The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

Coming off a well deserved Hugo for Best Series, Becky Chambers finishes her Wayfarers quartet with The Galaxy and the Ground Within. The novel works as an excellent bookend to the series along with A Long Way thanks to similarities between the two. Pei, Ashby’s partner, makes a return here somewhat continuing on their story. The book brings the series back to its book 1 slice of life roots.  And there is a gentle trend of found family tropes flowing through the novel as three aliens are forced to stay at a hostel-type travel stop.

(Sidenote: how unfortunate it is that a book that uses a planet-wide lockdown as a plot kickstarter would be released in 2020/21 – I doubt it was intended to hit quite so close to home. Although, a lockdown only lasting one week sounds pretty idyllic at the moment.)

This is the first Wayfarers book to not feature any humans at all; without that ‘default’ human perspective, the setting truly feels like a diverse galaxy. In a practical sense, it’s something that is harder to pull off at the start of a series because readers find it harder to identify with characters. But now, in book 4, trusting that readers will not bounce off the decision, we can acknowledge that so much of what we experience (teenage awkwardness, struggles between honesty and fitting in, two of those explored in The Galaxy and the Ground Within) is universal.

One thing I really admire about the world Chambers has created is that while it clearly is a generally better quality of life as you’d want a futuristic society to be, there are still genuine systemic problems that would come with the territory. Wayfarers is known for being cosy science fiction and I think having these instances of societal backwards-thinking actually adds to it. It grounds the characters in reality and makes their gradual acceptance of each other while being in moral disagreement more realistic. 

As is usually the case (with the exception of Spaceborn Few) the plot is fairly thin – there is no real attention given to the reason for the lockdown, it’s just used as a device to create character interactions. This isn’t a criticism though, it works to the book’s advantage. It’s reminiscent of real life for the average person so helps build the slice of life atmosphere. As a conclusion the Wayfarers series, The Galaxy and the Ground Within is anticlimactic. If you’re expecting some definitive closure or references to the previous books’ characters, prepare for disappointment. There is no grand send off to the series, no fanservice ending, this is just another installment. We read the book, finish the series, enjoy it, and look forward to what’s next.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

[dnf at 50%]

I have complicated feelings about this book. There were so much that I like, that felt fresh but the rest was like pulling teeth…idk let’s go through it:

It doesn’t read like the adventures of a select few ‘chosen ones’ in a fantasy world. Rather than follow one (or multiple) characters it follows the event of a revolution against the incumbent Emperor. Multiple people rise up organically to fight back in entirely separate circumstances as would realistically happen when a power vacuum exists. They’re also not all Lawful Good or out for revenge. Some just see it as an opportunity to lead or build a better standing. Some succumb to power just as easily as the Empire higher-ups and some, since they have no experience in military strategy or leadership, are defeated. It does a great job of simulating a history book with an eagle’s view of the entire conflict.

The world is quite fascinating, it’s diverse and just hints at cultural idiosyncrasies like how the position a person sits in company determines how formal/important they consider the meeting to be. Unfortunately, while the characters are nuanced and plentiful, they’re almost aggressively uninteresting. Maybe due to the vast scope of the book, Liu jumps between locations, points of view (occasionally with big time skips) and characters have only enough time to decide on their next action before we’re whisked away to the next. Occasionally the pace slows down and Liu’s short story skills come into focus as he reveals some grand event or intricate backstory through just a few words. But then, too soon we’re back to the top down view, the dry textbook that is recounting the notable events of this civil war.

I stopped just as the war was coming to an end so it may be that the second half of the book, that deals with ruling in the aftermath, is better. And I have heard that the sequel improves on it. So if the issues I had are not dealbreakers, it might be worth pushing through.

The Murderbot Diaries (#1-4) by Martha Wells

It’s difficult for novellas to receive glowing reviews. When done well, some of the most common responses boil down to “this was great, I wish it was novel-length”. People will naturally want more, which is a good thing but also defeats the purpose of a novella versus a novel. The idea of calling a novella just a shorter novel is akin to calling a dog just a smaller wolf. With a shorter length, there isn’t time to elaborate on a world’s structure (especially in the case of genre novellas) or set up a detailed plot. As a result, novellas have a tendency to look inwards and become character studies, leading to protagonists that the reader can deeply relate to.

This begs the question – how do you cater for readers who have become attached to characters which the novella has excelled in developing without compromising its structure and length?

Well, I don’t know. But Martha Wells had a pretty decent solution.

