Category Archives: eBooks

A Master of Djinn

Queer steampunk fantasy mystery set in early 1900s Egypt

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of a digital book cover of “A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark. The cover is of a silhouetted figure climbing ascending a staircase in an ornate building with blue and gold designs and cogs and gears hanging from the glass ceiling.

“A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark is a fantasy mystery novel with steampunk elements set in an alternate Cairo, Egypt in 1912. After the barrier between our world and the magical world was removed half a century earlier, countries have been trying to manage the influx of magical beings. In Egypt, where Djinn now live amongst people, Fatima is the youngest woman who works at the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Fuelled by confidence and a snappy style of dress, a new mystery soon has Fatma stumped. After members of a secret British society are murdered by someone claiming to be the very man they worship, Fatima must solve the crime before the tension in the city boils over and and all is lost. Meanwhile, she has an unwanted new partner at work and her hot and cold girlfriend is more than who she seems.

This is a fun novel that reimagines Cairo at the turn of the century in a new light. The introduction of magic and Djinn in the world shifts the international power dynamic and in Clark’s Egypt, the British have withdrawn early and colonialism is becoming a distant memory. Djinn and the mysterious Angels bring with them new technologies, which Clark shows off to great effect during some of the action scenes. Fatma is a great, imperfect character whose brilliance is tempered by her vanity and her stubbornness. I really enjoyed Fatma’s new partner Hadia, and their interactions were a really good comment on how scarcity of opportunity for women (or people who belong to any marginalised group) can force unfair competition, but also how valuable mentorship and camaraderie can be. I also really liked the romance. Clark explores what it means to come from more than one background, and how critical trust and safety is in a relationship. The Djinns as well were really well done and I thought Clark brought a lot of complexity and humanity to these new citizens of Cairo.

I think something to keep in mind is that the characters refer to events earlier one quite often, and I though perhaps he was setting the story up for a prequel. It turns out, he has actually written a short story set in the same world. While I don’t think you need to have read it to enjoy this story, given how often it is referred to it might help. Although set in a steampunk fantasy world, this is at heart a mystery and I probably would have liked it to be a little, well, mysterious. Clark introduces several red herrings and plenty of action, but ultimately I guessed the twist early.

A fast-paced and enjoyable novel with a lot of interesting social commentary if not a particularly surprising ending.

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The House in the Cerulean Sea

Queer urban fantasy romance

This was the set book for my most recent fantasy book club. Although I hadn’t heard of this author prior to reading the book, the author has had a number of books published recently and is generating quite a bit of hype for his novels.

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Image is of a digital book cover of “The House in the Cerulean Sea” by TJ Klune. The cover is of a two storey redbrick house perched precariously on a blocky, stylised cliff face over blue ocean with a sunrise behind.

“The House in the Cerulean Sea” by TJ Klune is a queer romantic urban fantasy novel about a public servant called Linus who works as a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. Linus spends his days in a toxic workplace writing reports about the compliance of special orphanages with child welfare standards and his evenings alone listening to records with a cat who doesn’t particularly like him. Linus’ life is lonely but predictable, and he is always careful to maintain clear boundaries between work and home. However, when he is called to attend a meeting with Extremely Upper Management, Linus soon finds himself auditing an institution so secret even he has never heard of it. He travels to Marsyas Island Orphanage and meets the enigmatic Arthur Parnassus and the peculiar children he is responsible for. As Linus gets to know them, it becomes harder and harder to remain objective.

The book club member who picked this book also picked “The Rook“, and it has been really interesting reading another example of a subgenre that I’m going to call bureaucratic fantasy. Most fantasy novels focus on war and overcoming evil, and it is kind of a nice change to read about the less exciting practicalities of how magic might be regulated in a more real world setting. It was also really refreshing to read a romance novel that gently unfolds without anything especially bad happening. This is a sweet novel with a strong message of belonging. Klune manages to maintain a sense of tension without ever causing the characters too much discomfort, which is honestly kind of a relief during these times. The kids were really fun and I particularly enjoyed Chauncey and his big dreams of becoming a bellhop.

There were only two things that jarred with me a little. One was that Linus’ world didn’t really have a clear, consistent internal logic. There are a mishmash of magical beings that seem to derive from different mythologies and belief systems without any of those belief systems actually being incorporated into the story. It’s not often that I would be calling for more exposition, but I did feel that the magic was more of a nod to the canon rather than well thought out itself. The other was that while I appreciated the sweetness of the story, there were a number of scenes that were just too saccharine for my liking.

