Irresistible Forces edited by Catherine Asaro

Read: 19 November, 2018

Like many others, I got this because I needed “Winterfair Gifts” – to come so far with Miles and then miss his wedding?? Of the other authors, only Catherine Asaro is on my radar (I’ve had her Skolian Empire books recommended to me, though I haven’t read them yet), so I was walking into this rather blind.

As I would have predicted, “Winterfair Gifts” was fabulous. It was absolutely everything I didn’t know I wanted. The rest, however, really weren’t up to that same quality. That’s not really fair, as I came into “Winterfair Gifts” with so much backstory that Bujold had the luxury of economy. All the other authors, however, had to build their worlds for me from scratch.

None of the stories were bad, by any means, but they also weren’t amazing. For the most part, I just didn’t find them particularly memorable. There were some good ideas, some bits I enjoyed, but I haven’t been moved to seek out any of the authors.

The book is worth getting just to have “Winterfair Gifts” on my shelf, and I am glad that I got to read some stories that aren’t in my usual wheelhouse. But if you buy this book, it’ll almost certainly be for Bujold’s story.

“Winterfair Gifts” by Lois McMaster Bujold

I knew coming in that this was going to be the story of Miles and Ekaterin’s wedding, but that’s it. I was prepared to revel some more in their relationship, with maybe a bit of plot on the side, but this delivered so much more.

I didn’t expect the POV shift. The protagonist of this story isn’t Miles, but rather his armsman, Roic (of bug butter fame). Having gotten to know Aral in Cordelia’s books, I enjoyed shifting to Miles’s perspective and getting to see how Aral appears from the outside. Now, we get to see Miles through Roic’s eyes.

The main highlight of the story, for me, was getting to spend more time with Taura. In particular, getting to see her in a social environment. I also loved the glimpse we get of Ekaterin, and how strong she is, as well as how perfect she is for Miles. She’s reminding me a lot of Cordelia, while also being her own separate self.

“The Alchemical Marriage” by Mary Jo Putney

Coming right after “Winterfair Gifts”, this story really didn’t have a chance. For one thing, it has to make me care about the lovers and their relationship in just a handful of pages, whereas I was already cheering in Taura’s corner before I ever started “Winterfair Gifts.” It almost seems cruel to put Bujold’s story first in this collection!

Trying to look at “The Alchemical Marriage” in isolation, it’s fine. It’s not my genre, so I’m less practiced at overlooking the genre’s conventions. Besides that, Macrae’s growly wildness struck me as a silly affectation (particularly since I don’t have much patience for that brand of masculinity).

I wasn’t particularly sold on the relationship, either. The lovers seem to have an attraction to each other, but it’s not really explored. We’re told that they are plumbing each other’s depths and vulnerabilities so that they can exchange magic more completely, but I didn’t get a sense of what that would mean to the characters. Isabel seems to struggle with sharing some parts of herself, but we are never told what those parts are and, in the end, she gives them up rather easily.

When the lovers do finally bone, it’s a matter of convenience – they have to bone to save England, you see! But then, suddenly, Macrae shows up at Isabel’s house all a-bluster, assaulting her servants and threatening her parents, because now they obviously have to get married. Isabel seems to think that Macrae’s approach is a performance to compensate for his own vulnerabilities, but is it? Really?

While perhaps more predictable, I would have liked more about the sharing of vulnerabilities. It’s mentioned how lonely Isabel was, as the only real magic user in her family. That should have been more central, I think. As it was, I got the feeling that the author was going for an exploration of the male/female dichotomy, but defined those terms too casually (like having Macrae be gruff), and then failed to make a compelling case for why these two essentialities should go well together.

I did like the insertion of magic into a historical event, though. That was fun.

“Stained Glass Heart” by Catherine Asaro

I found this one quite good. It was a little heavy-handed, but I did like the gender switching on the political marriage to a much older person plot, and I found that I quite liked the two main characters.

There was too much going on for a short piece, though. For example, having the main character’s whole family be empaths, including both of his parents. Having them be empaths at all was unnecessary to the story, and then it raises so many questions – such as why they are all empaths and why no one else is, even though his mother and father are from entirely different planets. The role of dance was a bit hamfisted as well. I liked that the main character had something “different” about him, and that he had a real dream that he had to give up if he wanted to stay with the girl he loved, but it was introduced a little late in the story. Also, given how many times the reader is told that “men don’t dance”, I feel like it should have been a more important part of the story before it becomes a plot issue.

All that aside, I liked the two main characters, and I liked that I could actually see why they liked each other. Giving Vyrl a shameful passion and having Lily happily accept it as part of who he is was a nice touch.

