RaveLocusWagers brings their usual deft gift for action and pacing to this taut, tense, sometimes nail-biting novel. Exciting space adventure with real human consequences is a personal favourite of mine, and Wagers – with their inimitable flair – gives us a diverse cast of compelling and relatable people, in a story that has a heart, a sense of humour, and plenty of banter. Particularly notable, and particularly pleasing, is Wagers’s treatment of diverse gender experiences and a diversity of sexual orientations and orientations towards relationships: Hold Fast Through the Fire, like its predecessor, takes place in a world where bigotry regarding gender, relationships, and orientation is part of the past. It makes for a satisfying and rather reassuring reading experience. I can use more optimistic futures ... an intense, exciting, and delightfully entertaining novel. I hope Wagers returns to this setting, and these characters, in the future, because I’d read many more books like this one.
RaveLocus... an exquisitely gripping novel with a bloody, unflinching heart. And yet, for all the intricate brutalities of its worldbuilding, it holds out the hope of revolutionary change ... subversive ... The queerness of Star Eater rests as much in its unsqueamish examination of power relations and the meaty, bloody metaphor of its magical mechanics as in its normalising treatment of queer relationships and the sexualities of its major characters: it’s a novel with teeth, and it sets those teeth into a thematic argument about—an indictment of—the hereditary transmission and constant maintenance of power that comes from acts of, essentially, theft and consumption. One might say rapine. For all that, though, Star Eater is wildly hopeful about the potential of supportive, subversive communities, about the strength of complicated friendships, about kindness and the possibility of transformative change ... a fantastic book.
PositiveTor.com... an impressive debut ... The Wolf and the Woodsman is a richly imagined novel, atmospheric and compelling. Évike is an interesting protagonist, one who tries almost against her will to do, if not the right thing, then at least the least wrong thing. She’s appealing—the whole novel is appealing—and Reid’s voice is fluent and assured. But in my view it rather falls apart at the climax. That’s not unusual for a debut, and doesn’t make it any less worth reading, but it does spoil some of my enjoyment. On the whole, an entertaining, appealing, and strikingly imagined novel. I recommend it, with caveats.
PanTor.com... I found The Lights of Prague, Nicole Jarvis’s debut novel, rather disappointing. It committed a couple of what are to me deadly sins in a novel: it failed to make me care about its characters ... The Lights of Prague takes itself just a bit too seriously to have fun with it. Dark brooding people in a dark brooding city full of monsters? Meh. Especially when the brooding people are kind of tedious.
M. A. Carrick
RaveTor.com[The Mask of Mirrors] reminds me strikingly of the Astreiant novels of Melissa Scott and the late Lisa A. Barnett’s Astreiant novels, albeit more in worldbuilding and tone than in characters and concerns ... The Mask of Mirrors gives us a rich world—a compellingly-drawn city—with a depth of history and layers of competing agendas. It has multiple different kinds of magic, from the more upper-class science of numinat and the more artisanal imbuing, to the influence of astrology and of patterning—card-reading that can reveal a person’s future, or fate. And it gives us layered, compelling characters, who’re sympathetic and understandable, and a plot that mounts with carefully-measured tension and nested capers and revelations to an explosive climax.
RaveLocus... an interesting history ... a very promising debut. Its characters are engaging and believable: not just Kiem and Jainan, but secondary figures ... Maxwell is deft at dropping hints about the wider world and political scene, so that even though the emotional core of this story is domestic, the bigger picture never quite fades from view. And there’s space in that bigger picture for plenty more stories ... Well-paced and deftly written, it’s one of the most enjoyable space (or planetary) opera romances that I’ve had the pleasure to read, and I look forward to seeing more of Maxwell’s work in the years to come.
PositiveLocus MagazineAlex White’s The Worst of All Possible Worlds is the \'what happens next\' for their Salvagers trilogy. The final volume in this high-stakes, high-octane space-opera-with-magic series, it sees the crew of the Capricious in a final showdown with the so-called gods of the Harrow for the fate of the universe ... Did I mention that it’s batshit fun, and introduces a whole new conspiracy? ... apart from Boots, Nilah, and Orma, White’s characterisation feels pretty slight, and the frenetic pace leaves very little time for thematic argument or emotional weight. The Worst of All Possible Worlds is an action-packed hustle of a novel, with a sense of humour and a keen eye for the ridiculous. It’s not deep or terribly meaningful, but it is cracking good fun.
RaveLocus... another book I have mixed feelings about. Not about its success: The Space Between Worlds is ambitious and largely accomplishes what it sets out to do. My mixed feelings are entirely down to whether or not I like it, and how to analyse what it’s doing, regardless of my immediate emotional reaction ... fascinating, complicated, compelling, and far too aware of the costs of precarity to be able to end on a triumphant note. But its quiet, personal, hopeful conclusion is more satisfying, in a deep-rooted way, than any conclusion that turns on revolution. This is a jewel of a novel, all the more impressive for being Johnson’s debut ... I still don’t know whether I like it. I don’t have to. I admire the hell out of it, regardless.
Linden A Lewis
PositiveTor.com...where once the novelty of multiple queer protagonists in a reasonably well-drawn, well-written SFnal future might alone have spurred my enthusiasm, these days I have the luxury of expecting more ... Which leaves me in ambivalent position. Because there’s the bones of an excellent novel underneath Lewis’s The First Sister, a novel with the potential to engage deeply with questions of autonomy, power, and consent, and the queering—in multiple senses of the word—of bodies and identities. But those bones are thoroughly buried by The First Sister‘s rush to embrace dystopia without committing to a full reckoning of its horrors, and its inability to fully connect the personal with the political ... lacks the ability to link the individual and the societal on a thematic level, and loses a great deal of power thereby ... The First Sister might have disappointed my highest hopes, but Lewis has made a promising start, and I look forward to seeing where she goes from here.