Releasing four novellas in quick succession allows Wells to have roughly the same amount of content as a single novel but in a more episodic format. With each novella having more or less standalone plots, the series is still not bogged down with exposition or settings. And due to the books’ self-contained nature, there still isn’t time to build complex narratives, and it shows with very unambiguously simple plots. All Systems Red can effectively be boiled down to Murderbot providing security to a group of scientists who, while doing ‘science’ for a company (literally called ‘The Company’), discover that something bad has happened to the other group of scientists and decide to find out what. And that’s it! There are explicit heroes and villains and plenty of pulp. Even the name of the titular character, Murderbot! Yes, it’s played as irony since Murderbot is almost entirely uninterested in dealing with humans, let along murdering them, but it’s still an unapologetic embracing of the most kitschy interpretations of AI sentience.

However, this isn’t to say the series is vapid in any way. With simple stories and Murderbot’s social anxiety both leading to minimal dialogue (especially in the first couple of books), much of the novella is concerned with Murderbot’s introspection. It’s rare to see a robot with such a vivid and ‘imperfect’ personality. It is a cynical, moody, drily funny mess of a robot, constantly trying to repress friendly emotions towards its human clients and get back to watching soaps. There have been many comparisons of it with Marvin from Hitchhiker’s Guide but unlike the Paranoid Android, Murderbot has a sort of self-resigned drive to trudge on and do the job that makes it so appealing as a lead.

All Systems Red was good fun but I enjoyed Artificial Condition, the best; the introduction of ART, a curious and an extremely intelligent transport ship, as a foil to Muderbot was an excellent idea from Wells and provides much wry banter between the two constructs. Both books deal somewhat with Murderbot’s past and how it came to be the only free willed robot and though the result is a little anticlimactic, it allows for Murderbot to slowly open up to others.

After the strength of Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol was a little underwhelming. It felt more like a filler story, not progressing forward the overarching story of The Diaries all that much. I was also disappointed with how the aftermath of the book  was handled. The extremely optimistic and friendly robot Miku was a great addition to show how human-robot relations should ideally be. Miku and its human owners being genuine friends is a novel idea for Murderbot. Murderbot has “complex emotions” about this in the moment but afterwards and in Exit Protocol it never reflects back on them. 

Exit Protocol bounces back from slump for the most part (in particular, it was nice to see the return of characters from All Systems Red) but doesn’t quite match the heights of the first two novellas. At this point, I think Wells was leaning a little too heavily on the insurance bond concept – everything was being tied to it, every so often some idea would be shut down or someone’s hands were tied because “oh the bond payout is too high so that can’t happen”. I’m a big fan of minimal worldbuilding, but it has its weaknesses and they were starting to show with this overreliance on one concept. Also, hacking was becoming way too powerful by the end of the book. Every hurdle was being solved by Murderbot hacking cameras and enemy drones and interfaces. In-universe it technically makes sense since, being an ungoverned security bot, Murderbot is much more powerful than humans or constrained robots but story-wise it was not that exciting to read.

Despite these issues, the novellas were all enjoyable reads that one can blast through in a couple of days. I do think that the ‘hook’ of the series was explored quite thoroughly  without overstaying its welcome so I don’t feel a great inclination to reading the follow-up novel. However, this premise of following such a powerful and yet nervous robot is so well-done and unique that it is well worth the read.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is the newest novella of P Djèlí Clark following in his theme of alt history. The setting is 1910s steampunky Cairo but djinns existing in the city led to Egypt gaining independence from Britain forty years earlier than real life, in addition to the capital becoming one of the world’s most advanced cities. Just like he did for New Orleans in The Black God’s Drums, Clark brings Cairo to life sublimely; in just 140 pages he creates a more fascinating and believable world than most do with 400. I think it’s the casual addition of little details that does it; offhand, almost fleeting mentions of diverse individuals (creating a realistically modern population), the implications of having automatons (touching on slavery), and protests for a women’s vote all build up a realistic city that functions outside of the main story.

The two main characters, Hamed and Onsi, fit into the classic detective partnership trope of one relaxed, somewhat fed up veteran paired up with an enthusiastic and nerdy newbie. Their interactions are just pure fun, with Hamed always rolling his eyes at Onsi’s earnest actions until it benefits him. And it’s very specific but I’m a big fan of supernatural activities being integrated into and regulated by governmental agencies. As such, I found the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities a great addition. In fact, that’s the type of thing that helps with realism. Of course there will be governmental oversight over something as everyday-life-changing as djinns and magic and it provides a fun twist on standard detective stories.

