‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ – Review

I first came across Valerian when I was obsessively watching trailers for the Blade Runner sequel.  As Valerian had more colour and a lack of Ryan Gosling, I found myself all the more excited for Valerian, so when the reviews started rolling in with fairly negative headlines I was distraught. Until one review (I can’t recall which) said it was in the same terrible league as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow… which I loved. Undeterred, I went to see Valerian and it was everything I wanted it to be.

thumbnail_25961Valerian probably won’t win any Oscars, but frankly the Oscars are wrong – but that’s another blog post. Valerian follows the title character and his partner Lauraline who find themselves in the deep-end of a military conspiracy that takes them travelling through Alpha, otherwise known as The City of a Thousand Planets. Alpha’s genesis is shown in the opening sequence of the film, which, frankly, is a work of art and should excuse the awkward, forced will-they-won’t-they plot line, and cringe-worthy dialogue that it preceded.

thumbnail_25123Despite the forced romantic plot line and the at times off-kilter dialogue, Valerian was incredibly fun to watch. It was a visual feast (excuse the cliché) but the plethora of alien life and the market in another dimension really allowed for something beautiful to look at. Speaking of beauty, I was almost sure that Rihanna’s cameo would be a brief, fan-service ploy to draw in fans and over-excited teen boys. And I regret thinking that, because Rihanna was really the highlight of the film for me, she had more character development in a few scenes than Valerian and Lauraline had in the whole film and she was incredible. I wasn’t a huge fan of the casting otherwise, but eventually warmed to it.

I won’t lie to you, whoever you may be, I saw this film twice. Anyone who likes SF should watch Valerian, like I said it won’t win any awards, but it was so much fun.

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‘The Shepherd’s Crown’ – Review

I finally got over my fear of endings (there was about a ten year gap between me reading The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass I’m not messing around here) and I finally read the final Discworld novel and the final Tiffany Aching novel. You can see why I’m struggling a little here. Things are about to get a little mushy. The first Pratchett I ever read was Wintersmith when I was in primary school and obsessed with witches (I still am) and it meant a lot to me, so obviously when I found out the last Pratchett novel to be published was about Tiffany I ran out and bought it as soon as I could. Then I left it to gather dust for a couple years out of fear. Part of me felt like reading The Shepherd’s Crown would entirely end my childhood, despite the fact that it legally ended before the book came out. So I finally read it on my 21st birthday when I felt it was acceptable to really let go. It sounds neurotic and it probably is a little, but I don’t care, my blog is my place to share my book crazy however I wish.

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Hay-on-Wye photo shoot

To get things out of the way I loved this book, obviously I would I’m a huge fan. But loving a book by default doesn’t make for a great review so I’m going to get down to the good stuff. SPOILERS AHEAD.

First of all this is a book about mourning, those who are still avoiding it (as I was) maybe don’t keep reading basically, it starts with Granny Weatherwax dying and Tiffany having to fill her shoes. If there were ever a book from a genre defining writer saying “carry on without me” to his fans I’ve yet to find a better one than this. The plot, mourning aside, took the Tiffany Aching series full circle revisiting the faeries she fought in the first instalment, which (for me) was a lovely return to childhood and was just too wonderfully cyclical to even really process amongst all my happy tears.

Though I loved this novel, because it was brilliant, but as I was reading it something about the prose style felt a little off to me. And it wasn’t until the afterword written by Rob Wilkins that I realised what was off:

“Once it was shaped, he would keep writing it too, adding to it, fixing bits, constantly polishing and adding linking sequences, tossing in just one more footnote or event. His publishers often had to prise the manuscript away from him, as there was always more he felt he could do […] The Shepherd’s Crown has a beginning, a middle and an end, and all the bits in between. Terry wrote all of those. But even so, it was, still, not quite as finished as he would have liked when he died.”

img_2005I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect explanation. The book was perfect, but somewhat lacking in Pratchett’s usual witticisms and personal style. If anything though this made the whole book so much sadder for me. Just the idea that Pratchett didn’t get the chance to brush up this story (even though it was still amazing) to the excellent standards he worked so hard for his whole life.

Basically I’m just here to say I loved The Shepherd’s Crown, I love Terry Pratchett, and I’m still a little upset.