“Skin Deep” by Deb Stover

This one does pretty well with an absurd concept: A deceased husband is brought back to earth in a new body so that he can help his widow bone the man who had been his rival for her affections when they were first courting. Oh, also? There are male strippers, drug traffickers, and some sort of mob organisation complete with cops on the take. And all of that is crammed into a short story.

The story does well not to take itself too seriously, but it just doesn’t have much for substance. It’s competently written, but I’m sure I’ll forget all about it in a day or two. Except, maybe, for its cheesy early 90s set up.

“The Trouble with Heroes” by Jo Beverley

Not a bad story, but I felt that it was an awkward combination of too heavy handed while not having thought through what it was trying to say. There’s something there about soldiers being changed by war and coming back to a population that honours their heroism while also being afraid of what they’ve become. That’s all well and good, but then there’s the stuff about magic and controlling people’s minds, and it lost me.

It’s well written, and there are bits of the worldbuilding that have potential, but the story just didn’t work for me as a whole.

“Shadows in the Wood” by Jennifer Roberson

Nothing to write home about, but I did actually enjoy this one. I grew up on stories like Robin Hood and King Arthur, and seeing them combined was just good fun. I also liked the bits about old magic and the importance of blood and sacrifice, as well as giving the story to Marian.

    The Six Directions of Space by Alastair Reynolds

    Read: 17 November, 2018

    When I picked this book up from the library, I was surprised by how small it was – coming in at only 85 pages. Given the scope of the book, it’s no surprise that it doesn’t really spend enough time with any one part: The characters are interesting at a glimpse, but we don’t get much depth; the worldbuilding is interesting, but we don’t get much of it; the multiverse concept is interesting, but we see very little of it.

    I wanted so much more from the worldbuilding, because, I mean, Mongols in SPAAAAAACE! But this spacefaring civilization, that doesn’t have much in the way of planetary terraforming and therefore mostly lives on stations and in domes, has ponies. Why? Because the Mongols had ponies. There was an opportunity to do something neat with Mongols adapting from a pony-based nomadic society into a ship-based one, but instead they cart literal horses around on ships. Beyond that, because of the nature of the main character’s work, we get very little on what daily life would be like for the average denizen of this civilisation, despite that being the most interesting part of the story.

    The discovery of a multiverse is interesting, but it’s been done. The idea of alternate histories being formed around singular events gone differently is interesting, but that’s been done too. Without something more, this reads more like an outline or a pitch than a completed story. A story – both what we actually see covered in this book, plus its implied continuation – that could easily be a whole series. Instead of that, we get 85 pages. It just barely whets the appetite, then pulls the meal away at the last second. I’m greedy, and I want more.

      Dead Wake by Erik Larson

      Read: 16 November, 2018

      Knowing that the boat would sink, the slow build (perhaps about 70% of the book) was anxiety inducing. Larson alternates between the Lusitania (stories of the boat itself, or the domestic everyday lives of its passengers) and U-20 (primarily its captain and movements, but also a little history on what submarines were like in the first World War). It’s like a slow-motion dance between predator and prey, and, knowing how it would all end, I was still watching, through fingers, as it plays out.

      In the end, however, the boat must sink. I was listening on audiobook while driving to work when it came to the story of a little boy who saw a woman giving birth in the water, and was haunted by the possibility that it had been his own mother – a heavily pregnant woman who died with the sinking. I pulled into the parking lot at work with tears streaming down my face.

      Larson does a good job of focusing in on each little tragedy during the sinking – many of people we’ve come to know over the course of the book. It’s heartbreaking and terrifying. Leading up to that awful day, I found the stories of the individuals involved (passengers and crew of the Lusitania, as well as Schwieger, captain of the U-20) very compelling. There’s a good cross-section of gender, class, and career, giving a well-rounded picture of what every day domestic life would have looked like around the beginning of World War I.

      I was particularly interesting in the history of these early submarines – before so much of the technology (such as sonar!) was ready for such a ship. It really did revolutionise naval warfare, and Larson spends some time on the high-speed armsrace (of both technology and tactics) that these new ships forced in.

        Vorkosigan Saga #19: Diplomatic Immunity by Lois McMaster Bujold

        Read: 11 November, 2018

        Over the course of the Vorkosigan series, there have been quite a number of details (people, places, ethnic groups..) that have popped up and then disappeared as attention moved elsewhere. The Nexus is big, and Miles always has to keep moving. I could read a whole series devoted entirely to Cetaganda, for example, but I also want Miles to explore Jackson Whole. Invariably, each individual story gives the reader only as much of the characters and setting as is necessary for that particular story, and then we – and Miles – move on.