Despite having only male main characters, the book is very focused on women throughout. First of all, of course there’s the suffragette movement. It’s a slow burn, keeping in the background, but keeps getting talked about by the MCs (positively, on a refreshing note) and most side characters. In addition, every person whose help is required in the investigation is female along with the djinn itself – a repeated emphasis on the importance of women that is continually juxtaposed with their not being able to vote.

The plot of the book is fun and not overcomplicated. It boils down to an entertaining romp through Cairo while providing an enjoyable and unexpected story. The unimportance of the storyline is almost lampshaded at one point when Hamed realises, despite its urgency, how low stacks it is compared to other agents’ tasks.

But more than that, the story and setting is a light commentary on the effects of colonialism, or rather, the lack of. It is a visualisation of how an uncolonised North Africa might have grown along its own roots, by what it finds important. Using a subgenre that usually inherently implies required imperialism, Clark flips the perspective of exoticism (e.g. an agent wears English clothing because it’s weird and exotic) and makes the outrageous (read: very reasonable) suggestion that maybe non-Western countries could have led civilization in progressive matters, such as gender equality, had they not been colonised so many years ago.


To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers’ first novella is a story that considers the tentative deep exploration of space. And like all of her books, it abides by the two tenets of Chamberism (it’s a thing, don’t look it up) – optimism and inclusiveness.

The optimism in humanity is palpable: the space missions are not publicly or privately funded, but instead come through the third sector and are backed by citizen donations. There’s no ulterior motive, a la Cold War-style, no shareholders to appease. It is the gaining of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. In addition, throughout the mission, the astronauts are endlessly responsible in their exploration. Before stepping on each planet, they repeatedly stop to consider their effect on the foreign ecosystem. The casual and optimistic manner in which Chambers builds her futuristic vision makes for wonderfully enjoyable reading.

Secondly, an enormous diversity is represented with the novella’s small cast of four characters. Remarkable in simply how hardly remarked upon they are, the astronauts’ personal facets are brought up casually, when relevant, taking science fiction forward another important step towards transforming its norms. In addition to modernising social norms, Chambers futurises them by continuing to refine her skill in applying the found family trope with relationships that transcend the concept of ‘standard’ current day romantic and friendly relationships.

As discussed, most importantly, these two themes are not commented on much, they’re just there. More focus is given to the science. The book is harder sci-fi than the Wayfarers series  – Chambers goes into detail discussing how space travel works and its ethics, what somaforming is (sneaking in some biopunk), and the vastly different planets and their indigenous populations with gleeful enthusiasm that is impossible to not share while reading. 

(As a side note: due to the above point, after reading To Be Taught, I’m convinced that Chambers could write a fantastic, easy-to-understand non-fic on space exploration.)

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a love letter to the very concept of scientific discovery, human progress and humility, and the drive to learn – a fact clear from the beginning given the humble title paraphrased from former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s speech. Becky Chambers has carved out her niche in science fiction and fulfils it adroitly; those who enjoy Wayfarers will savour this novella (though may chafe at the shorter length), those who haven’t will find this a perfect litmus test for her body of work.

The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z Hossain

Melek Khamar, the Lord of Tuesday, has been asleep for ~3000 years and wakes up to a world where humans have salted the earth (or more accurately, the air) and require nanotech implants to survive. It doesn’t take too long for Melek Khamar (note he always refers to himself using his full name, the first indications of his self-importance) to begin his plans to take over again – because why not? That’s what he does. This might be shallow reasoning elsewhere but the entire novella is so self-aware, the read and author are acutely aware that it’s the childish plan of a magnanimous ruler.

The Lord of Tuesday (a very prestigious title we’re told, there’s only seven days after all) receives help from the mysterious very disturbing outcast Bhan Gurung who likes nothing more than a good genocidal night out and a bag of pistachios. Together they try to take over Kathmandu which has become one of the most advanced cities worldwide. I really like that the story is set here rather than the traditional settings of London/Tokyo etc. It makes sense that a djinn would wake up in Southeast Asia. Too often an author will try to force the location to be their hometown (understandably so); it’s very cool to see a city be used more organically.

