In the Company of Thieves by Kage Baker (and Kathleen Bartholomew)link to Goodreads series page). I’ve previous read all the Company novels (with the exception of The Empress of Mars, which doesn’t fit chronologically with the others) and as many short stories as I could easily get a hold of, which was far from all of them. As such, I was coming to this collection already knowing a lot of the Company’s back story. That definitely affected my reading.
As usual, notes on each story are included at the end of the review.
The stories seem to be arranged chronologically according to history. The first four stories are probably the most accessible to readers unfamiliar with the Company. My previous knowledge informed my reading significantly, but I think the stories will still work well for new readers. I had forgotten how hilarious Kage Baker’s short stories can be; the novels, which stuck more strongly in my mind, are less funny, I think. The last three stories had me laughing out loud several times.
There are two pairs of stories that go together thematically. The first pair is “The Unfortunate Gytt” and “The Women of Nell Gwynne’s” both of which feature the pre-Company secret society and have a steampunk setting. The last two stories, “Rude Mechanicals” and “Hollywood Ikons”, feature the same two recurring characters, Joseph and Lewis, the former of whom has several novels written about him. Both also happen to be set in Hollywood.
Reading this collection made me want to try harder to get a hold of what Kage Baker stories of the Company I haven’t yet managed to. I strongly recommend this collection to fans of the Company novels or stories. To readers new to Kage Baker’s work, there are worse ways be be introduced to it. Since the stories cover several characters and time periods, In the Company of Thieves will in some ways give readers a better idea of the series as a whole than a single novel covering just one setting.
“THE CARPET BEDS OF SUTRO PARK” — Autistic cyborg used as a camera recorder to capture San Francisco through to roughly the present from the 1800s. His love for the city and one of its inhabitants all that matters to him. Nice story.
"THE UNFORTUNATE GYTT" — A steampunk adventure to retrieve a special object. Featuring Edward and told from the point of view of a new recruit to the pre-Company secret society in Victorian England.
"THE WOMEN OF NELL GWYNNE’S" — Read before and remembered fairly well so I didn’t re-read. A novella about women who serve the secret society of the previous story as spies.
"MOTHER AEGYPT" — Ultimately hilarious novella. It grew in me as I read, starting unremarkably and culminating in a pretty hilarious climax. I think there are certain extra nuances to be gained in this one for readers familiar with the Company world, but only in terms of backstory. The main story itself should be accessible (and amusing) to new readers as well as old. Although I can’t say the main character was particularly likeable; a conman who, at the start, has fallen on hard times. But his plight and thought-processes are entertaining, so I didn’t mind.
“RUDE MECHANICALS” — A hilarious comedy of errors following recurring cyborg characters Joseph and Lewis. Although I’d read this one before, in audiobook form, I had little memory of it (the occasional trouble with audiobooks). Lewis is working for a director in 1930s Hollywood and Joseph is trying to preserve a certain piece of treasure for their future overlords. The universe is against Joseph, however, and everything that can go wrong does, and he drags Lewis into his mess.
"HOLLYWOOD IKONS" — This story, if I interpret the foreword correctly, was researched and planned by Kage Baker but finished by her sister, Kathleen Bartholomew, after her death. The very start of this one didn’t grab me because the voice did not sound like the Joseph I remembered. Also, it included more of a introduction to Dr Zeus than any of the other stories and that felt odd in the last story of the collection. But once the plot got started I was sucked in, particularly once the humour kicked in. In a way, it’s another comedy of errors, but less so than the previous story. In this one, the errors mostly occurred in the past and Joseph, with a bit of help from Lewis, has to put everything right. Although I was sceptical at the start as to whether I would enjoy reading any other incomplete-at-death Kage Baker stories, this one ultimately convinced me to at least give another one a shot, should it come up. It also had me shaking my fist at cancer for taking her away too soon.
4.5 / 5 stars
First published: November 2013, Tachyon Publications
Series: The Company. Accompanying short stories.
