First Frost of Autumn (firstfrost) wrote,
First Frost of Autumn
firstfrost

Thirty-one books

Finders, by Melissa Scott
A trio of xenoarchaeologists explores space ruins, pursued by space-Belloq. The personal dynamics were more interesting than the plot, and it was enjoyable enough to finish but not standout enough to say much more about. Three and a half stars.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
This is very "fantasy Hamlet", down to the body count. I liked this quite a lot, and the convergence of the flashback backstory and the current events is handled very nicely. The god mechanic is awesome. I was not sure what I thought about the ending, but then, Hamlet, so nobody's all that happy (like the ending of Game of Thrones.) Also, a trans character for whom it isn't a plot. Here is a bit that deals with both the god mechanic and the Hamlet homage, and of course I like it because it's talking about stories. :
Stories can be risky for someone like me. What I say must be true, or it will be made true, and if it cannot be made true---if I don't have the power, or if what I have said is an impossibility---then I will pay the price. I might more or less safely say, "Once there was a man who rode home to attend his father's funeral and claim his inheritance, but matters were not as he expected them to be." I do not doubt such a thing has happened more than once in all the time there have been fathers to die and sons to succeed them. But to go any further, I must supply more details---the specific actions of specific people, and their specific consequences---and there I might blunder, all unknowing, into untruth. It's safer for me to speak of what I know. Or to speak only in the safest of generalities. Or else to say plainly at the beginning, "Here is a story I have heard," placing the burden of truth or not on the teller whose words I am merely accurately reporting.
Five stars.

Middlegame (by Seanan McGuire)
So, Seanan McGuire, to me, has a fairly recognizable voice. I usually like her reasonably well, plus or minus a lot depending on the series and how far in it is. Mira Grant (same person, different pen name, author of the Feed series) has a very different voice. And Middlegame has yet another voice, and one that I like a lot. The genre feels more like Good Omens or The Library at Mount Char, and nobody is trying to categorize anything (fairy tales or cryptids or fey or whatever), so the worldbuilding unfolds narratively rather than expositionally. The alchemical conspiracy seems to work more as the direction of being the villains demands, but it's all about the relationship between the two main characters as they grow up and grow into their powers and their plot, so I didn't really mind the villains not being totally clear. I made a note of this bit, musing about a fire that happens along on the way to saving/destroying the world.
At least six students died in the blaze---maybe more, depending on what the firefighters found, depending on whether someone had fallen asleep in an empty classroom or gone looking for a private place to sit and study---and each of them had friends, family, a whole world of their own. Those worlds are over now. The world keeps ending, every minute of every day, and nothing is going to make that stop. Nothing can ever, ever make that stop.

The Essex Serpent (by Sarah Perry)
When I read the plot description - an independent-minded female naturalist pokes around Essex to investigate rumors of the Essex Serpent, a possibly-imaginary Loch Ness river-beastie, I was expecting something more... adventury? There's a bit of romance, and some turn of the past century progressivism, and a lot of really lovely lyrical descriptions of the countryside:
Autumn's kind to Aldwinter: thick sun aslant on the common forgives a multitude of sins. The dog roses have gone over to crimson hips, and children stain their hands green breaking walnuts open. Skeins of geese unravel over the estuary, and cobwebs dress the gorse in silk.

For all that, things aren't as they ought to be. World's End sinks into the marsh and there's fungus growing in the empty grate. The quay is quiet: better to risk a lean winter than set sail on polluted waters. Rumors come from Point Clear and St. Osyth, from Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea: the beast in the Blackwater was seen by a fisherman at tide's turn one night and he went clean out of his wits; a child was found half drowned with a gray-black mark on her belly; a dog's been cast up on the saltings with its head all awry.
But... nothing very much happens. Or, I guess, many things happen, but they are all small people-sized things, with more importance to the people they happen between than anyone else. That which does, happens beautifully, but it wasn't the book I was expecting, and I went through the whole thing sort of waiting for it to start. </p>

The Ruin of Kings (by Jenn Lyons)
This might be... a little too complicated? The book opens in a jail. The prisoner and the jailer are telling each other the stories of what happened, taking turns holding the rock of telling-the-story to. One story is Part One of the prisoner's life, the other story is Part Two. Being in jail is Part Three, and Part Four happens after that. There are also a lot of snarky footnotes from someone who starts out unidentified, but turns out to have been another character in the ongoing narrative (and who is listening to the story from the rock, which turns out to be a better rock of telling-the-story-to than one might think at the outset.) It reminded me a bit of K. J. Parker's Scavenger series, where what we know about the main character (and a lot of everyone else) gets written and rewritten - the multiple timelines sort of helps with that, but it also muddled me sometimes because I would wonder why he didn't... but right, this is Part One and he doesn't... until part Two. The bad guys are maybe overly gratuitously evil, and I swear that the Stone of Shackles has as complicated a timeline as some of the Infinity Stones. Three and a half stars.

