Contemplative novel about independence, masculinity and growing up
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.
“Limberlost” by Robbie Arnott is a bildungsroman novel about Ned, a fifteen year old boy who lives in regional Tasmania. His two older brothers are away at war and Ned, his sister and his father are alone on their apple orchard Limberlost without news. A quiet young man, Ned spends his summer shooting rabbits and saving money for a secret goal. Despite the stifled wartime atmosphere, Ned builds quiet connections with people in his family and his community and, with only the memory of his brothers to guide him, begins to find his own way to becoming a man.
This is an introspectively lyrical book about a young man who, despite a rich inner life full of dreams and worries, struggles to communicate with those around him. Although Arnott puts it to the reader to decide how much of Ned’s quietness is his personality or a product of his circumstances, one thing I really enjoyed about this book was how much effort his family and community put into listening to him. There were some very poignant moments scattered throughout this book and one of the highlights was the way Arnott engaged with the Tasmanian landscape and wildlife. Ned’s experience with a whale resonates throughout the book, re-examined through different lenses of memory and emotion. At the heart of the book was the tension caused by secretly helping an injured animal and Ned’s longing for a boat, and I loved the way all the characters reacted and interacted with Ned around his decisions. The innate warmth of the characters and their actions contrasts strikingly against their stiffness and outwardly suppressed emotions.
While I was entranced by Ned quietly navigating his way towards adulthood, I found the other chapters of him as an older man less compelling. While there were some interesting insights, I felt that Ned’s summer shooting rabbits was so perfectly self-contained as a story that I would have been satisfied had it been left with that.
A beautiful and gentle story and I look forward to reading more of Arnott’s work.
Epic science fiction novel about faith, war and moral righteousness
Content warning: war, torture, abuse
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“The Genesis of Misery” by Neon Yang is a science fiction novel about Misery, a petty criminal from a backwater planet, who has found themselves in hot water again. Misery has the power to manipulate certain types of stones, but is all too aware that this means they will likely die of voidmadness like their mother did. In fact Misery has already begun hearing voices. However, when the voice starts giving more and more specific suggestions, Misery begins to listen and is catapulted from marauder to messiah. Misery’s abilities find themself immersed in an ideological war. Increasingly extremist, is Misery’s war truly righteous or have they become the villain?
This was a really interesting story with an incredible amount of character development. I think this book is a fascinating study on the progression of extremism and the corruptibility of people with power. At the beginning of the book, Misery is fiery, logical and caught up in the goal of escaping their troubled background. However, as she listens more to the voice and leans into her powers, her moral compass begins to shift towards a completely different direction. This is also a really compelling book on the morality of war, and Yang uses a really unique third person omniscient perspective. As a reader, you feel really immersed in Misery’s thoughts and in the beginning, you feel really aligned with Misery. With great subtlety and effectiveness, Yang makes us question our continued alliance with this protagonist. This book embeds the use of preferred pronouns, building on Yang’s previous work, and makes living your authentic self an unquestioned part of Misery’s society.
However, I think that at times the book struggled in terms of readibility. A lot of the worldbuilding felt like broad brushstrokes and apart from some of the nuance of the religious war, I came away from the book feeling like I didn’t have much of a sense of the setting whether it was planetside, in a spaceship or in a giant mecha.
A thought-provoking example of science fiction that didn’t always bring the reader along with it.
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The First Binding” by R. R. Virdi is an epic fantasy novel about a storyteller called Ari. After arriving at a tavern and providing a memorable performance, Ari meets a mysterious young woman with whom he forms an instant connection. As they navigate politics and danger in a foreign land, Ari shares the most personal story of all: how he overcame adversity to become a legend and The Storyteller.
This story has all the elements required for epic fantasy: orphan child, early mentor, street urchins, selective magic school and a journey to prove oneself. The book is set against a stunning South Asian backdrop and weaving in captivating mythologies and cultural elements to create rich, unique worldbuilding. I think my favourite part of the book was actually the interlude chapters set in the nation of Etaynia where Ari must navigate dangerous political games, though I did enjoy the competitive kite flying chapters as well.
However, this was not an easy book to read. It is over 800 pages long and it had a very slow start. Virdi has an overly descriptive style and I wish I was exaggerating but the book spent 30 pages describing a bench in a tavern. There were pages and pages of unnecessary descriptions of banal items: candles, cutlery and benchtops. The story really only felt like it began to get moving at page 375, well over a third of the way through. I actually feel like the editors did this book a bit of a disservice by not paring it back much, much more.
