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January 22, 1979

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  1. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

    16 October 2020 - 12:01 PM

    The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison


    The Emperor of the Elflands has been killed in an airship accident, along with his immediate sons and heirs. The imperial crown falls on his youngest son, Maia, who has lived in effective exile. Ignorant of the politics of the Elflands and the ways of the court, Maia has to learn whom he can trust and how to navigate the channels of government, all the while trying to find out who killed his father and brothers, and why.

    Originally published in 2014, The Goblin Emperor was a moderate hit for its author, Sarah Monette. Monette had already published or co-published six novels under her own name, but chose to adopt a new pen name to differentiate this work.

    The Goblin Emperor is a work heavy on political intrigue and courtly manners and light on action. The story takes place in a well-realised fantasy world, but is constrained almost entirely to the imperial court, with the reader hearing about goings on in faraway places only through reports, rumours and hearsay. Those looking for a traditional epic fantasy with lots of travelling, sword fights, awesome displays of magic and epic battles best look elsewhere, but those who are looking for a well-written, in-depth character study will find much here that is rewarding.

    This is a novel of manners, where characters behave and comport themselves through strict protocols which sometimes make it hard to discern their true motivations. Maia's job is to sort through the restrictions of hierarchy to work out who is an ally, who is an enemy and who is an enemy posing as a friend, and who is a friend who feels it impolite to impose themselves on the emperor. It requires a deft hand at characterisation to make this work, but the author succeeds in making these characters rise through the layers of formality and work as fully-fleshed-out individuals.

    The book makes much of language and terminology, a bit oddly for a book that also uses fairly generic terms like "elf" and "goblin," although these don't seem to be describing the traditional fantasy races but merely different ethnicities of humans, similar to the witches, goblins and demons of The Worm Ouroboros (who are actually just different types of human). There's a complex system of address, titles and styles which occasionally means the same character may be referred to in several different ways and even by different names. This doesn't happen too often and from context it's relatively easy to pick up on who's who, but it does occasionally briefly disrupt the flow of the story as you try to work out if this character is someone we've met before.

    The downside to all of this is that the pace is "relaxed" and occasionally risks being "languid," with major plot movements slow to develop and having to occasionally bulldoze your way through a dozen pages of Maia musing on dining etiquette and what is the acceptable level of formalwear for the next event he has to attend. If you're looking for a fast-paced, exciting book, this is definitely not it.

    The Goblin Emperor (****) is an intelligent, thoughtful and slow (sometimes a tad too slow) book, well-written and solidly-characterised with a strong background. The novel lacks a certain dynamism but makes up for it with the richness of the setting and characters.
  2. Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

    30 September 2020 - 06:45 PM

    Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor


    Binti is the first human girl from the Himba people to win a place at the prestigious Oomza University, where the best and brightest from hundreds of civilisations across the galaxy gather to learn. But Binti's journey to the university is interrupted by the hostile Medusae, who intercept her ship and wipe out the crew. Binti is trapped on a living ship with only hostile aliens for company and five days until she reaches her destination...

    Binti: The Complete Trilogy is an omnibus of Nnedi Okorafor's Binti series of short stories and novellas: Binti (2015), Sacred Fire (2019), Home (2017) and The Night Masquerade (2019). Combined, these four works barely last 350 pages but tell a narrative that starts in Africa and spans the entire galaxy, with the fates of billions resting in the hands of the protagonist.

    Much of the story is told from Binti's point of view and she's a fascinating protagonist. She's a brilliant mathematics student with the freedom to choose any career she wants, but she is constrained by a culture which wants her to marry and have children above all else. She defies that by running away to university, but this isn't a standard story of rejecting a culture to find something else; Binti continues to lionise and respect her traditions and heritage throughout the series, but also notes its flaws and the way it stops women achieving their full potential. Potential seems to be a key theme of the series, with not just individuals but also entire communities and cultures held back by prejudice, by anger and by the temptation to violence. The university in the story, as well as being a literal location and setting, is also a metaphor as place which helps people fulfil their potential; it helps Binti to allow her culture and several others (most notably the Medusae) fulfil theirs as well.