A light-hearted story that is not particularly challenging but is satisfying nonetheless.

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Honeycomb

Novel of original and interrelated fairytales

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of a digital book cover of “Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess. The cover (which will be the cover for the Australian edition) is powder blue with text and a stencil design of roses, vines, honeycomb and bees in bronze.

“Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess is a novel made up of original fairytales. Many of the chapters are distinct stories in the form of fables and parables, however most of them connect to an overarching story arc featuring the Lacewing King, a handsome yet selfish man who wanders through his kingdom ruling over the Silken Folk doing as he pleases. Nevertheless, as time passes and the number of his enemies grows larger, the Lacewing King’s self-interested lifestyle becomes unsustainable.

I have been a fan of Joanne M. Harris (styled as Joanne Harris for her non-fantasy fiction) for a really long time, and as early as 2012 I was reading her #storytime vignettes on Twitter (which have now been removed and collected into this book). I was even inspired to make the little painting below. The stories in this book make for hard-hitting, unsettling chapters that all contribute towards the overarching story of the Lacewing King. Harris conjures a captivating and uncomfortable world made of insects and excess, the same world that was touched upon in her previous book. Some of the fables in this book have clear underlying morals and are told in a similar style to “Animal Farm“. Harris writes particularly about the perils of following the crowd and placing too much faith in self-proclaimed leaders and self-important loudmouths. However, it is the journey of the Lacewing King that I was the most invested in. I really liked how Harris shows the repercussions of indifference over generations, but how also people can change their worldview. There are also stories that initially don’t appear to be related to the main story that Harris masterfully weaves in later.

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Image is a watercolour illustration with a bee telling a story to three larvae against a background of yellow hexagons.

While individually I found each fairytale very readable, I did find it hard to settle into this book. I found myself reading one story then setting the book down. I think that although the structure of the book lent itself to this kind of story, it ultimately did feel quite interrupted.

A thought-provoking and refreshing approach to the fairytale genre.

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The Bone Shard Daughter

Fantasy novel about a crumbling island empire

It has been a while since my fantasy book club has met, though I hosted one a couple of months ago for a book I read quite some time ago, and by coincidence the title of this book was quite similar to the last one I reviewed.

Image is of a digital book cover of “The Bone Shard Daughter” by Andrea Stewart. The cover is of a terraced city, waves, ships and a large key stylised as marble carvings.

“The Bone Shard Daughter” by Andrea Stewart is a fantasy novel and the first novel in “The Drowning Empire” series. The book is about an empire of islands ruled by a reclusive emperor who maintains peace and order remotely through the use of beings called constructs. In the emperor’s palace, his daughter Lin competes for her father’s favour by learning bone shard magic to unlock secrets and her birth right as heir. Meanwhile, Jovis, an Imperial navigator turned renegade, is sailing through the archipelago in search of a boat with blue sails. Pursuing a particular heroic goal, Jovis must decide whether he doggedly continues his quest or whether he reluctantly accepts the other opportunities for heroism he is faced with.

Although I was a bit slow starting this book before book club, once I began reading I couldn’t stop. It is a gripping story with an uncomfortable and brilliant magical premise. Stewart asks the reader to consider what price it is reasonable for an empire to ask its citizens to pay for security, and when that price becomes too high. Jovis is one of those great characters with a tough, efficient exterior and a sentimental interior and I loved his chapters with his peculiar animal sidekick Mephi. Lin is a strategic and courageous character whose missing memory creates a sense of mystery and intrigue. I really liked the way that Stewart places her characters in situations where their decisions have life or death consequences, and some of those situations are heart-breaking. There are lots of complex storylines woven through this book that intersect and intertwine in surprising ways.

This book lingered with me for a long time after I finished it and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series when it comes out.

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Growing Up Disabled in Australia

Non-fiction anthology of essays and memoir by people who grew up disabled in Australia

Note: in this review I used the terms disabled person and person with a disability interchangeably to reflect that some people prefer person-first language and some people prefer identity-first language

Content warning: bullying

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I was really excited to receive a copy of this book because I had read another book in the excellent “Growing Up” series. I also read the editor’s memoir and was very confident that this was going to be a well-curated collection.

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Image is of a digital book cover of “Growing Up Disabled in Australia” edited by Carly Findlay. The cover is white text on a background of blocky paint strokes in pink, yellow and turquoise.

“Growing Up Disabled in Australia” edited by Carly Findlay is an anthology of short autobiographies by 47 disabled people. The contributors, who come from an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds and cultures, have a very diverse range of disabilities and perspectives. There are some well-known people including Senator Jordan Steele-John, and plenty of people who are not so well known but whose stories are just as important.