The Apple-Tree Throne (by Premee Mohamed)
That this was an alternate history was less relevant than it seemed like it would be; it was more of a slow thoughtful story about a soldier and the ghost of his commanding officer. When I learned that it was sort of the extended remix of some song lyrics, that oddly made it make more sense. Two stars.

A Cathedral of Myth and Bone (by Kat Howard)
This is a set of short (and less short) stories, recastings of and riffs on older tales. I liked almost all of them, which is much better than average.
24 October---Feast of Saint Tycho Brahe
Saint Tycho is commonly depicted in full court robes, standing before a telescope. In the background can be seen a star in supernova and a comet. In his left hand, he holds a model of a human nose, cast in gold. Saint Tycho is claimed as patron by poets, makers of prosthetic devices, and designers of astronomical instruments.
Five stars

The City in the Middle of the Night (by Charlie Jane Anders)
Interesting worldbuilding and interesting alien contact (though really the humans are the aliens on this particular world). Interesting characters, and the two (three) cities are a fascinating study in differences. Maybe a little more angst than I needed; I think I would have given up on that particular love plot, myself. But pretty compelling. Four stars.

Vicious and Vengeful by V. E. Schwab
I do like the stories that turn the standard hero/villain dynamic on its head, especially with mad scientists - Nimona is lovely, Narbonic is amazing, and I adored Soon I Will Be Invincible. So I really wanted to love this. But it is mandatory that the villain-main-character be, if not good, at least likable. Here, the main character is just too much of an asshole, even if the "good guy" is a worse villain. Not to mention, I don't actually think that shooting all the people you talk to is a way to keep a low profile. I am a little embarrassed that I read the second.

Skyward (by Brandon Sanderson)
A YA book, not part of the Cosmere, and sort of like a more cheerful variant on Ender's Game as far as plucky-kid-fights-the-aliens-and-their-mean-society goes. I was reminded just how much Sanderson loves his impulse and momentum mechanics - here, the spaceships use quasi tractor beams not the way every other spaceship in science fiction does, but the way Spider-Man would if he was a starship. Who ever heard of putting points in Swinging for your ship? Not a complaint, just a recognition of an authorial favorite. Since it's YA, most of my quibbles about both the worldbuilding and the character are of overly much simplification, but it really does spend a lot of time hammering on the "coward" insult, and that's where my actual complaint is. (Spoiler now).

Spin (main character) grows up under the reputation of a father who was shot for cowardice, fleeing the battle. She spends all book fiercely demonstrating that she's not a coward (and pretty much everyone obsesses about cowards and proving themselves not one). Eventually she learns that it's a coverup for something worse - her father turned traitor and started shooting his teammates before being shot. She learns this (noooooooo! it can't be!), but the reader is pretty immediately sure that there's alien mind control going on, because it's not like it makes any sense to switch teams to join the kill-all-humans aliens who you never even talk to. The authorities doing the coverup, as it turns out, also are pretty sure that it's mind control, and they talk about the "flaw" of being susceptible which they are hoping to secretly figure out how to detect, so they can point at anyone else who has it, call them cowards, and shame them into... skulking off to die, I guess. WHY WHY WHY. If you are worried about mind control influencing your pilots, and you think you know the symptoms, do not pursue this as a secret project. If you think it's mind control, and you're already covering up what actually happened, why bother painting the poor guy posthumously as the worst of the worst? Put some damn effort into trying to build tinfoil hats, at least!

