Review – Binti

Cover of Binti by Nnedi OkoraforBinti, Nnedi Okorafor

I keep meaning to read Okorafor’s work, but Who Fears Death was a bad fit when I picked it up, and my copy of Lagoon has gone AWOL. Which left this as my introduction — maybe not a bad thing, because it’s fairly bitesize, without being truncated. I wasn’t sure what to think of it until I was talking with Robert from my book club, though, where he noted that at the start of the book, things begin to happen due to Binti’s merit. She gets herself into university, and she’s brave enough to leave her family and set out into the unknown. After that, though, it’s luck: she couldn’t know that the things she took with her would be useful, had no idea how to make them useful, and basically just happened to survive and do well because of her background.

It feels almost like message fiction: sometimes, someone from an unprivileged background can make good because they bring new tools which other people wouldn’t consider. That’s not a bad message, and the story and world-building is reasonably entertaining… but. The conflict essentially ends by 20% in — after that, Binti no longer has to rely on her own resources. She just happens to have the right things with her.

That’s a bit of a simplification, but it does weaken the story for me. It starts off strongly, and the world is interesting — Binti’s people, the way things are set up, the aliens — but then… I began to feel as if it would turn out okay because Binti was special somehow. Having a special protagonist who is insulated from harm makes suspense and intrigue difficult.

Rating: 3/5

Review – The Fox’s Tower

Cover of The Fox Tower by Yoon Ha LeeThe Fox’s Tower, Yoon Ha Lee

This is a lovely collection of microfiction, which often teasingly looks over the edge at poetry in the imagery, the choice of words, the spare precise nature of the prose. It’s a collection of fable-like stories, some of them more familiar than others, all of them given their own little twist. There were a few that didn’t really strike me, but microfiction is a very difficult art, and I think Yoon Ha Lee does an amazing job with the form. Each word has to be necessary — done. Each image has to evoke a picture, an emotion, a perfect still moment — done.

I also liked that gender is not a major thing in these stories. It shifts. Someone is referred to as someone’s son, and yet the pronoun is ‘they’. It’s noticeable at first because people don’t usually do it, but I quickly got used to it, and it’s a part of the narrative voice. (Some characters are ‘she’ or ‘he’; it also depends on the character, the story.)

I know Yoon Ha Lee has a sci-fi book deal with Solaris, and I’m definitely looking forward to that on the strength of this.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Bookburners: Badge, Book and Candle

Cover of Badge, Book and Candle by Max GladstoneBookburners: Badge, Book and Candle, Max Gladstone
Received to review via Netgalley

I like the idea of this serialised novel business; I’ll be checking it out again when Ellen Kushner’s Tremontaine world gets a serialised outing. But Bookburners didn’t really grab me; it doesn’t help that the file that ended up on my Kindle was a mess, of course, with the formatting all over the place, but there was nothing special about the style or set-up, as far as I was concerned. It’s a fairly typical urban fantasy opening, and there’s just not enough to hook me and keep me following it through the serial format.

It’s cool that this isn’t a damsel in distress or ‘fridged’ woman plot, that the victim and motivating factor is in fact a female cop’s brother. And there were some pretty cool details about the world-building, like the idea that demons (essentially) can get into you through anything that links one person to another, like a book. But… not convinced to subscribe and follow this particular story.

Rating: 2/5

Review – Curran POV Collection

Cover of Curran POV Collection by Gordon AndrewsCurran POV Collection, Gordon Andrews

This one is just a bunch of vignettes from the point of view of Curran, the love interest of Kate Daniels, written by just one half of the husband-wife team. It’s less textured and Curran’s POV surprised me a little — the tone didn’t seem right for the big lion guy, some of the time. It’s kind of funny and it fills in a couple of gaps, but it’s not necessary to read this to fully understand what’s happening in the books. I did like the light it shone on Curran’s previous partner, Myong, though.

Not bad, but I definitely prefer Kate’s point of view and the format of the books. The missing scene format just isn’t satisfying for me.

Rating: 2/5

Review – Pretty Monsters

Cover of Pretty Monsters by Kelly LinkPretty Monsters, Kelly Link

Kelly Link’s writing is gorgeous. These stories don’t all have the same tone or theme or setting or anything like that, but they do have that writing style in common, and it’s great. I’m not actually very good at liking short stories — I like developed characters and longer plots — but these are, for the most part, pretty enjoyable. ‘The Surfer’ was, if anything, a little too long for me, because most of what happens is character development.

I was surprised to realise I’d read both ‘The Wizards of Perfil’ and ‘The Constable of Abal’ before; I’m not sure where I read them, but it must’ve been an anthology. They’re probably my favourite of the two for language, setting and worldbuilding — and unsurprisingly, they’re the most secondary-world-fantasy of the bunch.

I was less sure about the alternating stories of ‘Pretty Monsters’; I think I’d have to read them again to really get the whole plot. There’s a great atmosphere with all of these, though: creepy, subtly wrong, and sometimes wry and funny as well.