MixedLocus... a fascinating hot mess, but it’s still a mess, and its style and structure are a large part of why ... The past-set narrative offers very little new – a different perspective on similar events – but it only belatedly becomes clear whether Harrow is a particularly unreliable narrator or whether this is an alternate-universe Harrow. The worldbuilding is sufficiently expansively wild – and unconstrained by little things like the ordinary rules of physics or society – that alternate universe and cross-universe communication is as plausible an explanation as any, and the messily nested secrets and manipulations don’t do anything to forward the cause of clarity ... The climax of Harrow the Ninth is a messy, confused, kaleidoscopic mess of (incomplete) revelations and (hasty) exposition, identity confusion and out-of-body experiences, grand confrontations and running battles. Throughout Harrow the Ninth, Gideon’s absence is a distorting weight on our expectations as readers – her absence from Harrow’s remembered past, and her absence from the present. Given certain elements of the worldbuilding, the question of whether Gideon’s death at the close of Gideon the Ninth is entirely permanent has always, after all, appeared to be an open one ... raises a lot of questions, and settles very few of them. Its conclusion raises more ... a ferment. It introduces fresh factions – multiple ones – and even more wild and weird worldbuilding. It’s in constant motion, retreading old ground and breaking new. But its constant shifts of time and perspective, and the unreliability of its narrator, mean that it never quite attains a coherent narrative through-line or a thematic argument that a reader can get their teeth into. Harrow the Ninth is a fun read. Its voice is strong. It’s an entertaining mess, and I enjoyed it. But it’s still a mess, and I have no confidence that any future volume will get less messy.
RaveLocusIt’s a delightful and energetic book, one that effortlessly avoids any hint of a sophomore slump to present us with a vivid world, a compelling cast, and a narrative that managed to deftly surprise me at least once ... Girl, Serpent, Thorn draws – as the author acknowledges in her afterword – on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th-century story Rappacini’s Daughter and on the deep and fantastic well of the eleventh-century Persian epic Shahnameh. The novel’s setting draws strongly on its Persian influences to build a rich, strongly-drawn world of mythical protective birds, demons, legendary wicked kings, and people doing their best ... This is partly a novel about loyalty, for Soraiya’s relationship with her family is mirrored by Parvaneh’s relationship with her sisters, which is again mirrored by Soraiya’s relationship with Parvaneh: all of them are marked by betrayal, and all of them require choices about how, and whether, to make restitution – or if one should carry that betrayal through to an ultimate conclusion. It is, in short, an excellent story. Bashardoust has written a twisty, fascinating, well-paced novel that builds to a conclusion that is more than well-earned. Soraiya is a compelling protagonist, and one whose struggles are very relatable. It’s hard not to empathise with her isolation and her desire for a wider world. All told, it’s a very satisfying book, and I really look forward to reading more of Bashardoust’s work in future.
As always, Wells is deftly skilled with her characters, showing us compelling people with very human needs and fears—even when some of them aren’t human. But she’s even defter with humour: perhaps my favourite part of Network effect happens after Murderbot ends up freeing another SecUnit from its governor module ... And, as always, Wells has written some really great, tense action. This is a perfectly paced space opera adventure novel, one in which Murderbot continues to grow as a person. An enormously relatable person. The conclusion is deeply satisfying while also holding out the possibility of more Murderbot stories to come. I could read about Murderbot all week. While I recommend Network Effect highly, and while I suspect that a reader could start here and still enjoy the story, this is a novel that will work best in the context of what has come before. \
PositiveTor.com... a stylish science fiction story with all the flair one might expect from the author of False HeartsShattered Minds ... Unfortunately, this tale of five women shut in unavoidably close proximity with each other for weeks and months on end bid fair to activate all my current not-very-latent claustrophobia, and that was before the novel developed an infectious plague ... excels in its character work, in its slow unfolding of people and decisions and consequences ... I was a little while warming up to Goldilocks, because at this point I’m not sure I’m capable of judging stories with small casts trapped in small spaces entirely on their merits. But it is a fascinating, compelling novel, reminiscent of a psychological thriller in space, and in the end I enjoyed it greatly.
MixedLocusUpright Women Wanted is deftly characterised and has an interesting voice, but even for its brief page count, it feels slight. There’s not a lot of meat on its bones, and what meat there is, is undercut by how unusually talkative and trusting the Librarians are for people who could be executed if the wrong person lays evidence against them. (I find how quickly they allow Esther to uncover suspicious things about them to lack tension.) ... Upright Women Wanted is fun and entertaining, but I’m not convinced it’s 20 quid worth of fun and entertaining. It might be 12 quid worth. On the other hand, it has queer librarians and gunfights in the desert, so who’s to say someone else won’t rate it more highly?
C. L. Polk
PositiveLocusPolk writes a tense, compelling novel focused on aftermaths and the consequences of disrupting existing power structures – even when those structures need to be challenged, the results aren’t clean-cut. As in Witchmark, it’s Polk’s talent for character that makes her work shine ... a powerful novel, with a lot to say. I found it a strikingly effective, compelling, and deeply enjoyable read. Even if you haven’t read Witchmark, I’d recommend you give it a try: it succeeds in being a strong read without much prior knowledge of its predecessor ... It’s a damn good book.
