The Bone Witch, by Rin Chupeco [The Bone Witch #1]

Title: The Bone Witch (The Bone Witch #1)
Author: Rin Chupeco
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date:  7th March 2017
Rating ★★★★★

30095464The Bone Witch, by Rin Chupeco, the first of a new YA fantasy series, has been likened to The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. Usually I take these things with a pinch of salt and decry “advertising!” instead of walking into the book expecting to be given just this. But in this case, the echo of style and verve truly is there—and that’s one of the things that made me love this book so very, very much.  There’s a kind of slow, soft poetry to a story told through the eyes of a single character as they recall the (however distant or recent) past; as if we’re being told a story within a story. We’re told the story by Tea as she recounts it herself and we not only learn about her in snatches and glimpses, but that’s the way we’re invited to see the world of The Bone Witch as well, which is immensely rich and satisfying, as well as tantalisingly slow. The way in which Tea tells her story allows you to curl up and savour every word, simultaneously eager to spend time in the past through her recollection and race back to present day in order to follow the unravelling story wherever it is headed.

Tea is a bone witch, which she discovers when raising her dead brother from the grave, ultimately making him her familiar; in this way he is something resembling alive, though he remains very, truly dead. When a bone witch creates a familiar, the once-more-living creature retains their personality and memories and becomes linked to the witch who raised them. Which is why, when Tea is found by Lady Mikaela, a bone witch on her travels, raising and slaying the monstrous daeva as a bone witch is tasked to do, her brother is forced to remain with her. Neither sibling seems to mind this new and strange turn of events, however, and although Tea is apprehensive about leaving her sisters and family to become an asha-in-training, she is pleased enough to have raised her brother and be headed away from her tiny, insignificant village.

But it won’t be smooth sailing. Perhaps if Tea was any other kind of witch, then perhaps. Only Tea is a Dark asha, a bone witch who can only draw the Dark runes; runes for raising the dead and other darker, murkier things. And the raising and slaying of daeva. Only bone witches can kill the terrible creatures who rise up and bring death wherever they tread and though Tea has just arrived in the city with her new teacher, she already knows that this will be her fate.

As Tea struggles to manage her powers and undergo all the necessary training to become a fully-fledged asha, she finds that being the new girl is hard—let alone when you’re a bone witch. For all the bone witches are essential, they are treated with suspicion and often open hatred by many people and on the whole, they are merely tolerated as a presence among other asha. Not all of the asha think this way about their bone witch sisters, but Tea finds that for the most part she will make no easy friends among the other asha and asha apprentices.

Tea soon discovers that she is very capable, surpassing the expectations of her tutors in many areas. But life remains difficult under the strict rule of the asha-ka’s matron and there are times that Tea wishes she’d never left her little village. But she’ll never take back having raised Fox.

As Tea continues her story, we begin to see the tension mounting and are given the tiniest glimpses that might reveal what her plans will come to be. Through her eyes we see her past and through the observant narrative of the bard who sought her out, we’re told the story of Tea now, where she hides in exile from the rest of the asha as her plan begins to unfold. Much like Kvothe in The Name of the Wind, we are constantly held within inches of learning more about Tea, both in the present day and in her past, and the result is a compelling, lyrical story that lures you in and keeps your interest through its delectably slow unfolding and merging of past and present, with the smallest hint of what the future might hold.

The Bone Witch takes places in a diversely populated world where the asha take centre stage. In subsequent books I would be thrilled to see the male would-be-asha be afforded a place among the asha, instead of the ranks of the Heartseekers, where boys who can draw the runes usually go. I would love to see a boy join the ranks of the asha in the exact same way that Tea did: with the pretty clothes and enchanted jewellery, instead of keeping the genders separate with soldiers and witches, or by further feminising him in order to make him fit. I want Kai to be a male asha still partaking in all the traditional things that the asha do, without needing to surrender his gender somehow to do so. For me, that would mess with the gender boundaries of what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine’ in a way that feels relevant to me and more powerful given the typically feminine education and training of the asha apprentices. Basically Kai can be asha, regardless of his gender, doing all the things a girl would. That’s what I want. It’s what I’m hoping for. In addition, since there seemed to be (what I perceived as, at least) the implication of at least an attraction, if not romance, between two of the asha, I’m happy that at least some manner of queer representation was included, though I will be hoping for more in future.

I absolutely loved The Bone Witch, finding it completely enchanting and compelling: the slow, careful pace of the book is what makes it shine, with every detail lovingly rendered on the page, weaving a tapestry which becomes the backdrop to Tea’s journey. This trilogy is going to be fantastic, I have no doubt.

