Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

May 2, 2015

Review – Seeing Red (Ambassador #1) by Patty Jansen

I haven’t actually formally signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015, but I am still trying to include as many Australian writers in my reading diet as possible. To that end I’m going to try to review at least one Australian writer (or editor/anthologist) a month in 2015 (yes, yes, I’m behind on that), keeping an eye on the gender balance as I go. To start with, here’s what I thought about the first volume of Patty Jansen’s Ambassador series of SF diplomacy.

***

Seeing Red is the first volume of Patty Jansen’s Ambassador series, featuring Cory Wilson, Earth’s brash neophyte representative to an alien coalition called the gamra. About equal parts science fiction mystery and conspiracy thriller, with romance and social commentary subplots thrown in for good measure, Seeing Red is a delicious meal.

On the eve of his appointment as the ambassador of Nations of Earth to the alien gamra, an explosive assassination attempt propels Cory Wilson from Earth to the alien city of Barresh where he must prevent an interstellar war, solve a murder and figure out which of several alien factions is behind it all. Wilson is behind the eight-ball almost the whole time: separated from his alien partner and his fiance, his resources cut off by a suspicious Earth, and caught between the interests of bickering alien governments.

Wilson’s a fun character – overconfident and arrogant, but resourceful and more dedicated to his job than anyone around seems to give him credit for. But the real entertainment value of Seeing Red comes from his navigation of the complicated politics of gamra, the alien organisation that runs the star-travel network known as the Exchange. Gamra is like a cross between Dune’s monopolistic Spacing Guild and a United Nations Security Council where everyone is expecting war to break out. By comparison, Nation of Earth is also like the UN, except that it occasionally behaves with the sophistication of an unruly local council Chamber of Commerce.

There are a few nice action set-pieces keeping the debates and conspiracy-hunting from slowing things down, and the linked central mysteries are well-constructed and satisfying. I found the ultimate villain of the piece was not too difficult to identify, but saying that there are plenty of surprises to be had. In terms of Wilson’s very complicated romantic life, I felt he was sometimes a bit improbably dense or in borderline-cruel denial, but it resolved well and I certainly never felt it got in the way of the intrigue or the shooting.

Seeing Red is an excellent thriller, with what seemed to me to be solid science underpinning the intrigue and action. I’m planning to read the sequels.

October 2, 2014

Review – Shatterwing (Dragon Wine Book 1) by Donna Maree Hanson – AWWC 14

This is my fifth review for 2014 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve dropped a bit of momentum on that project (along with most of my other projects, it’s fair to say) but I am still on track to read 10 and review 6 books this year. Er, if I get a move on, at any rate.

Shatterwing is the first half of Donna Maree Hanson’s Dragon Wine series (digital release from Momentum Publishing) and to be very clear, it is very much the first half of a single story. While both its main threads are brought to intriguing points of climax, neither is resolved in this volume. That will presumably have to wait for Skywatcher (Book 2, due out on the 9th of October 2014). Severing the story is an interesting publication choice, but not one that I’ll go into here; I’ll save that for a review of Skywatcher.

Let’s get the important bits out of the way first – Shatterwing is brutal. If you need trigger warnings for torture and sexual abuse, consider yourself warned. I hesitate to use the expression “grimdark”, mostly because I’m yet to see a satisfactory definition of the supposed subgenre, but it is grim and it is dark. The setting alone is post-apocalyptic – one of the moons has shattered and left the world of Margra a devastated meteor-blasted wasteland. Wild dragons prey on incautious survivors. A brutal dictatorship controls the only commodity that matters any longer – dragon wine, which has restorative properties and might be the only thing keeping humanity alive. Violent rebels use terrorist tactics to wrest control away from the governors. And political prisoners are kept in slaves camps to tend the dragon wine vineyards.

Salinda is a vintner is a prison camp ruled by the Inspector and a sadistic cadre of guards. Salinda avoids the most savage treatment meted out to the prisoners partly by virtue of being a skilled wine maker, but mostly by pretending to be diseased so that her guards won’t rape her. Brill, a new prisoner assigned to her as an apprentice, is tortured by the Inspector for information on a rebel faction. The first part of the story concerns their fight for survival within the camp and the revelation that both are guarding powerful secrets.

A second narrative thread concerns an explorer from an underground city who has been in life suspension for hundreds of years, emerging to explore a world in complete ecological collapse. A third concerns a trade delegation from an order of astronomers that goes badly awry. Both storylines are interesting but are more set up than resolved in this volume.