Ari is supposed to be an expert storyteller but I didn’t feel like the excellence of his storytelling was self-evident. Instead, there was a lot of reliance on audience reaction rather than having the stories shine in their own right. I also found the magic quite laborious. I understand that mastering the idea of folds took years and was very difficult, but the magic system took a long time to explain for something that did not inherently appear to be particularly complex. I also understand that Ari had gone through some things that perhaps made the magic much more difficult to execute in the earlier chapters however again, it seemed like there was a lot of time spent describing and not really that much magic to show for it which, as a reader, I found very frustrating. I also found the love interest quite cliched with a lot of batting eyelashes and a lot of male gaze. I think I could have forgiven quite a lot of these issues had the premise (rather than the setting) been more original.
There was some lovely worldbuilding in this book but you could have cut it in half without sacrificing the key parts of the story.
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The City Inside” by Samit Basu is a science fiction novel set in Delhi, India in a not-too-distant future. The story is primarily about Joey, a young woman who has an extremely successful job as a reality controller: managing and editing the livestream content of her influencer ex-boyfriend Indi. However, her personal life pales in comparison; despite having a luxury apartment, she spends most of her free time sleeping at her parents’ house where her family carefully avoid saying anything controversial. Meanwhile, Rudra, the estranged son of a wealthy man who has been living incognito among struggling migrants, reconnects with his family at his father’s funeral. Avoiding his brother’s attempts to join the family business, when he bumps into Joey who offers him a job, he accepts. However, as Indi’s ambitions grow bigger and Rudra’s family interests begin to reveal their true nature, Joey and Rudra realise that corporate power and sinister conspiracies run much deeper than either of them could have possibly realised.
This was a richly conceived book with exceptional and completely plausible worldbuilding. Basu draws on contemporary sources of power and influence and imagines how they may have evolved a decade from now. Influencers have merged with reality TV: carefully curated content with fictionalised storylines and strategic advertising placements. Airborne-illnesses, increasing temperatures and air pollution have normalised mask wearing, filtered air and avoiding the outside. The setting in Delhi brings further layers of complexity and nuance; drawing on ethnic tensions, historical protests and political influence to create a conflicted present still grappling with caste, wealth and freedom of speech.
Joey was a really interesting character whose personality at work and personality at home seem almost completely incompatible, raising questions about how much her memory is influenced, and by whom. Joey is politically engaged enough and fluent enough in progressive discourse to be aware of her own moral shortcomings, and tries to make what little difference she can through her work. In contrast, Rudra’s attempts to completely distance himself from his family prove to be inadequate in counteracting the harm they are causing to society. However, any kind of political action is dangerous, and Basu pushes the reader to make up their own mind about what is right, what is wrong and what is understandable.
While I really enjoyed the setting and the character development, I did find the plot a little confusing. The book draws on cyberpunk traditions in science fiction and using digital spaces, avatars and social media to create and recreate reality, social connections and even business deals. However, between a meeting in one of these digital spaces, subject to surveillance on multiple levels, and the action really kicking off, I found it hard to keep track of exactly what was happening. Basu is quite a subtle writer, leaving a lot to the reader to interpret themselves, but when crucial plot items were happening I found that I was hoping for a little more clarity and a little less like scenes whipping by me in a speeding train carriage.
An intricate and highly original premise that conveys a lot but becomes a bit muddied towards the end.
Gothic fantasy novel about identity, ethics and murder
Content warning: sexual assault, gendered violence, facial difference, suicide
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The Bone Orchard” by Sara A. Mueller is a gothic fantasy novel set predominantly in a brothel called Orchard House in the land of Borenguard. Mistress of the house is Charm who manages the other young women she has created: boneghosts called Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride and Pain. Throughout the week Orchard House is open to Borenguard’s elite who do business, socialise and enjoy the company of Charm’s young women. Except, that is, on Tuesdays when Orchard House is closed and Charm fulfils her duties as the mistress of the Emperor. However when Charm is summoned to the Emperor’s palace and asked to solve an unthinkable mystery, it soon becomes clear that there is more than just Orchard House and the empire at stake. Sometimes, Charm is not actually Charm; sometimes she is the Lady. With the mindlock that keeps Charm and many other denizens of Borenguard under strict control loosened, the Lady is no longer relegated to the backseat. The careful management Charm has over Orchard House is beginning to fray and the Lady and the boneghosts have their own ideas about what to do next.
This is a book with a really interesting premise with a strong focus on character and worldbuilding. Unlike many fantasy novels, the world remains quite small with only Pain venturing out regularly from Orchard House. Mueller instead focuses on the intricate relationships between Charm and her boneghosts, and the people who visit them in Orchard House. I think the most compelling thing about this book is the self-actualisation of the boneghosts and how Charm reacts to them developing their own feelings and desires that do not always align with hers. There are lots of examples of unexpected relationships and friendships in this book and Mueller has a particular strength in fleshing out alliances and enmities. I also really enjoyed the descriptions of each of the boneghosts and some of my favourite moments in the book are the quiet observation of their interactions with one another. I found it really interesting that each of them has a disability or facial difference of some kind and how Mueller explains this as part of the plot.