K. M. Szpara
MixedTor.comSzpara really doesn’t delve too deeply into the absolute horror-show of possibilities opened up by \'perfectly compliant slaves who don’t remember what happens to them,\' given the American history of slavery and the nation’s history with supporting workers’ rights, it feels a bit like flinching ... In many ways, this is a compelling exploration of coercion, affection, complicity, and the nature of consent. Szpara is a persuasive writer, and his choice to alternate chapters between Elisha’s first-person narrative and Alex’s point of view—also told in the first person—is one that propels the reader into sympathy with both of these characters ... The only problem: I don’t like it. Narratives that involve behavior modification to the point of utter dependence—learned helplessness—are deeply disturbing to me. That, combined with the sexualization of the master-servant relationship, turns this into a novel containing multiple sexual acts where one party has either extremely limited or no real capacity for meaningful consent. Elisha is raped, multiple times, and his rapes are physically pleasurable for him and graphically described. It feels pornographic, and not in a good way ... I’m not entirely sure he succeeds, but like it or loathe it, there’s no denying that Docile is trying to ask interesting questions about capitalism and consent.
RaveTor.comIt should be emphasised right up front that while the worldbuilding is every bit as detailed and baroque as her previous solo novels under her other name, the mood leans far less toward the noir than The Doctrine of Labyrinths. The tone is overall much more hopeful, and the main character here far more likable, than in any of her previous novels ... a deeply engrossing read—every time I open a page, I find I simply get drawn into the story, but this is only partly because of Addison’s excellent ability to turn a phrase. The sheer compelling attractiveness of Maia’s character figures larger ... Addison’s worldbuilding is delightfully detailed and thorough ... marvellously welcoming ... A book you pick up and read when you’re tired and sad, and all unexpected it’s like being wrapped up in a comforting warm fuzzy blanket of glorious worldbuilding and shiny prose and decent people doing the best they know how ... the best fantasy I’ve read in quite some time. It’s certainly my favourite of the last great while, and though it’s early days yet, I suspect it may be the best single novel I read this year ... I vigorously recommend it, and I really hope that there’s a sequel in the works. Because I desperately want to read more.
RaveTor.comIt’s not every day a debut novel by an author you’d never heard of before derails your entire afternoon with its brilliance. But when my review copy of Ancillary Justice arrived, that’s exactly what it did ... does many things extremely well ... Leckie’s prose is clear and muscular, with a strong forward impetus, like the best of thriller writing. It grabs you and urges you onwards. And her interleaved narrative is both clever and well-executed: clever, because alternating past and present heightens the novel’s tension, ratcheting up the what happens next? factor, and well-executed because most of the breaks and pauses seem entirely natural, rather than forced ... Leckie writes a rousing climax and sticks the dismount ... As for worldbuilding: Leckie’s really good at it ... both an immensely fun novel, and a conceptually ambitious one: it has many layers and many levels at which it can be enjoyed. And I can’t hardly wait for the sequel.
RaveTor.comSuri demonstrates not only talent, but consistency. This second novel is even more accomplished than the first ... a very satisfying conclusion ... isn’t packed with action or physical violence, though it includes both. It’s primarily concerned with the personal and the political (and the ways in which those things are the same), with interiority and self-discovery, and the slow growth of sympathy and affection between Arwa and Zahir. It’s a fantasy novel about the colonisation of the mind and the destruction of one’s culture, about the ways that imperial powers impose their own narratives and cut subject peoples off from their own histories and their own languages, and about the way in which assimilation is both a kind of safety (a new form of belonging and access to power) and a generational grief that never quite goes away ... a compelling novel. Gorgeously written, deftly characterised, and packing a powerful impact into its 450-odd pages, it’s one of the most viscerally satisfying books I’ve read this year. I recommend it.
MixedTor.com... is not, it should be noted, the easiest book with which to join the series ... Goss is invested in playing with the tropes of late-19th and early-20th century pulp, and with their characters. (And in playing with narrative: the construction of the novel as a told story, aware of itself as a construct.) Her villains straddle the middle ground between the cliché and the complex ... The size of the cast means the reader spends less time with each individual character than in previous volumes. While the characters—at least the ones we spend any amount of time with—remain compelling, the number of people who share the limelight means that the overarching plot has to carry the weight of keeping the reader invested in the story ... While some characters question whether \'saving the British empire\' is in fact something worth doing, the narrative itself ends up reinforcing the idea of a British empire, headed by the elderly Victoria Regina, as a normative, even positive thing. The romance of empire is a heady thing, but in a novel that successfully interrogates—while playing with—many other tropes of the pulps that it’s re-envisioning for the modern age, the eucatastrophic restoration of the status quo feels a little… off ... On the whole, while I enjoyed reading The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, and while it’s an entertaining instalment in the series, it’s less well-paced and weaker than its predecessors. Goss doesn’t quite live up to the high standards she’s previously set here.
MixedLocus... not a piercing revelation or the perfection of the form ... an interesting novel with some seriously batshit worldbuilding and a strong, compelling voice. It’s also a novel that’s about a deeply unhealthy central relationship, one that left me exquisitely uncomfortable with its ultimate trajectory, and a story that doesn’t do quite enough work to earn the ending of its emotional arc. Gideon the Ninth knows its central interpersonal relationship is seriously fucked up. The ending makes me question whether the book understands how much and in which specific ways that relationship is fucked up, the adversarial abusiveness and weird co-dependence of it all. And because much of the novel is a breezy, punchy, irreverent, gothic necromantic adventure (in space!), the impact of the weird squickiness is dispersed until the very closing pages ... The worldbuilding is delightfully batshit, revelling in its own gothic creations; complex, whimsically allusive. Gideon’s voice is compelling, breezy and irreverent, and possessed of self-aware humour. The deep sense of irreverence means that tonally, despite its claustrophobic setting, psychological manipulation and betrayals, and the mounting death toll, Gideon the Ninth never exactly feels like horror. Only in its showdown between godlike powers at the conclusion does horror’s inescapable tragedy become part of the narrative’s primary argument – and it is here, I feel, that the narrative fails in its interrogation of the central hate-co-dependence-need relationship between Gideon and Harrow, and leaves me feeling very uncomfortable indeed ... This is an ambitious first novel. Whether or not its reach exceeds its grasp, I suspect, lies in its sequels to confirm or deny. But I’ll most likely be reading Harrow the Ninth, because Gideon, for all its flaws, was a very enjoyable read.