Rape, along with every other conceivable form of torture and maltreatment, is a constant threat throughout this book. To be clear – protagonist characters in this book are raped, tortured and threatened with abuse and death. It is rough going – while there are moments of optimism and even some sly humour, the characters of Shatterwing suffer terribly. Strange powers and secret knowledge do not protect them from horrific abuses at the hands of their captors.

Shatterwing is not so much a brutal fantasy as it is a fantasy about surviving brutality. The characters endure horror and loss, but they keep going, hanging on to life with a death grip. The story looks at the different ways that humans respond to horror, whether though grim resolve, pragmatism, denial and a desire for justice or revenge. For all that the brutality was not an enjoyable read, the honesty with which the characters respond to the brutality is a strength of this book.

The world building in Shatterwing is also a strength. I could happily have read an entire novel about the intricacies of combining dragon physiology and wine making, not to mention the various hints that crop up about strange magic powers – or technologies indistinguishable from magic. This first Dragon Wine volume raises a raft of interesting questions that I want to see paid off. Understanding how this broken world works – and how these characters might put it back together – has got me intrigued to read the concluding volume.

I’ll steel myself for what the characters might have to go through to get to the end though.

August 4, 2014

Review – Peacemaker by Marianne De Pierres – AWWC14

I’ve been off the pace on my reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014, but as I’m resolving to do more blogging in August, what better way to kick off proceedings than by catching up on my own self-imposed commitments? This will be my fourth review for 2014, which means I’m well behind on my target of ten Australian women writers read and six reviewed. That’s unsurprising as I’m behind on my reading in general. For some reason my book consumption has declined sharply in the past few months, though sadly my book acquisition rate has pushed through previous ceiling records.

Peacemaker by Marianne De Pierres (Angry Robot Books 2014) concerns Virgin Jackson, a park ranger who works in Birrimun Park, a vast desert nature preserve in the middle of the megalopolis that covers the eastern Australian coast. Jackson witnesses an after hours murder, when the park should be deserted and monitored by every surveillance device known to man – but there’s no sign of the killer, she’s wounded by what appears to be a ghost crow, and an implacable police detective seems determined to fit her up for the killing. She bristles when her boss agrees to United States cooperation in the investigation, and she is assigned a stetson-wearing, sixgun-packing partner named Nate Sixkiller.

Peacemaker walks a strange line between futuristic police procedural and old-fashioned Western, mixing in a supernatural conspiracy to boot. With such a bizarre melange of elements, not to mention two lead characters with borderline-ridiculously iconic names, there’s no way this book should work. And yet it does, carried along by strong character work and a solid investigative core. Virgin is a tough loner with a tragic past who’s buried herself in her work – of course – and Sixkiller is a strong, laconic lawman who knows more about what’s going on that he’s letting on – of course – but their strained partnership dodges around cliches of sexual tension and professional jealousy and works all the more strongly for it. The supporting cast is very strong, including Virgin’s stripper boyfriend, her investigative journalist best friend and an introverted tech support guy with privacy boundary issues.

The action moves fairly quickly, and Virgin in particular comes off the worse for wear in virtually every confrontation, but it all remains remarkably grounded and focused. De Pierres sneaks some fascinating world-building in at the edges, shoring up the implausible setting elements with some real thought and care. This is a fascinating setting, and I’m keen to see more. If I have a complaint about the book, it’s that it leaves an awful lot open for the sequel (or sequels, I’m not sure). The resolution of the central murder mystery become almost incidental as the scope of the plot expands outwards. I’m also looking forward to seeing whether the author will successfully pay off what seems like a contrived final-chapter revelation. That said, Peacemaker is a solid, fun and confident-enough book that I’m definitely on board for the next installment.

 

April 2, 2014

Review – The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories by Joanne Anderton – AWWC14

This will be my third review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014. Joanne Anderton’s “The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories” was published by Fablecroft Publishing. The book was launched at the Conflux 2013 convention here in Canberra, which I only mention because I got the author to sign my copy. I’m not particularly a collector of signed books, but I’m very pleased to have this volume in my library.

Beautiful, dark stories of humanity on the fringes of normality or the verge of extinction. Jo Anderton’s characters occupy the most tenuous corners of vivid, imaginative and often terrible worlds, struggling to hold on to their past as calamity approaches (or recedes into dim memory). These are stories about living in the wake of great calamity – fighting to survive, hunting for meaning in dying worlds, coming to the acceptance that things will never return to what they were. But Anderton’s stories are far from fatalistic. Despite the horrors that she visits upon her poor characters, they have cores of steel; beaten down and tormented by their arduous circumstances, they go on regardless. Weary but resolved.

