Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit CoverSeries: Machineries of Empire, #1
First Published: 14th June, 2016
Genre: Military Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Cheris is a soldier who falls out of favour with the hexarchate, but she has a chance to redeem herself by winning back a fortress taken over by heretics. The catch is she has to work with Jedao, a general who slaughtered his own people for no apparent reason.

This is initially a difficult book. There are a lot of concepts introduced with no explanation. It’s worth persevering through the first chapters, as the terminology will fall into place. Until then, it can be a little confusing.

The worldbuilding centres on the idea of using calendars to control people. By making everyone follow the same calendar, with the same festivals and events, it manipulates reality. One result of this is battle formations can change how things work around the soldiers, rather than just providing the more traditional tactical advantages. This reality change also allows faster travel between planets, and helps maintain order across those distances.

Cheris gets in trouble because she calculates new formations based on the calendar of a group of heretics. This wins the battle, but it’s a little too close to heresy. Jedao also isn’t a stranger when it comes to unconventional tactics, given that he’s known for not losing battles, along with the one where he killed everyone on his own side. They make an interesting pair. Their different approaches sometimes clash, but they slowly come to appreciate each other’s strengths.

The siege of the fortress is a relatively slow affair. Cheris is constantly having to decide on acceptable losses, as no plan of action avoids all death. The focus is on tactics and managing resources, including gauging the reactions of the people under her command. As well as showing it from her perspective, there are parts from the viewpoints of other characters, including the troops sent to die. War is shown unflinchingly. There’s nothing glorious about victory. All it means is more bodies.

It’s a very political story. Outside of the task at hand, there’s more going on in the hexarchate as a whole. Issues from the past are impacting the present. The servitors, sentient robots used as servants, also have their own society and agenda. Everything feels very close to unravelling, with the situation at the fortress only being the start.

I have mixed feelings on how insanity is presented. I did like that it’s clearly a social construct. Insanity in the hexarchate means going against the brainwashing and the rigid social control. Jedao is considered mad simply because they don’t know why he acted as he did. However, it didn’t get away from associating violence with insanity.

Jedao is dyscalculic. This is revealed rather late on, so it’s handled very simplistically as dyscalculia meaning being bad at maths. It’s not actually possible to tell that someone is dyscalculic purely by looking at how well they do in exams, which is how it’s presented. It would have been good to mention it earlier, so it could be handled with a little more depth.

I liked the characters and the idea of mathematical manipulation of calendars. It’s a complex political story with some unique worldbuilding. But the ending got too dark for me. There’s a rape scene near the end, which I didn’t know about when I picked up the book. It’s also clear this is a setting where it’s a bad idea to get attached to characters and enjoy seeing their relationships develop, because ultimately, the chances of anyone surviving are slim. Which might be realistic, but I like to have that character connection in a series. Setting and story are not enough for me. For readers who like that darker edge, this may not be a problem.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

A Front Page Affair – Radha Vatsal

Front Page Affair CoverSeries: Kitty Weeks Mystery, #1
First Published: 1st May, 2016
Genre: Cozy Mystery / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Kitty Weeks is an apprentice reporter for the Ladies’ Page of a newspaper. Her first big assignment, to cover a party, turns into something more when someone is murdered.

The story is set in the USA during World War I. The period comes across clearly, and the series looks set to cover America’s entry into the war. There are a number of mysteries that come together in the book. I guessed the initial murderer quickly, but as there was more going on, there were still things to figure out.

The biggest issue was I didn’t connect with the main character. Kitty is from a wealthy family, which gives her the freedom to take on her dream job. She still faces issues from a newspaper editor who thinks women shouldn’t be reporters, though her biggest issue turns out to be herself. Kitty is the one who decides to skip off work for things that could have waited until later, or to go home early on a day when she was needed late. She simply assumed that if she did that, there’d be no consequences. When there are consequences, she’s shocked. Her first reaction is to assume those working class people around her, who do stay at work, were out to get her. Rather than not having a whole lot of choice because they can’t risk their income. This is why I empathised more with the people around Kitty than I did with her.

It’s uncomfortable to have the attitudes of the time laid on so thickly, without anything to balance it. For example, there are racist statements, but no prominent characters of those races. It touches on attitudes to gay people at the time, but the only gay character ends up dying tragically. People outside of the white upper class are lucky to get lines, and certainly don’t get a lot in the way of development.

It was also difficult to get through the non-fiction sections. There are quotes from books and articles, which slow the story down. All round, I found myself skimming a lot.