Format read: eARC
Source: The publisher via NetGalley
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Ink Black Magic by Tansy Rayner Roberts
Kassa Daggersharp has been a pirate, a witch, a menace to public safety, a villain, a hero and a legend. These days, she lectures first year students on the dangers of magic, at the Polyhedrotechnical in Cluft.It’s easy to compare every comic fantasy book to Terry Pratchett. When I read Splashdance Silver, I think I remember comparing it to the earliest two Discworld books (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic). In the case of Ink Black Magic, I can honestly say that only the start — the set up for the rest of the story — put me in mind of Pratchett. And not early Pratchett either, more like middle Pratchett, with Moving Pictures springing to mind as an obvious comparison (with bonus thematic parallels). But once the story in Ink Black Magic really gets going, it becomes very much Tansy-ish and not at all Pratchettesque.
Egg Friefriedsson is Kassa’s teenage cousin, a lapsed Axgaard warrior who would rather stay in his room and draw comics all day than hang out with his friends. If only comics had been invented.
Aragon Silversword is missing, presumed dead.
All the adventures are over. It’s time to get on with being a grownup. But when Egg’s drawings come to life, including an evil dark city full of villains and monsters, everyone starts to lose their grip on reality. Even the flying sheep.
Kassa and Egg are not sure who are the heroes and who are the villains anymore, but someone has to step up to save Mocklore, one last time.
The initial premise is that Egg starts drawing the first comics in Mocklore, and then his dark city that needs hero-saving comes to life and tries to take over the world. (See what I mean?) I found the introduction of Egg and Clio to be a compelling hook, more so than when we first meet Kassa Daggersharp, the heroine of the previous books. I have to emphasise that this was a personal reaction because I couldn’t remember why I should like Kassa — due to not remembering the earlier book sufficiently well — but that quickly evaporated once Kassa started being awesome (ie pretty much straight away).
One of the interesting aspects of Ink Black Magic was the structure of the narrative. Instead of the story building up to one obvious climax from the very start, the nature of what the world needed saving from changed several times throughout. The problem was never quite what it seemed, taking the story from “oh, no, doom!” to “well that doom’s gone away” to “oh dear, a different doom a-cometh”. This is one of the main things (along with the characters and humour) which sets it apart from other books. I ultimately enjoyed the form, although it was a little disconcerting at times not to be able to accurately guess what was going to happen next. (That feeling might come from having read a little too much YA of late…)
Anyway, Ink Black Magic was a fun read and I definitely intend to go back and re/read the first two books. Although that will be interesting since Rayner Roberts’ style has definitely changed between Splashdance Silver and the Creature Court trilogy. I was about to say that Ink Black Magic lies somewhere in between — which it does — but it occurs to me that it’s not actually that far from A Trifle Dead, except in location. (And of course I’m overlooking a lot of short stories in this comparison as I’ve only read some.)
So I would recommend Ink Black Magic to all fans of comic fantasy and anyone who has enjoyed the author’s work in the past. As should surprise no one, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on her future works.
4.5 / 5 stars
Series: Mocklore Chronicles, book 3 of 3 (but can be read without reading the earlier books)
Format read: e-review copy
Source: the lovely publisher
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013
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Curtsies and Conspiracies by Gail Carrigerread and reviewed earlier in the year. They are part of the Finishing School series, which is set in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate books, but twenty-five years earlier. I would recommend reading Etiquette and Espionage first, if you haven’t already (just in general, everyone should read it), but although there’s an over-arching plot, each book so far also has a very self-contained main plot.
The basic premise of the series is that the main character, Sophronia, attends a special finishing school where, while learning proper etiquette, the girls also learn how to become spies. And of course, nothing is ever quite as straightforward as it seems. Blurb:
Sophronia’s first year at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality has certainly been rousing! For one thing, finishing school is training her to be a spy (won’t Mumsy be surprised?). Furthermore, Sophronia got mixed up in an intrigue over a stolen device and had a cheese pie thrown at her in a most horrid display of poor manners.I loved all of Gail Carriger’s other books, and this latest instalment is no exception. I pretty much inhaled it in a day and after a trying week+, it was exactly what I needed. Carriger’s customary wit had me laughing out loud several times, and miscellaneous adorableness — like Bumbersnoot, Sophronia’s mechanimal dog, about whom I’d forgotten — made me happy.