    The first story, Binti, won the Hugo and Nebula Awards and it's easy to see why. In under 50 pages, Okorafor creatures an entire star-spanning new setting, lays out the Himba and their rival Khoush cultures, introduces the Medusae and the university and tells a gripping story rich in tension as Binti has to find a way to survive and get off her ship, which requires a lot of careful negotiations with an alien species with very good reasons to distrust humans. The story is perhaps a bit too fast-paced (the resolution could have been expanded on a bit) but otherwise this is a great, tight and focused story.

    Sacred Fire, a new short story for this collection, expands on the aftermath of the massacre on Binti's ship, which is adversely affecting her work at university, and sees her (helped by her new student friends) trying to find a way to put the horrific events behind her. Home and The Night Masquerade are both individually much longer, but also form a continuous narrative that unfolds when Binti returns to Earth with her Medusae friend Okwu and has to negotiate the perils of relationships between cultures who were recently at war.

    The Binti series of stories is mostly excellent, taking in ideas such as family, communication and the interrelationship of very different cultures who have to coexist and resist the urge to warfare, all revolving around a strongly-defined central protagonist. The writing is excellent. The collection suffers a little from the medium. As it is made up of four separated narratives, there's a somewhat start-stop affair to the pacing and occasional re-statings of things we already knew from the earlier stories. This is very much an omnibus of four separate narratives, not a fixup novel, and should be read as such.

    The other problem, also stemming from the medium, is the lack of depth for some of the concepts and ideas being used. In the case of technology, not getting much of an explanation for the edan, the living ships and the relationship of the setting to our own time (the Himba seem to be descended from Africans and the Khoush from Arabians, but other human ethnic groups are completely missing) is all fine as it adds to the atmosphere of the story, but not getting much of an explanation for the Medusae and why they seem to be living on Earth, or why the edan hurts them or the otjize heals them, or other elements more central to the narrative can leave some elements feel underdeveloped.

    Once you get beyond the unusual and intriguing new setting, there are a lot of standard tropes at work here. Binti is a special character who becomes central to the crises at hand and quickly earns the respect and trust of multiple characters and entire cultures with what at times feels like unconvincing ease. Again, that's a problem of the medium, which does not allow for as much organic storytelling as might be wished. I'm also not certain that expanding the story over several novels and hundreds more pages would be the right move either; there's a tightness to the format and the storytelling that makes it a compelling read.

    Binti: The Complete Trilogy (****) mixes in refreshing new concepts with more established SFF tropes and ends up being a rewarding experience. Strong writing and strong characterisation are undermined a little but the background not being as fleshed out as it could be and the narrative can feel a little choppy, but beyond that this is a very solid read from a skilled writer. The book is available now in the UK and USA.
  3. This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

    12 September 2020 - 01:10 PM


    A war is raging through all of time and space, spanning an infinite number of universes. Two great powers - the Commandant and the Garden - are clashing, their agents fighting one another in the stone age and a distant future of galaxy-spanning empires. Two agents, Red and Blue, clash again and again without ever exchanging a single word...until the day they decide to start writing letters.

    This is How You Lose the Time War is a novella depicting a war fought through time between two implacable forces, each represented by one of their agents. It's a short book, at under 200 pages, and also an interesting one structurally, mixing traditional third-person narratives with the letters the two rival agents exchange on a regular basis. It's not quite an epistolary novella, more of a mix between it and more traditional narration, but the letters form an integral part of the story.

    Although short, the novella covers a lot of ground. Multiple settings, from deep space in the far future to a sinking Atlantis to contemporary cities, are used as battlegrounds by the warring sides, and we see both the hard end of their fighting and meet the vast and almost staggering forces leading the wars. That said, there isn't a lot of exposition in the book. The reasons for the war - given that billions, if not trillions, of branching timelines exist for the two factions to coexist in - are never really given and it's unclear who is winning and losing (although both Red and Blue are prone to boasting of their side's achievements, at least early in their relationship). To be honest, it's not really important. More important is how alone and isolated both agents feel, and the only person they can relate to is their opposite number, doing the same thing and feeling the same feelings, just in a different cause.