Kathmandu is ruled by an AI called Karma which freely provides basic needs (food, water, shelter etc) to everyone. Money has been abolished, replaced with a karma system – good deeds build up one’s karma count, letting them use it as a currency. It’s an interesting depiction of a utopian post-capitalist society while deconstructing why the concept didn’t work as perfectly as its designers intended. A serious critique of this situation a la Brave New World would be fascinating but it’s a mistake to think this book is that. Extremely tongue-in-cheek, The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday mocks the vain, hyper-masculine warrior god trope in a gonzo, crackpot, lightning fast story. It parodies and exaggerates sword-and-sorcery heroes, but does so affectionately.

With characters like Gurung, who keeps pushing towards the goal of conquering the city by playing on an immortal, all-powerful djinn’s insecurities pride, and ReGi, the teenage djinn who grants wishes (read: sells weed) and listens to classic kpop, the book is impossible to take seriously. 

It’s absurd, hectic, and hilarious while prodding the redaer along with just some light commentary on the dangers of utopian society and AI-controlled decision making. Immediately after finishing the book, Escape to Baghdad! jumped straight to the top of my TBR – and perhaps that’s the simplest and most effective endorsement of the book I can give.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War is an incredible, intricately composed story of two rival agents, Red and Blue, going forwards and backwards millennia in time repeatedly trying to undo and outmanoeuvre each other’s attempts to win an endless war. The book is a masterclass in quality over quantity; without exaggeration it can be said that every line is important and beautifully written. Elegant to the point of poetry, sentences often end up being read multiple times. The reader can easily find themselves just enjoying each intricately alluring sentence before realising they’ve ignored the plot for paragraphs at a time. At only 200 pages, the time to read easily equals that of a traditional 400-page novel when the reader is almost forced to slow down and savour each word.

As is reflective of the characters’ personalities themselves, there is no hand holding here in any aspect of the storytelling. The epistolary structure is set up through increasingly intricate means that do not need to be understood to be enjoyed. The lore is vaguely teased out when one agent happens to find it necessary to preclude a taunt with some context. And the time travel system is not forgotten but rather scoffed at. There are mentions here and there of how time is braided together, reminiscent of Red and Blue, two lines of a helix pattern that never meet, but the mechanics are unimportant, not even given the formality of a brief explanation.

Ultimately, the book is truly a unique experience in and of itself. Incapable of being described in the format of ‘x meets y’, it is wholly and truly its own thing. It is bizarre and different and unclear and exceedingly original. This Is How You Lose the Time War may not be for everyone, but it is objectively something individual and undeniably breathtaking.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

I finally got around to reading The Bear and the Nightingale and I’m so glad that I did. Almost every little aspect comes together to create this wonderful, cosy book – the kind that makes you want to curl up in front of a fireplace and read.

The first thing that everyone notices is the writing style. Of course, it’s written in a fairy tale-like way to evoke the magical atmosphere, but the way it balances the fanciful and eerie natures is wonderful. The reader is always kept entranced by and wary of the mythical creatures in equal parts. On top of the fairy tale style, the prose is lyrical in its descriptions of the forest, Vasya’s house, and just the toil of everyday life in general. The book takes place over several years but it never feels rushed. The seasons flow into each other seamlessly and the characters’ growth is equally smooth.

The Bear and the Nightingale combines the real setting of Medieval Christian Russia with much Russian and Slavic mythology to great success. No knowledge of either is required despite there being times that I was unsure of some casually mentioned Russian concepts. I should stress that this isn’t a bad thing though; it’s far more realistic that these things be embraced by the author without slowing down the book explaining what they mean, especially considering that there was nothing vital to the story that was confusing. The folklore was handled a little less gracefully with many creatures just explaining to Vasya (and by extension, the reader) what they are and how they are relevant. But more important than how they were individually handled is how they were intertwined. The creatures felt like just another aspect of the world – the characters just accept that kitchens have domovoi and stables have dvorovoi, if not knowing why which leads the reader to accept this as business as usual too.

Without doubt my favourite aspect of the book was the familial relationships. From the outset, the siblings are portrayed so perfectly in how they interact. They tease each other, are playful, argue and support each other. A special shoutout to Vasya and Alyosha whose every conversation reminded me of mine and my sister’s.

“What’s that, Lyoshka?” she said, around a mouthful. Her brother leaned on his spade, squinting up at her. “What’s it to you?” Alyosha quite liked Vasya, who was up for anything—nearly as good as a younger brother—but he was almost three years older and had to keep her in her place. “Don’t know,” said Vasya, chewing. “Cake?” She held out half of her last one with a little regret; it was the fattest and least ashy. “Give,” said Alyosha, dropping his shovel and holding out a filthy hand. But Vasya put herself out of range. “Tell me what you’re doing,” she said. Alyosha glared, but Vasya narrowed her eyes and made to eat the cake. Her brother relented.