Now, as she sneaks around the dirigible school, eavesdropping on the teachers’ quarters and making clandestine climbs to the ship’s boiler room, she learns that there may be more to a school trip to London than is apparent at first. A conspiracy is afoot—one with dire implications for both supernaturals and humans. Sophronia must rely on her training to discover who is behind the dangerous plot-and survive the London Season with a full dance card.
One of my favourite aspects of this book (among many favourite aspects), was the tantalising ties to the Parasol Protectorate books. We have more hints about how the main cast characters, Vieve and Sidheag, end up where they do in the later series. Not that Sidheag’s future/history are a great mytery, but I was delighted by Vieve’s trajectory in this book. Other favourite characters from the Parasol Protectorate books made an appearance, including Lord Akeldama, which was particularly well-done from the perspective of someone who’s read the later books. I suspect that, while his appearance might have greater impact on readers familiar with Carriger’s world, it will still be amusing to new readers. Or at least, I hope so, because those scenes were among the funniest.
On the topic of linking Curtsies and Conspiracies to other books, the overarching plot becomes apparent in this second volume and it successfully whetted my appetite for the next book, not that it needed extra whetting. With new mysteries for Sophronia to discover and solve, building on the previous book, the trajectory for the next couple of volumes. (I note her website lists two more titles in the series: Waistcoats & Weaponry and Manners & Mutiny, albeit with undetermined release dates.)
This is a book I would recommend to all Carriger fans. If you’ve already enjoyed any of her other books (and particularly Etiquette and Espionage), then reading Curtsies and Conspiracies/the Finishing School series should be a no-brainer. For readers new to her work, I would suggest starting at the beginning of the series, but highly recommend it to fans of Steampunk, Victorian England and witty comedy. Or any one of the three.
5 / 5 stars
First published: November 2013, Hachette
Series: Finishing School book 2 of (at least) 4
Format read: eBook
Source: purchased from iBooks
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Skulk by Rosie Best
When Meg witnesses the dying moments of a shapeshifting fox and is given a beautiful and powerful stone, her life changes forever. She is plunged into the dark world of the Skulk, a group of shapeshifting foxes.The first aspect that had me enjoying Skulk was Meg herself. She comes from a privileged background with a (Tory) politician mother and a CEO father and goes to a good private school. Her mother is fairytale-level abusive, driven on in particular by Meg being a little overweight and her father is emotionally absent almost to the point of catatonia. She has friends at school (who come from similarly privileged backgrounds) but doesn’t enjoy going out clubbing with them, preferring instead to stay home and later sneak out to draw scathing political graffiti around London. I first grew particularly attached to Meg when reading about her forays into socialising in situations she didn’t want to be in, like at a club or her parents’ political dinner party. It reminded me exactly of how I would’ve felt and acted as a teenager. (I have since learnt how to have a polite conversation with boring people, but I still have zero interest in clubbing.) It was nice to read about a socially awkward character without them being ridiculously awkward nor portrayed as the butt of a joke.
As she learns about the other groups of shapeshifters that lurk around London – the Rabble, the Horde, the Cluster and the Conspiracy – she becomes aware of a deadly threat against all the shapeshifters. They must put aside all their enmity and hostility and fight together to defeat it.
What really pushed this book into five star territory for me, though, was Meg’s reactions to the horrible things happening around her. When someone dies explosively in front of her, she throws up (runs away) and spends the rest of the night trembling in the foetal position. Like a normal person. And during the climax when she’s pretty much running on adrenaline trying to save the world without having time to stop and reflect on the horrible things that have been happening, she has a panic attack and collapses (luckily at a non-crucial moment), again, like a normal person. It was refreshing to read about a character who had realistic responses to the horrible things going on around her, especially since the body-count in this one was fairly high. Not enough YA books do this. Which, as I was discussing earlier on Twitter (with DarkMatterzine, Speculatef and StuffedO), does not say anything good about our culture.
