Monday, 1 September 2014

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld hooked me when I read the extract in NetGalley's Buzz Books compilation. The second chapter was excellent (the first was more of a prologue) and when the extract left me hanging (as, I suppose, all good extracts should), I absolutely had to get a hold of it. Luckily, I was able to get a review copy and devour it in a few days. Blurb from Simon & Schuster's website because it's better than the goodreads one:
Believing is dangerous.

Darcy Patel is afraid to believe all the hype. But it’s really happening—her teen novel is getting published. Instead of heading to college she’s living in New York City, where she's welcomed into the dazzling world of YA publishing. That means book tours, parties with her favorite authors, and finding a place to live that won't leave her penniless. It means sleepless nights rewriting her first draft, and struggling to find the perfect ending . . . all while dealing with the intoxicating, terrifying experience of falling in love—with another writer.

Told in alternating chapters is Darcy’s novel, the thrilling story of Lizzie, who wills her way into the afterworld to survive a deadly terrorist attack. With survival comes the responsibility to guide the restless spirits that walk our world, including one ghost with whom she shares a surprising personal connection. But Lizzie’s not alone in her new calling—she has counsel from an extremely hot fellow spirit guide, who is torn between wanting Lizzie and warning her that . . .

Believing is dangerous.
As the blurb suggests, Afterworlds is really two novels in one. Darcy is a teen writer who got an incredible book deal for the YA novel she wrote in her last year of high school during NaNoWriMo (although, actually, I'm pretty sure NaNoWriMo is never referred to directly, but she wrote it all in November, so one makes assumptions). Because of the book deal (and the giant pile of money that came with it), she puts off going to college and instead moves to New York to do revisions and write the sequel she's under contract for. Her story is about writing and about growing up.

Every alternating chapter is a chapter from Darcy's novel. Darcy's novel is a paranormal YA with pscyhopomps and mythology borrowed from Hinduism. It's pretty dark, mostly dealing with death, ghosts and the afterworld. I think if the two novels in one were taken apart, then the fictional (-er) story could stand alone but Darcy's story probably couldn't. But putting two stories together like this allows Westerfeld to explore the process of writing and various issues that can arise. Darcy's story would not have worked without having the chapters she and the other writers were discussing there for us to read.

In exploring the process of writing, a lot of different issues arise. On the more mundane side of things, Darcy finds herself thrown into the world of adults straight out of high school and with little preparation. She worries about fitting in, being seen as a real writer and whether her book was a fluke. At the same time, she meets other writers mete out advice, support and offer friendship. And discussion about books, her book and the process of writing. Some of the issues they discuss are whether it's OK for Darcy to appropriate bits of her parents' religion (when she herself is an atheist) and base a character more on a Bollywood actor than the religious figure, and the dilemma of having made her protagonist white while she herself is Indian. Darcy also runs into the interesting problem of having the people she meets assume she's older than she is (for a long time, she doesn't tell anyone she's only 18) and treating her as such, especially by making assumptions about her already been to college. Stuff like that, which only contributes to Darcy's imposter syndrome.

The other thing the double story allows Westerfeld to do is explore the mind of the writer which leads to certain choices in their books (something, I think, which is particularly applicable to a writer's first book). The version of Darcy's novel that we are privy to is the final version that eventually gets published. But part of following Darcy's story is her rewrites and the dilemmas she has along the way. The opening chapter seems to have been the only constant thing as we hear second hand accounts of overly "Disney" scenes that Darcy removes and her endless search for a new ending. The latter was particularly interesting; we hear a lot about the endings she doesn't choose but we don't find out what ending she did write until we actually got to the end of the book and read the last chapter. It also allows for some discussion of what publishers want from authors and books and why.

There were also several answers to the much maligned question of "where do you get your ideas?" We learn fairly early on where Darcy got some of the key ideas for her novel and as the story progresses, we also learn about where the other writer-characters get various types of ideas from, where it's OK to borrow ideas from and from where one shouldn't borrow ideas. (And there's a really hilarious bit at the end when Darcy finds out something about the story she thought she was writing <spoiler redacted>.) And, of course, some of the authors may or may not bear some resemblance to certain real-life people...

Because this book deals so much with the nature of writing, I suspect writers and other book-world people will probably enjoy it more than the average reader who doesn't spend much time contemplating where books come from. I know that aspect definitely enhanced my enjoyment. I thought the two storylines fed off each other quite nicely. When one was moving a bit slowly, something exciting was happening in the other and vice versa. I've spent most of this review talking about Darcy the writer and not about Lizzie the fictional (-er) character, who plays just as important a role and has as much page time and character development. Lizzie's story is compelling and, in terms of YA tropes, reasonably uncommon — and it is her exciting first chapter (officially chapter 2) that hooked me — but it's not overly remarkable. What makes Afterworlds remarkable is the nested nature of Lizzie's narrative. By itself it would have been a quick fun read (although I should note that Afterworlds is roughly the length of two shortish YA books, so it's not that pared down), but with the other story it's a fascinating deconstruction of the YA genre and the writing process.