The Ninth Rain, [The Winnowing Flame #1] by Jen Williams

Title: The Ninth Rain (The Winnowing Flame #1)
Author: Jen Williams
Publisher: Headline
Release date: 23rd February 2017
Rating: ★★★★★

29758013The thing about Jen Williams is that she gets it. In the same way that any artist needs to know all the rules of their art intimately, in order to then bend or break those rules, Williams is so intimate with the genre of true, classic fantasy that she likely meets it in the pub for Sunday lunch and sends a card at the holidays. She knows exactly what she’s doing when she crafts these incredibly familiar worlds with almost-but-not quite familiar characters, only to then turn everything on its head and throw all expectation out the window. And she’s very good at it.

Another thing about Williams is that she writes in worlds that really ought to appear so cliché and dated that the words hang off the page in tatters and dust puffs up with every turn. In fact, the worlds she crafts are both gloriously familiar and excitingly fresh, clean and new: we’re never re-reading old “golden age” fantasy ground with Williams—even if, for a moment, we would be forgiven for thinking we are. The thing about this is that we get that cosy hot-chocolate-by-the-fire feeling that’s almost nostalgia for all the classic kinds of fantasy we thought had since been usurped by newer, reimagined fare, yet without any of the dowdy old tropes and generally completely of date nonsense we put up with without knowing there was an alternative. There won’t be any wailing damsels and certainly no chainmail bikinis or armour that is as ineffective as it is silly. Instead we have intelligent, queer (!) black women tromping around the woods, going about the business of being scholars and adventurers. Even the cliché of the womanizing rogue is bashed soundly on the head and left back in the decade from whence it came, and in its place, we have an updated elf-like almost-warrior who’s just enough of a dandy to know how the hell to dress (and to care about his appearance), but lacking in the other cliché of the useless fop who contributes very little outside of someone to laugh at for his lack of Traditional Masculinity.

After the stunning finale to the Copper Cat trilogy, which both tied everything up nicely as if with a ribbon, at the same time as leaving the vast stage open for our heroes to continue on thereafter, I was excited to delve into a whole different world and meet the new denizens of William’s very vivid—and very fun—imagination. The Ninth Rain does not disappoint.

We’re whisked away to a world we see in glimpses, where war stretches back through its long, bloody history and although the level of civilization and resulting technology is on its way to impressive, much of this is contained to walled cities and safe spaces upon which the overgown and worm-touched Wild does not encroach. Those who choose to live out in the Wild do so at great risk and most elect for the safety of cities and towns—anywhere the Wild hasn’t yet spread. But the Wild is spreading, slowly but surely, and this is what (among other things) prompts our wine-making scholar, Vintage, to set off from her family’s very wealthy vineyards in search of answers. What she doesn’t count on is getting entangled with a runaway witch from the infamous Winnowry, who might hold part of the answer Vintage has been looking for.

As for Tormalin the Oathless, even traipsing around the Wild with Vintage has got to be better that what he left behind at home: sickness and the slow and dusty decay of his people. No thanks—Tor would rather leave Ebora and keep on walking, and he has very little intention of looking back. Except Tor isn’t as good at pretending he’s done with Ebora as he thinks and whether he likes it or not, Ebora isn’t done with him. In fact, what he and Vinatge find out in the Wild might just change everything for the home he left behind. Tor isn’t the rogue some readers might expect, and neither is he the brooding, manly man-man warrior of total manliness who mans about doing his man thing. Even with his experience at the House of the Long Night, he absolutely is not That Guy; that wine-and-women dude. He’s more–so much more. And of course he is: because it’s Williams who wrote him and she nails him every bit as much as she nailed Frith and Sebastian.

The Ninth Rain fair sings off the page when reading and even the unusual and, let’s be fair, generally yuck and ick details of worm people and wandering, rampaging ghost plants, are conveyed clear as crystal and in with such an expert hand that, not for one moment, does the notion of said wandering ghost plants sound even a little silly.

Everything about The Ninth Rain cries classic fantasy, from the questing heroes to the fate of the world hanging in the balance. We even have an elfy, ethereal race gifted with longevity and beauty. Cue the forbidden magic that’s little understood, inextricably attached to a dodgy cult and the dutiful runaway with the dark past and we have precisely what’s needed to get very comfortable in that sepia-tinted Good Old Fantasy that brought us here in the first place.

But because this is Jen Williams The Ninth Rain is old fantasy all dressed up new and shiny and with only the good things left in, with all the dated and dodgy tropes drop-kicked into space. As usual, we’re invited to a diversely populated fantasy world that is engaging, exciting and written with complete abandon and no self-consciousness to be seen.

In others words, The Ninth Rain is peak Williams and if we learned anything from The Copper Cat it’s that from here, the bar is only going to get higher and higher. I have no doubt that when it does, Williams will step up her game and vault over it again and again.