This is a really well-rounded collection that showcases the myriad of experiences people with disability have in this country. Disabilities can affect mobility, senses, learning, mental health, chronic health and cognitive ability. They can be caused by genetics, illnesses or injuries. Something that I think a lot of people don’t consider is that people may have more than one disability, and I thought that Dion Beasley’s piece To Lake Nash and Back about growing up Aboriginal, Deaf and with muscular dystrophy in the Northern Territory surrounded by love, family and dogs particularly captured this intersectional experience and the importance of accessibility and community. C. B. Mako uses free verse poetry in December Three to succinctly how a person with two disabilities who is also a carer, a parent and a member of the migrant community can be excluded from all of those identities.

This book is full of exceptional creativity and I really enjoyed the variety of styles each piece was presented in. Kerry-ann Messengers two poems ‘Life Goes On’ and ‘The Blue Rose’ explored the depth of emotional reaction, positive and negative, that people have towards her as a person with Down Syndrome. Tim Slade’s poem A Body’s Civil War explores the sense of destabilisation living with auto-immune conditions where your body attacks itself. I really loved Sarah Firth’s comic Drawing My Way which gave a practical example of alternative ways information can be presented to assist people with learning disabilities like dyslexia.

Although there each contributor’s experience is unique, nuanced and impacted by other factors such as race, gender, class and cultural background, there were common themes that wove their way through the book. I was surprised at how many contributors wrote about the significance of animals, particularly dogs, in staving off feelings of isolation and loneliness (though I particularly enjoyed Iman Shaanu’s subversive piece Blurred Lines where she writes “For the record, I hate dogs and would prefer a guide cat if that was a thing”). Hippotherapy by Alistair Baldwin was a particularly wry piece about the ubiquitous experience of horse-riding as an activity for disabled kids. At a time when everyone is talking about vaccinations, it was really poignant to read about two contributors, Gayle Kennedy and Fran Henke, who each wrote about the lasting impact of contracting polio, a disease that has been eradicated in Australia through vaccination programs but that continues to affect people of older generations.

However two of the common themes that were the hardest to read about were bullying and lack of accessibility. Jessica Newman-Marshall’s piece Dressing to Survive describes the cruel judgment and bullying she received as a person with a disability that affects not just mobility but causes her to have a very low BMI in a world that constantly scrutinises women for their weight. Kath Duncan, writes in Born Special about the prejudice and bullying she experienced growing up with missing limbs and reclaiming the word ‘Freak’ for herself.

However not everyone with a disability is bullied. Belinda Downes, in writing about her facial difference and disability in Having a Voice, reflects on how it is not her appearance that has made things most difficult for her, but rather people in her life deciding on her behalf what is best for her in terms of corrective surgery and accessibility needs. In Forever Fixing, El Gibbs writes about living with the chronic skin condition psoriasis and how learning about the social model of disability helped her to find a community and see barriers to access, rather than herself, as the problem.

There are a multitude of other things that I could write about this book, but I will finish off to say that this is an incredibly important work that highlights the fact that there is no single disabled experience and that the biggest barriers for people with disabilities are systemic.

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Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters

Post-gender biopunk science fiction novel

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

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Image is of a digital book cover of “Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” by Aimee Ogden. The cover is of a silhouette of a person standing underwater on the launch-pad of a vehicle.

“Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” by Aimee Ogden is a science fiction novella about a woman called Atuale whose village has been overwhelmed by a disease. Having undergone gene-editing to live with her husband and his technology-resistant people on land, Atuale must return to the sea to seek a favour from the one they call the World Witch. However, the World Witch is one of many Sea-Clan people Atuale left behind and even though they have a new form, their history remains unchanged. It soon becomes clear that the only way to find a cure is to leave the planet. Faced with an intimate journey through space with the World Witch to seek assistance from other, more technologically advanced human races, Atuale must decide which betrayals she can live with.

I absolutely love this genre, and Ogden’s style and themes reminds me a lot of one of my favourite authors, Vonda N. McIntyre. Ogden hints at a huge post-human diaspora of which we see only the smallest glimpse through Atuale’s limited gaze. Atuale is a fascinating character who discards the limits of one civilisation for those of another. What she lacks in education and understanding of the broader galaxy, she makes up for in courage and determination. The World Witch is also a great character, and I enjoyed the exploration of alternative biology and the genetic ability to change one’s gender.

