Five Mini Reviews, Part II

How is it already mid-February (and time for another five mini reviews)? This round of reviews includes two books I really loved, and a few I wished I enjoyed more than I actually did.

Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
One of those books that has some objective flaws, but that I had too much fun reading to care. I enjoyed the sci-fi and mystery elements, but the highlight for more was definitely the slow-burn romance between Kiem and Jainen; miscommunication as a trope is very risky, but here it was the good kind of painful as both characters worked through the various personal traumas they carried into their arranged marriage. Maxwell uses various romance tropes to great effect to showcase the characters’ shifting dynamic over time. 4.5/5

Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Despite being more renowned for his long fiction, Tchaikovsky is responsible for two of my favourite novellas in the past twelve months, this one being the second. It’s a pretty simple concept – sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – but I loved how Tchaikovsky played with the language barrier between Lynesse and Nyr, and the idea that we all interpret meaning in different ways. It’s also – surprisingly – the best book I’ve read about clinical depression that I can remember, as Nyr struggles to keep his brain chemicals in check with the help of medical aids, while doing his anthropological duties and trying not to suffer under the weight of being the last of his kind on this particular planet. It does suffer for balance, due to Lyn’s POV being essentially standard epic fantasy fare and therefore far less engaging than Nyr’s, but it’s still an excellent read. 4/5

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
Valente is an an author I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, and I definitely admire her chops – there is a lot of wit in this story about Eurovision in space. Too much, in fact; it takes a long time to establish who the main character even is, and it’s quite clear that they’re of secondary interest compared to various tangents that poke at some pretty uncomfortable truths about 21st century British society, but also seem designed to show off exactly how smart the author is. Also, there was way less singing than I would have expected from a (literal) space opera. 2.5/5

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
Martha Wells is an author I admire greatly and this book came highly recommended, but sadly it wasn’t for me. There’s some really excellent world-building: it feels expansive, and it’s full of non-human shifters that genuinely feel alien in perspective. But I never connected with any of the characters and didn’t find the plot particularly compelling either. 3/5

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir
I finally came back to this series almost two years after I read (and enjoyed) the first book. It still has all the things I enjoyed about book #1 – the fast-paced plot, the seamless blend of Arabic and Roman influences, the well-executed plot twists – and I found myself easily re-immersed in the world. That said, I found the villains rather cartoonish; there’s a lot of deaths in this book that feel like the mass murder equivalent of the evil dude kicking the dog. 4/5

Five Mini Reviews, Part I

This year’s resolution (of a completely informal sort) was to talk more about the books I read that aren’t ARCs, for my own record-keeping as much as anything else. (Ever tried to articulate why you loved a book you read years ago only to find you never wrote the reasons down?). Hence, mini reviews for each five (SFF) books I read…

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal.
Lady Astronaut is one of my favourite series, so now I’m committed to making my way through Kowal’s backlist. World War I is an underused setting for fantasy novels, so I decided to start here. I really liked that Kowal isn’t afraid to play with genre conventions (there is a twist early in the story that completely changed where I thought things were headed) and, of course, her work always shines brightest when it’s tackling historical sexism and racism in various institutional settings. There’s also a plausible explanation for ‘spirit mediums exist but history is completely the same’, which I appreciated. That said, I would have liked more character development for Ginger beyond ‘plucky red-headed American’, including a greater sense of who she was outside the war, which would have raised this book from good to great for me. 3.5/5

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall
I actually started this book in 2021 and never got around to finishing it before the holiday season, but picked it back up in 2022. At the beginning, I thought this would be a 5-star read; Hall’s Sherlock Holmes retelling is exuberant, witty, and frankly a little bonkers; it’s fascinating to read about all the various worlds Wyndham and Haas visit, even if I’m not sure I’d want to travel to some of them myself. There’s also some excellent queer representation (I particularly appreciated that Haas never once deduces that Wyndham is trans, and that it’s both an important part of his personal history and completely irrelevant to the plot). Unfortunately, after a while The Affair of the Mysterious Letter becomes trapped in its own central conceit. John Wyndham is telling a serialised stories of their adventures years after the fact, and his constant narrative asides and attempts to make certain events more ‘palatable’ for readers forestall the plot, keep many of the main characters (including Shaharazad Haas) at a distance from the audience, and made this book feel like an endless drag by the end. 3/5

Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip
McKillip is one of those names who always gets bandied about by seasoned fantasy readers, and I’m very glad I finally had an excuse to pick up one of her books. Od Magic is not a particularly plot driven book; there are a number of characters, and their stories converge around a magic school established by a mysterious old women who hasn’t been sighted in years. It’s about reconciling tradition and progress, and finding the wonder in magic all over again. Of course, you can’t read McKillip without commenting on the prose, which was excellent; wonderfully self-assured, and perfectly running the gauntlet between poetic and overbearing. I might have liked a few less POVs in order to flesh out those I loved most a little more (particularly Yar, the jaded teacher trapped between job security and pushing magical boundaries), but otherwise this was a very comforting – and delightful – read. 4/5

The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst
Another book I’d been meaning to read for a while and finally picked up thanks to r/fantasy book club. This is an interesting story about a realm of forest dwellers whose community is dependent on a strange bargain between the spirits who inhabit the world and the humans with an affinity for spirit magic. It’s a hard book to categorise because in some respects it’s the ultimate tropey YA novel; the outcome of Daleina’s journey is predictable from the first page. But in other respects it subverts or dispenses with the standard tropes entirely; Daleina never gains any special magic powers beyond her team-oriented nature and willingness to work hard, and the romance and complicated mentor-mentee relationship are almost afterthoughts, just another part of her life. The adult POVs are a little less interesting (Ven seriously needed to get over himself), but I largely enjoyed this book and will pick up the sequels. 4/5

Seven Summer Nights by Harper Fox
This is a gay historical romance with some very mild magical realism elements, but it’s also an early contender for my list of best books of the year. This is a deeply character-driven novel, as Rufus (a disgraced, shell-shocked archaeologist), and Archie (the local vicar, who houses a cast of eclectic misfits) work through their trauma and come to find delight in a local archaeological mystery, and each other. Both characters leap off the page, as does much of the supporting cast, and the historical setting plays a huge role in their experiences and their world-views. It does get quite dark at points as a result, as this is a book that definitely doesn’t use the historical setting as window-dressing but actively tackles period-relevant homophobia, as well as the aftermath of World War II. However, it’s ultimately comforting and heartwarming, as Fox continues to spotlight how much these characters love each other and makes that the driving force of the novel. 5/5