Basically Williams’ The Ninth Rain is a shining example of just what modern fantasy can be and do. You need this book.

[Review] Timekeeper, by Tara Sim [Timekeeper #1]

Title: Timekeeper (Timekeeper #1)
Author: Tara Sim
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Publication date: 8th November 2016
Rating: ★★★★★

25760792Timekeeper, by Tara Sim, is a clockworky, period fantasy-mystery-romance-everything that mixes an investigative ‘whodunit’ element with that of myth, magic and mayhem, with the added exploration of everything from parental relationships to what, exactly, being human might mean.

Set in an alternate Victorian England (yay) where time is quite literally a force of power and must be harnessed through clock towers in order to function correctly and keep life flowing and moving as it must, Sim’s debut novel is a brilliant example of making myth and mystery merge with the burgeoning industry associated with steam/clockpunk to create a story that is completely addictive and rich.

Time was once controlled by Chronos, but after his death, time needed new, mortal guardians to ensure that all flowed and ebbed according to its natural order: The Mechanics. They can sense time, touch it and feel its strands and fibres as if it were fabric. They are its guardians, attending to the maintenance of the clocks across the world.

Danny Hart is one such mechanic—the best in his class and a natural prodigy; the youngest mechanic in the union—like his father before him. But Danny is particularly gifted, able to not only repair the towers with ease and a delicate, careful hand, but to feel and touch the very fabric of time itself in a way far deeper than his peers. Danny understands time.

Which is why, when an accident traps his father in a Stopped town, now for three years and counting, Danny is certain that if he could just be a part of the controversial construction of the new tower in Malden, that he’ll be able to save his father.

But with fears that Danny might not be up to the task, following on accident that could have cost him his life, Danny’s requests to work on the tower are gently refused by the Lead Mechanic. Before the accident, before he drew the sympathetic stares of his colleagues, there would have been no question as to whether he was fit for the job or not. In order to get the assignment to Maldon, Danny needs to repair his reputation and prove that he’s fine after the accident.

So what if he has nightmares, still, and the presence of so much of the clockwork that exploded and scarred him makes him break out in sweats? He can handle it—he has to. With this in mind, Danny sets himself to any assignment he’s given with determination, desperate to help his father.

Things begin to change, however, when Danny takes a job in Enfield.

Clock spirits don’t exist—not really. Every mechanic knows the stories, but they’re a myth, a fiction. Only, Danny might be forced to change that assertion when he meets Colton, the clock spirit of the Enfield tower. Filled with deep loneliness, Enfield’s clock spirit begins finding any way he can to draw the mechanics—to draw Danny—to the town. So much for Danny’s focus on work and saving his father… Before long, the two are drawn together and Danny’s visits to the tower have less to do with the clock and more the boy who powers it.

But when a similar incident to the one that almost killed Danny occurs and there’s no visible culprit or motive, things begin to take a sinister turn. With clock towers being attacked, maybe it’s only a matter of time before another town is Stopped. And perhaps Danny won’t be so lucky a second time.

It soon becomes clear that Danny must solve the mystery before something unthinkable happens and before long, there’s more at stake than just Danny’s father. With the help of Colton, a rival mechanic, and his best friend, Danny delves headlong into untangling the distorted threads to find the truth about what really happened to him—and to his father.

Timekeeper is an expertly-written debut that is both thrilling and enchanting. Sim has a talent for crafting real, feeling characters and capturing the subtle and nuanced realities of every emotion from loneliness to grief, as well as weaving realistic and deep relationships between the characters. This is always something I hone in on immediately: parental relationships. Sim writes a seamless strained relationship between Danny and his mother, as well as his absent father. Parents suck sometimes—whatever the reason—and Danny’s mother is no different.

Obviously, Timekeeper features a m/m romance. Sound all the bells and alarms for a realistically-written gay romance, because by gods, they’re rare enough and rarer still written well, without essentially resembling the shounen-ai/yaoi fanfics written by teenage girls after binging Junjou Romantica for three weeks. This isn’t a gay romance written for girls (as so many are: fight me, go on, do it), it’s just a boy-meets-boy kind of story that gets it right, not agonising over any ridiculous notions such as how do I write a gay romance?! (spoiler: the same way you write any goddamn romance).

Additionally, this isn’t a story about Danny being gay—it’s a story where Danny just so happens to be into boy-shaped people. This fact alone would likely made me give the book five million stars and recommend it, even if I hadn’t personally liked it. When we have queer SFF on the regular that just so happens to feature queer characters without being a story that centres entirely on their queerness, then I’ll shut up about it. Until then, I’ll say: I do not want queer fiction; I want fiction that happens to be queer.

