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In the Vanishers’ Palace

Vietnamese-inspired queer fantasy novella

It was my turn to host the feminist fantasy book club I’m in, but alas: social distancing. I had chosen this book after coming across a list of Asian-inspired fantasy and this one looked particularly interesting. However, until basically this past weekend, having guests over was basically illegal and that meant that book club was suspended indefinitely. Except, I really wanted to have book club and was missing all my friends, so I decided to host a virtual book club. Three members put their hand up for a DIY dinner pack, and I had a great time foraging for ingredients and containers to put together the bare bones of a two-ish course meal that just needed wet ingredients and cooking. The menu: rice paper rolls, pho and spiked Vientamese coffee. The evening was pretty successful! While there were some technical difficulties early on, and limits to how many could be in the video chat at once, and some mysterious reverberation, it was a great night and I loved seeing what everyone cooked.

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

“In the Vanisher’s Palace” by Aliette de Bodard is a fantasy novella retelling of the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast“. The story is about Yên, a young woman who lives in a traditional village governed by strict rules and hierarchies. Unless part of the social elite, a villager is only tolerated as long as they remain useful. Yên, an aspiring academic but yet to pass the requisite exams, instead teaches children and helps her mother, the village healer. When Yên’s friend, the daughter of a village elder, is infected by a plague, Yên’s mother summons an ancient dragon called Vu Côn to save her life. However, in this broken world, nothing comes for free, and the village agrees to give Yên to the dragon to pay the debt. Yên is whisked away to a strange palace where Vu Côn sets her the task of teaching her two spirited children. Once there, Yên marvels at the mysterious and deadly palace and slowly grows closer to Vu Côn. However, with the threat of the plague looming closer and secrets threatening to erupt, the least of Yên’s worries is a broken heart.

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My DIY dinner pack

This is a unique story that takes the general elements of “Beauty and the Beast” and reimagines them in a completely different setting. de Bodard is quite a lyrical writer with a keen interest in language and words, and fuses fantasy and science fiction elements to create the palace that is Vu Côn’s home. One room seems to contain a magical library whereas another contains extremely modern technology, and I enjoyed de Bodard’s interplay between modern and ancient.

My friend Rhiannon’s beautifully presented dishes

This is certainly an incredibly inclusive book and aside from queer romance, there are non-binary characters, diverse examples of female leadership and the book itself clearly draws on de Bodard’s own Vietnamese heritage.

My friend Erin-Claire of Erin-Claire Illustration and “The Adventurous Princess and Other Feminist Fairy Tales

However, I wouldn’t say that this would be my first recommendation for a book during the coronavirus crisis. This is quite a dark book, and Yên’s is a world ravaged by illnesses left by the mysterious Vanishers with those who fall ill facing banishment or worse. Given the current times, it was a little hard to want to pick this up to relax after a day spent reading the news.

This was my attempt!

In a similar way to “The Black Tides of Heaven“, I felt that de Bodard raced through this story a little and that the concept of the Vanishers could have been fleshed out a little, or at least hinted at a bit more strongly, than simply the ruins left behind. I also felt that the romantic aspect of the book was a little hurried, and some of the subtlety could have been teased out a little further.

…and my spiked Vietnamese coffee

Nevertheless, this is a quick and spirited read that is an original retelling of a classic fairy tale.

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And, last but not least, Spike using up some of the noodles for lunch the following day

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Novella, Science Fiction

Ancestral Night

Queer science fiction space opera

This was the next set book for my first fantasy book club gathering of the year. Although the author is known for her fantasy writing, this book is in fact science fiction. Now, unlike some other members of the bookclub, I quite like science fiction, so I was more than willing to give this book a chance.

Ancestral Night (White Space, #1) by Elizabeth Bear

“Ancestral Night” by Elizabeth Bear is a science fiction novel about Haimey, an engineer on a small spaceship with a pilot called Connla, an AI called Singer and two cats. The purpose of the mission is to salvage parts and technology from wrecked and abandoned ships, work that is sanctioned by the Synarche government. However, when the crew discover an abandoned ship full of ancient technology and the scene of an unthinkable crime, their trajectory takes an abrupt turn. When Haimey discovers that some of the technology has melded to her, loses the ability to moderate her own emotions and finds herself trapped on an ancient ship with a sexy but ruthless pirate, she must confront the truth of her own past in order to save the galaxy’s future.