I highly recommend this book to writers and people interested in the book industry. Fans of YA, especially fans with writing aspirations will, I think, find much to enjoy here. I suspect readers with no interest in the writing process or readers looking for only one of contemporary YA (slash new adult for Darcy's story) or dark paranormal YA will be disappointed. This is not a straightforward book.

5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2014, Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
Series: I don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Sex Criminals Volume 1 by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky

Sex Criminals Volume 1, written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky is the trade collection of the first five issues of the ongoing comic book series. As you may gather from the title, it is not a comic book for children. I picked it up because of Tansy spruiking it on Galactic Suburbia podcast (and then again in person at WorldCon).
Suzie’s just a regular gal with an irregular gift: when she has sex, she stops time. One day she meets Jon and it turns out he has the same ability. And sooner or later they get around to using their gifts to do what we’d ALL do: rob a couple banks. A bawdy and brazen sex comedy for comics begins here!
The difficult thing about reviewing comic books is that the plot moves relatively slowly over an issue and even a collected volume, so it's hard to say much without spoiling the entire plot. So I'm going to keep this short.

Both characters, Suzie (our main narrator) and Jon, recount how they tried to deal with their time stopping sex power when they were teens. Now as adults, they have finally found someone else who shares that power and that doesn't leave them alone after/during sex (other people freeze when time freezes). They get a bit carried away with this information.

There is much humour and it's definitely worth looking closely at the backgrounds of the panels (especially the ones set in the sex shop), so as not to miss any jokes. The plot really takes a turn when the two discover that they are not the only two special snowflakes in the world... Issue #4, I believe, is called "Sex Police" to give you a hint. Also, the antagonist is called (by Suzie and Jon) Kegelface, which shod tell you something about the humour.

So. Sex Criminals is pretty funny and entertaining. I am much looking forward to the next volume (apparently the next two issues are out already, but I've decided comics work better on bookshelves if they're trades). I recommend it to, well, anyone who thinks sex-based time stopping magic sounds amusing. It's a good read.

4 / 5 stars

First published: April 2014, Image Comics
Series: Yes, Sex Criminals ongoing, Volume 1, containing issues #1–5
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Purchased from Forbidden Planet stall at LonCon3

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Kaleidoscope edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios

Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios is a crowd-funded anthology that does what it says in the tag line.

It's an incredibly strong anthology, filled with thoughtful and creative stories. The stories cover a wide range of diverse characters, with diveristy stemming from race, gender, chronic/mental illness and disability. I was pleasantly surprised to see several stories deal with characters who fit into more than one of those labels. I also found it awesome that most of the stories weren't about being black/queer/sick/etc but had those aspects as background to the main plot, generally a fantastical one (since it is an SFF anthology).

It's really hard to pick favourites in this collection. Although I didn't love the stories equally, there weren't any duds. (The one I talk about disliking below was because of a theme I'm sick of, not because there was anything wrong with the story per se.) Really, I liked all of them. However, some that stood out to me more than the others were: "Cookie Cutter Superhero" by Tansy Rayner Roberts, which was just awesome and needs a novel set in its universe; "Signature" by Faith Mudge, which was clever, amusing and ultimately happy-making; "Careful Magic" by Karen Healey about a magical school and a girl dealing with being an outsider for her eccentricities; and "Double Time" by John Chu, which was about ice-skating and having a pushy parent.

Most of the stories, I found, were reasonably upbeat but the anthology was punctuated with a few sadder stories. For example "The Legend Trap" by Sean Williams and "Krishna Blue" by Shveta Thakrar both have ambiguous and not entirely happy endings. 

It's hard not to comment on all the stories now, but I've already done that below as I usually do with anthologies and collections. Kaleidoscope is an excellent anthology and I strongly recommend it to everyone. If you haven't already picked up a copy, do so!


Cookie Cutter Superhero | Tansy Rayner Roberts — A very strong start to the anthology. A girl with one hand is chosen to join a superhero team. It touches on the lack of female super heroes and deals with the main character’s fear that if the superhero machine “fixes” her, then what does that do to her sense of identity? What would then happen to her when she stopped being a superhero (because they have a limited tenure) and went back to being normal? 

The Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon | Ken Liu — A portmanteau of two teenage girls in love and a Chinese Fairytale, with a twist on the take of the Fairytale's ending (I think, I'll have to google it later)

The Legend Trap | Sean Williams — Set in the Twinmaker universe and an odd story. It deals with the idea of d-mat teleportation sending people to a parallel universe and some of the consequences of that. I say odd mainly because of the ambiguous ending.

End of Service | Gabriela Lee — A story about the daughter of an overseas worker from the Philippines, struggling to come to terms with her mother's work choices. And of course with a speculative twist.

Chupacabra's Song | Jim C. Hines — A girl discovers chupacabras, magic and cruelty.

The Day the God Died | Alena McNamara — A short story about a character dealing with some heavy issues and a series of encounters with a dying old god.