A Brightness Long Ago (by Guy Gavriel Kay)
I wonder, if I went back and reread Tigana, if I would love it as much as I did when I first read it, or it is more luminous in memory than it would be now. Have I changed, or has it? (Or has it changed me?) That's the sort of thing Kay specializes in making the reader think. :) I haven't read a lot of his recent work, since kind of disliking Sailing to Sarantium for completely different reasons twenty years apart, but I rather liked this one, so maybe I should try some more. (Charles noted that the Palio happens in this one, which tipped me into listening to it.) Compared with Sarantium, the women have tons more agency, though with a weird self-reflective vibe about how they are Choosing the Choices they Make, as if he has to point it out to the reader. "Look! Agency!" But no, my snarkiness there is unfair - the whole book is focused on how 1) the choices you make 2) the random events that happen to you (especially meetings on a road! it's like that damned zubir all over again!) shape your life.
We are always the person we were, and we grow into someone very different if we live long enough. Both things are true.
Four stars.

Children of Ruin (by Adrian Tchaikovsky)
Sequel to Children of Time, but with octopodes in addition to giant spiders. I was really pleased when we got all three plurals discussed. The idea of how an uplifted octopus might think, and how their civilization might behave, was interesting, given how we understand them to think now (their arms are not directly controlled by the brain but have their own independent control and senses, and the brain doesn't even have proprioception). It makes them less sympathetic than the portiid spiders, because they're so much more alien, but still interesting. This book also ended up going into some Expanse-ish protomolecule horror, which wasn't what I expected but was still fun. Also, now, "We're going on an adventure" is the creepiest thing ever. Four and a half stars.

Redemption's Blade: After the War (by Adrian Tchaikovsky)
I really like Tchaikovsky's Apt series (I need to go back and finish them, as I accidentally fell off when I converted to ebook), and I really the Children pair, which I totally think of as his Uplift books though he never calls them that. He also has a couple which I now think of as "Tchaikovsky writes down his D&D campaign". There was Spiderlight, which I read a couple of years ago, and there's this one. I think Tchaikovsky would make an awesome DM and I want to be in his runs, but they make slightly less compelling books? Redemption's Blade is set in the Tzalmir / Tourmaline genre of "after the fantasy Big Bad has been defeated" which I obviously like. This reads like an epilogue to the massive campaign that took down the Big Bad, but with some new players in the mix, so the whole story is a continuous filling in of the backstory that touches on all the tropes. It's not tedious, but it is very by-the-numbers. There are some nice moments, but there's also a lot where I felt like I was being reminded of things that I already knew. Three and a half stars.

The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire (by John Scalzi)
I thought all three were out when I started, oops. I think this is because he blogged when he finished the third, which is not the same as it being published. I expect popcorn fun from Scalzi, not brilliance; this was maybe some of his lessor popcorn for me. Powerful villains who continue to be treated as just as powerful after they have been defeated kind of frustrate me; plucky protagonists who keep being treated as weak losers after they have scored significant victories, similar. Maybe that's realistic (various mafia figures continuing to run things from jail), but I want better escapism from my popcorn escapist fiction. And everyone - hmm, I was going to say has the same voice, but it's not quite that (some characters swear quite a lot more than others). It's that everyone thinks the same way, and frequently speaks the same way, though they can have different top-level goals (profit / personal power / general welfare). Scalzi has managed to get rid of his "X said / Y said / X said / Y said" dialogue that was so annoying in audiobooks of his earlier work, but he has replaced it with an equally annoying tic (this is just Consuming Fire now):
  • Ici was deferential, but he wasn't stupid, Korbiijn knew.
  • "I didn't think that I could turn the church instantly. I'm not stupid. [3 lines] I'm not that stupid either."
  • "The people on the committee aren't stupid."
  • "How I mean, Lord Teran, is that I am not stupid," said the Countess Nohampetan.
  • "Just because I like to fuck, doesn't mean I'm stupid," Kiva said.
  • She might currently look like a glittered chicken, but she wasn't stupid.
  • "Don't assume these people are stupid, Lyton."
  • "If these people aren't stupid, they would be dong the same thing. So there's a reason they're not."
Amazon doesn't let me search all the pages, and I skipped the ones that used the word without the particular construction I'm complaining about. Finally - yes, peer review good. Co authors are also good. Co authors are not peer review. Three stars.

The Gameshouse by Claire North
This is three linked novella: the Serpent, the Thief, and the Master. The Gameshouse is a hidden institution where gamblers bet coin, or information and favors, or skills and shticks. The first story is of Thene, a woman from 1610 Venice, playing the Game of Kings, one of four who will be permitted to join the next level of the Gamehouse. Each of the four players strives to have their piece elected as Doge. The second story is Remy Burke, playing hide and seek in Bangkok 1938; when drunk he wagered all of his memories against twenty years of his opponent's life. Plus it seems likely that the deck has been unfairly stacked against him. The third story is of Silver, playing the Great Game against the Gamesmistress of the Gamehouse.