Ultimately the book delves into two heavy topics – the role assigned to women in society and how ignorance can so easily be controlled. The former, in particular, is handled well and is discussed all throughout the book. Fairly early on Vasya’s sister Olga is married off and from that onwards Vasya becomes acutely aware that she will soon be forced to do so also or else join a convent. When she pushes back from these options almost everyone points out that this is the natural lot in life for women. Arden tackles the topic with nuance – Olga is shown to be content with her marriage and Vasya doesn’t look down on her for it. She’s happy for her, at the same acknowledging that the life isn’t for her.

The Bear and the Nightingale is altogether a fantastic book. I suppose that isn’t a surprise revelation at this point but really for a debut novel, I was blown away by the elegant storytelling and the authentic characters and can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy.


r/fantasy 2018 Bingo Micro-Reviews

The annual r/fantasy bingo challenge is a staple of the community and the latest one finished on March 31st. I managed to complete it this year thanks to many of the squares lending themselves to the books on my pre-existing TBR.

Since I have written reviews for very few of my bingo books, I thought I’d write a quick 2-3 line micro-review of each, roughly in order of ratings (emphasis on roughly)

The Steel Seraglio – Mike Carey, Linda Carey, and Louise Carey (Non-Western Setting)

Okay I actually did write a review for this one. You can read it here, but the gist is that this book is perfect. And at only 646 Goodreads ratings, it’s criminally underrated. Written in the style of folktales, it’s a poetic and optimistic telling of a group of 100 concubines exiled and forced to adapt to life in the desert. My absolute favourite book of the year and easily an all-time contender.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant – Seth Dickinson (2017 Top Books)

Most people will have heard of Traitor Baru by this point, the story of a gifted young women who plots to tear down an oppressive empire from the inside. It’s got everything that you want in book – anti-colonialism themes? F/F relationships? Copious accounting? What else do you need?

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (Novel Adapted)

You know how sometimes classics really let you down because everyone talks so highly of them (looking at you Gunslinger)? The Handmaid’s Tale is the complete opposite of that. While it seems incomprehensible that the real world could suddenly become what Atwood describes, the subtle little changes that finally result in such a dystopia are all too easy to imagine, making this as powerful as it surely was 30 years ago.

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin (LGBT Characters)

I’m glad I started with a fairly unknown book because wow these last few are making me look so basic. Anyway, Fifth Season. You know the deal. Three books, three Hugos. Scathing indictment of racism and otherism. Partially written in the second person. Legitimate reasons for multiple POVs (rather than a crutch for showing more of the world). Nonchalant poly relationships. Two glossaries. Okay that last one wasn’t as important but for real, go read the book and come back to read the rest of this post.

The Winged Histories – Sofia Samatar (< 2500 GR Ratings)

Okay good back to unknown books, look I have such sophisticated tastes. The Winged Histories is such an excellent book, not just because of all the political manoeuvrings that go on in the background, or the themes of independence, religion, and rebelling against or accepting predetermined lives, but because of the prose. It’s mind blowing well written. It’s lyrical, it’s densely packed with information for just 300 pages, and Samatar casually switches between the present day and political, historical and cultural asides when necessary. This sounds like a hassle, but it works seamlessly. I could go on and on but just know it’s beautiful and so much more than simply a civil war.

Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers (Space Opera)

Remember when I said these would be 2-3 lines each? Okay let’s be more concise. This one’s easy anyway. If you’ve liked any Wayfarers books, you’ll like this no doubt. With Chambers’ trademark sanguinity it’s another perfect instalment in the series.

The Golem and the Jinni – Helene Wecker (Historical Fantasy)

A great slice of life novel following the titular beings in 1900 New York. Everyone talks about the exploration of friendships and religion and self-purpose which are excellent but the stand out feature is the plotting. The two main POVs along with a few side ones sublimely snowball into a tense climax. Whenever you feel underwhelmed by a book’s pacing but can’t verbalise how it should be, this is the answer. Worst part is Wecker using the vastly inferior spelling of djinn.

Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirrlees (Features the Fae)

Described by Gaiman as ‘the single most beautiful and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the 20th century’ and I can’t put it any more succinctly or accurately than that. Benefits from the novel factor of being pre-influential fantasy books/dnd and thus entirely unique in its depiction of the fae. Also it’s quaint af. I can’t overstate just how adorably quaint everyone is.