Signature | Faith Mudge — I loved this story! It was clever and lovely and funny. Bookshops, supernatural contracts and an especially diverse cast.

The Lovely Duckling | Tim Susman — A story told in transcripts and other documents. A trans character works to escape her oppressive father in a world where people can also be shape-shifters. It had several pretty great elements, including the ending.

Kiss and Kiss and Kiss and Tell | E.C. Myers — A drug that lets teenagers see into the future while they are kidding someone. Or a possible future, anyway. A girl on psych meds has a different reaction to it than her peers do and fixates on leaning more.

Vanilla | Dirk Flinthart — Alien refugees have come to live on Earth in this story about an Australian girl with Somalian parents whose two best friends are aliens.

Careful Magic | Karen Healey — A girl with powerful magic and possibly OCD gets caught up in some of her magic-school classmates' shenanigans. A high-stakes magical story.

Walkdog | Sofia Samatar — A progressively sad story told in the form of a school-girl's essay. (Crappy grammar and all.) It's hard to comment on without spoiling, but the essay is ostensibly about the urban legend of Walkdog, the dog who walks you.

Celebration | Sean Eads — A gay teen is sent to gay camp (you know, the deprogramming kind) but when he gets there it's not quite the kind of brainwashing he expected.

The Truth About Owls | Amal El-Mohtar — A girl from Lebanon moves to Glasgow and discovers the joy of owls, Welsh and the truth about the power she feels inside herself. (Sort of.)

Krishna Blue | Shveta Thakrar — This was a weird story and one of the most horrifying. The story itself is wide open to interpretation, so I don't want to blatantly say what it's about other than a girl who doesn't fit in.

Every Little Thing | Holly Kench — A witch who also happen to be chronically ill, her supportive friend and her crush. About the importance of having friends that understand your needs/problems.

Happy Go Lucky | Garth Nix — Honestly, this story didn't really do it for me. It wasn't terrible, but it reminded me of far too many YA dystopian novels, with the usual variation on a theme. The "privileged youth hits hard times in dystopia" is a formula I've run out of patience for. (But I'm torn as to whether the diverse elements' complete irrelevance to the plot is a good or bad thing.)

Ordinary Things | Vylar Kaftan — Probably the least YA story with a 19 year old protagonist. Girl dealing with the end of a serious relationship and seeking safety in ritual.

Double Time | John Chu — An elite figure skating teen in a world where it's possible to jump back in time by up to four minutes to watch your practice or even skate with yourself. It was bittersweet.

Welcome | William Alexander — I think this was the shortest story, and certainly the most fantastical in the collection. The moon and earth are connected by a magical bridge, which smugglers cross at night. A whimsical (if not entirely cheerful) end to the anthology.

5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2014, Twelfth Planet Press (official Australian launch is October, though, for technical reasons)
Series: No...
Format read: Bit of paper, mostly ebook
Source: Kickstarter rewards

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb

Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb is the first book in the new Fitz and the Fool Trilogy (because that's a helpful name given it's the third trilogy about those two). It tells the next story about the characters first introduced in the Farseer Trilogy with Assassin's Apprentice and continued in the Tawny Man trilogy.
Tom Badgerlock has been living peaceably in the manor house at Withywoods with his beloved wife Molly these many years, the estate a reward to his family for loyal service to the crown.

But behind the facade of respectable middle-age lies a turbulent and violent past. For Tom Badgerlock is actually FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the Farseer line, convicted user of Beast-magic, and assassin. A man who has risked much for his king and lost more…

On a shelf in his den sits a triptych carved in memory stone of a man, a wolf and a fool. Once, these three were inseparable friends: Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool. But one is long dead, and one long-missing.

Then one Winterfest night a messenger arrives to seek out Fitz, but mysteriously disappears, leaving nothing but a blood-trail. What was the message? Who was the sender? And what has happened to the messenger?

Suddenly Fitz's violent old life erupts into the peace of his new world, and nothing and no one is safe.
Robin Hobb remains an excellent writer but there are several caveats that I feel need to be issued to potential readers. First of all, this is not the book/series from which to pick up the story for the first time. Readers who haven't read the first two series will a) be spoiled for many key events and b) will not have the same investment in the characters. On the other hand, I read the Tawny Man trilogy when it first came out in 2001–2003, more than a decade ago, and, although my memory of some events was hazy coming into Fool's Assassin, I had no trouble picking the story up again. (Although I did spend a large portion of the start thinking "Fitz was how young then?!" in mild alarm. I haven't seen it with YA-ified marketing, though. I wonder why?)

Fool's Assassin begins similarly to Assassin's Apprentice in that events are conveyed chronologically and it is some time before we reach the "present" of the main story. Alternatively, you could just think of it as a story told with several jumps forward in time in the first third. It does mean that while the story is eventually told in alternating (first person) points of view, it takes a while for the second character to join Fitz in the narration.