And that’s precisely what Timekeeper is.

Timekeeper is also a brilliant story that makes Sim look like she’s been published for years, not, in fact, her debut novel. The world is richly-plotted and expertly conveyed, mixing her unique magic and myth effortlessly with the more modern setting of a Victorian England only slightly different from our own. Her prose is deep and magical, adding a touch of wonder to the manner of setting that would usually present as either high-society propriety or the nitty-gritty of the streets. Timekeeper is enthralling and delightful and in one book, Sim managed to both write a story that finds a natural end, at the same time as setting the stage for subsequent books to follow.

Needless to say I am highly anticipating more from Sim—both in the Timekeeper world and in whichever additional worlds Sim decides to explore. This book was bloody brilliant. Buy it.

Bi Visibility Week – On Being Bi/Pan-(romantic)

bi-flagSo apparently being bisexual is frowned upon by many (ridiculously rude and shitty) people. Honestly, though, even having to type that is so ridiculous that I almost deleted it twice. Because it doesn’t seem like it should be true. But it is true–biphobia is a big thing. I’m lucky enough that,  in the circles I move in, I’m not subjected to it at all in my personal offline life (my friends are literally all varieties of queer; and this happened organically, without any of us knowing about one another’s queerness before we met, and without meeting in a specific queer community or setting), but I know from basically existing in the world and online that people get twitchy (and paranoid and downright nasty) about bisexuality. They get mean about bisexuality. Really mean.

Before we go any further, repeat after me: bisexuals are not confused or greedy or going through a phase. Bisexuality is a valid sexuality; we exist and we are here and there is no qualifying “test” or lifestyle checklist we have to complete.

And once again for those in the back: bisexuals are not confused or greedy or going through a phase.

OK, good.

Men who are bisexual are faking and are actually gay and women who are bisexual are straight and faking liking women (funny how the world revolves around we dudefolk, isn’t it? (Except that it’s not funny at all…)).Of course this is incorrect and also so incredibly damaging. To constantly invalidate someone’s sexual preference–especially when said sexuality can be easily erased or hidden (being “straight-passing” or “gay-passing” depending on relationship status)–is cruel and hurtful and damaging.

If you like one or more gender(s), then, congratulations! You’re bisexual. Bisexual guy married to a woman? Are you still bi? You betcha! Same if you’re a bisexual woman and married to a man. And this works for bisexual people who “pass as gay” by being in a relationship with people of their own gender. They’re all bisexual and they’re all valid.

Some people use pansexual synonymously with bisexual (though many don’t)–and I’m one of them. Whilst I don’t technically identify as bisexual (note the emphasis) or pansexual (again, emphasis), I do identify as panromantic.

Yep, that’s right: it’s the sexual part that becomes the deal-breaker. I am definitely attracted to pretty much any person of any gender whatsoever–therefore making me very bi/pan–but in my case, the attraction is as far as it goes. I’m asexual (there will be a post on this in the near future) and therefore would usually rather read a book or eat oatmeal or honestly just pet a cat instead of engaging in any business relating to the between-the-sheets activity. I’m just not interested.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not attracted to how people look or the notion of them as romantic possibilities. Asexual simply implies that, when it comes to the down-and-dirty, I don’t harbour any real interest or physical desire. It’s not simply a matter of choosing to abstain, but a literal physical, emotional and mental disinterest in the deed, generally speaking. Sure, many asexual people still have physical relations with their partners (whether to have kids, or simply because they enjoy–but do not feel pressured into–making their partners happy, or even because, however often they feel like it, they don’t mind having sex with people they’re in a stable relationship with), but the cinching point for many is that we are simply not that bothered by the idea. 

I could go on, but then I could also write whole essays about asexuality, and this is all about being bi this week. So…

Regardless of my asexuality, I consider myself bi/pan. Strictly speaking, I do prefer the term bi/panromantic, but most of the time our dialogue on sexuality doesn’t stretch to inclusion of these terms (or any terms that fall outside of allosexuality, for that matter) because there isn’t a widespread acknowledgement of the difference between physical sexual desire and the magnetic pull of one person’s heart towards another’s (purely romantic attraction; attraction to a person based on who they are as a soul, instead of a physical, sexual being).

Yes, this is crappy, but since my panromantic-ness isn’t a performance for anyone/thing, I’m perfectly comfortable broadly identifying as bi alongside asexual. I’m open about most things, so if people really get confused by the seeming contradiction of bisexual asexuality, they can always ask if it’s that big a deal!

I’ve always been comfortable in my happy little bi self. I’ve had relationships/harboured attraction towards people of quite literally every gender variant, including straight people, gay people and those that fall somewhere between. But it’s also not something I realised was a Thing until far later than I should have. With little to no bi rep in the media I grew up on, it’s no wonder that, years later, I’m looking back at what seemed to be peculiar crushes on other people of my own gender, wondering if what was really happening was my own burgeoning bisexuality.