The title story is one of the first pieces of Joanne Anderton’s that I read, and it’s still among my favourites. The story of Zvonimir the chime-maker, who is called upon by an estranged friend to turn the gruesome evidence from a massacre into a magical windchime, is a strange and sad one, a small personal tale in the midst of a much larger story barely hinted at. It’s an intricately textured story that stays with you.

“The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories” is made up almost entirely of stories that would be highlights in any collection: ‘Sanaa’s Army’ recounts a creepy , beautiful encounter between Sanaa, an artist who works in taxidermy-magic, and something that preys on the children who bring her new bones; ‘Mah Song’ is a sweet tale of sibling loyalty in the face of bleak survivalist exploitation; ‘From the Dry Heart to the Sea’ explores the social fragility of the outsider; “Out Hunting for Teeth” and “A Memory Trapped in Light” are about micro-societies developing after disaster, and the horrors that highly constrained communities can inflict on their members.

This is a collection of thirteen amazing stories; all fantastic, many horrific, all imaginative and disturbing. Of all the many short story collections I read in 2013, “The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories” stands out as one of the best.

March 17, 2014

Review – Champion of the Rose by Andrea K Höst – AWWC14

This is my second review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014. The novel this week is Andrea Höst’s Champion of the Rose, a political-mystery-romance set in a high fantasy realm with great mages, ancient magical constructs and some very daunting Fae. Like all of Höst’s novels, it is self-published (with a very beautiful Julie Dillon cover).

You almost feel sorry for Soren Armitage, the mystically chosen personal Champion of the monarch of a kingdom that has been a Regency for a couple of hundred years. Not being naturally inclined to the court, she’s happy enough with the complete lack of prestige or responsibility that comes with a position that nobody takes seriously. Which is when, of course, a magical rose blooms to let everyone know that the King has unexpectedly returned.

The shape of Champion of the Rose is a little hard to pin down. The first third or so is a hunt for a King whom nobody’s seen and who shouldn’t exist. Then the focus shifts to Soren’s navigation of courtly politics flavoured with espionage, betrayal and attempted assassin, all while she attempts to unravel ancient magical secrets and negotiate impossible personal relationships. Finally the last bit is more of the previous, only with the stakes turned up to eleven by the unanticipated presence of a Fae embassy.

Soren Armitage is one of those reluctant heroines who goes from comfortable to out-of-her-depth in a matter of a few paragraphs. With no great martial or magical skills, she holds her own only with a slightly disoriented pragmatism and a tenacity reinforced by a series of confounding magical revelations. While she is far more resourceful and brave than she’s given credit for, I found myself far more interested in several of the supporting cast. In particular Aristide Couerveur, the son of the Regent (and a character with as Höstian a name as the author has ever conjured) is fun. He is the tremendously powerful mage whose ascent to the Regency is arrested by the King’s return – the author successfully teases his inscrutable motives for quite some time before he shows his true colours. Despite the dour self-control that dominates his personality, I found Aristide one of the highlights of the story.

Champion of the Rose is an engaging fantasy political thriller (in part), a tormented romance (in some ways) and a complicated magical murder mystery where the dead bodies are in all the wrong places. I found it an enjoyable read with a satisfying resolution. I would just caution readers that the geopolitical history of the setting set out early in the novel is pretty important. Maybe don’t skim over those bits quite as casually as I did, or you’ll find yourself having to check back when it all comes together in the later chapters.

 

March 14, 2014

Review – The Gate Theory by Kaaron Warren – AWWC14

This is my first review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.

I get the idea, reading the five stories in Kaaron Warren’s 2013 collection The Gate Theory, that Kaaron might not quite see the world the way other people do. In these stories in particular, she seems drawn to broken characters who don’t seem to know how – or perhaps whether – to fit in.

The stories often seem to be about one thing before wandering off in an unexpected direction like an easily distracted burglar going through linen closets instead of a safe. And stories that feel safe if a little strange at the outset take weird and usually unpleasant turns, leading away from examinations of the lives (or post-lives) of characters somewhere near the fringes of society and pushing into genuine darkness. Outright gore is not often more than hinted at, but the horror is always there, coming into sharp focus as the characters stray out beyond their depths.