It is very difficult for me to talk abou the plot at all without spoilers. The blurb above, for example, entirely fails to convey the actual thrust of the story and merely summarises the first chapter, which takes places something like fifteen years before the end of the book. There is a very crucial event that happens in the first third of the book which changes everything, including what the book is actually about. However, I think that talking about it in any detail is a spoiler so I will put my discussion under a spoiler tag (hover to read). Not talking about it at all would mean ignoring the main thrust of the story and also precluding a rant I really want to get out. But please don't read it if you want to enjoy the story as it was intended. Knowing a particular outcome would greatly reduce some of the tension surrounding it (more so than usual, I think).

<caution, here there be spoilers>
At the start of Fool's Assassin, Fitz is married to Molly and living in Withywoods, the manor house his father Chivalry and step-mother Patience had earlier retired to. The big spoiler is that, after her children by Burrich have grown and flown the coop and after she has gone through menopause, Molly and Fitz have another baby. And not just any baby; a strange, tiny, pale baby. When she's old enough, she becomes the second viewpoint character. Bee, as she is called, is a compelling character to read and, although she is smart for her years, it was interesting to get a child's view on something we already knew from Fitz's point of view.

On the other hand, it quickly becomes apparent why Bee is such an unusual child and yet no one else realises. Partly this is because no one else can see into her mind to know everything that happens to her like the audience does... But in large part it is because of mistranslated and possibly androgynous pronouns that are applied to a particular explanation. Even so, the child is biologically unusual and also very pale, HMM WHO DOES THAT REMIND US OF? I cannot believe how blind everyone was, including characters who should have known better or should have at least asked the right questions.

On that note, I also found the title a little deceptive. A certain character named in it did not actually appear until the very end. I felt lied to.
</the spoilers be ended>

If you read the spoilers you will have seen a bit of a (spoilerific) rant. Despite that, Fool's Assassin is an excellent read. Really, the above was the only thing that bothered me about it. On the other hand, I don't recommend Fool's Assassin as an entry point into the series. If you haven't read the earlier books, go start with Assassin's Apprentice (and make sure you read at least five chapters, because I remember being a little bored with the first four before the story picked up). I think the Tawny Man trilogy is also important reading for putting the story being told here into context. There was a horrible cliffhanger at the end, which I'm annoyed at, but I will definitely be reading the next book in the series when it's available. I have to know what happens to the cliff-hung characters!

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2014, Del Rey (US which is the cover displayed, the UKANZ edition is Harper Voyager and prettier in real life than small online)
Series: Book 1 of the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy, which itself is the third trilogy featuring Fitz and the... fifth series set in the same world
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Angel Rising by Dirk Flinthart

Angel Rising by Dirk Flinthart is a short novella set in the New Ceres universe. It's actually only the second New Ceres story I've read — the first was in The Bride Price by Cat Sparks — although the New Ceres Nights anthology is waiting on my eTBR.
The New Ceres planetary charter forbids the use of all modern technology. Law confines the people to the ways of 18th Century Earth. But beneath the surface, rebellion and revolution simmer constantly.

Proctor George Gordon, a hidden protector of New Ceres, knows all too well how easily these can bubble over, but nothing can prepare him for interstellar warfare in his own technologically challenged backyard.

What odd coincidence brings him to the Sunrise Isles to be confronted by ninja and warrior nuns? Who is the strange but compelling amnesiac girl he finds in the convent, and what do the offworld nations want with her? And how can he really be sure who to trust?
This novella is action-heavy with some really cool fight scenes. The main character, George Gordon, has a fancy future-tech sword that can cut through almost anything and the proliferation of samurai and ninjas in the story gives him ample opportunity to demonstrate it's features.

But of course, the sword  and the fighting aren't the whole story. Gordon is called out on a job which proves to be a little mysterious both to him and to the reader. Also there are fighting nuns. (I thought that should be mentioned.)

I enjoyed Angel Rising and, although it was short, it was a pleasant way to pass an otherwise boring (and, frankly, chilly) train ride. It showed me a very different corner of the New Ceres world to the Cat Sparks story and I am curious to see what other authors have done with it.

Whether you're curious about the New Ceres world or just want to read a good story with space ninjas, samurai and nuns, I can highly recommend Angel Rising. It's certainly moved New Ceres Nights up in my TBR queue.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2008, Twelfth Planet Press
Series: New Ceres universe (stand alone)
Format read: Paper!
Source: TPP stall at WorldCon (LonCon3)
Disclaimer: While I have endevoured to give an impartial review, I can't claim a neutral relationship with Twelfth Planet Press in general
Challenges: Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction written by Jeff Vandermeer and with design and illustrations by Jeremy Zerfoss. As you may have gathered from the subtitle, it's not fiction, but rather a guidebook to writing fiction, specifically speculative fiction. It was shortlisted for a Hugo this year and the sample of it that was in the Hugo voter packet led me to pick it up when I saw it in a bookshop and not put it back down.
This all-new definitive guide to writing imaginative fiction takes a completely novel approach and fully exploits the visual nature of fantasy through original drawings, maps, renderings, and exercises to create a spectacularly beautiful and inspiring object. Employing an accessible, example-rich approach, Wonderbook energizes and motivates while also providing practical, nuts-and-bolts information needed to improve as a writer. Aimed at aspiring and intermediate-level writers, Wonderbook includes helpful sidebars and essays from some of the biggest names in fantasy today, such as George R. R. Martin, Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Catherynne M. Valente, and Karen Joy Fowler, to name a few.
I've read a lot of writing advice in my time, mainly online, I have to admit, and the lack of an SFF perspective has often bothered me. Generic writing advice is great up to a point, but eventually I felt like I'd read most of it before, in one form or another; I had already gotten what I could out of it. And it rarely addressed some of the issues that can come up in writing science fiction (I don't really write fantasy, I should mention up front).