Great collection.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Daughter of Necessity

Cover of Daughter of Necessity by Marie BrennanDaughter of Necessity, Marie Brennan

I don’t normally review short stories and such, but this one caught my eye and I love the cover, so why not? It’s available to read online, for free, here; it’s not a long read, not even really a retelling, but a glimpse behind the scenes. A clever take on a piece of mythology we often take at face value. It answers one simple question.

Why does Penelope weave and unpick a funeral shroud for her husband to delay the suitors?

She’s a clever woman, and this puts her in an active role, taking a hand in her own fate and even her husband and son’s fate. The passive woman of the Homeric epic steps aside to reveal a woman who takes her own fate into her hands.

It helps that the writing is lovely. I can’t pick out a single line or passage: it’s mostly simple, with some of the imagery and phrasing from translations of Homeric verse, maybe a bit of Ovid. It hits just the right note. I do kind of want more, just because I really like the way Brennan interprets the story.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Mammoths of the Great Plains

Cover of Mammoths of the Great Plains by Eleanor ArnasonMammoths of the Great Plains, Eleanor Arnason

I still need to read A Woman of the Iron People, which is the main work I’ve been recommended by Arnason. But I thought I’d read this on Scribd, since it was available and I find the Outspoken Authors series generally interesting. I was less interested in the interview and essay, though it’s interesting to know where Arnason comes from (in many senses!) and what her preoccupations are. I’m not sure how much general interest the essay has; certainly, if you’re not fond of non-fiction, I can’t imagine you’ll appreciate it.

The story itself is interesting: it’s alternate history, where mammoths survived into the last couple of centuries, and where humans drove them to extinction with hunting and tourism. The background of the Native American characters and customs was particularly cool, especially given the educated and successful Native American women at the heart of the story.

The contemplative tone is a bit Ursula Le Guin-ish, which I think Arnason says herself — and the structure, too, with the story within a story. It’s quite a slow narrative: not about things happening, so much as things that have happened, about the power humans have for good and bad (but usually bad) over our environment. I don’t know enough about Native American culture and belief to judge that aspect of the story: to me the ecological, intimate link with nature stuff seemed a little like an idealisation, more of the ‘noble savage’ persuasion than realism, but it doesn’t do so in a negative way and, like I said, I don’t know enough to judge.

Rating: 3/5

Review – Third Time Lucky

24965354Third Time Lucky, Tanya Huff

I’ve wanted to get this collection since it came out, so no surprises that I read it as soon as I got chance. I love Huff’s collections of short stories: they’re bite-sized, sure, but there’s enough there to get your teeth into. Especially in this collection, which is a group of stories about the same character/world: Magdalene, the most powerful wizard in the world. I loved that she is literally the most powerful wizard, and that Huff chose to deal with that not by making her less powerful, but by making her essentially her own worst enemy. (Which is particularly true in the last story.)

I like that Magdalene is lazy, indolent, sensual, sexual — and none of this is particularly judged by the stories in any kind of “teach her a lesson” way. She still does what needs to be done, she still cares about the people around her, and she doesn’t care to boast about her. That would take effort.

In fact, arguably the only “lesson” in these stories is that she must accept herself, whole and entire, the good with the bad. Not a bad message at all, if there’s going to be one.

Rating: 4/5

Review – The State of the Art

Cover of The State of the Art by Iain M. BanksThe State of the Art, Iain M. Banks

The State of the Art is a collection of short stories, some of which relate to the Culture novels and some of which don’t (or at least, don’t overtly). I actually wasn’t much impressed by Iain M. Banks as a short story writer, it seems: the best of the stories was the titular story itself, which is both a Culture story and rather longer than the other stories in the collection, which gave it more space to interest me, and more space for him to set up the kind of story that’s grabbed me in his novels.

There’s nothing wrong with the stories per se, but they didn’t grab me at all (with the exception of the one already mentioned and ‘A Gift from the Culture’). Where I was interested was when it was closest to Banks’ other SF work, but otherwise the stories seemed fairly unremarkable. There are some interesting bits of humour; wry looks at staples of the genre.

I’m hoping that’s not a reaction to Banks’ work in general, as I know I did enjoy several of his Culture novels and I was looking forward to reading the rest. Perhaps he just isn’t to my taste as a short story writer.

Rating: 2/5

Review – Tempting the Gods

Cover of Tempting the Gods by Tanith LeeTempting the Gods, Tanith Lee

I keep thinking I haven’t read any Tanith Lee, but I think this is my third now. She has an interesting writing style: lush, rich, layered. Insinuating. I’m not always a fan of the darker themes that seem to run through her work (I disliked White As Snow because of the rape theme, for instance), but I can’t deny how lovely her writing is. Sometimes it’s a little too much, like a cake that’s too dense and too sweet. It reminds me a bit of Catherynne M. Valente’s work, though more solid.

As you can tell, her language is tactile, sensual; you can’t help describing it as a physical thing.

Some of these stories were just right for me, though. I loved ‘Death Loves Me’, ‘After I Killed Her’ and ‘The Lady-of-Shalott House’, for instance. She does enchantment so well, weaves the plots of her stories so carefully that you can almost see the solution before you get there, and yet it doesn’t feel predictable. Just right.

Rating: 4/5