    The writing is poetic, with both agents keen to use creative language in their letters, which start off as verbal fencing matches but later become more flirtatious and intellectually challenging. There is humour in the book but also an air of bitter-sweetness. There's also tension: agents from the two forces are forbidden from communicating with one another out of fear of corruption, and it's not always clear it the agents are genuinely becoming enamoured of one another or each is trying to trap the other in an unexpected reversal. It feels a bit like Spy vs. Spy with added romantic tension, all set in the middle of Doctor Who's Time War.

    This is How You Lose the Time War (****) is short, focused and energetic, playful in tone and compelling in execution. Those who like books packed with exposition with every I dotted and every T crossed will probably be unhappy with the book's unapologetic lack of context; those who enjoy stories for their emotion and wordplay will be very satisfied.
  4. The Legend of Drizzt by R.A. Salvatore

    21 August 2020 - 03:12 PM

    The Icewind Dale Trilogy Book 1: The Crystal Shard


    Published way back in 1988, The Crystal Shard was the debut novel by R.A. Salvatore, the first novel in The Icewind Dale Trilogy (a trilogy notable for two-thirds of it taking place outside Icewind Dale) and the first in the much longer Legend of Drizzt mega-series, which now encompasses thirty-six books (thirty-nine if you count associated spin-off volumes focusing on other characters). It was also only the second novel published in the Forgotten Realms setting, the most popular fantasy shared-world setting in history, and a key reason why that setting exploded in popularity in the following months and years. It is also one of the biggest-selling and most popular Dungeons & Dragons spinoff novels of all time, possibly the biggest-selling (although it shares mighty competition from Dragons of Autumn Twilight).

    As the ship that launched a thousand sub-series, it's a curiously unassuming book. The stakes are relatively low - the fate of the world is not in the balance, just a backwater wilderness way beyond the northern edge of most maps - and there's a distinctly old-fashioned feel to the book. There's a fair bit of exposition and characters are prone to making declarative statements that end in exclamation marks! Not every line, but enough to feel like you reading a book where everyone is slightly deaf and has to shout to make themselves heard. The absolute near-absence of female characters in the otherwise extremely egalitarian Forgotten Realms (only one, Catti-brie, has any lines of dialogue) is also baffling, and was somewhat odd at the time, let alone today. It's something Salvatore does fix in later books (where Catti-brie becomes a major player and more female characters appear) but I had forgotten how hugely imbalanced this first book is.

    If you can overlook that, although the novel is very much not High Art, it is definitely fun. It's riper than three-year-old Stilton, but Salvatore makes up for a lack of technical skill with unbridled enthusiasm. There's fast and frenetic action scenes, and the characters may adhere to broad archetypes but they are executed well. Drizzt lacks his later mopiness at this stage and is even allowed to have some character flaws (his weakness for treasure and finding valuable magical items is something rolled back later on, but is amusing here). Indolent and morally suspect Regis gives us an answer to that question of what would have happened if one of the dodgier Sackville-Bagginses had joined the Fellowship of the Ring, and Bruenor is the most dwarfish dwarf who ever dwarfed. The only one of the core cast it's hard not to entirely like at this stage is Honourable Barbarian Warrior Wulfgar, Who Is Honourable And Stuff. Wulfgar is the kind of guy who has his own special rock where he goes to sit and be stoically honourable on (to the unbridled amusement of Catti-brie, who seems to have some kind of metatextual awareness of Wulfgar's character and needles him mercilessly about it, in one of the more modern-feeling touches to the novel). It's unsurprising that Salvatore seems to tire of Wulfgar - originally supposedly the hero and main protagonist - quite quickly and instead refocuses on the quirkier characters like Drizzt and Regis.