What's really great about Vandermeer's book is that it starts with the assumption that you're writing some form of speculative fiction. It covers some generic writing advice as well, but puts everything in the context of spec fic, even while using examples from more realist fiction. The chapters cover key elements of fiction writing: "Inspiration and the Creative Life", "The Ecosystem of Story" (including narrative elements and so forth), "Beginnings and Endings", "Narrative Design", "Characterisation", "Worldbuilding" (which, obviously, is much more central in spec fic than real-world fiction), "Revision", and some extra stuff and writing exercises in the appendices.

Other than the focus on fantasy, what really stands out about Wonderbook are all the gorgeous illustrations. The book's accompanying website (which I have not explored in detail) gives a good idea of the aesthetic. The whole thing is trade paperback sized (I don't think there's a hardcover version) and filled with glossy pages. To give you a clearer idea of the illustrations, I've taken a few crappy photos with my four-year-old phone. At night. With a paper Ikea lampshade doing most of the lighting. We have the endpaper + inside cover, an illustration of story structure (more or less), and the journey of a writer. Click to embiggen (but not really to enhance much).


The only thing I didn't love about Wonderbook was that it did focus more on fantastical fiction (rather than science fiction). This mostly came across in specific examples, so it wasn't a huge problem and there were some SF examples. But I felt there was a bit of an emphasis on degrees of surreal fiction — reflective, I think, of what Vandermeer writes. People looking for specific subgenre advice (other than what I've mentioned) won't quite find that here. But that did not, for me, diminish the value of the book. I will definitely come back to it as a reference down the line.

If nothing else, I would come back for some of the writing exercises, of which there are several (and of which I only attempted a few). I should also note that I found the process of reading Wonderbook inspiring in itself. It inspired one short story semi-directly and helped me finish another that I was part-way through. The main text is also broken up with short essays from other writers on specific topics, which I can also see being useful references to come back to.

I highly recommend Wonderbook to writers of speculative fiction looking for an extra push. Or to beginning writers wanting to learns skills through something other than trial and error. As you might guess, it's not the kind of book you read straight through without stopping but it is a book worth reading all of. Including the appendices, which contained a very interesting interview with George RR Martin. Or, really, you could just buy it for the pictures.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Abrams Image
Series: No.
Format read: Paper! Illustrated! Pretty!
Source: Purchased from a real-life bookshop, and also a present

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Tsana's August Status (Snapshot, Worldcon and, of course, books)

It's been a super busy month on the blog, mostly thanks to the Australian Speculative Fiction Snapshot. There have been a bajillion interviews posted over the two weeks. I would love to link you to the link round-up on SF Signal, but as I write this (in advance) it's not up yet. Instead, I'll just point you in the direction of all the interviews on the blogs of: Stephanie Gunn, Kathryn Linge, Elanor Matton-Johnson, David McDonald, Helen Merrick, Ben Payne, Alex Pierce, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Helen Stubbs, Katharine Stubbs, Tehani Wessely, Sean Wright and here. If you want a more structured list of the interviews I've run, here it is:
  1. KA Bedford 
  2. Trudi Canavan
  3. Nina D'Aleo
  4. Jennifer Fallon
  5. Donna Maree Hanson
  6. Richard Harland
  7. Edwina Harvey
  8. Simon Haynes
  9. Jay Kristoff
  10. Justine Larbalestier
  11. Jason Nahrung
  12. Simon Petrie
  13. Amanda Pillar
  14. MC Planck
  15. Jo Spurrier
  16. KJ Taylor 
And in case you're interested in seeing me interviewed in the Snapshot, you can read Stephanie Gunn do it here.

On a completely different note, starting today (posting day), I'm going to be at LonCon 3, this year's World Science Fiction Convention. While there, I'm going to be on two panels and, of course, I'm planning to attend a bunch of other panels, parties and get myself a small book pile from the Dealer's Room. If you're going to be there and would like to watch me talk about stuff, these are my panels:

The World at Worldcon: SF/F in Australia and New Zealand
Capital Suite 3 (Level 3), 4:30pm - 6pm, Sunday, August 17
Amanda Bridgeman, Tsana Dolichva, Ian Nichols, Ben Peek, Janice Gelb

From afar, Australian SF publishing seems to be in good health, with books such as Nike Sulway's Rupetta (winner of this year's Tiptree Award) and publishers such as Twelfth Planet Press attracting international attention, and writers such as Ben Peek and Rjurik Davidson scoring international publishing deals -- not to mention already high-profile exports such as Greg Egan, Margo Lanagan, and Shaun Tan. To what can the current depth and breadth of the Australian scene be attributed? Which other writers should we be looking out for?

