A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs

princess of mars cover

“I am a very old man; how old I do not know.”

I have mixed feelings about classic sci-fi. It’s good to know the roots of your favourite genre, but it doesn’t always age so well. The Barsoom books, however, can be taken more as adventure stories that happen to be set on a fantasy version of Mars that might as well be Narnia. There’s an indulgence to stories from what seems like a simpler time, maybe a slightly patronising tone to the reading that lets you nod and play along and just enjoy the lack of complication.

John Carter is a Virginian gentleman and veteran of the American Civil War, who stumbles into a mysterious cave and wakes up on another planet. He’s promptly captured by the warmongering Tharks, the so-called ‘green men of Mars’. To say there’s a large amount of the Mary Sue to Carter would be an understatement. The lower planetary gravity gives him super strength and he easily beats many of the larger warriors, earning himself a stay of execution. He then picks up the language in about twenty minutes flat, before falling in love with a captured princess from the other of Mars’ main species, the ‘reds’.

The pace of this story is lightning. There’s little dwelling on anything, and big events happen in a sentence. That’s part of the appeal, really: it’s simple but it keeps moving so fast that if you can let go it provides a light distraction. Alas, it can also seem a little unsatisfying for the same reasons, plus the fact that you just know (the other) JC can never really lose…

Except, there’s a framing tale. Carter is telling his story – perhaps it’d be nice to think of them as an old man’s tall tales? – and not quite everything goes to plan. That’s why there are ten sequels, I suppose 😉

I’m glad I read this. It doesn’t feel like high literature, but it is one of the classics from its time, and despite its many flaws for a modern audience there’s a lot to like here. Definitely not sci-fi, but as a boys’ own kind of adventure, it’s quite fun.

As a final note, if – like me – your main knowledge of this comes from the somewhat disappointing movie, John Carter (2012), it’s clear to see both how much they had to leave out, and how much better the story is with just that bit more meat and context.

eBook: 202 pages / 28 chapters
First published: 1912
Series: Barsoom book 1
Read from 12th April -10th May 2020

My rating: 7/10

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

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

The Last Emperox – John Scalzi

last emperox cover

“The funny thing was, Ghreni Nohamapetan, the acting Duke of End, actually saw the surface-to-air missile that slammed into his aircar a second before it hit.”

Well, that was a rollercoaster ride – I *loved* it! 🙂

The first book of the Interdependency, The Collapsing Empire, was one of my best NetGalley ‘finds’. It surprised and delighted me, and I’ve been looking forward to continuing to the end of the trilogy while at the same time a bit sad that it’s over.

Usual warning – if you haven’t read the first two books, put this review down and go start at the beginning before talking about the third book gives earlier plot spoilers!

The full scale of the catastrophe of the collapsing flows is now a reality for Emperox Grayland II, but her attempts to save billions of lives is distracted by repeated assassination attempts. Can she best the scheming Nadashe Nohamapetan? Can science beat the end of this amazing civilisation spread across galaxies of space habitats?

Really, it was just a joy to be back in this universe and catching up with all the characters, but with the added bonus of bringing all those threads of story together. I loved the character arcs for Cardenia, and was delighted that Kiva – my favourite foulmouthed hedonist – got a bigger part again after being very slightly sidelined in book 2. And it’s fabulous to see morally corrupt characters that aren’t just pantomime baddies – but I’ll leave it to the reader to find out if any of them get their just comeuppance! 😉

Alongside the fun, though, I did think there was something quite timely about this book. Collapse of civilisation, you say? Characters willing to see billions die as long as they can still turn a profit? I mean… ouch o.O

This was just the perfect end to a brilliant series. There is SO much fun, but also a lot of heart – I dare you not to be ‘hit in the feels’ by at least one part. Very recommended – as long as you can cope with the swearing 😉

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 24 chapters
First published: 16th April 2020
Series: Interdependency book 3
Read from 26th March – 5th April 2020

My rating: 9/10 – being miserly with that last point, as feel like I could have spent another trilogy in this world, exploring!

Made to Order: Robots and Revolution – various

made to order cover

“Robot: a machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions automatically.”

Robots and automatons are a staple of science fiction, but in the age of AI, internet, and virtual reality, it’s nice to get an updated take (or several) on the sub-genre.

My only complaint about this collection is that sci-fi (and fantasy) is a difficult genre to do justice to in short story format. There’s not enough space for world building, so the writers have to either take shortcuts – use a familiar-ish kind of setting – or as sadly too often happens here, leave the reader a little frustrated with the brevity of the whole thing. But hey: wanting more isn’t the worst complaint! 🙂

My favourite of the lot is Peter Hamilton’s Sonnie’s Union, in which humans can pilot fearsome biomech units – a bit Avatar, a bit Real Steel, all brought together perfectly. I was amused by what I assume is an in-joke, having the baddy a Welshman called Alastair (Reynolds?) 😉 I also very much liked Fairy Tales for Robots, which briefly looks at a dozen familiar stories and points out the ‘robot-ness’ of them.

There’s a huge variety of approaches taken across the sixteen tales. From the light-hearted ice-skating robot, to the extremely dark, including mistreated child robots, the horror of video surveillance from the watcher’s point of view, and even a take on religion – wasn’t entirely sure about that last one, tbh, might skirt a little close to … something ‘hmm’.

Different tales are told from the robot/AI’s POV, or a human’s, and there’s even a second-person POV that feels like a video game, with a very dark twist.