In ‘Purity’, Therese lives in squalor with her mother and brother, neglected physically and emotionally, which leads her into the embrace of a group with some very unusual habits.  ‘That Girl’ a Fijian ghost story, turns an unblinkingly critical eye from its white Australian cultural tourist protagonist to sinister undercurrents in the Fijian social order. ‘Dead Sea Fruit’ is a supremely creepy story that begins with the dental hygiene and shared mythologies of girls with eating disorders and gets more horrifying from there.

‘The History Thief’ is the only story in the collection whose supernatural element is evident from the beginning: protagonist Alvin death leads him to the discovery that he has not, as he thought, lived a particularly worthwhile life. He discovers he has the power to connect with people and make a meaningful difference, but dealing with people means dealing with their very nasty secrets. Finally ‘The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall’ returns to Fiji for a cryptozoological expedition that gets out of hand.

These are five extraordinary stories, though I will confess I didn’t particularly care for ‘Purity’. Warren’s prose is beautiful, imbuing the ordinary with grandeur and horror in equal parts. Her flawed characters never quite register the moments that seal their fates, and Warren is content to quietly watch them amble off into horror and doom.

Somehow I can even see her holding the door open for them.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Filed under: women writers challenge 2014 — Tags: , , , — lexifab @ 11:05 pm

I’m signing on again this year for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, in which I undertake to read at least 10 books by Australian women and review at least six (the “Franklin” level). I’ve previously done the challenge in 2012 and 2013 and I’m glad I did – I’ve discovered several new authors whose work I’ve enjoyed as a result. To be honest I might have actually failed in the challenge last year. I know I did the reading but I think the wheels may have fallen off in terms of completed reviews. Writing my own novel got in the way a bit, among other things.

Where do I get one of those hats?

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

I’m well on my way in terms of the reading – I think I’m already up to four books done (I need to check and update Goodreads to be sure…). As I do the reviews, I’ll post them here as well as at Goodreads, Amazon and Smashwords if appropriate.

I am going to try to make an effort to include non-fiction in the reading this year. We’ll see how long that resolution lasts. Right at the moment it’s sincere.

Snippets

Filed under: administraviata,fitter/happier — Tags: , , , , , — lexifab @ 10:44 pm
  1. Still no news from work. I’m really quite ready to have a bit more clarity now, thanks.
  2. I’ve been a bit sick this week, probably not unrelated to the previous point.
  3. Since last Lexifab entry I have completed a first draft of a short story for Unfettered, a forthcoming anthology. The first polish needs to remove three hundred words to get it down to the maximum story length, which is going to be painful.
  4. I’ve also received a draft contract for my first pro sale, which hasn’t quite gone through now, and actally may no longer technically be considered a pro sale, at least not for purposes of recognition from SFWA (which as far as I know is the closest thing to an international professional speculative fiction writing association). For my personal purposes, of course it’s a pro sale.
  5. (No, I am not angling for SFWA membership any time in the foreseeable future. Irrespective of its current regeneration crisis, I can’t see that it offers all that much to Australian writers at the moment. But their membership qualifications of three short story sales at pro rates or a book deal make a decent target to aim for nevertheless).
  6. I’ve begun outlining a science fiction adventure trilogy. No part of that sentence aligns with anything I recognise or acknowledge about myself as an writer, and yet it’s true.
  7. I am also writing a story about a serial murderer of house pets, which is on slightly less treacherous literary grounds for me. (That’s not the Unfettered one)
  8. I am feeling a bit guilty – presumably having done myself some tremendous psychological damage in the past, since firmnly repressed – at the lack of reviews I’ve done lately, so I will be throwing myself into that over the next little while. I can’t remember whether I’ve signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 yet, but I might as well kick that off tonight.

August 16, 2013

AWWC 2013 – Review – One Small Step: An Anthology of Discoveries (edited by Tehani Wessely)

This is my 8th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. I picked up my copy of the anthology at the April 2013 launch at the Australian National Convention, Conflux 9.

One Small Step: An Anthology of Discoveries is a showcase of Australia’s current wealth of women writing speculative fiction. These 16 stories cover a range of genres, from far-future science fiction to dark fantasy, fairytales – traditional and post-modern – to police procedurals, and the odd foray into the weird. All tie into a theme of exploration and discovery – emotional, intellectual and sometimes geographic.