SF and Space Travel: Pragmatism or Pessimism?
Capital Suite 11 (Level 3), 12pm - 1:30pm, Monday, August 18
Guy Consolmagno SJ, Rohan Shah, Ben Bova, Tsana Dolichva, Mary Turzillo

Charlie Stross has said the idea of space travel happening any time soon is complete nonsense. Not everyone has agreed with him, but does the discussion he started highlight something about the proliferation of near term science fiction? Does the dearth of spaceships on TV, and the glut of climate-change thrillers on paper, indicate that we have lost faith in the idea that humans will travel among the stars? Or should we be engaging with issues much closer to home anyway?

After LonCon, I'll be holidaying for a couple of weeks so the blog will be a bit quiet. I'll probably have some reviews queued up while I'm away, but expect the blog to be very quiet. Possibly twitter as well, once the Con is over, although who knows.

Aaaaand that's most of my news. On a completely different note, you can read my link round-up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

What Have I Read?

...which is not very many books, but that's because of Snapshot.

What Am I Currently Reading?

Too many books at once. I compulsively picked up Juliet Marillier's collection Prickle Moon (which I started reading a while ago because two stories were shortlisted for Ditmars) and read a few stories. I still have a lot to go, although they can't all be particularly long given how many pages I have left (I'm halfway-ish through according to Goodreads).

Also on the short story front, my copy of Kaleidoscope, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios, arrived in the mail (and in my email for the ebook), so I had to start reading that. I'm not very far in, but it is awesome as expected.

I've just about finished reading Wonderbook, a writing advice book by Jeff Vandermeer, which was really awesome. I've just got some appendices to go and then I'll post my review. It will probably be the next post after this one.

The novel I'm reading — or really, have only just started — is Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb. So far I've only been reading it at night in bed until I pass out, which has not gotten me very far. Nothing much except the initial inciting incident has happened so far, and we still don't know what the ramifications of that are. I've actually spent most of the book trying to remember what happened in the earlier two series an, crucially, how old they all were. Fitz was really young in the Farseer trilogy, even by the end.

New Booksies

Not a huge haul this month, with only three review books and two crowdfunding rewards, but I'm sure WorldCon will help me buy too many books for next month's update.
  • Silver Shadows by Richelle Mead — already reviewed
  • The Godless by Ben Peek — new fantasy series by an Australian author
  • Aurora in Four Voice by Catherine Asaro — audiobook of a collection I supported on Kickstarter
  • Zac & Mia by AJ Betts — Aussie book about cancer and teenagers (I will admit that "Aussie Fault in Our Stars" is the first thing to pop into my head)
  • Kaleidoscope edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios — anthology of diverse YA (contemporary) fantasy

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Dagger of Dresnia by Satima Flavell

The Dagger of Dresnia by Satima Flavell is the first book in The Talismans trilogy and the author's début. I don't think I've ready any of the author's stories before, so this was all new to me.
Queen Ellyria just wants her sick triplet sons to live, each ruling over a third of the kingdom as their dying father wished. When she finds herself trapped in a deadly bargain with a Dark Spirit, she recruits a band of young mages to help - but a terrible curse takes over. The Dark Spirit befriends her enemies and seduces her friends, and Ellyria soon finds that famine, pestilence, betrayal and bereavement are all in its arsenal. Can Ellyria unite the elvish and mortal sides of her family and in so doing, save the kingdom?
It only took me a couple of pages to get interested in the story, but a few chapters to be sold on the concept. The start initially struck me as a little contrived — basically the events described in the blurb — with the Queen getting into trouble through a momentary lapse. On the other hand, it does make sense if you think about it analytically. This was actually a minor issue that recurred throughout the book; some events made sense but felt a little off when reading.

On a similar note, I found some of the dialogue a tad improbable. There was a lot of people saying exactly what was on their minds and explaining their motivations in careful detail. That just isn't how people talk and a little obfuscation would have gone a long way to adding an extra layer in some instances. Similarly, sometimes decisions were made too easily. Again, they made logical sense, but lacked an extra layer of depth. This particularly applied to the climactic battle/war scenes, which lacked tension and left me ambivalent. On the other hand, there were some smaller-scale fight scenes earlier, which I thought were quite good — like the first one between an elf and a group of dwarfs.