The Tower of Living and Dying – Anna Smith Spark (Featuring a God as a Character)

Spark has this magnificent way of describing everything so intensely, almost aggressively. Not just the visceral fights but even scenes that would be banal or filler by another author, like descriptions of food or buildings are so detailed it’s almost uncomfortable. It’s hard to explain but it’s utterly unique and while it’s certainly not for everyone, it’s brilliantly unique. Also, it’s a brave decision and certainly not easy to make every character unlikeable and still be captivating but Spark pulls it off with aplomb.

The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay (Protagonist is an Writer)

My first GGK and certainly not my last. I was hesitant going in, wondering how GGK would be able to create a convincing epic historical fantasy and resolve it satisfactorily within one book but he absolutely accomplished it. A clear analogue of Spain/Morocco relations with some Jewish-esque persecution thrown in for good measure, the book could easily have become a mess of political and religious strategies but instead it’s a fascinating and complicated study of love, bigotry, and war.

The City & The City – China Mieville (Standalone)

What if there were two identical cities split not by a Berlin Wall divide but instead geographically overlapped with the citizens resolutely ignoring the those from the other city? That’s the premise of the book and was more than enough to attract my attention. Fortunately, so, as the main plot advancement of a detective trying to solve a murder that involves both cities was interesting but not quite as novel. Regardless, Mieville’s limitless imagination and nuance is on show once more – I can’t imagine anyone else pull off such an ambitious and culturally heavy topic.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories – Ken Liu (Anthology)

Anthologies are a tricky breed to evaluate but this was easily worth the price of admission just for The Paper Menagerie. Better to go in blind, just know it’s a touching wee story. A lot of the stories will resonate more with 1st/2nd generation immigrants and many focus on the clash of Eastern and Western cultures but even if those themes are not directly relevant to your own life the number of award noms and wins (spoiler, it’s a whole bunch) will surely pique your interest.

City of Lies – Sam Hawke (Reviewed on r/fantasy)

Either I’m blissfully unaware of the genre or there is a distinct lack of whodunnit fantasy novels. Fortunately, Hawke comes blasting in with a debut that remedies this with a stellar group of main characters that are dangerously likeable considering how constantly they are at risk of being poisoned. Seriously, if you’re into intrigue and poison, this book is perfect.

The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories – Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (RRAWR Book)

From a blockbuster list of authors (Neil Gaiman, Maria Dahvana Headley, Nnedi Okorafor, Sami Shah and Helene Wecker among many more) comes an eclectic spread of interpretations of djinn behaviours and cultures. The diversity will ultimately mean it’s unlikely you’ll love them all, but every story is a fresh and unique take on the now somewhat overused mythology of djinns. Bonus marks for the exemplary spelling.

The Prince of Cats – Daniel E Olesen (Takes Place in One City)

Imagine an Assassin’s Creed style plot (without the weird Apple of Eden stuff) but with a lone wolf version of Locke Lamora as the MC. That’s the Prince of Cats in a nutshell but glosses over how cleanly written it all is. Olesen isn’t afraid to slam the brakes on the fast-paced plot to hit Jawad (the MC) with some serious development but then doesn’t get bogged down in his head. Every aspect is so historically and culturally accurate it could easily pass as historical fiction. Despite having only one perspective, side characters are fleshed out enough to steal scenes – everything comes together to make an excellent novel.

Princess Princess Ever After – Kate O’Neill (Graphic Novel)

I’m not much of a comic reader or audiobook listener so was kind of dreading this square. Fortunately, a friend linked to this cute webcomic. ‘Cute’ being the definite word. It is so adorable. Between there being random petals fluttering in the background every time the princesses touch to them stopping an ogre destroying a town by teaching him to dance, everything about this comic is wholesome.

Arm of the Sphinx – Josiah Bancroft (Features a Library)

Did you guys know that the Books of Babel is a good series? I know right, but bear with me. Arm of the Sphinx is a great sequel to an already very great debut – getting access to the viewpoints of the supporting cast was a pleasant surprise and only emphasised my correct theory that Voleta is the best character. I did feel that the book slowed down compared to the first as a result of having more character POVs, but the world is so weird and interesting that it was hardly a bother.