Gareth L. Powell
PositiveTorPowell offers us some really good character work in Ragged Alice ... This is a compelling novella. Powell keeps the murder investigation both tense and grounded in the day-to-day details of regular policework. The supernatural is never fully explained, but its involvement is emotionally integral to both the story and its eventual satisfying denouement. (I especially liked the novella’s final scene. That worked damn well.)
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
RaveLocusHoly shit. Holy shit. Holy shit. This is the time-travelling queer epistolary romance I didn’t know I needed. This is the time-travelling queer epistolary romance you should definitely read, because while I’m not entirely sure I can do it justice in a review, I am entirely sure it’s an excellent work that – if there’s any justice in the world – we’ll see on awards lists next year ... Gladstone and El-Mohtar between them have built a precisely engineered marvel, cresting to a climax that takes every moment of what came before and infuses it with fresh meaning, gives it more layers ... Here the paradox is elegant and inevitable, as inevitable as tragedy but better. Here the paradox is the point, and it turns out that it’s a glorious thing ... With precise, cut-glass prose – poetic and pragmatic at once – deeply compelling characters, and a tensely rewarding conclusion, This Is How You Lose the Time War is one of the most striking works of fiction I’ve read this decade. I’m going to be thinking about it – returning to it – for months, at least. Read it, because I can’t recommend it highly enough.
RaveTor.comStylistically, Jade City feels as though it mixes The Legend of Korra with Gangs of New York and a generous helping of Hong Kong action cinema. Lee builds a vivid, densely believable world, and a vivid, densely believable city: Kekon’s cars and televisions, its economic boom and history of conflict, exist in productive tension with its traditions and its clans, its jade and the code known as aisho, its gambling dens and restaurants and boardrooms. A deep attention to detail gives us a view of a society—and people within that society—not all quite yet at home with the changes that have occurred. Shae and Wen, Hilo’s lover, let us see that despite some changes, patriarchal ways of thinking (and hypocrisy) have a deep hold on Kekonese life and on No Peak clan, but we also see that a great deal of change has occurred since their grandfather’s heyday. Lee’s characters are vibrantly human, who have the virtues of their flaws, and the flaws of their virtues ... Excellently-paced and brilliantly constructed, Jade City glitters with life. It’s immensely compelling—and very satisfying as a mob narrative—and I really hope Fonda Lee writes more in this world.
Chen Qiufan, Trans. by Ken Liu
PanTor.comLiu’s translation is fluent and graceful (with the exception of some paragraphs of geekery that must have read just as awkwardly in the original), offering further nuance and explanation in a handful of unobtrusive footnotes. The prose is both readable and enjoyable, even if I didn’t always feel as though I were able to follow the narrative. This is not a book that passes the Bechdel test in any meaningful fashion. I’m not sure what’s going on with Mimi, but she seems more like a cipher than a human being most of the time, and the more power she has to affect things, the more helpless she seems to be as herself—it’s not her that has the power, but something within her, something using her. She seems at times to be something of a McGuffin, more symbol than character ... There are multiple distinct and distinctive male characters in Waste Tide. The same isn’t true for women. A number of Waste Tide’s choices don’t sit right with me. There’s some good stuff in here, but the treatment of female characters makes it impossible for me to enjoy the novel as a whole.
RaveTor.comLent...is in many respects an extension of several of the thematic arguments (and historical interests) already seen in that Plato’s Republic trilogy, albeit one oddly—given its protagonist—in some ways less theological and more philosophical than those previous novels. Here, the meditation is on damnation and salvation, in the place of divinity, but the argument about right action, responsibility, and personal change remains, seen from different angles, and given different weights ... Walton gives us a detailed, atmospheric, deeply believable Renaissance Florence. Girolamo is a fascinating, complex character ... Most interesting for me are Girolamo’s relationships with the women with whom he is occasionally in contact: relationships based on shared spiritual or political concerns ... Its first section...looks like it might be a political-historical thriller in shape and form, an alternate history with visible demons. But it transforms into deep character study ... I’m not convinced that Walton pulls off the conclusion, but it’s a deeply compelling novel, ambitious and kind, and deeply rooted in the intellectual life of the Renaissance. I enjoyed it immensely.
PositiveTor.comStarling has written a tightly-focused novel, part psychological thriller, part deep character study ... The world of The Luminous Dead is the world of the cave. Starling depicts the terror and the wonder of the environment through which Gyre moves with deft strokes. She also emphasises its physicality. And the mental confusion and exhaustion that strikes Gyre when she feels at her weakest—though Starling’s a little less than perfectly adept at making Gyre’s paranoia and despair tensely compelling in isolation ... This is a gripping debut from a talented voice, and I look forward to reading more of Starling’s work in the years to come.