There’s still so little representation of bisexual people in our media. I can likely name more gay characters than I can bisexual–which is a big problem. Gay rep is very important, yes, but bi rep deserves just as much attention. In a way, since it can be a complex issue, it arguably deserves more attention. Conveying a same-gender relationship is easy: boy meets boy, or girl meets girl. Easy. But a bisexual relationship, to be explored on the page as a sexuality, needs a little more, unless a character is constantly reaffirming their own preference. This is why we need #ownvoices authors telling our stories: I don’t think it would be possible for me to write something without a queer character, because it’s such an integral part of who I am, it comes so naturally to the characters I write.

But it is important to acknowledge bi characters when we see them, and to not fall into the systemic biphobic habits of labeling these characters as gay or straight depending on their current preference/history of relationships, and thereby denying them the deserved and valid identity of queer.

I did this recently, having lamented the lack of queer rep in one of my favourite series. I fell into the trap of taking away a character’s queerness by not considering their bisexuality as being “queer enough”. Which is really, really crappy of me, let’s me fair. Yet, this is the systemic bi-erasure hard at work, right there. I’m talking about Aedion Ashryver in Sarah J Maas’ Throne of Glass series, which now features a queer character as part of the main cast. Bisexuality is valid. Aedion Ashryver is valid.

Aedion is my current bookish crush. And he’s a great crush for me to have, as a bi guy, because he is also bisexual. It matters. His past relationship with a member of the Bane is important but in no way invalidates his current feelings towards a female character. Aedion wasn’t gay when he dated the soldier and he isn’t straight now he’s attracted to a woman. He is–just as he has always been–bisexual. Having a crush on a fellow bi hottie feels good, because there’s the notion that the character gets me, gets my sexuality. That’s really important.

I don’t have many bookish crushes (girl or guy), and perhaps my asexuality tempers any attraction based purely on how a character looks or presents, but I think it’s more that the characters I could crush on feel unattainable. With bisexuality so easily erased across the board, it’s easy to feel invalidated as a bisexual person, when the choice of crushes leans either towards gay imaginary romance or straight imaginary romance.

That’s not to say that bisexual people will always want to/need to date other bisexuals, but with this ingrained sense of biphobia, it’s little wonder that those who identify as bisexual will do so openly around only those they trust the most, or they may conceal that part of themselves altogether, lest they be judged for their preferences. The gay and straight communities are equally guilty of this treatment.

There are many married men and women in my circles who are bi, but rarely consider/announce themselves as queer, even though their letter (the B) is right there in the LGBT+ acronym. That’s hugely problematic.

In the same way that the L and G seem to come together and form one big gay supervillain, bent on stealing the focus and attention entirely for themselves, whilst the other letters are shoved into the background, taught to be grateful for whatever scraps of (often bad) representation they’re given, any focus on the gender elements of the queer/LGBTQIA spectrum are similarly often forgotten. Indeed, talk of “queer rep” is so often reduced to simply “gay rep”, which is telling in and of itself.

Queerness is about so much more than who you’re attracted to and shouldn’t be reduced to an overarching label of “GAY”. There’s a lot of work to do, but hey, hopefully with more attention on the important issues of queerness, through awareness periods such as Bi Visibility Week, maybe we’ll eventually gain some ground and open the dialogue all the wider for it.

And before I go, once again:

Bisexuality is valid. Bisexuality is valid. Bisexuality is valid. Bisexuality is valid. 

 

 

Nine Worlds Geekfest 2016

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So I’ve never been to a geek convention like Nine Worlds before. Sure, I’ve vaguely attended anime cons but honestly, they’re not even comparable. (The UK doesn’t really do great anime cons.)

I would have attended this year even if I’d not been aware of the communication system they have in place. But it certainly helped put my anxious mind at ease, knowing that I would, in theory, be able to go around with my big red badge of NOPE and remain off the radar for any well-meaning conversational types looking for a chat or even just a casual passing word.

If I’d only had the anxiety by itself to deal with then I’d have done far more than I did. As it happens, chronic illness doesn’t just go away because you’re trying to have a good time and step out of your comfort zone for once, so there were times I missed stuff because I wasn’t well enough.

Even before arriving at Nine Worlds, it felt different. I don’t have a lot of experience with things like this, but I could just tell that it was open and accessible and that I’d feel safe there being “different” (in my case, disabled, not NT and also queer). Even if you just take into account the fact that I’m horribly introvert and have massive social anxiety to deal with, Nine Worlds presents such a safe space,  by means of their communication system. Not only is the system of coloured badge overlays very simple, but it is also advertised: people can’t miss the fact that this exists. Yes, there was a single time where someone talked to me and I wasn’t happy about it, but, on the whole, the badge system is amazing and it made me feel safe.

