Sword and Star – Sunny Moraine

Series: Root Code, #3
First Published: 21st May, 2016
Genre: Space Opera / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Riptide / Anglerfish

The rebel fleet is recovering after a major battle, but more losses are to come. This puts a strain on Adam’s relationship with his husband Lochlan. Meanwhile, Sinder has a plan to get rid of the rebels and save the Protectorate.

The book is told from the perspectives of several characters, though Adam is presented as the main protagonist. Adam is a former member of the Protectorate. Lochlan is from the Bideshi, a group of space nomads. The rebels are made up of a mixture of both. Previously, Adam had been accepted by the Bideshi and trained by their Aalim (people with powers) to use his own powers.

The core of the story focuses on character relationships. A lot of time is spent recovering from attacks, with the tensions that arise when the initial rush of action is over. I liked the general idea of that, but I wish it hadn’t mainly been romantic relationships. Friendships and other family relationships were pushed to the side, such as someone’s children being conveniently absent and only mentioned in passing. It was that odd feeling of a community made up of a series of couples, rather than having a range of relationships.

I did like the political elements, as both sides have to make alliances and plan strategies. Sinder’s sections were particularly good for this, as it explores the ways he convinces himself the end justifies the means. He enlists the help of Julius, an exiled Bideshi, and tries to ignore that there might be very good reasons for the exile.

The worldbuilding had some elements with potential. Bideshi ships have a forest inside and an alien race appears briefly. Those things didn’t appear as more than background detail though.

The characters are various races, such as Lochlan and others of the Bideshi being black, though culturally things are pretty Western. The story of Abraham is told in detail and Western history is remembered. But other cultures are down to a few names and a forgotten statue. The main relationship is two men, though the other relationships are men and women. So there’s some diversity, but not perhaps as much as I’d hoped.

Some areas aren’t handled well at all. The Aalim are blind, which is connected to their abilities. It uses the common trope of them having magical sight. Their blindness was also constantly reinforced, in a way that felt very othering. The characters couldn’t appear without some reference to them being blind. Their eyes were blind eyes. When they looked at things, it was emphasised that they weren’t really looking, because they were blind.

Julius is albinistic. He’s described as having unnaturally pale skin, and that it’s disturbing when he’s dressed in white as that matches his skin. It could be argued this is from Sinder’s perspective, but the narrative also reinforces it as being true. Julius has supernatural abilities gained through violent means (some of which is shown graphically). He’s portrayed as an irredeemable monster. This falls into the stereotype of the evil albino, with a side helping of blaming his evil on insanity.

There were other things that didn’t work for me, like describing Adam using his abilities as though it was rape, Lochlan almost hitting Adam, and the general white saviour feel of Adam’s story.

It’s not a bad science fiction story. I liked the political parts and the interactions between the antagonists. It could appeal to someone who likes a strong focus on romantic relationships during difficult times. But the parts that didn’t work for me really didn’t, to the point of putting the book down for long periods.

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

An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables – Rose Lemberg (editor)

Alphabet of Embers CoverFirst Published: 6th July, 2016
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Anthology
Authors: Emily Stoddard; JY Yang; Sara Norja; Nin Harris; Greer Gilman; Kari Sperring; Mari Ness; Nisi Shawl; Zen Cho; Yoon Ha Lee; M. David Blake; Celeste Rita Baker; Alvaro Zinos-Amaro; Nolan Liebert; Mina Li; Shweta Narayan; Ian Muneshwar; Sheree Renée Thomas; Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali; Tlotlo Tsamaase; Sonya Taaffe; Emily Jiang; Ching-In Chen; Arkady Martine; Vajra Chandrasekera; Amal El-Mohtar; M Sereno
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Gumroad

This anthology focuses on short work with a poetic feel to the writing. A few of my favourite short pieces were included as reprints. There are interior illustrations by M Sereno, which are a good match for the feel of the language, with intricate patterns and flowing lines.