This is an epic science fiction novel in the classic space opera style. Bear introduces plenty of interesting technologies and builds on the genre’s canon of human augmentation, superior aliens, innovative means of space travel and a pan-galactic government. There were a handful of interesting aliens, and I particularly liked Cheeirilaq who was a space station police officer that resembled a giant praying mantis. I thought Bear explored some interesting moral questions about regulating emotions chemically and how much of a person is retained when their memories are modified.

However, there were a lot of things that frustrated me about this book. It is a long book. Now, I know I complain about long books fairly frequently, but this book was hundreds of pages shorter than some of the ones I’ve reviewed previously and it still felt long. Part of the problem is that Bear is quite a repetitive writer. Haimey seemed like she was constantly shivering, constantly using the word “atavistic”, constantly referring to the pirate as a “bad girl” and constantly lamenting how she has terrible taste in women. I’m not going to give too much away here, but Haimey really hadn’t been with that many women to justify how many times she said that about herself.

The part of the book where she and the pirate are stuck on the ancient ship hurtling towards god knows where felt like it went forever. I totally get that Bear had spent a lot of time trying to figure out how someone could survive on an alien ship for weeks and weeks without obvious sources of food and water, but the book really dragged and the tiny bit of interaction between Haimey and the pirate did not outweigh the amount of time where nothing was happening. I felt like a lot of this book took place in Haimey’s mind, and that there was far too much thinking (about the same things over and over again), and far too little action. Then the huge action scene at the end felt as ridiculous as this.

For people who have never read much in the way of science fiction, I think this would be as good a place as any to start. However, those who are a little more seasoned and who are looking for something fresh may find this a bit frustrating.

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Red Sister

Fantasy novel about assassin nuns

This was a set book for the feminist fantasy book club I am in, and broke the trend a little by being written by a man. I have to say, it wasn’t a particularly enticing cover, and it was subject to significant ridicule before we even had the meeting. I mean, it really is so bad, I’m tempted to start a new category on my blog for ugly book covers. Needless to say, my expectations were not high when I bought it for my Kobo.

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Contender for the worst book cover ever? 

“Red Sister” by Mark Lawrence is a fantasy (and kind of science fiction) novel about a girl called Nona who is taken from her home, placed on a cart with other children and taken to a city to be sold. The children are inspected for physical signs for their potential to have the traits of each of the original tribes: hunska, marjal, quantal and gerant. Her dark eyes, dark hair and incredible reflexes suggest hunska blood, and Nona is sold to a fight hall. However, after a violent incident, Nona is sentenced to death and is rescued at the last minute by Abbess Glass of the convent Sweet Mercy. Nona is enrolled to become a novice and train to become an assassin. Far behind her peers in her literacy and social skills, and with her past threatening to catch up with her, Nona must learn to walk the path before it is too late.

 

This is a fast-paced, immersive read that mixes elements of fantasy, science fiction and your classic, young adult magic school. I really enjoyed the world-building in this book, and the concept of a world completely frozen except for a thin strip along the equator kept warm by a mysterious red moon. The idea of a planet long ago settled by humans who have made it their own and who have special abilities is one that I have read in Anne McCaffrey, C J Cherryh and even Patrick Ness‘ books – and it is a premise that I simply never get tired of. Lawrence is a strong writer who is able to explain some of his complicated magical concepts, and allude to technology that, while the characters don’t understand, the reader recognises, in a clear way. I also liked how much uncomplicated queer content there was in this book, and Lawrence’s handling of relationships.

I think the thing I struggled with was the plot itself. The timeline was a little all over the place, sometimes doubling back, sometimes skipping ahead years at a time. While the theme of “Nona is under threat” was constant, the nature and source of that threat was in constant flux. I felt like the trial at Sweet Mercy was confusing and a little pointless, with Abbess Glass as opaque, unpredictable and infuriating as Dumbledore. The book also seemed divided in two with the demons from Nona’s past forgotten, and a new threat to the mysterious shipheart introduced very late in the story. I think all the elements were there, but they just felt like they needed a little reshuffling or something. Honestly, I just wanted to know more about the original tribes and the red moon, and less about who was trying to attack Nona at any given second for no discernible reason.

This was a very easy book to read, and there were plenty of things I liked about it, but I’m still on the fence about whether or not I’ll read the second book in the series.

 

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More Hubs That Provoke

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author, and I was very interested to see what it was about. Roy T. James is recently retired from a long and diverse career with the Indian Navy and has been writing at length about his thoughts and philosophies about the world and where it’s heading.

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More Hubs that Provoke” by Roy T. James is a short collection of essays about various topics that have piqued the author’s interest. This book ranges in topic from the modern role of politicians to predictions about the evolution (or demise) of humanity. James has a particular interest in the organisation of society, and a lot of his chapters explore the changing roles of caste, democracy and gender.