While many parts of the book were very compelling, there were some parts that felt muddier. Magic is something to be strictly controlled in this world, and what happens to those with certain magical abilities is a pivotal part of the story. However, when it came to understanding exactly how Charm and the Lady’s magic worked, I felt that Mueller skipped over the detail somewhat which left the scenes in the laboratory perplexing rather than mysterious. The creation of the boneghosts is really the heart and soul of this story and I was left feeling like I had plenty of what but only some why and not nearly enough how. I also found the murder mystery plot to be a little underwhelming. This is really a fantasy novel with some court intrigue rather than a crime or mystery novel, and any suspense about who the perpetrator is was thoroughly diluted by a backdrop of somewhat incomprehensible war and a lack of viable red herrings.
An enjoyable and thought-provoking book with plenty of questions about morality and individuality.
Modern fairy tale novella inspired by rural Australia
It has been a bit of a topsy turvy year, and I’ve noticed that one thing that hasn’t been as regular lately as in years gone past is book clubs. However, after the second half of last year grinding to a halt due to new and emerging COVID-19 variants, my fantasy book club finally managed to meet to discuss a book in February.
“Flyaway” by Kathleen Jennings is a modern fairy tale novella set in rural district in Australia called Inglewell. There are several plotlines interwoven together with interludes of different background stories and tales about the region, but the main story is about a young woman called Bettina who lives with her mother in a town called Runagate. Bettina’s mother is very concerned about keeping up appearances, and Bettina does as she is told: looking after the garden, dressing appropriately and avoiding undesirable neighbours. However, when a young man called Gary accuses her of being a coward, and she receives a mysterious note, Bettina decides to disobey her mother and try to find her missing brothers and learn what happened to their father.
For a short book, this is a surprisingly complex and intricate story with many layers. Jennings is a writer of considerable subtlety, and many seemingly innocuous events or characters become incredibly significant later on in the story. I really loved some of the little side stories, and my favourites were Linda’s Story: Turncoat and Gwenda’s Story: The School in the Wilderness. They really added to the overall plot while giving the reader interesting background information, and while getting the balance right can be challenging, I think Jennings struck a good balance. Jennings also did something that I haven’t seen many white fantasy authors in Australia do: she did an acknowledgement of country in the acknowledgements section of the book and recommended some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors that readers may also wish to read. I think settlers writing fantasy based in Australia will always be a bit fraught, but acknowledging traditional stories and knowledge in some way seems like a really good step.
However, there were points at which where I thought the stories did get a little tangled. We spent a long time at book club discussing this book not because of how much we liked it or the themes that it engaged, but because we all found it challenging to determine exactly what happened in the book. I felt like the two scenes that were the most obfuscating were when ‘Jack’ goes to help Uncle Davy retrieve some bottles, and the final showdown at the end. I have gone back several times to puzzle out what happened and while I think that Jennings should be commended for her cleverness, you don’t want to be so clever as to be confusing.
A short book with surprising depth and enjoyable worldbuilding; Inglewell definitely leaves the reader with a lingering sense of unease.
Literary body horror novel about women at university
Content warning: bullying, sex slavery, horror
Ages ago I requested this book on Netgalley not because I love rabbits, but because the description was really intriguing. Unfortunately it was in my early days of the platform and I didn’t realise you had to download books within a certain timeframe and I didn’t get a chance to read and review it. However, I have remained intrigued by this book ever since and eventually I caved and bought a copy for my Kobo.
“Bunny” by Mona Awad is a literary body horror novel about a young woman called Samantha Mackey who has won a prestigious scholarship to study creative writing at Warren University in New England, USA. There are four other students in the cohort, a clique who call each other ‘Bunny’ as a term of endearment. She and her only friend Ava privately make fun of the Bunnies, and Samantha has even come up with a special nickname for each: Cupcake, Creepy Doll, Vignette and the Duchess. However, one day the Bunnies invite Samantha to their Smut Salon, and slowly and seemingly despite her better judgment, Samantha is brought into the fold. With Ava all but forgotten, the Bunnies show her how they really use their creativity and Samantha has to decide where she draws the line.