Of the characters, I enjoyed reading Ellyria's story, but I felt I connected better with Tammi and Jedderin, who were younger. I didn't like Beverak, Tammi's husband and Ellyria's son, at first, but warmed to him as he began to see reason and let go of his prejudices. I get the feeling that this trilogy will follow one triplet-brother (and his family) per book so in this book we learn a lot about Beverak but very little about the other two brothers. I would be interested to learn more about them in future books.

One thing that was done well in The Dagger of Dresnia was foreshadowing. There were a few scenes where I was wondering how they fit into the narrative only to have it revealed later on when it slotted in famously. The ending kind of did this too. I had a suspicion it was coming but the way it actually happened was great. (No spoilers!) It was hilarious like a pun, and I don't mean that in a bad way. I don't think I can say more without spoiling it though.

The Dagger of Dresnia was a reasonable read. It was a little shaky at times, but that's not unusual in a début. Flavell shows promise and I'm interested to see how this develops in future books. The first book finishes with a lot of unresolved badness, so there's definitely a lot of hook to hang further plots off.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2014, Satalyte Publishing
Series: The Talismans, book 1 of 3
Format read: eARC
Source: review copy provided by the author
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Guild of Assassins by Anna Kashina

The Guild of Assassins by Anna Kashina is the second book in The Majat Code series. I read and reviewed the first book, Blades of the Old Empire, earlier this year. Unfortunately, while I enjoyed book one, book two didn't really do it for me. Note that this review contains spoilers for the ending of book one.
Kara has achieved something that no Majat has ever managed – freedom from the Guild!

But the Black Diamond assassin Mai has been called back to face his punishment for sparing her life. Determined to join his fight or share his punishment, Kara finds herself falling for Mai.

But is their relationship – and the force that makes their union all-powerful – a tool to defeat the overpowering forces of the Kaddim armies, or a distraction sure to cause the downfall of the Majat?
The story follows the same group of characters from book one, although with some emphases shifted. Ellah and Alder were point of view characters in the first book but in The Guild of Assassins they are merely background characters. The point of view focuses strongly on Prince Kyth, Kara the highly trained assassin and, somewhat unexpectedly, Magister Egey Bashi. Lady Celana, who was a minor character in book one, plays a more visible role in book two.

Egey Bashi gets a surprising amount of point of view time for someone who's less directly involved in the action than some of the other characters. I suspect that might be because he's the only sensible adult around (well, Mai, a central character who doesn't really get point of view sections, is in his early twenties, but...) and is a useful tool to explain why other characters are doing silly things, or why those things are silly, and to fix some of the problems they cause. Unfortunately, that didn't make him a terribly exciting character. I didn't have strong feelings about him in book one and I still don't. Unfortunately, he plays such a large role in book two that I probably should have had a stronger reaction to him.

The first thing that bothered me was actually a holdover from Blades of the Old Empire. Towards the end of that one it's revealed that Mai is in love with Kara and that storyline is explored extensively in The Guild of Assassins. It wasn't a storyline that I found worked for me very well and I didn't find it very interesting. It also meant that the relationship aspect of the story turned into a love triangle which I felt, again, pretty ambivalent about. But at least it wasn't like a cliched YA love triangle.

What really bogged down the story for me was the copious introspection of all the characters. I think this existed in the first book but, for whatever reason — more interesting personal problems? A broader range of characters? — didn't bother me then. Here it often felt repetitive and I found myself skimming over a lot of inner monologue. Most of it was either about the love triangle from Kyth and Kara or about other characters' actions/motivations/mistakes from Egey Bashi.

On the bright side, that made it feel like a quicker read than it otherwise might have. And I should add I wasn't bored or annoyed enough to stop reading the book (I considered it, but ultimately decided it wasn't that bad). I am not sure if there is a sequel (my guess would be yes) and, if there is, I don't know that I'll be reading it. The plot of The Guild of Assassins very much centred around defeating the evil brotherhood that had taken over a monastery (and was trying to take over the world) without very many side plots (other than the relationship one). By contrast, there was more mystery in Blades of the Old Empire, since we didn't know anything about the evil brotherhood, which kept things interesting. Given a sufficiently interesting plot, I might be tempted to have a go at a book three.

If you enjoyed Blades of the Old Empire, then give The Guild of Assassins a go, particularly if you thought Mai and Kara together would be an interesting story. If you felt more meh about the first book, probably give this one a miss.

3 / 5 stars

First published: August 2014, Angry Robot
Series: Book two of the Majat Code
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Friday, 8 August 2014

Snapshot 2014: KA Bedford

K.A. Bedford lives with his wife Michelle somewhere in the radiation-blasted wastelands north of Perth, Western Australia. He has twice won the Aurealis Award for Best Australian Science Fiction Novel, and his novel TIME MACHINES REPAIRED WHILE-U-WAIT was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award in 2009.

I gather you have a new novel, Black Light, approaching publication. Can you tell us a bit about that?

BLACK LIGHT will be my sixth published novel, and unusual in a number of ways, including my first foray into writing fantasy. I think the publisher, Fremantle Press, is planning to lean more on the "supernatural crime thriller" aspect, but to me it's always been a fantasy novel that just happens to be set here in Western Australia, in the 1920s.