‘Binti’ – Review

The novella Binti by Nnedi Okorafor follows the title character as she leaves her family to attend a prestigious university on another planet. Binti’s people (the Himba) use clay to cover their bodies and hair and never leave Earth, until Binti that is. Binti leaves the planet under cover of darkness and begins a journey that explores her identity, her race, and her place in an inter-species conflict between humans and aliens called the Meduse.

bintiI absolutely loved this novella. Though the writing was a little simplistic there were some beautiful moments. There was one moment in particular when a stranger touched Binti’s hair without permission, something every woman of colour has had to suffer through (including myself) and though the scene was loaded with awkwardness I actually laughed. I’m sure no comedy was intended but it was almost liberating to read about these micro-aggressions people suffer on a daily basis that is always left out of what I read.

The motif of Binti’s hair was actually an interesting one throughout the text. I’ve only ever read two books about hair; Rapunzel, and a story about a girl whose hair was too curly to keep her crown on (my mom bought it for me to deter me straightening my hair), so it was refreshing to read a short piece about hair. I realise this might sound a little strange that I’m going on about hair in this review, but it’s a big part of life, especially for women with longer hair and I struggle to see why it doesn’t come up in literature more. Maybe I’m in the wrong genre for hair.

The hair that I have just so highly praised was braided according to a mathematical formula. And so we come to the one part of the book I couldn’t get along with; the maths. Binti was accepted to higher education because of her affinity with mathematics, something she shares with her people, though she is the first to pursue it at a university level. It’s not mentioned much, but the story has plenty of references and one equation (too much for me) which sent me spiralling into horrific maths A-level memories. Of course if you like maths I guess that’s fine too, or whatever.

Despite my mathematical complaints I loved this book so much. My only other complaint is that it wasn’t longer, though that does defeat the point of a novella. Okorafor does an excellent job of world-building in such a small space, but I selfishly wanted it to be longer. Luckily there’s a sequel that I will be reading and reviewing very soon.

‘A Conjuring of Light’ – Review

As always V.E. Schwab has blown me away. Don’t get me wrong, the Shades of Magic series has not changed my life in any drastic way, I didn’t read each book within twenty four hours of buying them whether or not it made my eyes bleed, and (unlike usual) I’m not throwing myself into a rabid tumblr fandom surrounding the series. Nonetheless, I love these books immensely, they read like old, familiar friends, and Conjuring of Light was no different.

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Anyone who has read the series will know Lila Bard would LOVE this mug

A Conjuring of Light picked up exactly where A Gathering of Shadows left off (with the Antari Kell being lured into the Shadow King’s trap) keeping the pace of the second book and letting it’s momentum fling the story right into the final conflict of the series. Sadly though, the magical shenanigans of the second book were left there and the world is thrown into a dark and realistic seriousness. I loved it.

Thankfully, the magic of the series finally cropped up with some more limitations and it made the whole thing feel a bit more realistic to me. Though I found it easy to read and pleasant to think about before, the idea of Kell and Holland’s Antari magic being almost limitless left me somewhat irked and unimpressed. Thankfully, in the throes of the final challenge magic begins to falter and comes to rely on some artifacts rather than blood which I found quite interesting. Sadly it wasn’t explored much further, but in 666 pages (spooky) Schwab packed so much in that I can forgive her for leaving some stones unturned.

My father has a theory about endings which I intend to bore you with right now. His theory goes that there are British Endings and American Endings. American Endings couple up with the American hero, the dystopian government is overthrown, the hero grows old in a fresh, new world (See The Hunger Games). British Endings are much more nihilistic, every act of rebellion was futile, the fight was lost, the “hero” focuses on their own survival rather than the greater good (See 1984). Conjuring settles somewhere comfortably between the two for me.

My reviews of anything by Schwab are always painfully short because I have serious trouble finding any fault with her books. If anyone has found fault please tell me, I’m obviously blinded by adoration.

‘The Stars are Legion’ – Review

I first heard about The Stars are Legion on the Breaking the Glass Slipper Podcast in an episode where Hurley was interviewed and had some interesting things to say. After looking into Hurley and her social media a little more I found that the book was being marketed with the slogan “Lesbians in Space”. Who wouldn’t take that bait? I ordered the book almost immediately after seeing those three words, though I knew it would be a little while before I got round to reading it. Still, I had high hopes. Hurley seemed like a great person in her interview, the book seemed like it would be my kind of thing, so I waited until I had a moment to breathe where I could really enjoy the book, and set to reading.

img_1889The first few chapters of the book were confusing, which I expected. The premise is that Zan wakes up with no memory in the midst of a war between the worlds of an organic fleet called the Legion, and it’s not the first time she’s woken up like this. It’s also not the first time I’ve read a character with amnesia, so I felt I was prepared. Unfortunately, I felt that the first person narrative was a little off-kilter and it all moved much too fast. So let me break it down for you.

