didn’t really work that well for me.

“The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn”, Usman T. Malik

*****“Another Word for World”, Anne Leckie
Previously read in ‘Future Visions.’
Leckie features a piece of new technology as an intrinsic and essential element to the story, discusses insightfully both the pros and cons of the ramifications of that technology – AND couches the discussion seamlessly within a tense, action-filled plot featuring two well-drawn, believable characters
Two ethnic groups, the Gidanta and the Raksamat, are approaching a state of war. Territorial tensions on a colonized planet have grown, with both sides claiming that the treaty that Ashiban Xidyla’s mother negotiated has been breached. Now, Ashiban was on the way to talks with the Sovereign of Iss, hoping to smooth over the dissension and maintain peace. However, their flyer was shot down – and now Ashiban, elderly and suffering from a concussion, and the Sovereign, who turns out to be an untried teenager – are the only survivors. Their only means of communication is through an automatic translation gadget, and it nearly immediately becomes clear that the gadget – equipped with the very software that made the famous treaty possible, a generation earlier – has some significant flaws.

*****“The Game of Smash and Recovery”, Kelly Link
Previously read in Horton’s Year’s Best.
Anat lives with her beloved brother Oscar, alone on an alien planet. The small base they’re on has enough to keep them alive – although not in any kind of luxury. Anat knows They do, however, have the robot ‘handmaids’ which can do just about any task one sets them to. Oscar and Anat are waiting for their parents to return, although she doesn’t remember them. All she remembers is Oscar taking care of her, although he’s shown her pictures of them with their parents. She depends on Oscar, and obeys his rules, which help keep her safe from the alien vampires who lurk outside.
To pass the time, they play a hide-and-seek-type game which they’ve come up, which they call ‘the game of smash and recovery.’ But one day, in the process of playing that game, Anat will unexpectedly recall that the one she’s playing isn’t the only game in town that could be described by that phrase.
Eerie, bizarre and masterfully-crafted; this short story is taking its place among the ranks of Link’s best.

View all my reviews

Leave a comment

The Hammer Of God – Arthur C. Clarke ***

The Hammer Of God
The Hammer Of God by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read for post-apocalyptic book club.

Last month, we read “Lucifer’s Hammer” (…), so in keeping with the hammer/comet-impact theme, we decided to compare and contrast. (This one is FAR better.)

When I was around 13, Arthur C. Clarke was my very favorite author. I read and re-read everything by him in the public library. However, by the time this book came out, in 1993, he’d kind of fallen off my radar. It wasn’t so much that my tastes had changed as that my life was a bit chaotic at the time (not apocalypse-level chaotic, but enough that I wasn’t really tracking authors…)

The first thing that struck me on reading this was, “Oh, yes, THIS is why I liked Clarke so much!” I just really enjoy his writing style. He might not have the deepest characterization (like many sci-fi authors of his era) but his writing is just very engaging – full of interesting ideas and striking images while managing to stay consistently accessible.

However, I can’t say that this book is Clarke’s peak. It was expanded from a magazine article, and it shows. It’s barely a novel, really. It has absolutely zero plot tension. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more relaxed-feeling, chatty lead-up to an apocalypse. The end of the world is louring, and Clarke is just like, “Let me go on a tangent and tell you something interesting that I was just thinking about.” Actually, the whole book kind of feels like sitting down to dinner with an elderly Clarke and letting him just ramble on to you about whatever comes into his head. Now, that’s not a bad thing – I would’ve jumped at such an opportunity!!! But.

The situation here is that a comet is approaching the earth. As it comes closer, it begins to look more and more likely that it will hit. Captain Robert Singh of the Goliath is the head of a space mission that will attempt to divert or deflect the extraterrestrial missile from our path. As I said, along the way there are plenty of tangents. I actually think my favorite part of the book might’ve been the bit about running a foot race on Mars – on its own it would’ve made an exceedingly fine short story. Does it really even belong where it is in this book? Not sure.

Overall – a good book, but not a great one.

View all my reviews