PositiveLocusThere’s a subtle and subdued thematic argument in here about power and responsibility, about the harm of imposing one’s own values and one’s own desires on the people around one ... Duckett writes an engaging tale, with crisp pacing and precise, attractive prose. Her characters are compelling individuals, fully developed with desires and personalities of their own, and the novella mounts with ever-increasing tension to its conclusion ... If I have one quibble, it’s that the relationship between Miranda and Duriya develops and deepens very quickly. I’d have liked to see a little more of their courtship ... a very gripping story, and one I enjoyed very much. I look forward to seeing more of Duckett’s work in print in the years to come.
PanTor.com...The Women’s War levels no critique at institutions of oppression other than patriarchy. Thus, by its focus on a single issue—an issue uncomplicated by the presence of trans people or even cisgender queer people—it gives the impression that sex-based discrimination is the only axis of oppression that matters ... it suggests, then there are no problems with a society ruled by queens and kings and aristocrats. No complicating factors that should be addressed, or other axes of oppression worth considering. The Women’s War may be feminist epic fantasy, but its feminism is the kind that never troubled to read Audre Lorde (for example).
MixedTor.com\"There’s just one major problem with Luna: Moon Rising: it doesn’t feel like a conclusion. It feels, in fact, a lot more like a prologue, like the end of an opening act of some much larger arc. For every thread that’s brought to some kind of conclusion, another one spreads its wings ... perhaps I’d be better about tracking who is which, and who’s aligned to what purposes, if I had succeeded in making myself care about the characters and their purposes with more than a vague creeping horror at how much worse things can get for them, or how many more lives will be ruined by the choices of the adult characters ... McDonald’s worldbuilding is sharp and glittering .... It’s not that I don’t admire a lot of what McDonald’s doing here...But in the end, Luna: Moon Rising leaves me cold and unsatisfied, and doesn’t leave me feeling like the story has come to a resolution ... Pity it’s not a longer series. It’d make for a great middle book.\
MixedTor.com\"When it comes to big ideas, weird science, futurism and the vastness and multitude of the alien stuff crammed into Rosewater—the city and the books—Thompson excels: he builds a world full of dizzying, terrifying marvels and the compelling necessities of the quotidian. Rosewater is a fantastically interesting city, and Wormwood, a fascinating device with which to interrogate humanity and human nature: this is a novel engaged in conversation with the classic science fiction topoi both of alien contact and of the colonisation of worlds by technologically superior visitors. With setting, with politics, with the grand scale and its interaction with smaller individuals—there, Thompson’s at his best ... It’s not his fault that I find The Rosewater Insurrection’s characters to fall on a spectrum between the unlikable and the insufferable. It may be that my lack of concentration is at fault, or it may be that Thompson and I value different things in storytelling ... sharp and full of hard edges. It is fast and tense and fascinating, and I really want to like it. But I don’t. I admire its craft and its sheer panache, its explosive approach to worldbuilding and its willingness to fuck shit up, but I don’t enjoy it ... That’s about me, not about the novel, though. If this is the kind of science fiction thriller you like, then The Rosewater Insurrection is a good book for you.\
MixedTor.comThe Priory of the Orange Tree does eventually get its legs underneath it for a satisfying endgame, it remains something of an unbalanced, unwieldy beast ... Its eight-hundred-odd pages spend a long time establishing character and setting, with occasional diversions to recount the odd fable or two. I nearly gave up in frustration ... It’s only halfway through that matters become reasonably tense and compelling ... I must confess to being out of charity with novels (especially fantasy novels) that divide the world into East and West, North and South (always capitalised), and base the cultural markers very clearly on much-simplified elements from our own history ... These simplified divisions tend to leave out the rich narrative and thematic possibilities that more complicated visions of inter- and intra-national politics offer ... I’m also out of charity with evil for evil’s sake ... it lets human evils off the hook too easily. There are more human evils in The Priory of the Orange Tree, and when the novel allows them to move to the forefront—when it dwells on politics and personal ambition—it immediately becomes more compelling, more tense, and more interesting ... I can’t recommend it unless you have a lot of patience to reach a payoff that’s only middlingly well done.
PositiveTor.com\"[Leckie\'s] ambition continues to show in The Raven Tower, her first novel-length published fantasy—and shows itself in some interesting, unconventional narrative choices ... The Raven Tower is an enormously compelling novel ... I didn’t love The Raven Tower the way I loved Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy. It’s a very different book, striking in very different ways. But it is striking in ways I deeply appreciate. I admire it. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.\
PositiveTor.comI’m not particularly enamoured of Goss’s poetic style. It’s a little too plain and unadorned for me—I’m fond of blank verse...but in terms of its use, reuse, and reinvention of fairytale, this poetry does solid and uncompromising work. Goss’s spare, elegiac lines carry a weight of emotion and nuance ... all eight of the short stories in this volume are exquisite pieces of work ... I enjoyed the whole collection. It’s well worth checking out.
Robert Jackson Bennett
MixedLocus MagazineLess a story than an intensely distilled mood, an atmosphere wrought out of the US’s worst instincts and dystopian obsessions, like Stephen King’s The Running Man, but with its gamified violence updated for the 21st century and made totalising, all-consuming, and entirely manipulated to deliver sales from advertising ... Grim, self-assured, and elegantly written, is a very interesting work of art, deeply invested in the contemporary American moment. On an emotional level, it leaves me cold – but it works so hard to generate horrified revulsion from its matter-of-fact cynicism that I suspect it may well intend to leave its readers filled cold queasiness.