Circe – Madeline Miller (Goodreads Book of the Month)

Circe is tough one to sum up. On one hand, it’s written wonderfully and perfectly grasps the wonder of the Greek gods. The descriptions and sardonic remarks by Circe simultaneously draw you into the scope of the myths while keeping you grounded to the very real (well, ‘real’) implications of them. And of course, it gives a voice to Circe moving her past the depiction of a jealous, vapid, psycho woman who turns nice men into pigs. But the feminism representation that it boasts rings hollow when it takes these one-dimensional portrayals and just passes them onto every other female character (Scylla, Athena, Pasiphaë, and basically every nymph           ). It’s still an excellent retelling of Greek myths and an excellent in its own right but I feel that there’s better bastions of female empowerment out there.

Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb (Under Author Pseudonym)

Hobb’s gigantic saga starts here and it’s a very different start than one might expect. There aren’t any big action scenes hook in the reader or a bunch of POVs to reveal the world. It’s a very introspective, character-driven book. Definitely a love-or-hate type depending on your preferences but it’s exactly what I like. I did feel it went on a bit long though and while I really want to keep reading the series, I have yet to build up the strength to read of Fitz ‘my-life-is-a-literal-nightmare’ Farseer suffer for two ~700-page novels.

Borne – Jeff VanderMeer (One Word Title)

Borne is a weird af book. That’s not an insult mind you, being weird is VanderMeer’s forte and Borne is no exception. In this biopunk world, one thing I really liked was VanderMeer’s use of nature in uniquely interesting ways such as memory fish, firefly-based lighting, and attack beetles. If none of that makes sense, don’t worry. You don’t go into a book like this to understand the science fiction being used. Just embrace the strangeness and dive in.

Traitor – Krista D Ball (Self Published)

A quick read but by no means an easy one, Traitor follows a self-loathing, heavily depressed individual eking out a life in indentured servitude. If that doesn’t sound fun, I don’t know what does. Despite the heavy topics dealt with, through injecting just enough humour and keeping the plot moving swiftly, the book never gets too despondent. I do feel that there was a little too much emphasis on just how terrible the villain was. It probably would have been fine in a longer book but spending so many precious pages repeatedly showing that he is a creep was a bit disproportionate (but to be clear, he really was an ultra creep).

The Whitefire Crossing – Courtney Schafer (Features a Mountain)

Look, people need to stop using the trope of ‘oh I have a massive secret, but I won’t tell this person I’m entrusting my life to because they might react poorly’. There were some really interesting concepts used in this book (I liked how despite magic being locked to minority of people, most can buy magical artefacts for a variety of purposes and I’m pretty sure all the mountain climbing was accurate to real life) and I was pleasantly surprised by the story going further than one might expect. But this single trope annoyed me for about three quarters of the book until it was resolved.

The Black Company – Glen Cook (Published Before You Were Born)

I was looking forward to reading The Black Company – it’s a short read, is a model military fantasy along with being one of the precursors to the grimdark genre. But I was underwhelmed by the first book. Little things like characters using Americanisms such as ‘pants’ and ‘cussing’ kept pulling me out of the world. Not to mention, there’s one token non-white guy and I swear every time he’s mentioned; the MC has to describe him as a ‘little black man’. Is there a name for the phenomenon where if a person has a dark skin colour, then it’s referenced at every occasion? If there is, The Black Company fails that test repeatedly. The rest of the books are probably pretty great, and I’ll get around to them eventually, but I don’t feel any great rush.

The Wolf – Leo Carew (Published in 2018)

This ambitious alt history of Great Britain intrigued me with its premise of having two species of humans living on the island. But I was disappointed when it turned out to be just a very by-the-numbers fantasy. There’s the hero who reluctantly becomes king, those in his inner circle conspiring against him because why not, the single woman who of course is excessively snarky and then gets semi-fridged, the old mentor, secret police/assassins that keep threatening the hero but never actually do anything and the evil neighbouring kingdom. Every so often there’s a glimpse of something interesting and I wish Carew focused more on the biological differences between the human species (which I’ve never seen before) but ultimately, with so many stellar debuts coming out every year, it’s just not worth reading one that is exactly okay.

Theft of Swords – Michael J Sullivan (Hopeful Spec-Fic)

The most diplomatic way for me to review this is to say it wasn’t for me. Stop reading there if you’re a fan or your name rhymes with Cycle K Mulligan, I’m going to lay into it. But to be specific, the dialogue is clunky (“No, I won’t order you to marry my daughter, I treasure her” who talks like that?), the reader is repeatedly bashed over the head with exposition, in one page elves are transparently used as an allegory for racism and then the next chapter one of the MCs quips how much he hates all dwarves and it’s played for laughs. People say the book is an example of how to embrace tropes properly. They’re half right: literally every trope under the sun (except dragons, but who knows, there’s a million books in the extended setting) are thrown in. If The Wolf follows a checklist of tropes, Theft of Swords photocopied the list and put a cover on it. I would equate it to fanfiction but considering AO3 was just nominated for a Hugo, it would be an unfair comparison.