This is a quick book, and one that I think could have used a slightly slower pace. I felt that the tension between Atuale and the World Witch, particularly their past history, was a little rushed and I would have liked to be strung along a little more. While I liked that we see the world (and the universe) through Atuale’s naïve perspective, I also felt like the worldbuilding could have been a little more comprehensive. This is not to say that I wanted every single detail about altered human lives in the far reaches of the galaxy, but I wanted the sense that that detail did exist – even if we couldn’t see it.

A very easy and enjoyable read that needed just a bit more suspense.

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Knee Deep

Young adult novel about Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and voodoo

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist.

Image result for knee deep karol ann hoeffner
Image is of a city street flooded with a girl floating in a small dinghy on top

“Knee Deep” by Karol Hoeffner is a young adult novel about a 16 year old white girl called Camille who lives a slightly off-beat life as the daughter of owners of a bar in New Orleans. Exposed to a very diverse range of people in the French Quarter, Camille’s first love is for her handsome next door neighbour, an 18 year old young black man called Antwone. Already facing the not inconsequential obstacles of an interracial romance and Antwone’s current girlfriend, Camille’s crush is truly put to the test by Hurricane Katrina. When Antwone goes missing, Camille turns to voodoo magic to return her love to her. However, her dogged pursuit in a city of chaos puts more than just her dreams of a relationship at risk.

This is a readable and creative novel that resonates as a historical and cultural touchstone. Although of course in Australia we all saw the reports of Hurricane Katrina on the news, and have watched TV shows that reference the struggles to rebuild, it is hard to imagine what it was really like being there during such a challenging and tumultuous time. Hoeffner has a compelling writing style that reminded me a bit of Daniel Woodrell in his book “Kiss Kiss”. Camille is a really interesting character who makes a number of ethically suspect and selfish decisions, and Hoeffner fosters a strong sense of dramatic irony around her crush and exactly how requited it actually is.

I think the only part of this book that got under my skin was that Hoeffner did take some creative liberties with elements of the story. For example, although the hurricane happened in 2005, Hoeffner describes her characters posting on Facebook several times even though the social media service wasn’t open to public access until late 2006.

A unique and historically relevant book that showcases New Orleans culture and challenges the reader with ethical questions.

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The Empire of Gold

Middle Eastern-inspired fantasy novel

Even though I have absolutely adored this series so far, I have put off reading this book since it came out mid-year last year. This wasn’t because of a reluctance to read the book: I couldn’t wait! However, I had found out too late about this magnificent special hardcover edition of the series. Knowing that without paying $500+ for the rare set that comes up on eBay the beautiful editions wouldn’t be mine (unless you, dear reader, would like to surprise me!), I became paralysed with indecision about what to settle for instead. Unable to buy a copy that I wouldn’t be happy with, I finally decided to just by the eBook and hope that I can find a great set to buy later. If you haven’t read this series yet, I recommend you start with my review of the first book to avoid spoilers.

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Image is of a doorway with a silhouette of a city of minarets on a red sky background

“The Empire of Gold” by S. A. Chakraborty is the third and final book in the fantasy series “The Daevabad Trilogy”. The book picks up immediately after the previous book ended with the death of the king and Nahri’s mother taking over the city. After throwing themselves into Daevabad’s lake, Nahri and Ali suddenly find themselves safe in Nahri’s old home Cairo, far away from the violence they left behind in the djinn city. Unsure who has survived the sacking of the city, Nahri and Ali find a brief reprieve in the rhythms and bustle of the human world. However, as Ali’s peculiar marid powers grow, and Nahri’s powers disappear, they must decide what to do about Suleiman’s Seal. Meanwhile, Dara serves Nahri’s mother Manizheh as she seeks to restore order in a Daevabad without magic. As Manizheh’s methods of control grow more and more extreme, Dara must consider how much of his reputation as the Scourge is him, and how much it is the will of others.

This was a fantastic finale to a fantastic series. Chakraborty excels at tension and I was hooked on every single page. I really enjoyed that the story visited familiar places as well as new places, and I felt that the scenes in Cairo were a great counterbalance for the destruction in Daevabad and the novelty of Ta Ntry. Chakraborty uses this book to explore the mysterious marid and I really enjoyed how she played with the idea of becoming both more and less god-like. The timing of this book was also exquisite. Many of the questions left unanswered by the previous books are answered, and there was one very small but very powerful moment in the book where Nahri’s realisation had me in tears. However, Chakraborty leaves plenty to the imagination and elements of the book are left tantalisingly open-ended.

