Category Archives: Fantasy

The Stone Sky

This is the third book in the series, so if you haven’t started it yet, you might want to go back to book one or book two.

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“The Stone Sky” by N. K. Jemisin is the third book in the “Broken Earth” series, a science fantasy series about a woman called Essun whose world is crumbling around her, literally. Her mentor Alabaster is gone. Her daughter Nassun is lost. The comm Castrima is in tatters, with nothing left but desperate people. The season is upon her and while the angry earth rages around her, she is no longer able to draw on her power as an orogene to still it without risking losing herself completely.   However, Essun can’t help thinking she has never been able to save anyone. She has been tasked with the impossible: to try to save this broken Earth.

This is a series of truly epic proportions. While the second book maybe felt like it suffered a little from sequelitis, spending a lot of time setting the scene, this finale was definitely much more high octane. Jemisin’s imagination seems to have no limits, and she uses the whole planet to tell her story – a story that has been told over and over throughout humanity’s history, and is told again in a new yet familiar way.

I think the only thing about this book that is a bit hard to deal with is that everything is just so important and monumental all. the. time. I appreciate the scale of this story, but sometimes the dialogue felt like everything was dripping with such significance and so oversaturated with italics that it sometimes was a bit hard to tell what was really significant, and what was only kind of significant.

Anyway, this truly is an incredibly original series and I’m glad I spaced it out and savoured it over a longer period of time. When fantasy is so full of the same old elves and dwarves and orphan boys with incredible secret ancestry, this series was such a breath of fresh air. Even though it’s set in a world so different from our own, it resonates, and what else can you ask from a book?

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Heart of Brass

If you listen to my podcast, you might recall that a couple of episodes ago I interviewed local Canberra author Felicity Banks about interactive fiction and her project “Murder in the Mail“. A while ago, by coincidence, my partner bought me a copy of her book at CanCon, completely unaware that Felicity and I had already been chatting!

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“Heart of Brass” by Felicity Banks is the first book in her pre-Federation Australian steampunk series “The Antipodean Queen”. The story is about a young upper class Englishwoman called Emmeline whose family has a lot of secrets but not much money. One of those secrets is that Emmeline, a keen inventor, has a steam-powered heart made of brass. When her attempts to save her family’s financial situation through a strategic marriage go very awry, Emmeline is sent to the colonies on the last convict ship and finds herself in Victoria. In this strange new land, she realises that she has a lot more freedom and opportunities than she perhaps had at home, but also has a lot more enemies.

This is a very fast-paced book full of action and intrigue. Banks introduces a very diverse range of characters that give a really holistic sense of the kinds of people who made their way to Victoria during the gold rush. This steampunk book involves a little bit of magic, and I really enjoyed the subtlety of Banks’ magic system and the way people can interact with metal. I think that it worked really well in a steampunk setting, and particularly well in a goldrush setting. I liked the way that people tapped into the properties of metal and used them to express themselves and enhance themselves in the clothing that they wore.

Now, I absolutely have to mention something about this particular book that really made it enjoyable for me. At the end of the book is a short choose your own adventure-style story called “After the Flag Fell” about a true historical figure called Peter Lalor, but set in Banks’ own steampunk reimagining of the Eureka Stockade. This was such a fun and cleverly done little story, and I was flipping through trying to achieve all the goals and collect all the items with absolute delight.

I think maybe the only thing I found a bit challenging in this book is that there is a lot going on, and Emmeline and her two new companions Matilda and Patrick are on the run for the majority of the book. Sometimes this made it a little bit difficult to keep up with all the action, but I think for people who really enjoy adventure fiction, this isn’t going to be much of an issue.

A fun story with an especially fun choose your own adventure bonus at the end, Banks’ novel is a fresh look at Australia’s history and blows apart some of the dark areas of our past with explosions, metal and lots and lots of steam.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, interactive fiction, Signed Books

Saga Volume 8

I’ve been reading the “Saga” series for some time now, and have been reviewing them as they come out on this blog. If you’re not up to date, you might want to go back a step or two so you aren’t dealing with spoilers.

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“Saga Volume 8” by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples picks up where the previous volume of the graphic novel series left off. Hazel’s mother Alana, who is pregnant with a second forbidden mixed-race baby that has died in utero, visits a town on a remote planet called Abortion Town with Prince Robot IV pretending that the child is theirs. When they are refused entry, Alana and Marko have to put their faith in the “doctor” in the Badlands who may be able to help.