It’s also worth adding that you can have pronouns added to a badge, to help with any awkward/upsetting situations that might arise. I had a standard badge without pronouns, but I assume that pronouns are simply written on the blank badge the same way names are (meaning you can have a different name on your badge to any other details you might have needed to give).

Nine Worlds works as hard as it can to be an accessible con, for both visible and invisible disabilities, as well as anything from deafness to sensory overload issues. It really shouldn’t be the case that I’m (in a good way!) singling out a convention or event to say “yes, they care about accessibility and safety”, but the Nine Worlds team really does give a damn. With closed sessions for both PoC and queer peeps, you really get the impression that they know what’s up with the world and with the geek community. They get that there’s work to be done, and they’re willing to do it. Hell, that in itself is enough to make me want to go again, even without the fact that it was also a really, really great convention.

As I said, I’ve not been to one before, so I can’t judge others (outside of the horror stories I see on social media), but there’s something that seems just so inclusive about Nine Worlds. From the accessible seating set aside at various intervals in panel rooms (that’s right – these spaces aren’t just at the front of the room, but spread out amidst the regular seating, too., just as the spaces reserved for wheelchairs are) to a quiet room and the teeny reminder on their accessible seating signs that not all disabilities are visible, Nine Worlds are seriously on point with getting this stuff right.

There was one lift that could have been too small for some wheelchairs, so they advertised this and set up special arrangements to help those whose chairs were too big get around. It’s difficult to think of just what else they could have done!

It’s hard to stress just how much of a difference that red badge made to me. Whilst it didn’t entirely solve my social anxiety issues (which are fairly complex and multi-layered, and I’ll likely cover them in another post soon), it helped immeasurably. Part of my anxiety is related to being seen and so obviously there’s nothing that anything short of a cloak of invisibility could do to help with that–but! That didn’t mean that the knowledge that nobody would talk to me didn’t help. No chance of chit-chat in the lifts; freedom to browse the Expo with nobody trying to hawk anything or start a conversation; no worry about people I know thinking “hey! That’s Leo!” and coming to say hello if I wasn’t ready. All these fears were immediately eliminated.

I can imagine for other people who struggle with social anxiety or peopling, that the idea of being able to wear a badge that keeps you “off limits” is just ridiculously reassuring. Imagine being able to toddle from your hotel room, down into the lift, wearing your big red badge of NOPE, knowing that you might be ferried down through hotel with nary a word spoken to your person, both as you make your way to the panel you’re attending, as well as during, after and for the rest of the convention, if you so wish. Anyone with a red badge is perfectly welcome to initiate conversations with anyone they feel comfortable, but there is absolutely no obligation and neither will there be the fear of being rude if you’re not able to talk or socialise. The badge does all that for you. It’s genius, really.

I’d say it’s worth expecting someone to accidentally speak to you whilst wearing the badge, but it’s difficult to say whether it will happen or not, since the circumstances were so very specific with me, and, though I’m still trying to decide if the person in question recognised me from social media or not, it wasn’t a conversation as much as a passing remark. It wasn’t great, but it didn’t do any harm overall (likely because the person may have realised and shuffled off after the fact, or, because it was intended as a passing remark in any case). Anyone who wants to put their faith in this badge system, can indeed do so. It worked and it felt safe. There’s not a lot more you can ask for, really.

 

 

The Crown’s Game, by Evelyn Skye

Title: The Crown’s Game (The Crown’s Game #1)
Author: Evelyn Skye
Publisher: Balzer+Bray
Publication date: 17th May 2016 (US) 30th June 2016 (UK)
Rating: ★★★★★

CrownsGame hc cThe Crown’s Game, by Evelyn Skye, is another Truthwitch (by Susan Dennard). Not that they have anything at all in common—which they don’t, as it happens—but rather that this book is so hyped it’s unreal. And yet, as with Truthwitch: the hype is real.

There’s always a certain glee at reading a book that everyone is telling you you’re going to love, and then you actually do love. A tiny wee part of me was braced for disappointment. Not because anything about the book or the hype had put me off, but for two reasons: a) I’d rather be ready for the disappointment of a hyped book not quite hitting the spot and b) I always enter into books with a structured conflict (such as Vika and Nikolai’s duel to the death) with a thin veil of detachment, so I can figure out if it’s worth investing myself, when we’re pretty much told from the offset that someone is going to lose.

That veil did not last long.

Because this book is wonderful.