Most of the book was about Meg dealing with her problems. Some of those problems were her mother’s ridiculous expectations of perfection, and some were more along the lines of gaining the ability to turn into a fox. They weren’t boring problems, but there wasn’t an awful lot of room for secondary characters, except directly in relation to Meg’s problems. That said, Best does an excellent job of introducing a broad range of secondary characters. One of the more prominent ones was Meg’s love interest, Mohammed, who was introduced late but was brilliantly — albeit very coincidentally — set up. I don’t like YA plots that revolve around love interests and this was not one of those. Meg is not looking for a boyfriend and when she does meet a boy she has a lot in common with, she recognises that she really doesn’t have time for warm fuzzy feelings when there are lives at stake.
Among the others, including bit players, Best includes several minority characters (gay, trans, homeless, disabled) some of whom only get a few lines of dialogue, but I’m hoping they’ll play more pivotal roles in the sequel, after the cast has had time to regroup. I was particularly pleased with the existence of the spider-shifter who had cerebral palsy and had to be carried around by her friend. It came up just after I had been wondering whether human disabilities and illnesses carried over to the shifters’ animal forms the way cuts and bruises clearly did.
With all the positive points mentioned above, what more is there to say about Skulk? Well I quite liked the choice of possible animal shifters. Best chose urban animals which fit into her London setting. Not wolves, but foxes, spiders, ravens, rats and butterflies. Looking inconspicuous in animal form out on the street is not a problem for them. Not to mention that spider and butterfly shapeshifters are not something I’ve come across before. And the antagonist has an army of evil pigeon minions, which also seemed quite apt in an urban environment.
Also, Meg’s graffiti hobby takes her and the reader into London nooks that are off the tourist track and possibly not obvious to the casually passer-by. I felt I learnt more about present-day London (a city I’ve visited a couple of times as a tourist) than from any other book I remember reading recently.
Suffice to say Skulk was an excellent read. I would highly recommend it to all fans of urban fantasy (YA or otherwise), particularly those after a different sort of magical premise. (Although I will say the saving the world aspect of the worldbuilding was a bit stock-standard — MacGuffins and all — but Best definitely made up for it with all the other elements.) I have very high hopes for the sequel, which I’m hoping will come out some time next year. Even if it doesn’t exceed my expectations, I’m still looking forward to seeing what happens next to Meg, including some of the consequences of events in Skulk that didn’t get revisited before the ending. This book made me happy. I hope other readers also enjoy it.
5 / 5 stars
First published: October 2013, Strange Chemistry
Series: Yes, book 1 of ? (possibly 2)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
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Books are the best. And it’s accidentally been almost a month since I last told you of my acquisitions. Blame work and travel and stuff.
Received for review from Exhibit A (Angry Robot’s crime imprint), Baen, Cloudburst Books, FableCroft, Tachyon Publications and Strange Chemistry (phew! And yes, in that order):
- The Cambodian Book of the Dead by Tom Vater
- Because it seemed like a good idea and sounds interesting.
- Mars, Inc. by Ben Bova
- I read (well, audiobooked) a bunch of Ben Bova a few years ago and eventually stopped when I got annoyed at the sexism in his books (and still have some un-listened-to audiobooks, alas). I’m willing to give him another try, partly because I think his later books were a bit better than the earlier ones (and if anything I was reading them roughly in reverse publication order) and partly because the cover and blurb caught my eye. (And that’s saying something, since Baen usually ruins their perfectly nice cover art with truly hideous typography. If I were judging books by their covers, I would never have read Bujold, and that would have been sad.)
- The Blood of Whisperers by Devin Madson
- First book by a new Australian fantasy author. Japanese flavoured. Have already started reading. Also a new small press to watch.
- Path of Night by Dirk Flinthart
- Aussie author, Sydney cop, monsters and mysterious happenings. What’s not to like?
