Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice cover

“The body lay naked and facedown, a deathly gray, spatters of blood staining the snow around it.”

I’ve been hearing amazing things about this book and its sequels, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, for quite some time now. Me being me, it takes me a while to get ’round to things – but I’m rather glad I finally did!

Told from a first-person viewpoint, the unique selling point here is that the narrator isn’t exactly human: she’s an ‘ancillary’. It takes a little while before you find out what that means, but that’s okay. In the opening chapter, we meet her as Breq, a “piece of equipment, a part of the ship”, who has somehow gone from being a huge AI with hundreds of avatars and outlets to just one single, human, body.

Initially the story is divided into two separate timelines between alternating chapters. And so we have a ‘now’, with Breq, and at the same time begin to discover the events that have led to the more recent situation as well as the type of culture that has given rise to it all. Alongside that, there are hints of even older events, but as long as you pay a little attention (and if it helps: to whether you’re on an odd or even numbered chapter), it’s not too confusing.

Perhaps a little more confusing – and, deliberately so – is the default to a female pronoun. The AI and the Radch culture have little interest in gender, finding it puzzling how much store other societies place on it. For the modern Earth reader, it’s a purposeful challenge to see how calling everyone ‘she’ and then perhaps revealing them to be male forces us to face up to certain stereotypes. To be honest, I could be irritated at such obvious politics, but it actually works really well in adding to the ‘sci-fi’ strangeness of the story.

The story itself actually never quite reaches the dizzying scale of the world building, in my view, but it was still satisfying while at the same time leaving me more than keen to press on with the sequels. I also think it lends itself very well to future rereads, as there’s layers of depth here – just, wonderful!

Oh, and there are two prequel stories available to read online: Night’s Slow Poison, and She Commands Me and I Obey. Enjoy!

Kindle: 410 pages / 23 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: Imperial Radch book 1 (of 3)
Read from 5th-25th September 2017

My rating: 9/10

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Bryony and Roses – T Kingfisher

“She was going to die because of the rutabagas.”

Bryony may just have found herself trapped in a magical manor house with a surprisingly eloquent Beast, but if there’s one thing she’s not it’s a ‘beauty’. She is, however, a gardener, and as things in the House take ever darker turns it might just turn out to be far more useful to have skills over looks. Can she figure out what’s going on in an abode that creates dresses and gardening tools out of thin air, and which throws a strop if the other resident – the mysterious Beast – tries to answer any of her questions?

I’ve loved Ursula Vernon for years, following her from her time on the art site, Elfwood, to her own blog (recommended – it’s a lot of fun) and from artist to writer. One of her skills is telling gentle, fairy-tale-like stories that are somehow so much more. And, along the way, she’s done a few ‘retellings’ of classic fairy tales, like Bluebeard, The Snow Queen, and this version of Beauty and the Beast.

One of the strengths of all of these books is the sensible, no-nonsense heroine. Bryony reacts to the magical house and resident Beast in ways that seem much more likely than most fairy tales. And while the dangers faced are fantastical, the solidity of the garden (which the author knows more than enough about to have read very authentically) is a great counterpart.

Of the three retellings mentioned, this is my absolutely favourite – I absolutely loved it! Okay, there’s no talking hedgehog (always a great feature in a book!), but Bryony is so pragmatic and real and just had me rooting for her from the get-go – not to mention getting twitchy green fingers! The Beast, too, is rather more relatable than some other versions, particularly as his story very slowly reveals itself

The plot has a few subtle twists on the classic version, more than enough to keep interest, even had it been a much longer book. At around 200 pages, this is a perfectly sweet, lovely little volume which I recommend wholeheartedly.

Kindle: 216 pages / 33 chapters
First published: 2015
Series:  none (although could be loosely linked to The Raven and the Reindeer and The Seventh Bride fairytale retellings)
Read from 29th August – 1st September 2017

My rating: 10/10

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch

“It started at one thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the West Portico of St Paul’s at Covent Garden.”

I think it’s fair to say I’m always on the hunt for a ‘new Dresden Files‘, which is a terrible expectation to put on any book/series. I think, though, I might just have stumbled across something pretty close, with the added benefit of a droll British sense of humour 🙂

PC Peter Grant isn’t too happy that he’s about to graduate from ‘thief-taker’ training to a dull police clerical role, when an encounter with a strangely see-through witness at a murder scene propels him into a rather more secretive department. Yup, the London police force has a supernatural branch! It’s a bit less X-Files – well, okay, it’s a lot like the X-Files, come to think of it, given that it’s one rather strange bloke not taken all too seriously by his peers.

We follow Peter’s initiation into the ranks of magic while two cases require juggling: the inciting murder and a wave of violence that seems to spread out from it in a rather familiar kind of a pattern, and a bit of a disagreement between old Father Thames and sexy newcomer Mamma Thames. Yup, those ‘rivers of London’ have actual personifications, and they’re certainly not damp squibs!

I thought the two threads balanced each other wonderfully, and really allow for Peter’s role to start to form. The magic system is excellently introduced: not too powerful, definitely not easy, and with a down-to-earth approach to the big questions like, “Do magic and science interact?” (yes, not always well), and “Why are magic spells always in Latin?” (because the people who wrote them down were trying to sound clever, more or less ;)).