PositiveTor.comIf Barbary Station was a variant on the gothic novel in space (complete with a haunted house in the form of a space station), Mutiny at Vesta is a nested, layered series of capers in which Adda and Iridian work with limited resources and the pressure of time and other people’s competing priorities to pull off the damn-near impossible. There’s a real joy in watching the solidity of their relationship, their commitment to each other ... Stearns writes measured, tense, and intense space opera, filled with a diverse selection of believable characters. I really enjoyed this book. Adda and Iridian are a lot of fun to read about. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of their adventures.
MixedTor.comRichard Baker’s Restless Lightning...is a cut above thoughtless imperialism, but to be honest, it isn’t precisely what I was hoping for out of military science fiction or space opera ... though Baker at least acknowledges the existence of queer people, one might look in vain for named queer characters...Restless Lightning provides additional evidence that however Baker intends to develop his Sikander Singh North books, they seem set to continue in this pattern ... This is a readable military romp of a novel. It suffers, however, from Baker’s lack of vision in terms of worldbuilding—this is a decidedly bland and familiar future—and from his decidedly middling gifts with character ... although it’s light and mostly enjoyable, it never succeeds in giving rise to a coherent thematic argument, or in becoming more than the sum of its parts.
RaveTor.comAn astonishingly accomplished debut, set in a richly realised world. ... Suri’s character work in this novel is top-notch, a reward and a delight to read. ... Deftly written, compelling, and brilliantly full of heart, Empire of Sand is a very promising opening to Tasha Suri’s career. I’m really looking forward to what she does next.
PositiveTor.comPromising ... feels one part thriller, one part procedural, and one part professional coming-of-age for its viewpoint character. Bolender writes action very well, building tension into every escalating encounter with infestations ... a fast-paced, exciting ride. And an entertaining one. I enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Bolender does next.
PositiveTor.comPeter Grant’s London has depth, breadth, and a complex array of recurring characters ... Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant has a distinctive voice, one that makes even the bureaucracy of regular police work engaging and compelling ... a tense, compelling police procedural with magic. As usual, Grant’s voice is striking, and the action gripping and intense. But while Lies Sleeping is generally well-paced, the pacing slacks off towards the climax, when Grant is temporarily taken out of play by his adversaries. This diminution of forward momentum at a crucial moment makes the climactic scenes feel somewhat rushed, a hasty—if explosive—conclusion to a dependably enjoyable story ... reliably entertaining.
RaveLocusIt’s always a treat to read a Martha Wells story, and it turns out that her Murderbot Diaries are an especial delight ... Artificial Condition is a story that balances its disparate elements with exceptional skill. It’s perfectly paced, and Wells brings both a strong sense of humour and deep pathos to Murderbot’s character and to their voice ... There’s plenty of cool shit in this space operatic future, and Wells makes excellent use of the varied potential of her setting for different sorts of stories ... Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol are tight, tense, entertaining adventure stories that nonetheless have quite a lot to say about ethics, power, and personhood. I recommend them wholeheartedly.
Pyun Hye-young, Trans. by Sora Kim-Russell
PanTor\"The extent to which award-winning Korean novelist Hye-Young Pyun’s City of Ash and Red is science fictional is entirely debatable. You can read it as science fiction, perhaps. But it’s a very literary sort of science fiction ... I disliked it intensely ... The reason I didn’t realise this at the beginning was because I was reading it through the lens of speculative fiction: I was waiting for the SFnal reveal, or the extra-human layer of horror. Neither of which ever came, and I gradually came to understand it never would. Instead, this is a novel in which we slowly discover that the main character—who initially comes across as hapless, victimised, lost and out of his element—is, in fact, a really shitty human. That’s… pretty much it. An examination of human anomie and the banality of evil, really. I don’t find the banality of evil all that exciting.
PositiveTor.com...a fast, tense, pacy, interesting book ... It reminds me a little of Elizabeth Bear’s Jenny Casey trilogy, and a little, too, of Ian McDonald. It’s not really into soft edges ... Thompson is a talented writer with a gift for voice and characterisation ... Rosewater’s narrative hops back and forth across the decades—the 2040s, the 2050s, and 2066. Gradually, it builds up a picture of Kaaro and his world ... Thompson is a talented writer with a gift for voice and characterisation. Our protagonist, Kaaro, is Rosewater’s narrator, and his first-person account is full of personality. Thompson makes him a concrete individual with a definite presence ... pretty damn good.
RaveTor.comMurderbot novellas are usually a joy to read. Exit Strategy becomes even more of a joy to read in the emotional climax and dénouement ... This is a fast, fun, and funny novella that, at its heart, is about personhood, independence, and selfhood: about autonomy, trust, and kindness, as well as anxiety, frustration, and anger. At its heart, Exit Strategy is a kind story, and a hopeful one. I deeply enjoyed it. I heartily recommend the entire Murderbot Diaries series.
RaveTor.comZero Sum Game is a fast, hard-hitting, gonzo superpowered thriller. Huang builds tension scene-on-scene, skillfully manipulating the pace, and every second chapter feels like a cliffhanger ... Zero Sum Game is enormously fun, with vivid, visceral action scenes and a main character who’s definitely on the darker, more scuffed end of the \'moral shades of grey\' spectrum. Huang’s taken liberal inspiration from old-fashioned noir as well as from superhero stories and the modern high-octane Hollywood-esque thriller to create a novel that’s a souped-up blend of all three. I really enjoyed it. I recommend it, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of Huang’s work reach a wider audience.
PanTor.comThe Sisters of the Winter Wood has a promising premise and a compelling setting. I wish I could have enjoyed it more. Unfortunately, a couple of things stood in the way of my wholehearted enjoyment. The novel’s viewpoint alternates between the two sisters, with a narrative recounted in the first person, but while Liba’s section of the book is recounted in prose, Laya’s is told in … honestly, I don’t know? I suspect the author believes it to be prose poetry of approximately six to eight words per line with randomly inserted mid-sentence line-breaks ... It induced in me first teeth-grinding impatience, then growing snark, then a throbbing headache, and finally overwhelming despair.