This book was so enjoyable, I barely have a criticism to make. I think the only thing that snagged at me was that the dialogue occasionally felt a little too modern and casual for the setting which meant that while it was often very fun and funny, the illusion was sometimes broken.

Overall a brilliant ending to a series that I cannot recommend enough.

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Remote Control

Africanfuturism science fiction about a radioactive girl

Note: Since publishing this review I have been advised that the author prefers the term “Africanfuturism” to describe her work, and more information about the nuance and differences between “Afrofuturism” and “Africanfuturism” is available via her blog.

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I have read a previous book by this author, and I was really excited to read more of her work. The cover design is exceptional. It is so evocative and really captures the heart of this book.

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Image is of a girl glowing green with hoop earrings, a bald head and a shea tree superimposed over her face

“Remote Control” by Nnedi Okorafor is a science fiction novella about a teenage girl known as Sankofa. Wandering from town to town in a Ghana in the not-too-distant future, the people she visits scramble to meet her every whim from excellent food to new clothes to her favourite: room temperature Fanta. In exchange, Sankofa doesn’t kill them with her mysterious green glow. As the book progresses, more about Sankofa and how she came to possess her unusual abilities is revealed.

This is a fantastic book with an excellent sense of place. I absolutely love how Okorafor writes science fiction, blending African culture with technology to explore interesting ideas about humanity. Sankofa is a great character whose innocence is gradually replaced with ruthlessness in her quest for survival. I loved her fox sidekick Movenpick. Okorafor leaves plenty of room for interpretation and explores themes of technology, religion, corruption, superstition and violence. The writing itself is just exquisite. Like in her book “Binti”, Okorafor’s descriptions are so tactile: she transports you beneath Sankofa’s shea tree and into her shoes as she journeys across the Ghanaian landscape.

This is a quick and impactful book that will leave you breathless, and I cannot wait to read more of Okorafor’s work. There is nobody writing science fiction like this.

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Machine

Science fiction space opera

Content warning: disability (chronic pain)

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist. It is part of the broader “White Space” series and takes place in the same universe shortly after the events of “Ancestral Night“. However, it is a different story with different characters and I don’t think there would be significant spoilers if you started with this book.

Machine (White Space, #2) by Elizabeth Bear
Image is of a person floating in space beside a ring-like space station

“Machine” by Elizabeth Bear is a science fiction novel and the second novel in her “White Space” series. The story begins shortly after the previous novel, but this time follows new character Dr Jens, a trauma doctor who travels through space medical on rescue missions on an ambulance ship operated by an Artificial Intelligence known as Sally. When she and crew mate Tsosie board a ship from another era called Big Rock Candy Mountain and docked with a ship belonging to an alien species from a different atmosphere, they initially grapple with how to possibly transport the survivors safetly to the multi-species space station hospital known as Core General. However, when Dr Jens is tasked with finding out what happened to the mysterious survivors, she uncovers far more than she bargained for.

This is a compelling book that explores fresh aspects of Bear’s intergalactic society called the Synarche and the way humanity has come to exist within its social and technological parameters. Bear reintroduces the idea of using technology to suppress and control emotions and builds on the theme of human augmentation through Dr Jens’ exoskeleton which allows her to move while minimising the impact on her chronic pain syndrome. I really liked how Bear contrasted modern humans’ perspectives about ‘tuning’ emotions and how out of control ancient humans must have been against Dr Jens’ actual meeting with someone from that era. I also enjoyed how Bear explored a different space profession, and the kind of training and personality traits you need to have to be basically a cosmic paramedic. I don’t think that I have ever before read a fiction book before that tackles the issue of chronic pain.I found it to be a nuanced and interesting characterisation that focused more on the experience of living with chronic pain rather than the cause. Again, I enjoyed the aliens and I enjoyed learning more about Cheeirilaq’s species and how different species with different survival requirements can co-exist on the same station.

However, like the previous book, I found this one about a fifth too long. It is a nearly 500 page book and by about 400 pages I felt like the story should have wrapped up. I also found the relationships in this book a bit frustrating. A brief five minute conversation with one character, for example, was enough to forge an almost unbreakable emotional bond and I think Bear relies a bit too heavily on telling the reader about relationships rather than showing. Like the previous book, a lot of the book is the protagonist’s own thoughts and although I appreciate the series is concerned with aspects of the human psyche, I think that that the strongest scenes were dialogue between characters rather than Dr Jens ruminating on the same things over and over.

Ultimately, I did enjoy this book more than the previous one and found Dr Jens a more relatable and interesting character. A creative take on the genre, this book is worth a read if you enjoy spaces operas and human augmentation.

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