Firewalkers – Adrian Tchaikovsky

firewalkers cover

“The Masserey-Van Bults were coming in all the dry way down the Ogooue Road, and, as Hotep would say, there was much rejoicing.”

In a not-so-distant future, the Earth has become a scorched hell zone. The very rich have escaped to orbiting habitats, accessed by space elevators. At the base of each, service townships (Ankara – not the Turkish capital, to save you my confusion!) have sprung up, populated by the likes of Mao. Mao is a young Firewalker – someone who will head out to the sunstruck wastes to fix the solar panels and tech that keeps the Ankara viable. It’s a deadly job, but when his other option was facing the bugs of the protein farm…

Adrian Tchaikovsky has a thing for bugs, as his previous works have shown – slight trigger warning for that, I suppose, but I loathe wriggly things and coped just fine.

In this novella, he manages to create a highly believable world, a set of intriguing characters, and switch direction at least twice. The pace is almost a little too much, but it certainly keeps the interest! I did wonder if the use of slang and dialect was going to be irritating, but very quickly I settled into it and it adds plenty of atmosphere – another way to create this world in a truncated way.

Mao pulls in a couple of skilled friends to head out to discover why the power to the township is failing. We get a sense of their lives, the new ‘world order’, and the results of a couple of hundred years of continued climate change. The timing is so coincidental: young people heading into life-threatening danger, the only way they can scrape a living, to save the privileges of the super-rich.

I won’t spoil the huge twist in direction, but it wasn’t what I was expecting! It wasn’t what the group were expecting to find in the middle of a barren desert, either…!

As I said, there’s a lot packed in to a fairly short tale. Well worth the read, and all too relevant for our times, in many ways… let’s hope we don’t head quite the same way, eh?!

NetGalley eARC: 185 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 12th May 2020
Series: none
Read from 8th-12th May 2020

My rating: 8/10

Dolor’s Legs – Frances Hardinge

dolor's legs cover

“A tale told by an old woman while she washed her clothes in a spring.”

Having just finished the wonderful Deeplight, it was lovely to pick up this short story set in the same world. It’s not linked to the events in the main book, but rather a little tale from the past involving one of the hideous sea gods, Dolor the many-legged. And oh, the explanation for the name is not what you might think!

It’s a very brief story, and to be honest I wasn’t sure it was anything other than ‘nice’ to read – until the sort-of twist at the end where suddenly it was a beast of a whole different colour! Much like the main book, it has a lot to say about human psychology, it just manages it in a few sentences after a bit of almost misdirecting background.

You don’t need to have read Deeplight (but it’s great, so why wouldn’t you?!), this would stand alone albeit without any context, but I think it’s meant more as a lovely bonus for those who have read and enjoyed the larger tale.

Wondering now if there’ll be more short stories, or a sequel – either would be great, based on this! 🙂

NetGalley eARC: short story
First published: 2020
Series: Deeplight
Read on 4th May 2020

My rating: 8/10

The Geeky Bartender Drinks – Cassandra Reeder

geeky bartender cover

“Since, well, birth, but more publicly since I started The Geeky Chef in 2008, my passion project has been making recipes for fictional or unusual foods from books, TV, movies, and games.”

I think I’ve just found my new favourite cocktail book! Inspired by geek culture, this features ‘potions’ and cocktails from a range of video games, books, and tv shows. For example, the author’s take on Shimmerwine as mentioned (just mentioned, briefly!) in Firefly. Or Giggle Juice from Fantastic Beasts. Romulan Ale, of course! Or just your generic red/blue/green potion from any number of games. Each recipe begins with a note about the inspiration, and the humour evident in these is worth the read by themselves.

I love love LOVE the presentation – the usual glasses, etc, but also flasks and potion bottles. The book opens with a set of tips and tricks to make the presentation really zing, from rimming the glass to actual ‘special effects’ (e.g. edible glitter), and the photography is excellent in capturing the sense of the magical about all of these.

Moonglow potion - purple liquid in potion flask

I hugely appreciate the approach, which is very much as simple as possible, not too many expensive bells and whistles. So, minimal required kit, and not too many outlandish ingredients – just outlandish inspiration! Sections are wonderful titled Magical Elixirs, Sci-Fi Spirits, etc, and a Comedic section that’s a bit less SFF. There’s even a set of non-alcoholic options, which are equally imaginative.

Much as I love cocktails, I’ve never felt quite so inspired. I soooo want to host my next board game night (yes, yes, I am a giant geek!) and impress everyone with some pretty concoctions. I think little inner 6-year-old me who sort of wanted to be a witch and make potions has found an outlet…!

Recommended – it’s huge amounts of fun and looks so good!

NetGalley eARC: 160 pages / 10 sections
First published: 5th May 2020
Series: related to the Geeky Chef cook books
Read in April 2020

My rating: 8/10

Locke and Key (season 1)

locke and key poster

When their father is murdered, the three Locke siblings and their mother move back to his childhood home. For some mysterious reason, he’d never taken them to see their ancestral seat, but lost and grieving, the family grab at the chance to learn anything about him. And Keyhouse – the family obviously enjoying a pun or two – is a huge and intriguing place.

Oh yes, and it’s also hiding literal keys – magical keys that unlock various amazing powers. But the Lockes can’t just enjoy their new lives: someone – or something – wants those keys.

With everyone looking for more at-home entertainment in these lockdown days, if you’ve not tried this already I recommend giving it a go. I was curious; it sounded just my thing, but I worried about the ‘fantasy horror’ tag being heavy on the latter, and more about the main cast being teenagers and younger. Fears soon dispelled, though: it’s spooky rather than horrific, and the cast are all nice and un-annoying.