The first of my reprint favourites was “Absinthe Fish” (M. David Blake), about fish who swim in absinthe and dream. It’s as surreal as that premise sounds. “Single Entry” (Celeste Rita Baker) is more of a traditional narrative, as it follows someone with a unique carnival costume. “The Binding of Ming-tian” (Emily Jiang) is a rather chilling piece that deals with foot binding. All three have unusual imagery and went to places I hadn’t quite expected, but in a way that is accessible for me.

In the new stories, I did particularly like “The City Beneath the Sea” (Sara Norja). It combined the mysteries of the sea with folklore passed down through generations.

Generally though, I struggled with the stories. I can’t say what happened in all of them. The ones with very long paragraphs were hard for me to follow, as it meant I skipped lines and reread lines, before giving up on the paragraphs entirely. The language choices in some of the stories also meant I didn’t understand what I was reading. I started out fine with the first few stories, but by the time I got to the end, I felt I was constantly behind. I got very confused about what went with which story. It was all a bit of a blur.

This doesn’t mean that the anthology is bad, as I have language processing issues. Someone who has studied English to a higher level, or has more of a talent for language, will likely find this a far easier read and be able to enjoy the imagery. I am not that person, so I didn’t get as much out of this as I’d hoped.

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

Gone Home

Gone Home CoverDeveloper: The Fullbright Company
First Release: 15th August, 2013
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Length: Short
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Xbox One | Steam

Katie returns home after touring Europe, only to find the house is empty. She has to piece together where everyone has gone from the clues left behind.

Though Katie is the character controlled by the player, this is primarily about her sister Sam. Finding notes and other objects triggers journal entries, written as though they were letters to Katie. Sam is a teenaged lesbian in the 1990s, and her story touches on dealing with her parents and finding her place in the world. In addition, Katie finds out more about her parents and the previous owner of the house.

There aren’t really any puzzles in the game, as it’s focused on story and exploration. It doesn’t get more complicated than finding a combination to open a lock.

I enjoyed the story. The voice acting was good, and it avoided a lot of the negative tropes that come with lesbian characters. I was a bit surprised it wasn’t a horror game, based on the way it’d been described to me. This is firmly based in the reality of family relationships.

The atmosphere in the house is well done. Floorboards creak whilst a storm rages outside. These things are on random timers, giving them an organic feel. There’s attention to detail with the rooms, making sure they have the expected everyday objects. Each family member has their own style, which shows in the things they own. That said, the realism of the house also means there isn’t anything very surprising around the corner.

I grew up in the 1990s, but in a very different environment to Sam. The whole angle of the feminist punk movement was new to me. The game has music (on cassettes that can be played), fanzines and badges for the bands. The commentary mode includes some thoughts from Corin Tucker, the singer from Heavens to Betsy. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the commentary in general, so it’s worth playing a second time with it activated.

Accessibility is reasonable. The game has options to remove head movement, and has a crosshair in the centre by default. This helps reduce motion sickness issues. Subtitles and text overlays for notes are also options. There are a few flickering lights in places, but the flickers are short and don’t create a strong strobe effect.

This is an interesting game about growing up and relationships. The emotional narrative and attention to detail stood out as strengths. The short playtime could be an issue for gamers on a budget. There are themes of anti-gay prejudice in the main storyline, and child abuse is implied in the side narratives, though none of that is very graphic.

Texture Like Sun – Ils Greyhart

Texture Like Sun CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 21st March, 2016
Genre: Fantasy Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

Liang is a painter who can pull colours from the world around him. Xerxes is an incubus, who visits people’s dreams to feed off their sexual energy. When Xerxes visits Liang’s dreams, he’s confused. All Liang wants to do is give him a comfy sweater.

