Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (The Sparrow #1)

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The Sparrow is a book that left me with a lot of conflicted feelings. I’m glad I read it and I have enjoyed it immensely, as much as one can enjoy a tragedy. But would I recommend it? I’m honestly not so sure.

I have a huge weakness for stories with a mystery at the centre, where we know the ending, but not the how and the why. It intrigued me right from the start. The story is mostly centered on Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest and linguist, the sole survivor of a first contact mission gone horribly wrong. It starts shortly after he’s returned to Earth, physically and psychologically shattered, with some horrible rumours about him circulating. Immediately, there are questions. Why and how did the rest of the crew die? What went wrong? How is it that he survived? The unwrapping of said mystery is careful and unrushed, with two parallel timelines – one in the present, following his slow recovery, the other following the mission to the planet of Rakhat from the beginning to its disastrous end.

“No questions? No argument? No comfort for the afflicted?” he asked with acrid gaiety. “I warned you. I told you that you didn’t want to know. Now it’s in your minds. Now you have to live with knowing. But it was my body. It was my blood,” he said, choking with fury. “And it was my love.”

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Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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I was a huge fan of Uprooted, so of course I had to pick this up in hardcover as soon as it came out and read it as soon as I could. And it’s a lovely, wintry tale; subversive yet true to its origins. Novik takes a fairytale and makes in complex, shot through with realism, but no less magical for that. It’s not “just” a retelling. It also touches upon medieval antisemitism, the position of women in their society without denying them agency, family, all in a way that makes sense within the story.

I wasn’t sorry to be leaving them. I loved nothing about the town or any of them, even now when it was at least familiar ground. I wasn’t sorry they didn’t like me, I wasn’t sorry I had been hard to them. I was glad, fiercely glad. They had wanted to bury my mother and leave my father behind to die alone. They had wanted me to go be a beggar in my grandfather’s house, and leave the rest of my life a quiet mouse in the kitchen.  They would have devoured my family and picked their teeth with the bones, and never been sorry at all. 

Easily the best part besides the atmosphere (nailed, of course) and beautiful writing are the characters. Especially the main three female characters. Miryem, the fiercely pragmatic moneylender. Wanda, a farmgirl who’s much smarter than she looks. Irina, a daugher of a local duke without much control over her life. Neither of them particularily strong or beautiful or inherently superspecial, but they all try to make the best of what they can do.

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Mundane and Slice of Life SFF Recommendations List

Often, when someone mentions fantasy, we think of large-scale stories where the fate of the world is at stake. Though there have been shifts and pushbacks regarding other aspects seen as typical of fantasy (for example, a move from black-white to grey-grey or grey-black morality, a move from pseudo-medieval, etc.), more mundane stories with a small scope, relatively ordinary, not overly badass characters, and little action remain rather rare.

My obsession with this subgenre started with The Healers’ Road. A book with almost no action and zero plot, that relies only on characters…and yet works? I was impressed. Impressed, and wanting more. Since then, I have managed to find a few books that scratch that particular itch. Judging from discussions, I’m not the only one interested in calmer fantasy stories, either. So here it is.

Pure examples:

  • The Balance Academy series by S.E. Robertson – Probably the purest example. In The Healers’ Road, two, well, healers from very different backgrounds have to travel together for two years. He thinks she’s spoiled, she thinks he’s rude. Despite initial misunderstandings and conflict, they slowly become friends and go through a lot of character growth. No plot beyond that, almost no action. Second book, The Healers’ Home is about them settling down in a small town and didn’t disappoint either.
  • Ravenwood by Nathan Lowell – A 53 y/o travelling herbalist on her way to a new mentor arrives in a newly established village and, despite initial misgivings, decides to stay around for the winter and help them.
  • Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin –  Not a standalone. Regardless, it’s a quiet and thoughtful and mature sort of story that felt real, some parts almost painfully so. The characterisation in particular is where the book really shines. They’re all broken in one way or another and the bittersweet ending fits the story well. It’s not the subtlest of books, but the general theme of struggling against their society, because of disability, because of gender…that I could appreciate.
  • The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss – Another non-standalone, a novella following a week in the daily life of Auri, a minor character from the Kingkiller Chronicle.