I liked stories 1 and 2 a lot (many other reviewers were bored by 2), though I felt like some of the disagreements were insufficiently stated. [Spoilers from here on out.] At the end of the Thief, Remy and the Gamesmistress argue. The games are supposed to be balanced - this is a tenet of the Gameshouse. Remy claims that his game was not balanced - his opponent was given better pieces, the board was biased (Remy is an obvious foreigner in Bangkok, his opponent was not; his opponent got time to prep in advance and Remy did not). The Gamesmistress claims the game was balanced - Remy won, didn't he? He was a better player, so the game was balanced. There is a clear difference in the argument as to what balance *means*, and gamers have ways to discuss these two things. In chess and go, the player who goes first has an advantage. That's one sort of imbalance. Go and chess also use handicapping - the weaker player gets some starting stones on the board, the stronger one starts without a rook. One of these is talking about the rules and whether two perfect players are evenly matched; the other is talking about whether the players as they are have an equal chance of winning. The whole existence of betting on games understands the difference between these two things; it is nonsensical to have an argument about whether the game is balanced without having a mutual understanding about which kind of balance is promised.

And then, I mostly didn't care for The Master. Too much having your pieces shoot each other in spy thriller mode, which interested me less, and then, I was really cross with Silver's motivations at the end. He has spent the past thousand years motivated by the fridging of his wife, but, actually, it is that his wife chose to leave. (A little more complicated, but still.) His anguish just left me cold and furious. One final quibble - kind or jarring to hear a single d6 referred to as "a dice", though at least one dictionary claims that modern English is okay with dice as singular. Heresy!

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (by Patricia McKillip)
I sort of remember having had strong opinions about this book when I read it decades ago, but I couldn't remember what they were. So I listened to it now, and found that I didn't really have strong opinions at all. Odd. Maybe it was that I had strong opinions about the cover art. It reminded me a little bit of listening to The Last Unicorn; it's stylized and formal in a style I'm not used to. But the Last Unicorn is heartbreakingly beautiful to me, while this was more like looking at Byzantine art - the style removed it enough that it just doesn't quite reach me.

The Trespasser (by Tana French)
I still start all Tana French's books waiting for the main characters to be completely emotionally ruined by the end. She doesn't always do it, but it keeps me at peak tension. The author is clearly a master manipulator, based on the dialogue (if you have ever wondered "how can police make people confess to crimes they didn't do?" these are the books for you), so I totally assume that she destroyed the characters (and their partnership and friendship) in In the Woods just so that I'd read every other book she writes on tenterhooks. Oh, please don't destroy them. Please don't destroy her. Please don't make them hate each other. Please. The audiobook narrator perfectly captures the different voices; hard-as-nails angry-for-good-reason Conway, more pleasant Moran, and dear God the smarmy honey purr she does for Breslin is amazing. Five stars but I'm pretty much going to give everything by this author five stars.

Helm (by Steven Gould)
A SF story about aikido! This was a recommendation from both [personal profile] mjperson</user> and Jennifer recommended. This seems like a surprisingly rare overlap, so I'm also surprised that I only found it perfectly fine. I did like that the bad guy had an actual darned-good nefarious plan that wasn't just "be extra evil about everything" (which it seemed like was his plan to start with). I liked that the kidnapped princess rescues herself. I... maybe didn't need quite as much blow by blow aikido training, but then, it's not like that is an overused trope in SF books, so okay. (Actually, it was basically a fantasy book with a magical widget with tech paint, but that's only slightly more likely to have a lot of aikido in it. :) ).

Probably a reason that I wasn't enamored of it was the narrator. I have always been quick to give up on books where the narrator annoys me (I just returned one for a strange audio background hiss that I could tell was going to be fingernails on chalkboard after much longer), but there is also a vast difference between a really good narrator and an adequate narrator. One of the differences is whether they're putting serious emotion in, or reading the story out loud - this was a difference in the Dresden Files books between the ones narrated by James Marsters (really good voice actor) and the one narrated by John Glover (perfectly fine narrator). [personal profile] mjperson</user> swears by Simon Vance, but even he, I think is a really good narrator and not a voice actor. But anyway. Beyond the basics of whether you are a competent reader, there's an extent to which you need to pre-read the darned thing, at least a little. There are a lot of sentences that are spoken slightly differently depending on where they go. The extreme examples are the "garden path sentences", but for a less deliberate construction, let's take these two made-up snippets.
"What are you *doing*?" he hissed, each word cold as ice.
"What are you *doing*?" he boomed, and the windows rattled with his fury.
In order to know how to read the first four words, you have to read ahead.. There were just a ton of examples in Helm where by the end of the sentence, I found myself thinking that the narrator had not bothered to find out how the sentence was going to end when he started it. Three stars, but one of those was lost by the narrator.