This was an incredibly refreshing book and I am so glad that I went and bought a copy. Awad wrote with an exquisitely twisted clarity, shifting tones easily between Samantha before the Bunnies and Samantha after. Warren University is like an parallel universe where everything is a little darker, a little more dangerous and a little more possible. A big theme of this book is loneliness and isolation, and Samantha’s difficulty connecting with people was cleverly written. The characters are erudite and mysterious, and Awad seamlessly weaves in modern social issues into their conversations. There was a lot of interesting commentary about university culture, and the banality of academic privilege juxtaposed against the surreal events of the book was, in my view, far more captivating than other books set in universities I’ve read recently. There is an excellent twist to this book and I won’t spoil it by saying anything more, but while I had some guesses, I did not come close to appreciating the full story. I also really enjoyed Awad’s commitment to the rabbit theme with subtle references throughout the book.
There was only one very minor thing about this book that I found a bit difficult and that was keeping track of the Bunnies themselves. Of the four Bunnies Creepy Doll (Kira) was probably the most distinct, and while I appreciate that they were supposed to be a bit of an amorphous blur, it was a bit hard at times to tell who was who.
I honestly was so inspired by this book that I went and made a playlist to try to capture its very particular atmosphere. This book has such a unique flavour, it really got under my skin and I am so glad I went out of my way to buy it.
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“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.
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I think it is worth noting that this book is a companion novel to Seanan McGuire’s book “Middlegame” and (though I have not read it) this book is in fact a fictional book mentioned in the original novel, now brought to life by the author under a pseudonym. While it is a standalone, there may be things that readers of McGuire’s book may have picked up on that went over my head.
“Over the Woodward Wall” by A. Deborah Parker is a fantasy novel about two children, Avery and Zib, who despite living on the same street have never met one another. One day on their way to different schools, Avery and Zib each must take a detour which finds them standing side by side before a wall blocking the street. Without even noticing each other, they both climb the wall and find themselves in a peculiar world called the Up and Under with no clear way to return home.
This is an unsettling book that draws upon fantasy and science fiction canon to produce something quite different. Parker is a clever yet oblique writer and the books is narrated in the third person with the omniscient narrator switching between describing the events and feelings experienced by the characters and providing broader commentary about their lives. Despite being a book about children, I don’t think that this is a book for children. Parker spends a lot of time considering the impacts of different parenting styles on the straight-laced Avery and the carefree Zib, and how that affects their ability to make their way through not only the Up and Under, but life generally. Zib and Avery meet several unusual characters along the way and struggle not only to assess who is friend and who is foe, but to manage a blossoming friendship between two such different perspectives.
I have heard a few people compare this book to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz“, presumably because of the superficial resemblance between the books because each has a road to be followed. However, I found the premise more similar to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” with the well-known playing card royalty replaced by queens and kings affiliated with more mysterious and sinister Tarot suits. The improbable road reminded me a lot of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and the infinite improbability drive. However, while there are glimpses of wonder, this book has a much darker tone than these predecessors and while it is certainly surreal and quirky, it doesn’t have the same amount of humour.
This is a compelling and cryptic book that ends on a grim note which makes me feel that Parker is probably not done yet with this story, and I’m curious to see what happens next.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“Dreams of Fire” by Christian Cura is an urban fantasy novel about a woman called Kara who works as an artist in Washington DC, USA. Kara is enjoying a lot of success with a great new apartment, an assistant at work and even the possibility of an upcoming exhibition. However, Kara has a secret: she is able to use magic. When she fights alongside an intriguing woman called Selene hired as security at a party, Kara forms a connection and soon begins to share some of her difficult past on their dates. However, a plot underway at a magical prison in Canada means that Kara’s past might be catching up with her sooner than she thinks.
This is an action-packed novel that imagines a world with mystics living alongside people unable to wield magic. Kara and Selene’s romance is very sweet and wholesome, and was a unique and clever way to deal with exposition with Kara revealing more about herself as the couple grow closer. There is a diverse cast of characters, and Cura’s magical world seems very international. I really enjoyed how easily Cura wrote in a same sex relationship into the book. Cura had a very clear vision for the story, and the way magic is wielded was carefully explained and consistent. I enjoyed the discussions several characters had about the morality of magic, and how it is the users of magic rather than the magic itself which determines whether it is good or bad.
Cura has a very descriptive style of writing and there were a lot of details about characters’ appearances, wafting aromas and beers being tilted towards lips that could have been pared back to streamline the story. I also would have liked the system of governance fleshed out a little. Enforcers seemed to be both magical police officers and corrections officers, and it wasn’t clear how the Council existed alongside typical non-magic forms of government. The prison itself seemed to mirror the prison-industrial complex associated with the USA, and despite the huge population of the prison (ranging from 1,500 to 6,000 detainees), it was unclear what kind of court heard and decided all these cases. One of the characters considers that if detainees don’t want to be in prison, they shouldn’t commit crimes, but I would have liked to know more about what the socioeconomic driving factors may have been for mystics to turn to crime.
An intriguing debut novel that would likely make a good comic or film adaptation.