My experience of themed anthologies is that the quality can vary considerably, usually with one or two outstanding stories balanced out by mostly good ones and a couple of duds. One Small Step is better than that. The standard here is very high. The worst that I could say about editor Tehani Wessely’s selection is that a couple of them are excellent specimens of styles that aren’t to my tastes. Even the very few stories I didn’t particularly like were undeniably worth reading. (In fact the story I enjoyed the least in the collection was probably the most strongly written. My tastes don’t always line up perfectly with storytelling excellence!) I would note that if your speculative fiction appetite starts and end with hard science fiction of the spaceships and robots variety, there’s probably only one story – D K Mok’s “Morning Star” – that will suit. But it is a good one!

I’m calling out a few of my favourites here, but take my word for it that I’m not papering over any cracks in the collection. I’m prepared to bet that every story here would make someone’s top three. One Small Step opens with Michelle Marquardt’s “Always Greener”, a child’s encounter with strange aliens on a hostile colony world, a setup that seems like it could go anywhere but still takes an unexpected and bittersweet turn. Jodie Cleghorn’s “Firefly Epilogue” is a colourful evocation of the Australian tourist’s experience of Malaysia, again tinged with a sweet sadness. I adored Tansy Rayner Roberts’ “Cold White Daughter”, a homage that nails its colours proudly and playfully to the mast, while re-examining a beloved childhood tale.

One Small Step is worth picking up for a good idea of what the current renaissance in Australian speculative fiction looks like at the moment. Smart, heartfelt and a little bit otherworldly. It works for me.

July 9, 2013

AWWC 2013 Review – A Trifle Dead by Livia Day

This is my sixth review for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I picked up this particular volume at Conflux 2013 back in April, shortly after the book’s launch.

I don’t read a heap of mystery stories – I enjoy reading them but I like fantasy and science fiction more, so I tend to relegate crime and mystery fiction to when I need a change of flavour and when I have some free reading time. Basically never, in other words. But I was all a-quiver with anticipation for A Trifle Dead for a few reasons: one, because it’s the first release from the new crime imprint from Twelfth Planet Press, who have produced some exceptional speculative fiction in the last couple of years. Two, because the author behind the Livia Day pen name has a fun, witty body of work (some of which I may have reviewed at one time). And three, because although I am quite fond of Hobart, it has always struck me as somewhere where murder is probably popular. It just seems like the sort of place where the charming, somewhat sleepy facade conceals a streak of bloodthirstiness and taste for the macabre. Maybe that’s just me.

Tabitha Darling is the proprietor of a trendy Hobart cafe that might be doing better business if not for the gaggle of overprotective policemen making up most of its clientele. She isn’t having much luck convincing her recently-deceased father’s colleagues to try the modernised menu, her somewhat-disreputable co-owner has gone missing and she’s struggling to sort out her feelings towards a charming-if-taciturn police detective who seems to think of her as his little sister. As if that were not enough, the publicity-hungry band living upstairs discovers a body suspended in a net in the spare room. For no particular reason other than intense curiosity, Tabitha can’t help but try to solve the murder.

Tabitha is a delightfully fun character, obsessed with food, vintage clothing and the Eurovision Song Contest, endlessly inquisitive and amusingly snarky. She has no particular aptitude for detecting, other than possessing a stubborn persistence, a wide social circle and the willingness to use baked goods as bribes. A Trifle Dead is definitely a cosy mystery – there’s comparitively little bloodshed and mayhem, and much of the book is taken up with Tabitha’s navigation of her complex social life. In fact, that’s something of the genius of A Trifle Dead – it’s impossible to tell from one moment to the next which parts of the story are plot-related, and which parts are relationship-drama red herrings. In Tabitha’s mind they’re wholly indistinguishable. I spent most of the book expecting (and dreading) that one particular character would turn out to be behind everything, only to have the revelations of their dark secrets be innocent and of significance only because of Tabitha’s keen interest.

A Trifle Dead is great fun. Tabitha may appear light as a souffle and obsessed with quirky pop culture, but she has an appealing streak of businesslike determination that carries the story. The supporting cast are a likeable crowd of trendy hipsters, baffled coppers and slightly scurrilous crims, all of whom are connected in odd and unexpected. The way that Day has knit these characters together so intricately that the murder plot is effectively camouflaged at the same time that it sits front and centre is a very neat trick. I found it a fun modern murder mystery with none of the grim forensic details so often prevalent in this genre. Oh, and I really can’t let the review pass without noting the striking cover by Amanda Rainey, which is a gorgeous piece of iconic design a little bit reminiscent of Saul Bass – it’s perfect!

 

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