The Witch Elm (by Tana French)
The contrast between the narrators French's books get and the book in between is what made me start really thinking about it. Because they really are good.The Trespasser's protagonist is pretty darned hard, but The Witch Elm's Toby is not so much, and it is remarkable how much warmth Paul Nugent packs into just a few words. People who do a lot of telephone work know - if you smile, the person on the other end can hear it. That's really hard to fake. And Paul Nugent knows how to smile. This is a different sort of book than the Dublin Murder Squad - it's from the point of view of someone on the other end of the investigation, first the victim of a home invasion and brutal brutal beating, and later there's a murder being investigated. I've never suffered any serious trauma, let alone brain damage, but this felt to me like it could ring true? (It could well be triggering.). It takes a while to get to the murder part, but the time isn't wasted, and Toby's struggles to figure out what happened in a past that he is having trouble remembering are very painful. This.. is not one of the ones that ends happily, and though the size of the oncoming tragedy is clear, the details aren't, and I couldn't look away from seeing them resolve.

Reading / listening to French is like seeing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or the emotional equivalent of the end of Hamlet with Horatio standing in the middle of all the dead bodies. She is really really really good. But I never want to reread anything of hers.

This Is How You Lose The Time War (by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone)
I have a fondness for epistolary books like this (like Sorcery & Cecilia!), and this one takes it up to thirteen. Two opposing time agents (look, I'm just going to assume you know what time agents are) exchange first taunting notes, then notes, then love notes, across spacetime. Except they aren't actually letters, they're... there's a jar labeled "Read by bubbling" in an abandoned lab, that you put into an MRI machine and decode the message from the heat of the random bubbles. The encodings are complicated poetry of their own, entirely separate from the artistry of the messages inside. There's a plot, minimal but not trivial - but the reason to read it is for the experience of the correspondence, both the gloriously over-the-top encodings and the perfection of the letters. Five star-shaped bones, located behind the hearts of emerald-scaled serpents that have no need for those bones but as a species they have evolved to have them so that I may pluck them out and leave them at the end of my review.

Deep Roots (by Ruthanna Emrys)
A sequel to Winter Tide. This one has the Mi-Go, creepy but charming, sort of like idealistic communists in the 50ss. The FBI continues to be paranoid about spies, and it's interesting to notice exactly how many different versions of people who are not what they seem to be, Lovecraft created and Emrys carefully uses. Winter Tide touched on the Yith (who swap minds with their targets both as solo time-researchers and en masse as a species to escape planetary disaster) and Ephraim Waite (soul-swapping with his daughter and then her husband for immortality). The Mi-Go do possession and also have their spiffy disguises made from the skins of people whose brains were in jars. Poor FBI. The Mi-Go aren't in need of reframing nearly as much as the Deep Ones were (Lovecraft's put the Deep Ones in concentration camps at the end of his story, as a throwaway line in the happy ending; the Mi-Go just swooped in and away again), but it's interesting to see them as obsessive observers, and like those people who are sure that if they can just explain a little more clearly, everyone will understand why they're right. Four stars.

I Capture the Castle (by Dodie Smith)
I wandered into a discussion on the internet somewhere that had a bunch of people talking about this as their favorite under-remembered book ever. I think I will file it in the same category as Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer; romances / manners novels? The location (the decaying-ish castle that the narrator and her eccentric family live in) is pretty much another character of its own, and everyone is interestingly drawn, but it never revealed its Favorite Book Ever nature to me.