Liang has been kept a prisoner for several years while he finishes a large commission. The early part introduces that situation, along with his gift of making paints from nature. But the painting plotline fades into the background most of the time. It’s mainly about his discussions with Xerxes, until it’s time for him to escape. I can’t say much about the setting as a result. The person hiring Liang is described as a Sheik. The guards wear veils. Liang comes from a country to the Northeast. There’s not a whole lot more depth to the setting, as it’s mostly glossed over and not described.

The potential unfortunate implications of the setup are mainly avoided. Incubi don’t aim to kill people. They visit dreams, have consensual dream sex for the energy, and the person wakes up tired the next day. So Xerxes isn’t running around mass murdering when he’s not visiting Liang. Xerxes also doesn’t try to force his interest after the initial advances are rejected. Once he decides he’s going to keep visiting, he accepts that it’s not going to be sexual as part of the deal.

Using exact labels won’t always come up in a story, but it would have been a lot less convoluted in this case. They have a discussion where Xerxes says he’s an incubus and explains it. Liang vaguely refers to people like him and explains it. Labelling the incubus and not the asexual person came across oddly.

It was a premise with potential, but I don’t think it hit it. I’d have liked the painting plot to have more development, including a little more action in the escape scene. The relationship was generally as cute as dressing an incubus in a sweater so he doesn’t get cold suggests it will be. But the initial humour of that imagery isn’t enough to carry a whole story.

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

The Cybernetic Tea Shop – Meredith Katz

Cybernetic Tea Shop CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 14th March, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

Clara moves from place to place, with only Joanie (her Raise hummingbird) for company. Sal is a robot who runs a tea shop in memory of her owner. Then Clara pops into Sal’s place during her lunch break.

There’s some interesting worldbuilding in the story. Humanoid robots were banned from production, due to worries about them being able to learn and become full people. Instead, people have Raises – robotic animal companions who are intelligent and have personalities, but can’t learn and adapt the way a robot could. Robots like Sal are in a difficult place, where society doesn’t know quite what to do in terms of rights. Sal has outlived the company who made her, so spare parts are increasingly an issue, and her memory is failing.

The novella focuses on Clara, Sal and Joanie, giving space for their relationships to develop. I liked that Joanie really doesn’t change, because she’s not able to without being re-programmed, as a contrast to both Clara and Sal. In the case of the latter two, their first meeting isn’t perfect. Clara knows she shouldn’t treat Sal as a novelty, with all the being-an-object that implies, but does it anyway out of surprise. She also realises how hurtful that reaction would be to Sal.

They get over that initial awkwardness, and continue to get closer as Clara regularly visits the tea shop. Sometimes Clara brings Raises she’s repairing for work, and eventually Sal trusts her enough to do the needed repair work. Both have things they’re not ready to face. For Sal, it’s the obvious one of her owner’s death and continuing to run the tea shop because she always has. For Clara, her wandering is something she picked up due to growing up in a migrant worker family. They moved where the jobs were. Even though she doesn’t need to do that anymore, she moves from habit, rather than considering what she really wants.

It touches on issues of power imbalances in relationships. As much as Sal loved her owner, it doesn’t change that she was owned. Her owner’s name is coded into her, and that registration of an owner prevents her from being able to move on. Clara realises this isn’t something she should change without permission, but also that ownership is a problem. No one’s name should be in that field. As much as people may talk about belonging to each other in romances, it’s meant metaphorically, not as a literal thing that someone has no choice over.

This is an asexual romance. There’s some intimacy though cuddling, generally being close and Sal trusting Clara to work on her systems. There isn’t any sex, and the couple discuss that they’re not interested in that. It’s nice to see a focus on finding out what a partner is comfortable doing, rather than a focus on pressuring a partner to do things anyway.

What I didn’t find so believable was the social worldbuilding. Sal was several centuries old. Things might have advanced in robotics, but there weren’t really other signs that this society had gone through a few centuries. Things like gender roles and fashion were stuck much as they are today. I’d also have expected more impact from people having Raises, as social spaces would need a redesign to accommodate many people having a robotic pet.

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