We’re introduced to an alternate Imperial Russia where magic is secret but real, and the time has come for Russia to once again appoint an Imperial Enchanter. Ordinarily, this is a simple task, with there being a single enchanter at any given time. Unfortunately for both Vika and Nikolai, who have been training their whole lives in preparation for being Imperial Enchanter to the Tsar, this time, things are a little different.

When there are two enchanters, the Crown’s Game must begin.

Vika has been raised on an island with her father, Sergei, and she knows nothing of the other enchanter out there. One day, she will be Imperial Enchanter and she will serve Russia, making her father proud. Nikolai, on the other hand, an orphan from the Kazakh Steppe who was bought from his village for a handful of livestock, has been raised and trained to be the best. Galina, Sergei’s sister, has been a ruthless mentor, giving nothing in the way of love or a comfortable life outside of dressing him for show and parading him as her dear little charity case.

Whilst Nikolai has been studying and mastering his magic through craft, engineering and more scientific ventures, Vika’s magic is all the wildness of natural energies and the very world around her. They are unalike in every way.

But it is time for the tsesarevich’s birthday, and to coincide with the beginning of the Game, both Vika and Nikolai are commanded to make their moves part of his birthday festivities. With no other guidelines given, the two enchanters are set against one another from the offset. And with their mentors whisked away to Siberia, they are left alone to participate in the Game.

Perhaps Nikolai stands a better chance of knowing how to make an impression, since he is best friends with the tsesarevich. But Pavel Alexandrovich Romanov knows nothing of his friend’s magic, or the Game, so even though they are close, things won’t be as simple as he might have hoped. In turn, Vika soon realises that she has caught the attention of Pasha, but with the tension of the Game and the growing fear for her life with each and every move of the Game, she might be too caught up in the magic to know how to use this to her advantage.

But in the end, it is the Tsar who will declare a winner, and he is stony and resolute. The Game will be played and an Imperial Enchanter will be appointed.

The Crown’s Game isn’t what it seems. It isn’t a bloodthirsty battle or a contest of egos or even wills. It’s, instead, a subtle and deep game that revolves entirely around the small cast and their feelings and relationships with one another. There are secrets and twists and revelations that, even if you cotton on a single page before the reveal, will make you go wide-eyed in surprise or clap about like a mad thing with glee (guilty—there might have been book-waggling/hugging). This book is a glorious feast for the senses, with delightful and extraordinary magic that exceeds both expectation and belief at every turn, making the reading of The Crown’s Game almost as exhilarating and wondrous as the Game played by Vika and Nikolai themselves.

The Crown’s Game is a stunning book with such heart and such strong characters, each in their own way. Vika is a fiery thing, whilst Nikolai has brooding, thoughtful edges. Pasha was a constant delight, even as he struggles to face up to the fact that one day he will be Tsar—and the realisation that his heart might be too soft for the role.

From the depth of the friendship between Pasha and Nikolai and the warmth of the relationship between Vika and Ludmila, this book is a pleasure to be immersed in, if only for the interactions between the characters and the way they shape and form the story. Yes, this is about magic and enchantments to make you beam with delight and gape with awe. Yes, this is about a deadly Game and a battle of wills. But it’s also so much more than that. The Crown’s Game is a story about discovery and about pushing the limits of who you are and how far you will go. It’s about finding just what it is that makes you, you, and a little bit of exploring the consequences of letting others make your decisions and sway your heart.

This book isn’t just set in historic Russia—it takes you there. You feel it in the streets, in the palaces, in the people who populate the world. From the mounting tensions of the lower and working classes, to the discomfort of those in the nobility who see the dangerous ground upon which the Tsardom treads, this is a book that really feels authentic. Which, given Skye’s love for Russia, isn’t a surprise at all. She nailed it.

At the end of the day, The Crown’s Game is about imagination and finding those little pieces of yourself in order to move one step closer to completing the puzzle of just who you are. It’s gorgeous, it’s exciting and it’s thrilling. It’s pure, pure magic.

 

 

False Hearts, by Laura Lam

Title: False Hearts
Author: Laura Lam
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 16th June 2016
Rating: ★★★★★

False-Hearts-UK-Cover (2)False Hearts, by Laura Lam, is an exciting sci-fi thriller that explores the ideas of brain-hacking, lucid dreaming and the deep, dark world of organised crime and corruption in a city that is perfect on the outside. Where flesh parlours are a five-minute ticket to a new appearance and neural implants allow for quick downloading of information directly to the brain, muscular implants regulate body mass and size, and everything from synthetic, hangover free alcohol to fully-prepared meals can be ordered from a replicator in your kitchen, San Francisco seems to be the perfect city, full of perfect people.