If there’s a single thing I’m not sure about it’s the sweeping statements about a culture not the author’s own (or mine, so my opinion isn’t hugely valid). As a wannabe writer I’m well aware of the need for diversity in books, but I do wonder a little at what point it veers dangerously close to stereotyping. This added just a mild discomfort for me at certain points, but your mileage may vary.

That said, I thought this was a brilliantly fun romp. Usually books so London-centric as to make the city a character are a bit of a turn off to me (as a non-Londoner Brit, it can be wearing!) but the author’s love of the city comes over well without all that centre-of-the-known-universe smugness. Just a lot of giggles, a bit more gore than I was expecting, and a well developed story. More, please – and oh, look: book 6 is just out. Excuse me while I go catch up 🙂

Kindle: 400 pages / 14 chapters
First published: 2011
Series: PC Peter Grant book 1
Read from 7th-15th November 2016

My rating: 8/10

Heart of Granite – James Barclay

“Max was woken by an insistent nagging at the back of his mind. It probably wasn’t important.”

The Heart of Granite is a behemoth: a kilometres-long lizard bio-engineered with alien DNA, genetically modified to allow thousands of people and smaller lizard species to live within its body (although all the mentions of seeping fluids make it a bit less appealing than, say, Farscape’s Moya).

Smaller lizards like drakes, that is. And by ‘drake’, I basically mean dragon 🙂

HoG is a story about dragon-riding fighter pilots; Top Gun meets Pern. Main character, Max Halloran, is every bit as cocky – more – than Maverick ever was, with the difference that he rides inside the chest-pouch of a fire-breathing lizard he controls with his mind, as part of the Inferno-X squad.

The story kicks in at high gear, mid-fight. To be honest, I found the high-octane opening a little too frantic and struggled slightly to get into the story – but only for a chapter or two, and then I was hooked!

The future has arrived and with it the land wars between the super-continent power structures, desperate to claim as much territory as possible. The war is a background to the story, though, which focuses instead on the more local politics of the HoG ‘mothership’, the excitement of being a drake pilot – and the reason it’s such a deadly, short-lived career.

Not because of fighting, or flying accidents, as you might expect, but rather because of ‘The Fall’: the moment the human mind no longer controls the drake, but merges too utterly into it…

Recommended as just out and out fun, for sci-fi fans who don’t need lengthy explanations of how alien DNA was found, or dragons bred (!), as much as a thrilling story about what happens afterwards 🙂

Kindle: 416 pages / 40 chapters
First published: 18th August 2016
Series: Blood & Fire, book 1
Read from 25th July – 5th August 2016

My rating: 8/10

A Gathering of Shadows – V.E. Schwab

“Delilah Bard had a way of finding trouble.”

*warning* purely by talking about certain characters in book 2, this contains vague spoilers for book 1, the very excellent A Darker Shade of Magic, so go read that first!

 

Picking up some four months after the events of ADSoM, AGoS finds our heroes still dealing with the consequences. Both are restless, in their own ways: Lila has found her ship, sort of, but four months is a long time to be settled, for her; Kell is faring badly himself, out of favour with the King and Queen despite his sacrifices, and feeling no longer part of the family as much as a prized – and imprisoned – possession.

These internal tensions are mirrored in Red London as it prepares for the Essen Tasch, the Element Games: a dozen champions each from London and its two neighbouring states, come to compete in a battle of magics. But the civilised nature of the games is a thin veneer over political unease – and as if that wasn’t enough, magic seems to be stirring once more in other worlds…

It was hugely wonderful to get to slip back into the world(s) of Kell and Lila, and to see them both having grown from the events of the previous book, struggling with new – but entirely fitting to their characters – issues. The world of Red London, too, is allowed to grow, placing Kell as the world’s last antari – blood magician – on a yet more precarious footing.

Despite this, the story feels more intimate, in a way, as the characters deal with more internal issues. Each seems driven towards their own destruction, making me want to jump up and down and shake them both by their necks…

… which is almost exactly how I felt towards the author, too, when the book ended on such a cliffhanger! Argh!! But, oh, what a glorious ride ’til that point – and what an agonizing wait for the final installment next year! I’d still recommend you read this – the language is lovely, the imagery just wonderful – and then reread the whole lot next spring!

“We will die one day, you and I.”
“And that doesn’t frighten you?”
“Not nearly as much as the idea of wasting a perfectly good life in fear of it.”

Kindle: 513 pages / 10 subdivided chapters
First published: 2016
Series: Shades of Magic book 2
Read from 13th-23rd June 2016

My rating: 8/10 – it’s losing a mark for the cliffhanger! 😉

Strange Library – Haruki Murakami

I’m a sucker for books about libraries and/or books, and this has the added appeal of being styled to look like a library book, with old-fashioned check-out card and stamped borrowing dates. When I discovered this was so short I simply sat down and read the whole lot in one sitting!

Strange Library is an odd, fable-like tale about a polite young man who finds that there are strange things going on in his local library. To say any more would be giving away too much of the plot, so I’ll leave it there!

The fairy-tale nature of the tale carries through to the rather horrible underlying premise, making the tale rather creepy. The cast of characters reminded me of a Guillermo del Toro movie, I think. I liked it, and am tempted to search out some longer work by the author, but to be honest very little of the story has truly stuck with me.

Kindle: 88 pages, including illustrations
First published: 2005
Series: none
Read on 29th December 2015

My rating: 6/10