I think, as a whole, the challenge was a success. I delved into genres that I would usually ignore and some of the more specific prompts convinced me to finally get to some books that I’d been meaning to for a while. I was pretty pleased with all the books I read for. Even those that I didn’t enjoy too much, I’m still glad I read. I think I’ve found that I’m just not that into epic traditional fantasy anymore (or at least for the moment). I definitely seem to be giving higher ratings to smaller scale, character-focused books.

One issue I have is the ‘one author per card’ rule. Of course, it makes sense to be included as the point is not stick with just one author and fill up the card with all their books. However, it has the unintended side effect of discouraging sequel. The Fifth Season was one of my favourite books read over last year and I couldn’t wait to read the next two. But since I don’t read a huge number of books a year, 25 is quite a significant portion of that and I wanted to focus on finishing the card. So ultimately, I chose to fill out squares rather than finish multiple series. This was also the case with The Traitor Baru Cormorant and The Black Company, though to a lesser extent. As a result, you might notice that a vast majority of the books were standalone – partially because I like standalones more, but also so that I didn’t give myself too many unfinished series.

City of Brass by S A Chakraborty

As a whole, I liked City of Brass.

It suffers from a case of having a weak first half – never a good thing but especially dangerous for debut authors. It starts off awfully slowly and despite having two points of view, very little is accomplished. The main character, Nahri’s POV alternates between mountains of exposition regarding the djinn world, clans, culture and her attempting to be cool whenever Dara breathes nearby. Ali’s chapters consist of him being reminded repeatedly that the systemic djinn caste culture is pretty terrible and that he will be the king’s advisor when his older brother receives the crown. Nothing else really happens for the first 250 pages. A lack of story doesn’t inherently bother me, but if it’s the case there needs to be something else to hook the reader like moreish prose or introspective character studies (neither of which were bad at all here but not so great as to specifically note).

I recommend powering through it as once Nahri and Dara arrive at the city of brass, it gets far more interesting. In particular, Dara clashing with and antagonising literally everyone was immensely enjoyable to read. I was a huge fan with Chakraborty’s careful creation of an incredibly morally grey world. It’s obvious that the djinn in charge are not exactly kind rulers to the lower castes but those that oppose them are pretty shitty people as well. This is reflected well in the characters also – Dara is critical of much of the city (and rightfully so, mostly) but he’s hardly a paragon what with his historical reputation. Ali, too, is pretty reasonable in that he wants to help the poor but then he turns around and shows how religiously zealous he is and how he looks down on basically everyone around him. It’s the same for every major character and faction and never feels like whiplash personality changes; every chapter I was switching my opinion on who to support, it was expertly done.

I kind of felt that the female characters were a bit lacking, unfortunately. Nahri is an excellent character who goes through significant development throughout the book and I’m interested to see where her story goes in the future. But the supporting cast is somewhat lacklustre. Zaynab has one scene where she shows her cards immediately and Nahri’s like ‘okay not gonna hang out with her again’ and then she’s barely seen. Nisreen is more consisntenly prominent but she doesn’t really do much except be disapproving up until the climax. I expect she’ll have a bigger part in the sequels, and I hope Zaynab does too; she was a great character that deserves more focus (especially after her one particular conversation with Ali).

Probably every review has mentioned this at some point, so I won’t linger, but I really appreciated the Arab-esque setting, particularly because it was clearly so well researched. Djinn are to Islamic folklore what Baba Yaga is to Slavic folklore – that is to say, when anyone dares write about something so ‘exotic’, they probably are only interested about including djinn. So, it was refreshing to see references to marids, peri, daeva and nahids.

I think this review reflects more negatively than how I feel. I didn’t love it as I had hoped but I did enjoy it as a whole. I like that it doesn’t try to hide its Arab inspirations, written by an author who clearly isn’t writing in the setting because its ‘ethnic’ but actually because they’re interested in and knowledgeable about it. I like the constant struggle Ali has between wanting to support his family and help the needy. I like how Nahri is put in a shit position but negotiates her way to the ‘optimal’ solution even if it’s not the happiest for her. While I don’t feel an urge to rush out to buy Kingdom of Copper, I’ve heard that it is better by those who loved City of Brass so I will certainly be reading it in the future.