It’s time for my final Review Amnesty edition. After last year’s hiatus I had a whole stack of books I’d read, but not reviewed and I found that they were becoming a huge stumbling block into getting the blog started back up again, so I decided to call a review amnesty and just run through them in batches and short pieces giving my thoughts, instead of writing full reviews for them. I ended up with three posts of which this is the last one. So with this post I bid goodbye to the Review Amnesty, though you never know, they might make a comeback at some point in the future.
Daniel Polansky – The Builders
A missing eye.
A broken wing.
A stolen country.
The last job didn’t end well.
Years go by, and scars fade, but memories only fester. For the animals of the Captain’s company, survival has meant keeping a low profile, building a new life, and trying to forget the war they lost. But now the Captain’s whiskers are twitching at the idea of evening the score.
It is no secret that I consider Daniel Polansky one of the most criminally underread fantasy authors working today. And his novella The Builders only firms me in that belief. It is classic Polansky, marrying an absurd concept with classical tropes and taking his narrative in directions that when you see them coming make you go: “Oh no, he wouldn’t!” and then Polanksy totally does. And he not only does so, but makes it work in fantastic ways. The Builders has these things in spades. I love his anthropomorphised crew of animal characters, with the unlikeliest hero character in the form of a mouse. People have mentioned Brian Jacques’ Redwall, Richard Adams’ Watership Down, or even Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, when talking about the animals in this story, for me it brought back childhood memories of reading Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthingwood, where what the animals were informed so much of their character, something that is just as true for The Builders. How can you fail to fall in love with the flamboyant Bonsai, the French stoat, or the taciturn badger Barley? Sometimes I manage to write my most succinct review of a story out in a tweet and The Builders was one of the those rare occasions, so here goes:
— Mieneke van der Salm (@Pallekenl) September 13, 2015
The Builders is already on my Hugo Nominations Ballot.
Ann Leckie – Ancillary Mercy
For a moment, things seemed to be under control for Breq, the soldier who used to be a warship. Then a search of Athoek Station’s slums turns up someone who shouldn’t exist, and a messenger from the mysterious Presger empire arrives, as does Breq’s enemy, the divided and quite possibly insane Anaander Mianaai – ruler of an empire at war with itself.
Breq refuses to flee with her ship and crew, because that would leave the people of Athoek in terrible danger. The odds aren’t good, but that’s never stopped her before.
I fell in love with Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series last year hard and I was so excited to get a digital arc for Ancillary Mercy in advance, even though I’d also be buying a print copy. And I inhaled the book. It was an amazing ending to a fabulous series. Unfortunately, the review for the book got sucked into the black hole of last year’s hiatus, though it did inform my interview with Ann Leckie that I published around publication of the book. And so much has been written about the series and the book that somehow I don’t think it’s lacked for coverage. However, if you’ve read either or both of the preceding books, you owe it to yourself to see how Leckie stuck the landing on this series and how Breq’s story is concluded for now.
For me the most poignant and powerful relationship in Ancillary Mercy was that between Breq and Mercy of Kalr. I loved how Ship feels just as much of a person as Breq, Seivarden, or Tisarwat and asserts this concept of her identity in her interactions with Breq. Breq’s struggle to come to terms with her own feelings and actions in regard to Ship and how she thinks of her, reminded me a lot of how many of us struggle with accepting our own systemic biases and the need to address them. I’m glad that Leckie will be returning to the Radch in the future, because I’m not ready to leave this universe yet.
Terry Newman – Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf
Private eye Nicely Strongoak is your average detective-for-hire, if your average detective is a dwarf with a Napoleon complex. In a city filled with drug-taking gnomes, goblins packing heat and a serious case of missing-persons, Strongoak might just be what’s needed.
But things are about to turn sour. When on the trail of the vanished surfer, Perry Goodfellow, Nicely receives a sharp blow to the head, is burgled by goblins and awakes in a narcotic-induced haze on the floor of a steamwagon with an extremely deceased elf, who just happens to have Nicely’s axe wedged in his head.
Nicely must enter the murky world of government politics if he is going to crack his toughest case yet. He’ll have to find Perry, uncover who the dead elf is and leave no cobblestone unturned…
Another black hole victim, I read Terry Newman’s Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf during my journey to Nine Worlds last year. And it was a perfect airplane/con companion, as it was an easy read to put down and pick up repeatedly. It took me a while to get into the book, both because I needed to settle into Nicely’s narrative tone of voice and because I needed to read past the story’s very self-aware positioning as a noir detective story. The book contains all the hallmarks and tropes of this genre, even being set in what seems to be a secondary world version of San Francisco, which is sometimes a little jarring. The characters are also very noir, but are all standard fantasy stock: dwarves, elves, trolls, gnomes, you name it, it is there. However, while the story is trope-filled, it doesn’t rely too much on stereotypes, which made the story work well. In the end, I had fun with the story and I found myself rooting for Nicely, Thelen, and Liza to get the happy ending they deserved.
Robert Brockway – The Unnoticeables
In 1970s New York City, all Carey wants to do is drink cheap beer and dispense ass-kickings. He doesn’t care about the rumors of tarmonsters in the sewers, or unkillable psychopaths invading the punk scene, that is until strange kids with unnoticeable faces start abducting his friends.
In present-day Hollywood, stuntwoman/waitress Kaitlyn is trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life when an angel appears outside her apartment, a former teen heartthrob tries to eat her and her best friend goes missing.
There are angels. There are demons. They are the same thing. It’s up to Carey and Kaitlyn to stop them. The survival of the human race is in their hands. We are well and truly screwed.
I really enjoyed Robert Brockway’s The Unnoticables, especially the attention he paid to the use of language and slang. His story is set in two different timelines, one in the 70s and one in the present and they both feel very different in atmosphere and in language. Just reading a bit of dialogue would make clear in which era you found yourself when picking the book back up and to me that was the most fascinating element to the book. The story was well-paced and original, a take on urban fantasy I hadn’t encountered before. If you enjoy somewhat darker, supernatural tales, this is definitely a book to check out.
James Tiptree Jr. – Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
For a decade Alice Sheldon produced an extraordinary body of work under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr, until her identity was exposed in 1977. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever presents the finest of these stories and contains the Nebula Award-winning ‘ Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death’, Hugo Award-winning novella ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’, ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ – winner of both the Hugo and Nebula – and of course the story for which she is best known: ‘The Women Men Don’t See’. This is a true masterwork – an overview of one of SF true greats at the very height of her powers.
I read this collection as preparation of the Galactic Suburbia Spoilerific episode honouring James Tiptree Jr.’s centennial last August. If you’d told me five years ago that I’d be reading old (read: pre-my-birth) SF stories and loving them too, I’d have laughed in your face. Because I was a fantasy girl ALL THE WAY. Cue five and a half years of blogging and broadening my reading horizons and I not only read this entry in the SF Masterworks series, I even re-read stories in it, because I enjoyed them so much and I wanted to revisit the themes they contained. James Tiptree Jr.’s life story and the themes in her work is still incredibly relevant today, in a world where women’s writing is still habitually erased. I highly recommend this collection to any fan of SF.