        But, sometimes, we get to another encounter, a little follow up. Diplomatic Immunity has that in heaps.

        For one thing, I loved the Quaddies in Falling Free, when they were just a little group of hopefuls heading out into the cold universe to try to make a little home for themselves. We did get to see one Quaddie, Nicol, briefly in “Labyrinth”, but she was out of her element and under stress and, anyway, we didn’t get to spend a whole lot of time with her. Now, however, we get a whole story set in Quaddie-space!

        It was fantastic to see how the ideals of the original community translated into an organic culture with history behind it. It was also lovely to see the Quaddies with more agency and power (as they were treated in a very child-like way by the downsider characters in Falling Free), while still retaining that essential communal nature that had made them so unique.

        I was also so happy to see Bel Thorne again. I’m so glad that it landed on its feet (so to speak) after everything that went down, and I’m really happy that it was able to find Nicol again.

        I did notice some growth in how Bel’s gender is treated. For one thing, Miles seems to have retconned some mutuality into their sexual chemistry, and seems to regret that they hadn’t had a relationship when it was possible. Perhaps that’s just a sign of Miles’s own growth and maturity. I noticed, also, the term “herm” being used quite a bit, which I think is new? I don’t recall it leaping out at me previously, though of course Bel wasn’t the focal point of a story until now.

        I would have happily read a book about Guppy’s life, and his time with Gras-Grace and the others. I wish we’d had a little more closure with regards to his fate, because he deserved so much more than what happened to him in this story.

        Lastly, babies! Twins! Oh my goodness, I’m so excited!

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          The Witcher #2: Sword of Destiny by Andrej Sapkowski

          Read: 7 November, 2018

          As with The Last Wish, this is a collection of loosely connected short stories. There’s a strong theme of parenthood, with both Yennefer and Geralt grappling with their infertility, and with Geralt circling his destiny with Ciri. There’s also a scene where he comes across his birth mother, and faces the pain he feels that he was given over to the witchers rather than aborted. It’s an interesting situation, and it shows just how much he resents having been made a witcher – even while fitting the role so well. In terms of the destiny discussion, it’s also interesting to note that his mother – a sorceress – should have been infertile.

          There is a scene where Geralt comes to the monument of the second battle of Sodden Hill and comes to believe that Yennefer (along with Triss Marigold and Coral) has been killed. It was rather moving to see the depth of his (misplaced) grief.

          Yennefer shows up a lot, but she doesn’t get much actual interaction with Geralt. Any time they talk, they are either having sex or lamenting that they can’t be together and doomed to break up every time they try. We are shown Geralt’s own feelings for her, both at Sodden Hill and in his almost battle with his rival, Istredd. But while we’re told again and again that he loves her, we aren’t given much of a reason for it. If I remember correctly, this comes out a bit more in Blood of Elves and Time of Contempt, when the two of them form a sort of nuclear family with Ciri.

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            Redshirts by John Scalzi

            Read: 31 October, 2018

            The concept for the story is absolutely hilarious: What if the “redshirts” (the throwaway characters on the original Star Trek who seemed to exist just so that their deaths could drum up a little drama) figured out that they were redshirts, and decided to try to do something about it?

            Given how poorly such a high concept story could go, I was thoroughly impressed by Scalzi’s ability to keep me laughing through almost the entire book. I mean, when a science fiction writer is asked if he’s ever even taken a science class, he responds: “It’s called science fiction. That second part is important, too!”

            I was listening to this on audibook in the car, and I must have looked ridiculous, laughing my arse off as I’m barrelling down the road..

            Wil Wheaton’s narration took a little getting used to. His voice is so familiar and recognisable that it took some work to hear the characters, rather than Wil Wheaton #3, female Wil Wheaton, older Wil Wheaton, etc. This wasn’t helped by the dialogue’s over-reliance on the “said” tag. So even though only two or three people are talking, and even though they are fast-quipping at each other, every single line ends with “said X”. You could hear the strain in Wheaton’s voice as he tried not to make that sound as ridiculous as it invariably did.

            That aside, I did thoroughly enjoy most of this book, and Wheaton’s narration was great once I got used to it. Besides, just having him do the narration was amazing.

            I will say, however, that the three codas at the end should never have made it out of editing. There’s a little satisfaction in finding out what happened to various characters, but they don’t fit with the tone of the rest of the book, and try a little too hard to make this a “serious” book. The story was already over by this point, so they really only serve as padding. Up until that point, I loved Redshirts, but I barely got through the codas.