PositiveTor.comThe Stars Now Unclaimed uses short, sharp chapters, its style reminiscent of a thriller. This works very effectively, because the action leaps forward: tense and well-paced, with just enough breathing room that the narrative never feels forced or overstuffed. The characterization is solid, sometimes intense, definitely believable. Jane is a compelling character, and Esa—well, Esa’s very much a teenager, and an engaging one at that. Williams builds the stakes all the way to an explosive climax and a very satisfying conclusion. I’m a little disappointed that it’s possible to read all the characters as straight, and also a little disappointed that Williams doesn’t show us a wider range of cultures, because space opera has great potential for playfulness and inventiveness around culture and norms. But this is a strikingly entertaining debut novel, an enjoyable space opera with military flair.
RaveLocus\"Latchkey‘s prose is elegantly self-effacing: smooth, easy to read, and full of adroit turns of phrase. Kornher-Stace has a gift for creating atmosphere, from the familial closeness of Isabel’s small community of former upstarts in the Catchkeep-temple, to the ominous claustrophobia of the tunnels beneath Sweetwater, and into the hectic chaos and turmoil of battle. And underwriting every moment is a core of kindness, of compassion – of choosing a path away from cruelty, even when it’s hard: a core that makes this book, for all its darkness, somehow fundamentally uplifting. If I had to choose one word to describe this novel, it would be compelling: in its pacing, its characterisation, and even in its genre-blending approach to worldbuilding, it compels attention. I really enjoyed Latchkey. I can’t recommend it, and Archivist Wasp, highly enough.\
MixedTorThe Furnace is written by Prentis Rollins, whose bio outs him as a 25-year veteran of the comics industry. Rollins is an illustrator by trade, and the art of The Furnace is all his doing. Art-wise, the book is visually very pleasing: the panels are cleanly laid out in a manner that makes the story’s progression easy to read and follow; the characters are visually distinct, the backgrounds full of life and movement. It’s very nice: the kind of quiet competence that doesn’t draw attention to itself and takes a long time to perfect ... The narrative, though. Unlike the art, the narrative is not particularly impressive. Not, at least, to me. It feels shallow, reductive, and self-indulgent, without a real emotional arc: the narrative of a flawed man wallowing in his moral failures because he doesn’t have the strength to accept them and move on ... As a story, it’s shallow. Its conclusion offers a sense of redemption, but it’s unearned redemption. It feels self-indulgent, and it leaves me equal parts annoyed and enraged ... I really can’t recommend The Furnace. But I suspect it will appeal to people who can see themselves in Honderich and his choices, and who have more sympathy for his self-indulgent self-flagellation and its effects on the people around him than I do.
S M Stirling
MixedLocus MagazineBlack Chamber is a rattlingly good spy thriller set in an alternate First World War; unfortunately its political background [is unsettling as the main plot] ... Stirling’s written a fast-paced, hectic adventure of a thriller. I wish the alternate history he set it in didn’t leave me so uneasy: it’s all fine and well for Americans to enjoy the fantasy of a history where their nation is even more dominant than it already was, but empires are painful, messy things, and some of us come from places where the effects of them are living memory. I wish I could enjoy this novel wholeheartedly.
Yoon Ha Lee
RaveThe LocusYoon Ha Lee’s (excellent) Machineries of Empire trilogy...is an untraditional sort of trilogy: while all of the volumes continue the same story, they do so with different approaches and different major characters ... where Ninefox Gambit, the first book, focused on Kel Cheris, a mathematically talented military officer in the autocracy known as the hexarchate, Raven Stratagem, the second book, involved a much wider cast of characters and never returned to Cheris’s viewpoint. ...Revenant Gun takes place a decade later, after Cheris’s success in her goal of overthrowing the hexarchate. Well, mostly success ... Revenant Gun is a fast, gripping story. Its shifting viewpoints – all seeing some part of the picture, none with a complete view or good insight into other people’s motivations – and potential for betrayals make it feel complex and demanding. At base, though, it’s a thriller crossed with a story about learning to live with consequences you didn’t choose ... I really enjoyed Revenant Gun, and I sincerely hope that Lee has the opportunity to write many more novels. This is excellent space opera, and I wish there were more like it.
RaveToran epic fantasy story told in a single volume. A single relatively compact volume, in epic fantasy terms... Carey’s characters feel real and alive, and her world is lush and well-realised. This is an excellent novel. I recommend it.
PositiveTor.comTime Was is a beautifully written piece of work, full of pathos and engaged in a slantwise dialogue with the power of words to affect and to endure, richly characterised and elegantly structured as so much of McDonald’s work is—but it still leaves me oddly cold. Cold, too, because one of the themes running through it is the tension between connection and loneliness, and Time Was concludes on tragedy revealed and on an immanent dislocation. It feels like a conclusion that presents connection as precarious and fleeting, loss as inevitable: a conclusion in keeping with Time Was’s melancholic mood, but not the emotional experience I really prefer. That said, it is very well put together, and gorgeously written.
Raymond A. Villareal
PanTor.comI wish I could say otherwise, but it really isn’t all that good. It sounds like it should be good—it sounds like it could be World War Z but with vampires—but in reality, it’s an overambitious mess without anything like a narrative arc, and filled with characters who are at best shallow caricatures of real people and at worst are unmitigated cardboard cutouts around which the author hangs incidents that in other hands might actually feel like they mean something, but here are just one damn thing after another ... it’s hard to be properly scathing about something so deeply mediocre.