I didn’t hate the book. It’s competent. But those things meant I didn’t love it.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Rowanwood Curse – Elizabeth O’Connell

The Rowanwood Curse CoverSeries: Hal Bishop Mysteries, #1
First Published: 23rd January, 2016
Genre: Historical Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jem is the apprentice of his magician brother Hal, and is bored of the dull routine work they’ve been taking on. Then Hal is called to break a curse on Sir Jasper Pryce’s daughter. In order to break it, Hal must figure out who cast the curse and why.

The story is told by Jem as he aids Hal. It has a very Sherlock Holmes vibe, being set in a similar era with the companion of the genius sleuth as the one writing the story. That said, the relationship dynamics are different, as they’re brothers. As well as the case at hand, it explores some of the circumstances around their father’s death. Hal initially tries to keep those things from Jem, but does start to share before the end. It looks like that mystery will continue to be developed as the series progresses.

This is a world where magic was the major push in the industrial revolution. Spirits and elementals are bound into machines to make them function. Industrial magic is treated as a science, with formal teaching and rigid thinking about how it works. The result is local folktales and magical teachings are dismissed as superstition. Local wise women aren’t considered true magical practitioners, unlike the learned gentlemen who’ve studied it at academic institutions. I liked the handling of this aspect of the world, as it mirrors the real systematic bias against local knowledge. It’s also clear the bias is wrong. Hal realises there’s a lot the magical institutions don’t know, and the local yarbwoman has valuable information for the case.

It’s an interesting mystery, weaving in folklore with family secrets. The focus on understanding the curse is a twist on usual murder mystery formats.

I wasn’t comfortable with the handing of disability. All examples of mental illness are people who’ve been affected by magic. They’re possessed, cursed, or otherwise been driven mad by magic. It would have been nice to see a contrast to this, rather than having magically induced mental illness as the only sort that existed. There’s also a heavy layer of pity towards the idea of being disabled, and Jem is upset that people will think him an invalid for having to take medication (for his magic sensitivity). Sir Jasper is blind in one eye, but as that aspect is barely there, it’s not really a counterpoint to the idea that disability is the end, and caused by magic.

Overall, it was an entertaining story, and sets up some bigger mysteries for the future. It will appeal to people who like crossovers between mystery and historical fantasy.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]

Love, Lattes and Angel – Sandra Cox

Love, Lattes and Angel CoverSeries: Mutants, #3
First Published: 12th April, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Piper is a dolphin-human hybrid, called a dolph. She and her friends are on the run from the scientist who created the dolphs. Her friends include her human boyfriend Tyler, her baby daughter Angel, dolph siblings Joel and Amy, and her human grandfather. Angel was recently created in a lab, from Piper and Joel’s DNA, and seems to have many new abilities. They’ll have to deal with strange storms, voodoo, and love triangles. Note that though it’s generally a light book, there are some scenes of medical torture.

I like stories centred around oceans and mermaids, so I thought I’d give this one a try. Dolphin-human hybrids sounded as though they could be interesting, even with a mention of a love triangle (which isn’t my thing) and voodoo (often handled very badly) in the description. Sometimes I regret my choices.

It’s told from the alternating perspectives of Piper and Joel. The book is not well-written right from the start. It has confusing and awkward lines, dialogue that doesn’t sound real, and paper-thin characters. The opening makes little sense, as it has Joel waking up from having his tracking chip removed. But no one considered that taking off the suppressor he was wearing would lead the bad guys right to them. There’s no obvious reason why the suppressor couldn’t be kept near the chip at all times during surgery, except that the plot couldn’t happen if they were sensible.

So Piper, Joel and Angel need to get back to the others immediately, as the bad guys might be on the way. That means time to stop for a swim, which mainly seems to happen so Joel can admire Piper’s long legs, flat belly and perky breasts. That’s obviously more important than getting to safety.

Piper doesn’t get to make her own decisions about the love triangle (with Tyler and Joel). It’s all about what the men decide to do, not about what she decides. They decide if it’d be wrong for her to have a relationship with them. They decide when it’s over. Piper is often likened in the narrative to her daughter. They do the same things, get the same gifts from Joel, and he thinks of them together as his girls… but Piper is an adult and Angel is a child. Everyone seems to forget that Piper is not a child, and should be able to make her own decisions.

At one point, Piper does complain that a decision was made for her. But the narrative is quick to confirm she’s just being silly, as Joel knows best and is doing what’s right. Later, Piper thinks of herself as being female and irrational. Thank goodness she has some rational men around to guide her and save her from danger.