    The book also has a splendid feel for the wider community of characters. In books like this it would be very easy to have our core foursome (Drizzt, Regis, Bruenor and Wulfgar) undertake valiant deeds that save Ten-Towns from oblivion, with the people they are saving reduced to faceless background roles. Instead, the people of the towns are depicted as fierce and independently-minded, always eager to mix it up with the various invaders and with their own internal politics that are well-described, and even bit-characters are given some complexity. Kemp, the spokesman for Targos, is both a selfish political game-player and a brave warrior eager to get to grips with the enemy. Surprisingly, Salvatore makes you care slightly more about these people more than you would for the otherwise amorphous blobs of "people we must save" in such stories.

    The characterisation of the villain is also quite interesting: Akar Kessel, the mage who finds the Crystal Shard, is a complete and total imbecile and the semi-sentient Shard has to do a lot of work to mould him into a credible threat to Ten-Towns, to the point of often despairing at his total ineptitude. This is sometimes played for laughs, although darker character traits are hinted at: the fate of various "wenches" that Kessel mind-wipes into becoming his playthings - in another outbreak of 1980sness in the text - is mercifully left unaddressed. Kessel's ultimate fate is also darkly amusing.

    The Crystal Shard (***) - the literary equivalent of a Greggs Festive Bake - has not aged as well as might be hoped, but it's still a cracking adventure yarn which is well-paced, entertaining and occasionally surprising, if you can get through the wincing generated by some of the book's more dated aspects. Salvatore shows more enthusiasm than skill here, but does improve as a writer over the next few volumes. The book is available now in the UK and USA.
  5. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

    20 August 2020 - 02:46 PM

    The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow


    The Ten Thousand Doors of January is Alix E. Harrow's debut novel, following a string of successful short stories (including the Hugo-winning A Witch's Guide to Escape). The book is sits comfortably in the "portal fantasy" genre, a well-trodden field wherein sits everything from The Chronicles of Narnia and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant to Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry series. However, whilst most portal fantasies are about the mysterious new world the protagonists find beyond the portal, The Ten Thousand Doors is about the process of finding the doors and ensuring their survival. Very much a case of the journey being more interesting than the destination.

    The book also extends this approach to the lead character of January Scaller, whose oft-absent father and entirely missing mother leaves her feeling incomplete and unrealised. As the book progresses, the portals become vehicles for her journey of self-discovery; she gains a greater understanding of her past and her family as she crosses the portals.

    It's a fine approach, further helped by the narrative unfolding in two strands. The first strand is a first-person adventure narrated by January herself, unfolding over many years as she grows up and tries to learn more about her deceased mother and her often-absent father. The second is the book-within-a-book that January is reading, about a young girl growing up decades earlier who finds a way of travelling between worlds, a power that January realises that she also shares and is something that other people want to control...or destroy.

    The two narratives reflect on one another as they unfold in tandem, each informing on the other. Credibility is a slight issue here - January seems to be obsessed with the book, but only reads the next chapter when it's dramatically convenient to the advancement of the plot, rather than say blasting through the whole thing in a few hours like any sane reader - but this feels like a pedantic complaint about what is essentially a fairy tale for adults.

    There are other complaints - there are moments of Dickensian misery that occasionally insert themselves in a near-non sequitur manner, such as a slightly out-of-place episode taking place in a lunatic asylum - but these are constrained. After a slow start, The Ten Thousand Doors of January unfolds through splendid prose and elevates itself from a simple adventure to a meditation on the power of words, the art of storytelling and the reaffirmation of that old Tolkien idea of every journey of a thousand miles starting with a door, and wondering what's beyond it.

    The Ten Thousand Doors of January (****) is an intriguing book, mashing up traditional portal fantasy with the parallel universe strand of science fiction and using both as a vehicle to muse on story, identity and family. It's a book that does little that's new, but instead remixes a lot of existing ideas to create a compelling narrative.



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    05 Mar 2020 - 09:29
    Sorry, missed your birthday this year. Hope it was a good one.
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    22 Jan 2019 - 11:51
    Dun dun dunnnnn ...
    Have a good one.
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    22 Jan 2018 - 08:24
    Same as below. Better make it a good one because it's 40 next year.
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    22 Jan 2010 - 15:32
    Happy Birthday, now go out and get wrecked :)
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