              An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

              Read: 28 October, 2018

              I didn’t realize that this was the beginning of a series until after I’d finished it. Though, to be honest, this works as a standalone story as well. Yes, the ending is ambiguous, but it’s a complete origin story arc. The mystery of the Carls is still open ended, but it’s almost better that way.

              I loved how strong the characters felt. Even the “baddies” had a nuance and an understanding that can be quite rare. I loved that Green did not make compromises for his story – the fictional world is every bit as complicated as our real world, while still reflecting Green’s own stated faith in humanity (as per his other media, such as his YouTube videos).

              Having this come from Green, who was himself shot into fame after one of his YouTube videos went viral (and then another, then another, etc), was especially interesting, because April’s musings on that aspect of her life had a lot of authenticity. There were times when this book felt downright autobiographical (plus giant alien robots).

              The mystery of the Carls and the Dream was captivating. It was, essentially, everything that I had liked about Ready Player One, but without all the white boy nerd baggage. I loved that April herself didn’t solve most of the mysteries, but had to outsource and to cooperate with many other people to accomplish her goals. However much she wanted to be the hero, the mystery kept bringing her back down into humanity.

              Overall, I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable and very uplifting book. It’s full of hope for humanity, but without seeming saccharine or naive. I do think it fits in with a YA audience, but isn’t a YA book, per se; this is straight up science fiction. And more than enough to be found here for the more “mature” SF/F fans among us.

                Pushout by Monique W. Morris

                Read: 23 October, 2018

                With the proliferation of mobile phones and social media, the mainstream is finally becoming aware that encounters with law enforcement are far too often fatal for black boys and men. Along with that, is the mainstream awareness of black incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline.

                But left out of this awareness is how the particular intersection of gender and race affects black girls. Not as likely to go to prison (though those rates are rising), Morris talks about the school-to-confinement pipeline for black girls – expanding the discussion to recognise other forms of restriction and surveillance, such as house arrest.

                This is by no means a comprehensive book – in fact, each chapter could easily be a whole book on its own – but it is an excellent conversation starter about an issue that is too often ignored. Black girls are often left out of programs designed to help girls, as well as programs designed to help people of colour, and this book does a great job of looking at where this leaves kids who fall into both (and sometimes more) categories of oppression.

                At the back of the book is some practical advice for kids, parents, and teachers who want to make a change – inclusion a description of two alternatives to punitive methods of school discipline.

                  Uzumaki by Junji Ito

                  Read: 19 October, 2018

                  The story isn’t particularly linear, with each chapter covering a new expression of the spiral obsession that kills the residents of Kurozu-cho. The main character, Kirie, is a witness to the goings on, and there are other recurring characters, but each chapter can otherwise function as independent short stories.

                  The artwork is incredibly creepy. Some of the imagery is downright haunting. I was particularly impressed by the subtle gauntness that the spiral’s victims take on, little by little, as they are overtaken.

                  The horror is very Lovecraftian. There’s no single monster that’s taking victims. Rather, there’s an obsession for spirals so extreme that a character will literally twist his body into a spiral, killing himself. There’s a scar on a girl’s forehead that grows into a spiral pattern and ends up consuming her entirely.

                    Moonstruck, Vol. 1: Magic to Brew by Grace Ellis (illustrated by Shae Beagle)

                    Read: 16 October, 2018

                    I really love the artwork! The colours really pop, and every character has a very unique style that made it easy to keep track of who was who. I also liked the two different art styles to show what was part of the main story, and what was part of the in-world book.

                    My only complaint is with the pacing. It starts off nice and slow as we get to meet our characters and see their rapport. Then the mystery starts, and we see a little of how Chet, the character who is mainly affected by the mystery, copes (or not) with what has happened.

                    All’s good for that first 2/3rds. After that, however, the story seems like it’s rushing to a finish line. There were times when I thought I might have accidentally skipped a page because things were happening so fast. Who are the baddies? Why are they doing what they are doing? There’s a bit in there about trying to rid the world of magic, which would fit with the central theme (the main character, Julie, is embarrassed of being a werewolf and wishes she were a plain human), but that’s just one line. It’s a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it moment that doesn’t do much more than simply nod to the central theme to remind us that it still exists.

                    The whole final conflict (starting with tracking down the ghost to find out where the final conflict would take place) could have been at least twice as long, and given Julie’s choice to stop the baddie some actual weight.

                    Aside from that, I did really like this. The characters are interesting, I love all the inclusion, and the art style is perfect for the story being told.