The story concerns a woman, Mrs Ruth Black, a Great War widow who lost her husband in the Battle of the Somme. She's English, from an aristocratic family, but after the death of her husband she moves to Australia, and takes up a career as a writer of scientific romances, which do moderately well, inspired by the great revolution in physics underway in Europe at the time (the advent of quantum mechanics, in particular, and its challenge to Newtonian physics). She's independently wealthy, and lives in a home in the WA seaside fishing town of Pelican River (a town which is fictitious, but inspired by the real-world town of Mandurah, 72km south of Perth). One thing that drives her is that she's never been completely convinced about the death of her husband, Antony, and in this book she begins, whether she's ready or not, to unravel the truth about him.

In structure and form the book presents as a crime novel with supernatural aspects, in that someone in Pelican River begins tormenting her with mysterious notes hinting at mysterious aspects regarding the death of her husband, and these rapidly lead to blatant extortion, which leads indirectly to murder, and things going very badly indeed.

Your two most recent books, Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait and Paradox Resolution follow the same character, a time machine repairman. What inspired you to combine a murder mystery with time machine repairs?

I just like crime novels, and I like sf novels, and I know there's a great tradition in sf of writers mixing crime with sf, so it seemed like it might be fun. Also, two of my three earlier novels were also sf/crime hybrids (ORBITAL BURN, and HYDROGEN STEEL). I have sometimes tried to write straight crime fiction, but somehow it always ends up with spaceships and aliens and weird stuff. I'm like the guy who always has to have tomato sauce with everything he eats.

As for the issue of combining murder-mystery and time-travel: that just seemed like a neat challenge. Because if you're the homicide squad, and you've got access to time-travel, it would be easy to see what happened when someone got murdered (or you could prevent the murder). And I had a world where everybody has time machines the way today everybody has phones and tablets. So I needed a way to make life hard for the coppers, so that I would have something for my protagonist to do.

What can we expect to see from you next? Will there be sequels to books you’ve already written, or something completely different?

Next? I'm thinking about a third Spider Webb book, but I'm also thinking about a murder/ghost story book about a new character, taking place in present-day (or very near-future) Perth. So, to answer your question: a bit of both!

What Australian works have you loved recently?

The Australian book that has knocked me sideways just lately is Andrew Macrae's TRUCKSONG, which was tremendous! A coming-of-age story in post-apocalyptic Australia, with sentient cyborg trucks, mysterious signs and portents from the heavens, and lost people roaming about, trying to figure out a way to get back to when everything worked and the world was whole. Whole thing gave me a feeling of THE ROAD and MAD MAX, as well as its own wild, diesel-powered, red-dust-stinking, self, where you absolutely fear the Brumby King and its mob of murderous trucks. When I first heard about the book, I remember the phrase, "trucks having sex and reproducing", and right there I knew I had to get this book. Not because, you know, truck-related porn, but because someone had dreamed up what seemed like an actual, shiny, fresh idea: living, intelligent trucks, not just motorised AIs, but they're alive, and have interests and intentions and passions and schemes. And there's a kid caught up in the middle of the whole thing, searching for his truck-kidnapped lover. It's a powerful, often poetic, cracker of a book!

Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?

So far I still work the way I've always worked, with traditional publishers, and everything that goes with that. I work with the Canadian firm, EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, based in Calgary, Alberta; and with local publisher Fremantle Press. I first worked with Fremantle on the Australian edition of TIME MACHINES REPAIRED WHILE-U-WAIT, and I wanted to go to them again when I was preparing BLACK LIGHT.

As for five years from now: I have no idea. For instance in five years I don't know if I'll even still be writing, let alone deciding how I want to be published. I'm not sure. I'm fairly sure I don't want to take on all the huge responsibility that goes with self-publishing. I've come to see how critically important editing is, and the powerful effect a really great external editor can have on a manuscript. I could hire one for a self-published book, but the expense is way out of what I could afford. Likewise, the cost of promotion, publicity, marketing is also out of my reach. So I really don't know what the future will bring. It would be nice to still be involved in the scribble caper in some way. I've made some tremendous friendships through writing and publishing, both here in Oz, and in the US and Canada (especially Canada), and that's been the most rewarding aspect of the whole process.

As for what I'll be reading in five years? Probably very much the same sorts of things I read now, which is to say, lots of crime fiction, lots of classics, and some sf. As I get older (I'm 51 now) I find that really high-end hard science fiction seems to require so much knowledge and understanding on the part of the reader that it often seems as if you need a degree in science, and preferably physics, simply to get what a writer is trying to convey. Then there are the writers who fill their books with neato in-jokes that I, at least, often don't get. Whole chunks of these books often feel as if they're being aimed not at the general, interested sf reader, but at specific groups of readers who get the joke. I don't like books that make me feel stupid in either of these respects, so I find crime fiction and classics much more rewarding.


This interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and archiving them at SF Signal. You can read interviews at: (here)