I’ve said in previous reviews that I’ve been enjoying these comics a bit less, and I think part of the problem is that each one has a lot of hard-hitting social issues that are tackled but there isn’t a lot of overarching narrative. I felt like this one tackled the tricky issues of abortion and transgender identity in an interesting way. As always, the animal side-kicks are on point. However, it’s really hard to see where this is going. Are we just going to be following Hazel’s entire childhood, or are we going to actually get to Hazel as an adult? Is this a comment on the broader socio-political issues of Alana and Marko’s respective planets?

Am I enjoying this as much as I did at the beginning? No, honestly, I’m not. Will I keep reading them? Definitely yes.

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A Pocketful of Crows

I have been a fan of Joanne Harris‘ work for a very long time, so I was very surprised when I first found out about this book by seeing its gorgeous cover in a bookshop. It’s a beautiful hardcover edition with a black dust jacket and gold detail. This was my first read of 2018 and because I have already lent it out, today’s photograph is a guest photo by my friend Annie.

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“A Pocketful of Crows” by Joanne Harris is a fantasy novella about a wild girl with nut brown skin, crow wing hair and no name who runs with the deer and flies with the hawk and hunts with the vixen. However, when she meets a young human man and falls desperately in love with him, she allows herself to be tamed and named. Turning her back on her people, the Travelling Folk, she despairs when nature begins to turns its back on her and the man she sacrificed everything for is not as true as he promised.

This is truly an exquisite book. Drawing heavily on English and Scottish folklore, this book is dark and light in all the right places. The wild girl is an incredible character and although her ways are both enchanting and feral to the human reader, Harris forces us to empathise with her the entire way. I was absolutely captivated with this book and raced through the vivid prose and illustrations in a day.

Another thing I really liked was the signature complex way in which Harris depicts women. The wild girl defies the social conventions of the humans and the Travelling Folk, but is nevertheless bound by the consequences of her actions. I also enjoyed the way Harris explored the tension between fetishisation of the “exotic” and white beauty ideals.

There really isn’t much more to say about this book – it really does speak for itself. My only regret is that I didn’t realise it was coming out sooner.

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La Belle Sauvage

I’ve been anticipating reading this book ever since I heard that Philip Pullman was going to write a second series of books set in the same world as the “His Dark Materials” series. It’s a large book with a beautiful cover with bronze foil lettering and stylised artwork and the hint of daemons, and I was very keen to make a start on it.

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“La Belle Sauvage” by Philip Pullman is the first book in the “Book of Dust” trilogy which is set alongside the events of “His Dark Materials”. The story is about Malcolm, a bright young boy whose parents own an inn. In addition to school and working for his family’s business, Malcolm helps the nuns at the priory nearby and takes great interest when a baby called Lyra arrives into their care. However, Malcolm isn’t the only one taking an interest and as the unrelenting winter rains continue, Malcolm finds himself drawn further and further into intrigue that is both political and religious.

First and foremost, I enjoyed this book. Malcolm was a great protagonist and I felt like Pullman achieved the perfect balance between depicting his resourcefulness and relative maturity yet paying homage to the fact that he is nevertheless a child in over his head. I actually think I liked Malcolm better than I liked Lyra in some ways. Malcolm and his daemon Asta seemed to be more united and more of a team than Lyra and Pantalaimon who were often at odds with one another. Pullman really invested a lot of time into Malcolm’s character and the things like his migraines, his boat and his family all rounded him out. I also really enjoyed the interplay between Malcolm and the sullen Alice, and I felt like the development of their friendship was a highlight of the book. Since we have returned to Lyra’s world, it was really interesting to see some of the new things that Pullman drew out about the concept of daemons, especially Alice’s daemon Ben and a certain hyena daemon, and I would have liked to have seen a bit more about that (which of course is more about his views on the soul).

This book felt much darker and more adult that the “His Dark Materials” series, with sex and sexuality as more prominent themes. I think if I had children, I’d be concerned about them reading this book too young – even though Malcolm himself is a young character. I enjoyed the tension, intrigue and buildup early in the story, but then the more the book progressed, the less sense it started to make. I felt like where “His Dark Materials” was fantasy with a sort of scientific twist, which helped suspend disbelief, this book seemed to move much further into typical fantasy and I’m not sure it was in keeping with our understanding of Lyra’s world. The second half of the series certainly had more than a touch of “The Odyssey” about it, and I’m wondering whether Pullman might flesh out these other elements later on in the series.

I think if you were a fan of “His Dark Materials”, you won’t be left disappointed reading this book but you almost certainly will be left confused. It sounds like the second book is already in the works, so hopefully it won’t be too long before we can dip our toes back in the world of daemons.

