During May we kicked off two new seasonal themes: time travel, selected by Joanna, beginning with A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, and interplanetary sci-fi, selected by Rachel, beginning with Contract of Defiance. In new releases, we got excited about a high fantasy treasure hunt from Charlotte E. English and a stunningly beautiful fairytale by Naomi Novik.
Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
A series of short fantasy stories with a Malaysian influence, each of which picks up a different aspect of culture or folklore or magic. The book is divided into sections based on setting: Malaysia, England, ‘Elsewhere’. There are vampires and ghosts and demons; there are many detailed character portrayals, mostly of women and their family and friendship relationships; there is humour and sadness and joy. I was impressed by the amount of variety contained within relatively few stories.
On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard
Linh is a magistrate, but she arrives at Prosper station a refugee, fleeing for her life. Quyen failed the examinations and was never supposed to rule, but war has taken the station’s finest minds, and she finds herself thrust into a position she never wanted. The two women are distant cousins — yet as each tries to do her duty, they find themselves at odds. I loved the juxtaposition of the space station setting with the Confucian philosophy of filial piety, and the classical concept of civil service examinations extended to this futuristic setting. Beautifully done.
Archimedes Nesselrode by Justine Graykin
Vivian Mare is a housekeeper with a short attention span: she has a tendency to take an appointment, perform excellently, and then resign in favour of a change. Archimedes Nesserole is an eccentric artist with a magical gift. And this is a charming, romantic tale of two people helping one another through a quiet love and acceptance. It’s also, I think, the first asexual love story I’ve read, which deserves a note, I think. I loved Archimedes’ “creations”, from the stern Heron to the adorable Benjamin, and the magic was gently weaved into the central, personal story.
Thorn by Intisar Khanani
A retelling of the Goose Girl story, Thorn tells the story of Alyrra, a princess who is tricked by a witch, her body swapped with that of her attendant before she reaches the court of the prince she’s due to marry. The original tale is a strange one (I’m not convinced that the talking horse adds much to the plot), and in most respects this is a fairly faithful rendering, but it’s Khanani’s envisioning of the princess that makes this book special. Alyrra doesn’t complain at her loss of status; rather, she embraces the comparative freedom from expectations, and makes true friends amongst the palace staff. It’s only a sense of duty and honour that can tempt her into reclaiming the role she was born to.
A Stellar Affair by Laurel Richards
A quick read – romance in space, featuring a psychic interrogator and the prisoner he falls for. Ardra is abducted on her honeymoon, at her new husband’s instigation, and her mind is reprogrammed to carry secret information. What follows is her quest to reclaim the memories she didn’t know she’d lost, while Jack must rise above the simple requirements of his job if he’s to help her heal.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Alif, who prefers that online pseudonym to the name he was born with, is a young hacker with a principle of being unprincipled: he’ll help anyone against the totalitarian state, without discrimination, as long as they can pay. Let’s start by noting that Alif is a total brat. He’s incredibly annoying and sexist, and even when he tries to be self-aware and do better he still does it in a patronising and irritating way. However if you’re able to enjoy a book while disliking the narrator (and I am), there’s a lot here to enjoy. Alif’s problems start with a computer program he’s written to identify individuals by their typing style… and which works rather better than he can explain. This kind of algorithm (without the supernatural super-accuracy) is the bread and butter of the conferences I attend, and it’s not like computational linguistics gets a lot of screen time in novels (particularly not fantasy novels!) so that was a bit of a bonus for me. Then there’s a magical book, and real-life djinn, and a seamless blending of Islamic folklore with contemporary life and computer hacking, which came together into a fantastical adventure. The supporting characters were also fabulous. Dina, Alif’s neighbour and childhood friend, is a deeply religious woman who has chosen to veil her face, in defiance of her parents’ wishes, but she proves to be one of the strongest characters throughout. Similarly Vikram, a djinn they expect to be dangerous, shows himself to be a valuable ally. Complex and absorbing.