R. F. Kuang
PositiveTorAs it stands, The Poppy War is definitely in dialogue with this tradition, but standing slightly apart from it: it flirts with the nihilistic cynicism of the grimdark tradition without quite committing to it, and holds out hope for things to become either better or worse in the sequel ... The Poppy War is a complex, sprawling, ambitious novel, part coming of age and part tragedy of power, that uses motifs and influences from the 20th century ... I feel ambivalent about whether or not it has succeeded in its ambitions, but Kuang is certainly a voice to watch.
MixedTor.comThe Queens of Innis Lear is an atmospheric novel, well-written and well-characterised. Its prose is clear and elegant. But it’s long, and its measured pacing builds to the futile, inevitable destruction of most of its characters’ hopes. I found myself increasing discouraged by the act of reading about people making poor choices out of a lack of compassion or willingness to compromise, or out of pain—for this describes several of the characters. Ultimately, I can’t say that I liked The Queens of Innis Lear, as a novel. But it’s still an interesting work.
PositiveTor.comThis is a fine, measured novel, deeply interested in the social conditions and conventions of its setting, and deeply interested, too, in human nature and human frailty ... This is an interesting book, a meditation on human nature and human nurture ... Readers who have low tolerance for unreliable narrators and self-absorbed men may find Pride and Prometheus an unrewarding read. But it is a measured and compelling narrative, and one that interrogates its influences from interesting angles. I enjoyed it. You might, too.
PositiveTor.comFor all its ambition, Semiosis is a fairly slender volume. It’s also an easy read, and a pretty compelling one ... There’s a deep vein of kindness running through Semiosis, an understated understanding for the weaknesses and flaws of all sentient beings ... Each of Burke’s characters come to life as individuals: she has an excellent grasp of voice and characterisation ... I do feel that Semiosis would be a stronger book if at least one of the five major human viewpoint characters had not come across as a cisgender straight person: a future attempted-utopian society where there are no prominent queer people rather strains at my disbelief.
RaveTorIt is difficult for me to write this review without simply gushing READ THIS NOW. (But seriously: read this now) ... every bit as good as her previous work and very different in theme, tone, and approach ... Part coming-of-age story, part murder mystery, part political thriller, and part exploration of questions of memory, meaning, and cultural identity as represented by physical relics of the past, Provenance is an extraordinarily good book. Tightly paced and brilliantly characterised—as one might expect from Leckie—with engaging prose and a deeply interesting set of complicated intersecting cultures, it is a book that I loved, and one that I expect to read again.
John Crowley, Illustrated by Melody Newcomb
PanTorKa: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr is the most baffling novel I can remember reading. At the prose level, it’s beautiful. Thematically, it seems to be a story about stories and, perhaps, also about death: about change and changelessness. Maybe. I’m not sure. That uncertainty is not a productive tension ... we have a leisurely ramble through myth-making and the lives of Crows. (Crowley’s crows are believably corvid.) But across the novel’s sections—and there are several chronologically distinct ones—it was difficult for me to find any sort of unifying idea to bring the project of the book into focus. The hazy meandering is a pleasure in itself for a time, but after a while, the accumulated But what? Why? …Is this trying to say something in particular? grows heavy. In the end, I can’t find enough purchase here to form a strong conclusion about what Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr is doing, or to whom it will appeal. It seems to me to veer between the facile and the deep, and its persist refusal to commit to having an argument, or at least making its thematic argument visible, making its structure less paradoxically open-ended and circular at once, is a trait that annoys me to bits.
PositiveTorWhen it comes to setting, I’m far from a Norse specialist, but The Half-Drowned King feels like solid historical fantasy. Its physicality works, though Hartsuyker feels much more interested in the masculine world of battles and kings than the traditionally feminine one of weaving and children. Although it tries to interrogate issues of womanhood, marriage, power and autonomy, it largely falls short. Look, The Half-Drowned King isn’t a bad book. But, reading it, I found myself comparing it to Nicola Griffith’s Hild, a novel similarly set in pre-medieval times...The Half-Drowned King comes off poorly in comparison ... [it] is entertaining and vivid, but it lacks depth and the kind of characterisation that makes me really invest in a novel.
Ed. by Mahvesh Murad & Jared Shurin
PositiveTorTheir love for this work shines through in the care with which they’ve selected and arranged the stories ... Any anthology is going to have its standouts. And its duds. For me, there are only two stories in The Djinn Falls in Love that fall flat ... But there are numerous outstanding stories here. Kamila Shamsie’s 'The Congregation' opens the collection on a strong and striking note. J.Y. Yang’s 'Glass Lights' is a bittersweet story of wishes and loneliness, and a woman who can make others’ wishes come true, but not her own. (It’s gorgeously written.) Saad Z. Hossein’s 'Bring Your Own Spoon' is an affecting, uplifting story of friendship, fellowship, and food in a dystopian future ... I really enjoyed this anthology. It is—here’s that word again—gorgeous. Its individual stories are mostly really good, and it has a strong sense of itself as a whole. This thematic coherence adds an extra element to the anthology as a whole: not just the individual stories, but their arrangement and relation to each other, have something to say.
PositiveTorEverfair is an incredibly ambitious, fascinating novel. Words like 'complex' and 'multifaceted' are appropriate; sprawling and dense ... It’s a gorgeous, complex, thinky novel, engaged with meaty themes. But it requires patience and a little effort on the reader’s part, and it offers no easy conclusion. I suspect it won’t quite be to everyone‘s taste.