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Lincoln in the Bardo

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog Woden. It has one of those cool die cut designs where you can see an image through the “window” of the front cover, although this was not used in the final design of the book. As this was not my first George Saunders book, I gave it to my Dad to read first because I knew he enjoyed Saunders’ short stories. When my Dad gave it back to me saying he wasn’t able to finish it I was intrigued. This book was this year’s Man Booker Prize winner – surely it must be fantastic, right? I had to find out for myself.

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“Lincoln in the Bardo” is the first novel by George Saunders and is part historical fiction, part magic realism. Based on the events surrounding the death of Willie, the young son of America’s 16th president Abraham Lincoln, the story takes place on the night of Willie’s funeral. Distraught by the death of his son, Abraham Lincoln visits the body in the crypt where Willie is interred. However, unbeknownst to his father, Willie’s spirit emerges that night to mingle with the other souls who have not been able to move on to the afterlife.

The absolute first thing to say about this book is that it has an incredibly creative and refreshing narrative structure. The story is told by a chorus of voices, some of whom are ghosts encountered by Willie and some of whom are guests at the party thrown at the Lincoln’s house. The voices are sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory and provide a multifaceted glimpse into the man that was Abraham Lincoln and Saunders’ concept of a limbo inhabited by ghosts who cannot move on. I found that the beginning of the story was very compelling. There was a particular scene where the guests were giving simultaneous yet contradictory descriptions of what the weather had been like that evening that I thought was a great comment on the fallibility of history and human memory.

However, it’s difficult to sustain such novelty and momentum in a novel and I did feel as though the latter half was neither as strong or as structured as the former half. While I found the gossipy exploration of Lincoln’s presidency and family life fascinating, the concept of the bardo – the space between life and afterlife – seemed as though it grew muddier as the book progressed. There were several confusing concepts, such as Willie’s peculiar susceptibility to being consumed by vines made of shrunken tormented souls. Although adding a sense of urgency to the plot, some of these aspects of the intermediate state in which Willie finds himself don’t make a great deal of sense. Why would the fate of a child’s soul depend on the conduct of the other souls he is surrounded with in the cemetery where his body is left?

For fantasy to allow the reader to effectively suspend disbelief, the author needs to set rules for their imagined world that are at least coherent, if not plausible. Saunders was making exceptions as fast as he was making the rules to his bardo otherworld and ultimately I found it hard to follow and therefore hard to immerse myself in. Other parts of the story, like the African American ghosts, seemed incidental and shoehorned in at the last minute.

I think this is absolutely a wildly imaginative book and Saunders is definitely not short on creativity. However, as in my review of “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, I think he can sometimes be either too blunt or too abstract in his story-telling. Would I have given this the Man Booker Prize? I’m not sure. I’ll have to read some of the other contenders and compare.

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The Obelisk Gate

I have a bit of a habit of spacing out a series. I very rarely binge-read a series in one go and this one was no exception. If you haven’t started “The Broken Earth” series and you want to know what Hugo-winning fantasy is like, I’d go and start at the beginning with “The Fifth Season“. If you’ve read that one and you’re wondering whether you should continue on with the second book in the trilogy, step this way.

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“The Obelisk Gate” by N. K. Jemisin is the second book in “The Broken Earth” trilogy. The story picks up right where the last left off. Essun is an orogene, a “rogga” who can still the Earth and more with her powers. Trying to find her daughter Nassun who has been taken away by her father after he committed an unspeakable crime, Essun has found shelter in Castrima. In this underground crystalline community that, if not welcoming to roggas, is at the very least accepting, Essun begins to find a place. However the apocalyptic Season is upon them and survival is becoming more difficult to cling to. The comm is also populated with stone eaters, a mysterious race of people that Essun distrusts with the exception of Hoa. Her old mentor Alabaster is holed up, maimed, in the clinic and under the watchful eye of his stone eater guardian Antimony, Alabaster tries to teach Essun about the secrets of their broken earth. Meanwhile, Nassun’s father has taken her to a community beyond the reaches of the Season so she can “cure herself” of being a rogga.

Just typing that out, it’s clear that there is a lot going on in this book. Jemisin is a punchy writer, no doubt, but I did feel that the immense amount of world-building and establishing of magic systems and explaining of history took the front row in this book. The first book of the series had a very unique structure, incredibly intense relationships and unparalleled character-building. This book set most of that aside, with perhaps the exception of Nassun, in favour of what felt like setting the stage for the finale. I enjoyed it, absolutely, but I was craving the intensity of the first book and I didn’t quite feel like I got it. Jemisin has developed an incredibly interesting world and the premise of the book is absolutely fascinating to me. However, I did feel like a couple of the reveals in this book were a bit heavy-handed when compared to the subtlety of the first.

Was this as good as the first book? No, I don’t think so. Will I be reading the third book in the series? Without a doubt. Should it have won the Hugo this year? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

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