I’m very glad, as the story is well worth a look-see. Mysteries abound, about the house, about Mr Locke’s death, about the last time a group of Locke children experimented with the keys’ powers. Then there’s the sinister baddy, after the keys for their own nefarious purposes. It’s all drawn together to provide a massive ‘keep-watching’ reason.

Based on a comic book, there’s something quite computer game-y in the way the keys are hidden within other objects. Their various powers give rise to some pretty amazing visuals, too.

Recommended binge watching, and I’m delighted that there’s another series coming – even though we get a great ending, there’s so much more to explore.

First broadcast: January 2020 (Netflix UK)
Series: 1, with another announced
Episodes: 10 @ ~42 mins each

My rating: 8/10

The Witcher (season 1)

witcher poster

Welcome to a dark fantasy world of monsters and magic. Witchers, genetically modified  hunters of said monsters, are a dying breed. Here we follow some of the adventures of the legendary Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), also known as the White Wolf and the Butcher of Blaviken – we’ll find out why in an early episode.

I knew very little about this going in, never having played the hugely successful games or read the books. I did buy the written series on offer last year, but struggled to get into it – I thought it might help to read before viewing, but actually the visuals helped me get into the first novel (The Last Wish) more easily.

The visuals really are great. Production quality is high, the action is very well done, and the actors are good. Cavill in particular (a big fan of the games, apparently) gives a gruff menace that is still oddly accessible – there’s something relatable in his general responses of either “Hmm” or “F-” and very little in between! His almost unwilling friendship with Jaskier (Joey Batey) – which is translated to ‘Dandelion’ in the books, but left as is in the TV show – is fun, if underplayed compared to the first book.

A parallel thread tells us about Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), a hunchback sold into service with a group of sorceresses. I think her story could have done with a bit more time and background, but then probably so could the rest of the series.

If there’s any complain from me it’s that the story telling is a bit muddled. I don’t just mean the two or more timelines – not made particularly clear, especially as several characters don’t age – but which actually get enough little hints as to be quite ‘cool’. Having now read the first book I can see that they’re trying to half-mimic the short story, incidents in a life retold kind of approach, but it doesn’t quite work as well as I think they’d’ve liked. Motivations seem muddy at times, and several changes from the books (why Geralt was fishing, for an obscure non-spoilery example) don’t really seem to add much. I’m not sure things come together enough in the end to make the format wholly work, instead leaving me with a sense of “Well, what story were you actually trying to tell?”

Still. It was very watchable and enjoyable, and I’m looking forward to the second season – although given production has had to be halted due to the Covid-19 woes, it might be a while before we can next ‘Toss a coin to (our) Witcher…’ 🙂

First broadcast: December 2019
Series: 1 (with a second in production)
Episodes: 8 @ ~60 mins each

My rating: 8/10

Teen Writer’s Guide – Jennifer Jenkins

teen writers guide cover

Your road map to writing.

I know, I know – I haven’t been a teenager for rather a long time. But when it comes to writing advice, there’s a lot to be said about this kind of straightforward, no-nonsense approach. I might have double the years, but I got a lot from this.

Interspersed with lots of samples of her own writing, used to illustrate the topics, Jennifer Jenkins takes us on a trip from the idea stage to publishing, via characterisation, tension, world building, and more.

None of the advice is exactly ‘new’ or startling, but it’s very well presented. I particularly liked the chapter on dialogue – not just the nuts and bolts (e.g. where punctuation goes) but so many useful examples on mixing speech and action. I’ve been reading writing advice for a long time now, but this might be the best ‘show don’t tell’ guide I’ve stumbled across!

Kudos to the author for presenting the writing journey with as much humour and encouragement as well as useful tips. The target audience doesn’t mean it’s dumbed down, just missing a lot of superfluous waffle – I think a lot of adult wannabe writers will get just as much from this as kids!

NetGalley eARC: 143 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 24th March 2020
Series: none
Read from 2nd-22nd March 2020

My rating: 8/10

Rewritten – Tara Gilboy

rewritten cover

“The problem with real memories, Gracie thought, was that they had actually happened.”

I enjoyed 2018’s Unwritten, about a girl who discovers that she’s a character from a book, escaped into the real world with her parents, but now having ‘glimmers’ of the story written for her. I wasn’t wholly expecting a sequel, but it works: there’s still a lot of aftermath to deal with from such a revelation, and Gracie’s attempts at a normal life might not go as smoothly as she hoped.

Indeed, her ‘normal’ life is less happy than any of us would want, especially with the constant suspicion over her former ‘villain’ status. She’s not the only one: the author of Gracie’s book, Gertrude Winters, is appalled that her writing lead to such misery – and worried that her other, unpublished, stories might have similar consequences. And when Gracie flicks through some of the pages, it’s not just her own story she’s having glimmers about…

This was a nice, easy read, just what the current times call for. It’s still got its moments of darkness, but Gracie learns a lot about herself and her purpose, and about her friends. It’s perhaps a little heavy on her inner woes, with other characters appearing a little flat or pantomine-ish (Cassandra), but overall the story works well.

There were many hints that there could be further adventures for Gracie et al – I kept forgetting this was a children’s book, and quite short, and thus kept expecting her to go into one of the other stories. I’ll be looking out for those adventures!

NetGalley eARC: 200 pages / 22 chapters

First published: 7th April 2020
Series: Unwritten book 2
Read from 15th-20th March 2020

My rating: 8/10