Since the introduction of Zeal lounges, allowing the user to plug directly into their own vast fantasies and participate as they play out, the crime rate has plummeted and the city has become a peaceful haven of happy people with sculpted smiles.

But not everyone gets the same kick out of Zeal; for some, the dreaming process of acting out hidden fantasies doesn’t produce the same effect. For formerly conjoined twins, Taema and Tila, raised outside of society in a secluded cult, Zeal does nothing. Maybe it’s because they were raised so differently, taught the word of Mana-Ma, the conduit for the Good Book and God’s word. But maybe it’s the fact that they can already both lucid dream thanks to their training in the cult of Mana’s Hearth and the fact that their brains simply work differently, lowering the pleasure of Zeal for both of them.

However, this fact makes Taema and Tila somewhat unique and very useful for those seeking to use Zeal for a darker purpose. Everyone knows about the Zealots; those who plug into Zeal and live out such dark fantasies that they are driven away from the monitored feeds in the legal, safe Zeal lounges and into the shady, grimy parlours of the city’s underbelly. Addicted to Zeal, unable to feel a connection with life outside their fantasies, they plug in for hours and hours at a time, eventually wasting away, their lives crumbling around them as they act out their darker sides away from the prying eyes of the rest of the city.

Taema has always been the sensible twin, the reserved twin. An engineer with a good job and bright future, she plays by all the rules. That is, until her sister comes home covered in blood, accused of a murder Taema knows her sister can’t possibly be capable of.

Or could she? The deeper Taema delves into her sister’s life, the more she realises that, since they left Mana’s Hearth, she barely knows her sister anymore. So many secrets and lies hang between them now and Taema is left in the dark. With her sister’s trial pending and the first murder in the city in decades being covered up, Taema is given a choice: become Tila and find out the truth or leave her sister to die.

Soon she finds herself undercover and in deep water as she tries to step into her sister’s very different shoes. With a partner to help her learn the ropes of being undercover, Taema brainloads new info every day, learning everything from the hierarchy of the city’s dark and dangerous mafia to martial combat techniques. As she slips further down the rabbit hole, losing herself more with each day spent pretending to be Tila, she discovers a deeper, darker truth at the heart of it all.

Whatever her sister was caught up in, it goes far further than she could ever have imagined, and in the end, it might feel as though they never really escaped the Hearth after all.

This book was thrilling in every sense of the word; exciting and vibrant and bursting with what felt like a genuine and accurate possible aesthetic of a future San Francisco. So many earthbound science fiction narratives can read far too much like our very own here and now, rendering the setting somewhat redundant as a supposed science fiction. False Hearts does not suffer from this at all, instead depicting a very visible future with all the usual instalments of such a setting, with thoughtful details that make a world feel less like a structure confined to the page, and more a living, real thing. Essentially the world that Lam creates in lieu of our own feels possible, as if we’re glimpsing the future instead of reading about an entirely fictional world. This, for me, is something of an essential part of a good futuristic earth.

False Hearts is a superbly-written and gripping thriller that plays out with almost startling movie-like clarity. It would translate to film like a dream come true. As is to be expected from Lam, the world she presents is not only racially diverse, but also sexually. Lo and behold and let the angels sing for a bisexual main character who neither coyly dances around the subject nor is revealed as not heterosexual outside of the actual story and by the author. No Dumbledore treatment here. Taema is bi and definitely interested in the possibility of dating women when the suggestion is presented. We even have a disabled boy. Heck, Taema and Tila themselves are formerly conjoined twins. And, as I’ve also come to expect from Lam, their status as such is not a part of the plot. It simply is. Just as Micah’s intersex biology was not a part of her Dark Circus series; it simply was just how Micah was.

It’s ludicrously refreshing to have an author remember that bisexuality, race and disability are a thing. As said, I’d expect nothing less with Lam. She’s a bright star in a sky dotted with samey science fiction that tries too hard to be edgy, potentially using both race and LGBT characters more as set-dressing than as characters who feature very prominently in the story.

I knew about False Hearts long before I read it, dating back to a handful of DMs where we both lamented the fact that her publisher (then, Strange Chemistry) would not be picking up the third Micah Grey book. She’d recently finished a draft of what became False Hearts, which her agent loved and we both crossed our fingers hoping it would be a breakout novel for her (and that her backlist would be picked up as well).

These things happened, and now, after years of anticipation, waiting whilst “Bonkers Book” was finished and edited and eventually sold, I got to read the novel the pitch of which made me giddy with excitement.

I wasn’t disappointed. False Hearts is a stunningly clever thriller that is sure to keep you reading well into the night. I can’t reiterate how much I love this book. Lam is a stellar author and with False Hearts she has stepped up her game. I can’t imagine how I’ll possibly wait patiently for the second book. I miss Taema already.