Books featuring everyday life of nobility:

  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison – A sweet guy is forced to become emperor after his family is killed in a crash. Nearly all of the search for suspects happens offscreen, the main focus is the “dealing with going from basically nothing to emperor overnight” bit.
  • Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner – Fantasy of Manners about Richard St. Vier, a famous duellist and his mysterious ex-student boyfriend, Alec. Who is a lovable little shit and one of my favourite characters.
  • The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein – Arthurian fantasy more concerned with fucked up family dynamics than anything else. Also written entirely in second-person.

Magical Realism:

  • Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox – Follows the life of a vintner who fell in love with an angel, spanning several decades. Lovely descriptions of life in the French countryside.
  • Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk – If you don’t mind religious themes (I found it a bit odd) and a sharp turn towards realism and grittiness in the middle. Follows the lives of inhabitants of an imaginary Polish village. I read it translated to a language other than English, so I’m not 100% sure, but the prose was pretty damn good.
  • The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan – My favourite book of all times. Hard to describe. It’s set in a boarding school for kids/teens with disabilities where some really, really weird shit is going on. Shenanigans ensue. Colourful characters, beautiful prose, many layers, a lot of things left to the reader to puzzle together.
  • Seven Summer Nights by Harper Fox – Romance with speculative elements happening just after the end of WWII. Archeologist is fired after a violent flashback episode, takes up one last job in a small English village, where he meets an eccentric, motorcycle-riding, atheist vicar. And the church he’s been sent to document has a rather unusual secret. Excellent writing, excellent characters, just amazing overall.
  • Sourdough by Robin Sloan – A short, sweet, downright therapeutic book about a lonely programmer whose life is changed by magic sourdough starter. It’s a pure, joyful delight to read and will make you hungry.

Other books that could scratch the itch:

  • The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker – As the title says, it follows a golem and a djinni in 1899 New York and features a lot of small insights into the lives of everyone around them.
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers – This is technically sci-fi. Still, although it had more plot than I expected from the way people describe it, it’s very character-focused, very heartwarming, and I loved it. And the second book (review) is even better.
  • Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire – A novella set in a boarding school for children who returned from portal worlds. Wonderfully written.
  • Vita Nostra by Sergey & Maria Dyachenko – another magic school book, with some of the most unique magic (very much non-Sandersonian), a very dark setting, and some interesting themes. No larger plot.
  • The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley – Magical realism retelling of Beowulf that takes place in the suburbs. Lovely prose, plot that’s like watching a trainwreck in slow motion.
  • Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman – A young woman runs away to escape abuse and the book follows her journey and character development from there. There’s a vague objective of finding out more about World Serpents, but it’s pushed completely in the background while Tess and her journey take the spotlight. Whether the series is slice of life will depend on the sequel, but I’d say this book definitely is.

My goodreads shelf, also containing books I’ve been recommended as slice of life but haven’t read yet, can be found here.

To be updated on a regular basis (last update: Sep 18th 2019).

Review: We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson (The Reborn Empire #1)

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I received an ARC of this book on Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

There has been quite a lot of hype surrounding this book in the blogger circles I run in. I simply had to try it. And yes, it lives up.

“But what is choice?” he said, checking over every blister and sore. “What is power? In truth you have none. None of us do. We are but leaves buffeted upon life’s stream, our every decision already made before it comes to us.”