A Memory Called Empire (by Arkady Martine)
This is the audiobook I mentioned above as having returned due to the odd hiss. Then I bought it again, because I am fickle. I probably would have loved it if I had read it instead of listened to it; in addition to the slight hiss/white noise, there are a couple of themes that recur and I wouldn't have minded skimming instead of going through each time. (I'm just going to think of them as zubir moments, forSailing to Sarantium that gave the reader a flashback to the zubir once every chapter or two). Anyway, it's a very nice space opera, with politics and culture and linguistics and social/technological differences between cultures, and war and tragedy and conflict. As I was reading it, I would occasionally get frustrated - the main character is an ambassador from a not-quite-conquered-yet neighbor to the huge Empire, and it seemed like there should have been more ambassadors from other places teeming around in the court, and she seemed so young - but I think that's because I kept wanting it to be farther along the fully-realized-world spectrum than it was, because it seemed so close to being one?

It's hard to come up with a quick summary - the main character is the ambassador from Lsel Station to the capital of the Teixcalaanli Empire. She is a replacement to her predecessor, who is Mysteriously Dead (so there's sort of a murder mystery going on), and she has her predecessor's personality implant, but it's not current the way it should be, and also it's glitching (so cyberpunk-ish side plot there). There is an Imperial Succession plot going off in slow motion, and a brewing space war, and some running around with newfound friends in action-adventure, and poetry duels as party mechanic, and a police force that seems to be kind of like Ann Leckie's Ancillaries, but that was a small side plot so I'm not sure. There's a lot going on and I've only mentioned half of it, so it seems odd that I was disappointed by missing pieces? Four stars.

Empress of Forever (by Max Gladstone)
That's all the recent audiobooks. Now back to some print (well, still Kindle) books. This is also a space opera, but at the transhuman scale, the kind where you can hide planets in folds of spacetime powered by a ring of black holes, and rebel shapeshifting pirate queens can be prisoned in stasis for a thousand years, and you can teleport your entire starship through the network as long as you don't mind building new bodies when you get there. The first half is strangely reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz - the main character comes out of a near-future mildly cyberpunky Earth, and spends the first half of the story gathering unusual traveling companions in order to try to get home (to one of those planets inside the black-hole-ringed-dimension, though it's more complicated than that, of course) against a backdrop of Empress versus Mirrorfaith Monks versus the Bleed which are complexity-devouring Other from outside spacetime versus the rebel pirate queen. There's also a whole subtheme led by the pirate queen, who has been prisoned for a thousand years, remember, so she's constantly looking to visit places that she loved a thousand years ago and finding them changed and fallen and corrupted. Now that I'm writing this just after writing about A Memory Called Empire - I can wonder where the other ambassadors are, because for all that it's space opera and an unfamiliar culture, it's still recognizable. The setting in Empress of Forever is surreal enough, or grand enough, that there's no reference. So it's harder to nitpick! It was also a joy to read, a lot like the pyrotechnics of The Gone-Away World. And, like the Gone-Away World, the highlight I'll share has a Star Wars reference.
She put on a bluff she'd heard any number of young men use to shame people who didn't recognize the name of their latest venture. "The Rising Star's the fastest blockade runner in the galaxy. We've slid through the gullets of black holes; we've escaped from collapsed Cloud, and out of the mouth of the Bleed." She stopped herself from adding and we made the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs.
Also, here's a description of a spaceship's graveyard:
Imagine a gray gnat darting over a shining black field: the sky, you might think at first, perhaps, until the horse blinks, and its eyelash flicks the gnat away. Imagine a herd of horses, dying, dead. Imagine rotting elephants. Imagine the oceans of their blood.

Enormous hulks twisted about them, ancient and dead. Great shapes blocked out stars, and behind every broken ship another turned, unfurled. In the cockpit Viv saw by reflected starlight, by ghostglow from the ships themselves, by the rays of the distant weak sun. The Question's running lights cast deadly rainbows upon the octopoid monstrosity beneath them - deadly, because where there were rainbows there were drops of water, or ice, and in space, particles could kill.
Five stars.

Never Have I Ever (by Joshilyn Jackson)
I started reading Jackson before Tana French, but they have a lot in common. They're both deeply deeply grounded in characters who feel true and whole and real, down to their core, and whose interactions can be unexpected, but never feel out of character or driven by plot requirements. They're often haunted (or pursued by) their pasts, and usually things get very very bad. But with Jackson's books, I can at least trust that things will end - well, maybe not happily for everyone, but closer to a happy ending than not. The story here is of Amy - wife, stepmother, mother, scuba instructor, and person with a backstory she really wants to leave behind. Most of Jackson's books have the past being dug up - this time it's intentional, by someone malevolent, and that makes the stakes maybe not higher, but more dangerous. The plot is perfectly good, but the thing that brings me back to Jackson's stories over and over is the character, and the relationship. I read this rather than listened to it, but the description from before of hearing the smile in people's voice - there's something of that in the relationships. The parent/stepdaughter relationship isn't an average one, but it's a real one, and there's warmth and love in a way that feels unique and singular, not just a vague clone of "they're really close and love each other". And the marriage. And the friendship. They're all interesting and unique and natural and compelling. Like French, Jackson knows how to make the threat of destroying a relationship just as tense and terrifying as the threat of death - but she doesn't pull the trigger quite as frequently. Five stars.