Overall, it’s a fun and intriguing mix. As I said, perhaps a little frustrating to only get little slivers of the better stories, and if I’m being honest not many really jumped out and wowed me, but still a decent collection and worth dipping into.

Collection curated by Jonathan Strahan, containing:

  • A Glossary of Radicalization – Brooke Bolander
  • Dancing with Death – John Chu
  • Brother Rifle – Daryl Gregory
  • Sonnie’s Union – Peter F Hamilton
  • The Endless – Saad Z Hossain
  • An Elephant Never Forgets – Rich Larson
  • Idols – Ken Liu
  • Sin Eater – Ian R MacLeod
  • The Translator – Annalee Newitz
  • The Hurt Pattern – Tochi Onyebuchi
  • Chiaroscuro in Red – Suzanne Palmer
  • Bigger Fish – Sarah Pinkster
  • A Guide for Working Breeds – Vina Jie-Min Prasad
  • Polished Performance – Alastair Reynolds
  • Fairy Tales for Robots – Sofia Samatar
  • Test 4 Echo – Peter Watts

NetGalley eARC: 273 pages / 16 short stories
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 22nd February – 15th March 2020

My rating: 7/10

Bone Silence – Alastair Reynolds

bone silence cover

“It had begun as a distant glimmering dot; now it was unmistakably a world.”

Following on from Revenger and Shadow Captain, we rejoin the Ness sisters in the final part of the trilogy. Usual warning that merely mentioning characters in the third instalment could be spoilers for who survives the first two, etc.

Fura and Adrana ran away from home, have survived horrors, and now are in charge of their own ship and free to pursue the questions that haunt them: what are quoins, really – seemingly more than mere currency. And why do Occupations (re-populating the solar system) happen with the odd irregularity that they do – is something responsible for starting them… or, ending them?

But the rest of the Congregation seems intent on blaming the Nesses for crimes they didn’t commit. Answers might prove a harder fight than they want…

From the get-go, I’ve enjoyed these books but not in the same way as Alastair Reynolds’ other, less-YA, work. The story is interest rather than gripping, the characters not entirely involving, somehow. Perhaps because the narration has shifted once again, from Fura in book one and Adrana in book two, we now get a third person narrative, highly necessary as the stories diverge.

Still, there was no way I wasn’t going to finish the trilogy, and hopefully get some answers. And we do, and they aren’t bad, and yet I didn’t feel entirely satisfied somehow. One ‘reveal’, about the alien race of Clackers, seems accepted by all based on evidence I wasn’t sure might not have meant something else – at least enough to provoke at least one character to questions? And on the bigger mysteries, we’ve scratched a surface but there’s clearly much, much more going on – and that’s almost more infuriating than knowing nothing.

It’s well-written, I don’t regret picking up the series, but tbh I’m not entirely sure I’d recommend it. Go read Revelation Space instead!

Hardback: 602 pages / 33 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: Revenger book 3 (of 3)
Read from 12th February – 8th March 2020

My rating: 6.5/10

Behind the Sun, Above the Moon – various

behind the sun cover

“In the beginning, before Humans had claimed the stars as their own, they held hands as they watched lights streak across the sky and called it Magic.”

This is a collection of nine short sci-fi stories, each with an LGBTQ slant. I’ve always thought, given the level of fantastical imagination in the genre, it feels odd to stick to ‘he’ and ‘she’ and things that were considered ‘normal’ 50 years ago o.O So yes, we have a princess marrying not just one but two women, a non-binary witch falling for a star, and pronouns from ‘they’ to ‘xie’.

Each story does come with content warnings, for violence or body horror, etc. To be honest, the BDSM and web-cam prostitution-y stuff added very little for me to the respective stories (Weave the DarkLost/Found), and I found these the weakest in the collection probably because of that. Still, the magic system in Weave the Dark was intriguing.

For the rest, my only issue was the usual one with a good short story: I want more! There are so many fascinating worlds into which we are giving the briefest of tantalising glimpses. I could easily see longer works in the universes of Ink and Stars – where tattoos are used as a form of magic – or From Dusk to Dying Sun, which has such a great atmosphere – a bit X-Files, a lot weird, somehow quite chilling. Twice-Spent Comet has a different take on a futuristic penal system, with inmates used to mine asteroids. The plot didn’t grab me quite as much as the world-building, however, and is the first of several tales here that is about a relationship with a star – as in, a celestial being, not a famous person!

Awry with Dandelions is almost more fantasy than sci-fi, and was a nice change of pace. The main character finds themselves linked to another person, a continent away, every night and sometimes during the day, but only for 30 seconds or so at a time – enough to be horribly disruptive but not long enough to do anything useful with.

A few stories reminded me of other things. Horologium updates a classic – I won’t spoil it! – while Death Marked could almost have been a (Iain M Banks) Culture story (which is high praise!).

Overall, this is a strong collection of short work. Not all of them appealed to me as much as the rest, but that’s the beauty of short stories – there’s something for everyone! And absolutely no shortage of fascinating ideas here, well told.

Contents:

  1. Twice-Spent Comet – Ziggy Schutz
  2. From Dusk to Dying Sun – Paige S Allen
  3. Lost/Found – Brooklyn Ray
  4. Awry with Dandelions – J S Fields
  5. The Far Touch – S R Jones
  6. Ink and Stars – Alex Harrow
  7. Horologium – Emmett Nahil
  8. Death Marked – Sara Codair
  9. Weave the Dark, Weave the Light – Anna Zabo

NetGalley eARC: 329 pages / 9 short stories
First published: 17 Feb 2020
Series: none
Read from 10th-16th February 2020

My rating: 8/10