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July 2018 Monthly Wrap-Up

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  • Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft (5/5): An excellent sequel to Senlin Ascends that improves upon the (few) issues I had with it. Reads very fast, great prose. Can’t wait for the sequel.
  • Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett (4.5/5): First ARC I received. I haven’t read anything else of his, but this was incredible. Industrial setting, programming-like magic, likable characters, casually LGBTQ+ romantic subplot. This will get very popular and with good reason.
  • Traitor by Krista D. Ball (3/5): A space opera novella. Quick-paced, easy to read, but at times, the light tone seemed at odds with some of the more serious issues it was trying to tackle.
  • Faithless by Graham Austin-King (4/5): Excellent worldbuilding. Recommended to grimdark fans.
  • Hard to Be a God by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (2/5): A massive disappointment. the writing is nice and some questions it raises are interesting, but the execution is…not great. Especially the female characters.
  • Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (4/5): Usually not a fan of comedy, but surprisingly, I liked it a lot. The characters especially.
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons (DNF): In some aspects, brilliant; in others, it aged quite badly. Priest’s and scholar’s tale are perfectly worthy of reading on their own. May return to it some day.
  • A reread of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (4.5/5), an amazing slice of life feel-good sci-fi book. Great characters and worldbuilding, wonderfully inclusive. Highly recommended.

r/Fantasy Bingo Challenge progress: 21/50

Books read this year: 37

DNF: Hyperion by Dan Simmons (Hyperion Cantos #1)

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As a DNF, this review is incomplete.

Another case of an old classic not living up. It is, in ways, a very good book. A team of seven pilgrims – a priest, a soldier, a poet, a scholar, a detective, a consul and a templar – is assembled to travel to the planet Hyperion and the Shrike. On the way, each of them tells the tale of how and why they got to be there. It’s an interesting structure. The prose is good as well, if tending towards descriptive at parts. The worldbuilding, fascinating enough. There’s a lot of allusions and literary references to everything from Chaucer to Keats and many other classics.

Unfortunately, though…

The Priest’s Tale I enjoyed very much. The tension and the mystery of what happened to the older priest, of what’s up with the Bikura society kept me at the edge of my seat, reading it long into the night with many a “what the fuck.” It’s almost horror in the end, but so incredibly compelling.

The Soldier’s Tale was when things started to go sour. It’s a story about a man who is visited by a mysterious woman during battles. She helps him defeat the enemies, then they have sex. Many, many times. I rolled my eyes.

The Poet’s Tale solidified the DNF. it’s just…ew. No. I didn’t mind the sweary casual style, but…I’ll let the quotes speak for themselves.

Centuries later, when I was in my satyr period, I felt that I finally understood poor don Balthazar’s priapic compulsions, but in those days it was mostly a hindrance to keeping young girls on the estate’s staff. Human or android, don Balthazar did not discriminate – he poinked them all.

Luckily for my education, there was nothing homosexual in don Balthazar’s addiction to young flesh, so his escapades evidenced themselves either as absences from our tutorial sessions or an inordinate amount of attention lavished on memorizing verses from Ovid, Senesh, or Wu.

And:

Sissipriss Harris had been one of my first conquests as a satyr – and one of my most enthusiastic – a beautiful girl, long blond hair too soft to be real, a fresh-picked-peach complexion too virginal to dream of touching, a beauty too perfect to believe: precisely the sort that even the most timid male dreams of violating

Again, ew.

Scholar’s Tale was the next, and my last. It was the one I heard the most about, so I decided to give at least this a try. It was indeed amazing. And chilling, and quite sad, though I can’t say more without spoiling. But it’s perfectly worth reading just this and the priest’s. They stand well enough on their own.

I decided to end it there, on a positive note.

I may return to it one day, but at the moment, with the disappointment that was Hard to Be a God still too fresh, I was simply too frustrated with old sci-fi and shades of homophobia and outdated tropes. There’s so many other great books out there that this shit really isn’t hard to avoid. If you can look past it, by all means, be welcome to it, there will be a great story underneath for you. I, alas, cannot.

Review: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #8)

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This review is way overdue.

Guards! Guards! is not the first Discworld book I tried to read. I have read a few books in translation before and bounced off. I have something of a history with comedy – The Princess Bride I hated, Hitchhiker’s Guide I DNF’d. I was reluctant to try again, but I promised that I will give the series one last try, in English, and this seemed like a good entry point.

And hey, it worked.

“I wonder what’s the difference between ordinary councillors and privy councillors?” wondered the merchant aloud.

The assassin scowled at him. “I think,” he said, “it is because you’re expected to eat shit.”

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