The Border Keeper (by Kerstin Hall)
This is a book which is light on initial exposition, so it's hard to say much without giving away things as they unfold. The border keeper lives and guards the border between the living world and the realms of the afterlives, each of which has their own demonic(ish) ruler and their own metaphysical rules. There's a bit of Dante's Inferno travelogue, and a lot of people who were other people before death or rebirth, and a lot of lovely writing. The book opens:
She lived where the railway tracks met the saltpan, on the Ahri side of the shadowline. In the old days, when people still talked about her, she was known as the end-of-the-line woman.

She had other titles, many more, although most lay forgotten and buried now. Whispers of her presence rustled down through the centuries, a footnote here, a folksong there. Rumours. Myths. Yet she did not dwell in a house of bones, or eat children, or carve hexes into the entrails of men beneath the light of the full autumn moon. In most respects, she appeared no different from other people.

She had been called the destroyer of empires. Mistress of the dead, the whispers went. But those few who knew better gave her the title of yaWenzta, the border keeper.

Her domain was silent. Beyond the fine wire fence of the shadowline, beyond the border of the world, lay Mkalis. The pan stretched white and pitiless to the horizon, a salt heat haze of mirrors, dreams, and thirst. Mkalis, where gods and demons waged endless war for dominion over nine hundred and ninety-nine realms. No Ahri-dweller survived it,
. My main complaint was that most of the time I just didn't quite know why things were going in the directions that they did, and I probably had to have been paying closer attention or taking notes to properly react to revealed identities. But interesting to follow along anyway. Three and three quarters stars.

Minor Mage (by T Kingfisher)
A lighter fluffier fun one ("the one with the armadillo") from Ursula Vernon. Oliver is a twelve-year-old mage, but the only one in town, when they need someone to go to the Rainblade Mountains and break the drought and bring the rain. The darkness (and there's always some if the name on the book is Kingfisher instead of Vernon) is not from the fantasy parts of the plots, but from the understanding of people become mobs, and mobs do worse things than any of the single people would. Four stars.

Scary Stories for Young Foxes (by Christian McKay Heidicker)
This is exactly what it says on the tin. I kind of like that I live in a world that has horror stories for fox children as a thing I can buy and read. :)

Finally, a couple of books that I started but didn't finish.
Silent Hall (by N. S. Dolkart)
I started making mental notes for a rant, early on. Like many stories, it starts with the gathering of the PCs. But unlike most stories, pretty much everyone in world can tell the difference between PCs and NPCs, and treats the PCs with all the deference due to them, while the NPCs are clearly disposable. After everyone gets an introductory chapter, the PCs are making their escape on a boat. There's a storm. Then there's a fight where someone's wolf bites someone else. Someone's DNPC goes overboard and drowns. But most of the bitter recriminations afterwards are about the biting, which is clearly the most important thing because it was a PC who was bitten, by a PC's wolf familiar. A chapter later, all the PCs plus a group of townsfolk gets to a wizard's estate (the named Silent Hall). The PCs are told "The townspeople will make their beds in the courtyard, but I do have spare rooms indoors, if you like." Okay, a ouple of the PCs are dressed like nobles, but there's the scruffy raised-by-wolves kid and a couple of peasants in among the PCs - but they are obviously the ones who get the rooms, not like the un-named "townspeople". Dunno when I got quite so social justicey for the rights of NPCs, but there it is.
Under The Pendulum Sun (by Jeannete Ng)
A broody Gothic fantasy about the sister of a missionary to Arcadia (Fairyland). All of the things reviewers say about it (Gothic, strange, atmospheric, creepy, opulent, melancholy, etc) are true. But I just had no sympathy at all for the zeal of bringing Christianity to the unbeliever, and this proved oddly insurmountable. This was my failure as a reader than the book's failure as a book; it's not like the author's sympathies are in any way with colonialism (see her award acceptance speech that caused the name of the award to change!).
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