This book is clearly intended to be provocative, yet I was surprised by how many of James’ ideas I agreed with. I particularly enjoyed his suggestion that with a more educated public, political leaders are becoming less distinguishable from the general populace and therefore more redundant and easily replaceable with computer programs. James is an articulate writer with clearly reasoned arguments and this is a succinct and snappy book. The only one of his statements that I found myself violently in disagreement with was right at the beginning where he suggests that writing is an unnatural form of communication for people with insufficient social skills. Given he wrote this book, that may have been irony.

A quick, interesting and eloquent read with some novel ideas.

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Haze

Some of you might already know that in addition to this blog, Tinted Edges also has a Facebook page and a Tumblr page. Not too long ago I got a PM via the Tinted Edges Tumblr page asking me to review an e-book. Of course I said yes.

“Haze” by Brandon J. Barnard is a dystopian novella set in the UK in the 2070s – a dark place where air outside is poison. Jack Decker is a PA in a London company who is as awkward as he is unsatisfied in his work. He spends his spare time reading and Digital Diving, escaping into perfect virtual worlds. One day he meets a new girl at his work called Haze and all of a sudden his grey world is painted technicolour. Caught up in his new romance, the last thing Jack wants to do is think about his past but it starts to catch up with him anyway.

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This book was quite a surprise. Barnard has a rather lyrical and humorous way of writing and the subject matter was subtle and nuanced. Although there were a few clever technological concepts throughout “Haze”, I think this book would have almost worked just as well in current times. The themes explored by Barnard are extremely topical to today’s society. My only criticism is that “Haze” gets off to a rather slow start and it’s not until about halfway through the book that Barnard starts to really hit his stride.

A strong debut by a self-published author, “Haze” was an unexpected and enjoyable read and I look forward to seeing what Barnard comes up with next.

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Nailbiters

A while ago I signed up to a website called Blog Tour, a website designed to connect authors and bloggers together so authors get extra publicity and bloggers get extra content. I made my account, and then promptly forgot about it, so it was a while until I checked it and I was quite surprised to see I had a message. A writer called M. K. Williams from the USA had contacted me to see if I’d like to review her new self-published ebook “Nailbiters” that you can pick up here. Of course I said yes.

“Nailbiters” is a post-apocalyptic thriller about Dora, a young woman in her 20s who was formerly a personal trainer and is now running for her life from them. The world has been invaded by aliens who seem to be bent on destroying humanity with unbelievable cruelty. Part USA road trip, part suspense-filled sci-fi horror, Dora does whatever it takes to survive as the world she knew crumbles around her. The book is narrated by Dora who constantly questions her own decisions and motives, and who provides commentary about the motives of the people around her and the shifting social values of this new society. One thing she notices is that people everywhere have started compulsively biting their nails. What does this mean, and why hasn’t Dora herself picked up this habit?

Nailbiters

Williams has a raw and honest style of writing, and maintains suspense throughout the book with a twisting plotline and deliberately concealed information. Thrillers are not a genre I read often, but I quite liked the premise of this story and the underlying themes of power, humanity and gender relations. I think the narration was sometimes a little too self-aware, and some of Dora’s commentary and guesses about the reasons why people were doing what they were doing felt like they interrupted the flow of the story.

A quick and tense read, this book is ideal for readers who love thrillers.

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Eagerness and Desire

I have been following this phenomenal and gritty webcomic called “Judecca” for years now. I also follow updates of the authors on tumblr. While their main project is “Judecca”, every now and then they post up some of their other projects, and that’s how I got reminded of the fantastic little collection called “Eagerness and Desire”.

I had in fact bought the PDF version of “Eagerness and Desire” about a year ago and had promptly forgotten all about it when I saw something posted about it. It jogged something in my memory, I did a quick search in my email inbox and ‘lo and behold: there it was. I had a happy little PDF of it sitting right there, ready to be read.

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“Eagerness & Desire”, by Noora Heikkilä, is a collection of three short comics about love, sex and dating. The first follows the escapades of a very cute and very forward waitress. The second is about three women who summon a demon and have a blast with him. The third is about a couple, life and death.

Eagerness and Desire

I really love Heikkilä’s work. “Eagerness and Desire” is a great example of the feminist, sex-positive and body-positive messages that she embeds in her work. She’s a fantastic artist with a really edgy, messy, watercolour style that has just improved and improved over the years I’ve been following her work.

If you have $5 and you’re willing to throw it at a great artist and a really adorable, entertaining read in PDF format, “Eagerness and Desire” is just a mouse-click away.

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