- In the Company of Thieves by Kage Baker
- You know, the blurb does not say that this is a short story collection. I was surprised when I opened it. It’s not that I don’t want to read Company short stories by Kage Baker, but the blurb got me all excited that it was going to be a posthumous novel they’d unearthed/put together. How does omitting that information on the blurb make sense?! (Yes, it was in the press-release, but really, who reads press-releases?)
- The Almost Girl by Amalie Howard
- Science fiction YA, not enough of that around. Also soldier girl, android wars, sounds promising.
- Shadowplay by Laura Lam
- The sequel to Pantomime, which was a great book about an intersex main character and who ran away to join a circus (as an acrobat). Really looking forward to finding out more about the world it’s set in.
I also bought
- An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
- because he seems cool and the excerpt the Guardian ran sold me on the notion. (Also, I’d like to note that this book has the rather long subtitle of What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything)
Yay, books! And a dose of snark.
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The Iron Traitor by Julie KagawaThe Lost Prince, but I have not read the earlier series which will inevitably have an impact on my reaction to this sequel series. Also, I should note that this review contains spoilers for book one.
In the real world, when you vanish into thin air for a week, people tend to notice.
After his unexpected journey into the lands of the fey, Ethan Chase just wants to get back to normal. Well, as “normal” as you can be when you see faeries every day of your life. Suddenly the former loner with the bad reputation has someone to try for-his girlfriend, Kenzie. Never mind that he’s forbidden to see her again.
But when your name is Ethan Chase and your sister is one of the most powerful faeries in the Nevernever, “normal” simply isn’t to be. For Ethan’s nephew, Keirran, is missing, and may be on the verge of doing something unthinkable in the name of saving his own love. Something that will fracture the human and faery worlds forever, and give rise to the dangerous fey known as the Forgotten. As Ethan’s and Keirran’s fates entwine and Keirran slips further into darkness, Ethan’s next choice may decide the fate of them all.
Much like the previous book, The Iron Traitor is a quick, fun read. There was a bit less Kali fighting — to my disappointment — and more varied interactions with the fey. The same characters from The Lost Prince appear again in The Iron Traitor. It’s again narrated by Ethan and the character-based part of the plot centres about his blooming relationship with Kenzie.
We also revisit Keirran, Ethan’s nephew, and his illicit summer fey girlfriend, Annwyl, who is dying after being banished to the human realm. The action part of the story is based around everyone trying to stop Annwyl’s fade from existence. Ethan and Kenzie are dragged into Annwyl’s and Keirran’s problems, facing faery dangers and dealing with crazy faeries. Other than the ending (which I did not see coming), there wasn’t an awful lot here that was surprising. But I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It was the kind of book I was in the mood for: easy to read.
The most interesting thing Kagawa does is juxtapose Keirran and Annwyl’s relationship with Ethan and Kenzie’s. Both boys are in similar positions in that their girlfriend’s are dying, Annwyl of fey banishment and Kenzie of cancer. While Keirran does everything in his power to keep Annwyl alive, Ethan accepts that Kenzie is going to die and that trying to keep her alive with faery magic is only going to end badly. At times it was a bit heavy-handed in the delivery of that moral (keeping Annwyl alive is to everyone’s detriment) but it mostly worked for me.
And did I mention I didn’t see the end coming? I am eager to see how Kagawa deals with it in the next book. Personally I’m expecting some amount of backtracking, but maybe it will shift to Kenzie as the protagonist. Time will tell.
All in all, The Iron Traitor was a pleasant read. It was exactly what I expected (well, with less Kali fighting and a surprising ending) and I will definitely be getting a hold of the next book in the series. Coming from the perspective of someone who hasn’t read the earlier Iron Fey books, I’d say it’s not necessary. I would recommend reading the Lost Prince first, however, mainly to get to know the characters and backstory.
4 / 5 stars
First published: November 2013, Harlequin Teen (world wide, I believe)
Series: Yes! Book 2 of The Iron Fey: Call of the Forgotten, itself a sequel series to The Iron Fey
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
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