Angel is the perfect child. She doesn’t smell like vomit, never needs her nappies changed, and is always cooperative. She is the best dolph of them all, as she can speak as a baby, swim faster, is telepathic, and knows the languages of all living creatures. I was waiting for some crack, but she remains perfect in every way. I suppose she had to be, because it’s not like her parents were about to come up with a plan before rushing into certain death.

This is science fiction that doesn’t realise it’s not hard science, so keeps trying to explain things in ways that break the suspension of disbelief. More handwaving the details would have gone a long way, because the science is magic.

For example, having DNA from a certain species wouldn’t magically give someone the abilities of that species. Only having the traits the DNA codes for would do that. But in this book, dolphin DNA means they can swim faster, without any fins, flippers, webbed hands/feet or anything of that nature. When Angel can swim even faster, they think she must have some fish DNA that causes that. But still no outward physical swimming adaptations.

What dolphin DNA does give them is a blowhole and the ability to hold their breath for a long time. It also gives them eyes the colour of the ocean, hot model bodies, wonderful body scent, and beautiful voices. Because dolphins are known for all those things.

There’s also the discussion about dolphin telepathy. Saying that dolphins are telepathic, and therefore that’s why Angel is telepathic, is the sort of handwaving that goes on in science fiction. However, it actually says, “Dolphins can encode information with their echolocation and whistles. Some folks consider that telepathic.” I encode information in sounds from my vocal chords all the time, which I like to call having a language.

On to the part I was concerned about from the initial description: the voodoo. Molita is a vodou high priestess, who does various rituals for them. Angel, of course, is wiser than anyone who practises vodou and teaches Moilta better ways to do things. Later, there’s a conversation between the characters to explain to the reader about vodou. The whole thing is awkward, and full of the white characters thinking of it as dangerous dark magic and the like. There is at least some pushback that it’s a religion, but I wouldn’t call this a good example of vodou. It’s about on a level with the rest of the book.

Amy is barely there as a character, until she needs rescuing. One of the bad guys is described as albino, which reinforces the trope of albinistic people being inherently evil. Everyone falls in instalove. There are just so many points where I regretted thinking dolphin-human hybrids sounded fun.

Bad writing, worldbuilding and characterisation mean there’s not a lot going for this. I can see people reading it to boggle at the badness, but there’s not a lot else to recommend it. I did like the pet chicken.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Steamborn – Eric R. Asher

Steamborn CoverSeries: The Steamborn Series, #1
First Published: 29th November, 2015
Genre: Young Adult Steampunk / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jacob is a boy living in a walled city, under constant attack from giant invertebrates. When an attack devastates part of the city, he and his friends investigate the cause.

I read this because of my love of invertebrates. It’s a steampunk world where invertebrates can grow to giant sizes. There are knights who ride giant spiders, insects pulling carriages, and the threat from wild invertebrates coming over the walls. I liked that though the wild ones were dangerous, it wasn’t that invertebrates were evil. Predators will kill people because they hunt, but there were invertebrates who were tame, who were farmed for food, and so on.

It’s one of the few books that treat spiders as just another animal. As well as the giant ones people ride, there are large (several inches across) jumping spiders that live around the city. Not everyone likes them, but they’re mostly treated as harmless.

Class themes are important. Jacob is from a poor family, who live in the Lowlands. As well as generally struggling with money for food and medicine, the walls protecting the Lowlands aren’t as good. That means they’re at risk from attacks. The rich area of the city is at the highest point, with the best walls.

It touches on some disability issues, as amputees are common due to the attacks. Jacob gets to work making prosthetics for people. This also links to the past, when the city was at war with people who had very advanced steampunk cybernetics. Some as prosthetics for people who’d lost limbs, but also some who’d been turned into cyborg soldiers. This would have had more impact if someone in the main cast had been injured, rather than being something that happened to minor characters. Though dehumanizing people with these prosthetics was treated as a serious issue, it was all rather distant.

The characters weren’t particularly diverse. They were mainly men/boys. Though it’s claimed the people in the present of the story are a mixture of all the races of the old world, everyone looks rather white until a few characters at the end. They fit a lot of stock character types. The eccentric old inventor. The reckless young boy who’ll save the world. Alice, the only girl who really had a major role, was there as the sensible one who told Jacob off for being too reckless.

The result is I was a lot more interested in the world than the characters living in it. The history and the society built around giant invertebrates was fun to explore. The characters who did the exploring were not the major draw for me.

The book is a little heavy on capitalised new names for things, which often made it harder to understand rather than clarifying what things were. It’s also the first in an ongoing story. There’s some resolution at the end, but it’s more of a pause before continuing the larger narrative.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]