Zan wakes up, with no idea of where she is or why, but of course little things bleed through. She has no idea about this war, or what her part in it is, but suddenly, she’s a seasoned general working off muscle memory and leading troops into battle. A battle that fails, as it apparently has before. Most of the small threads picked up by what little memory she has are abandoned and essentially pointless in the end. As well as this, during the battle scene there was a slight lapse in editing that had me confused for a good half hour before I realised it was just a tiny mistake and I wasn’t a complete fool.

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The vehicle falls out from under her, fair enough
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What? It came back? Huh?? Someone tell me if I missed something! 

Okay that’s it for the strange pacing and a tiny error that stopped me sleeping (silly I know). Onto the infuriating narrative voices. There were two first person narrators, Zan, who remembers nothing, and Jayd who remembers everything. Zan’s narrative would be all well and good if it weren’t identical in voice to Jayd’s, and frankly it doesn’t develop much as she develops her personality from a clean slate. Jayd’s narration, however, was a terrible choice. Hurley tries to withhold information from the reader whilst tracking the internal monologue of someone in the know, which ultimately failed and just made the character’s voice annoying and incomplete. I really think it should have been written in third person to achieve a better effect. I know I harp on about this a lot, but emotions should be shown, not told, and that’s where a lot of first person falls down for me. I don’t like being spoon fed, let me feed myself damn it.

img_1886Finally, as I already said, I picked up this book to read some good solid feminist fiction, and despite the lovely dedication at the start raising my hopes, it didn’t really work out that way. Firstly, there was almost no diversity in character. There was one character that spoke too much, and that was the only deviation from the stock characters I could find which was infuriating. All of the characters seemed to be horrible people with no morals, and it was a bit of a boring read because of that. Even the seemingly innocent, if a bit weird, character tried to poison someone and I wasn’t really that fussed by it. (Also she gets pretty brutally hurt several times and doesn’t die which destroyed some of it’s supposed grittiness for me.) Secondly, and this is a small issue, but still an issue, a lot of the language was significantly male. The leaders of the worlds were referred to as Lords and their deities Gods, and though I understand the argument of them being all-female and not having that binary in their language, the use of male pronouns as default annoys me no end.

Finally, and this bit is a little spoiler-y, they finish their mission, do what needs to be done, but we don’t get to see the ramifications of it. We don’t know if they managed to save the dying legion, if anything’s changed, or even if it was worth doing. It was essentially cut short before the real ending with a very bland, uninspiring message of hope that didn’t feel truthful or satisfying.

I feel quite bad saying all this as I set myself up to really adore this book. Saying that I did get through it quite quickly, but I’ll chalk that up to no internet access and a few long car rides in which there was nothing else to do. All in all I’m quite disappointed, but still not unwilling to give Hurley another shot.

‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’ – Review

I have real trouble reviewing books that I really like, what is there to talk about if something is almost perfect?? I cannot praise The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet enough, but I’m gonna try. If you’re a fan of Firefly, Blake 7Star Trek, Red Dwarf, Dark Matter, or any plucky friendship groups in space, this is the book for you. If you like space, science fiction, or aliens, this is the book for you. If you are capable of reading, this is the book for you. Becky Chambers is a genius, go read this book, you will not regret it.

 

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I took this book everywhere with me

The Long Way follows the mixed-species crew of the Wayfarer as they travel through space to create a wormhole (used for travel) to a dark, dangerous corner of the universe. There’s aliens, intergalactic politics, discussions about AI/robot rights, space travel, there’s even lesbians in space, something I didn’t know I needed until this book and now it’s my favourite thing. From now on every book loses points if there is no LGBT representation in space, I’m not sorry.

 

What really blew me away about The Long Way was the world building. Chambers has managed to create a beautiful, believable universe in which every single question that springs to the reader’s mind is answered whilst somehow avoiding an overwhelming info-dump. I was so drawn in to this world and felt so interested in learning more. There were nuanced differences between humans in various places around the universe, but I particularly liked that there were humans who believed that their home planet should be saved and reserved for humanity, and this ranged from extremists who abhorred all life that’s not human, to realistic scientists who are simply trying to do their best. And this distinction in one belief system in one species was mostly a throwaway comment. But it’s those little details that made the book an experience to read. Honestly, I can’t praise this book enough.

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I literally travelled up and down the country reading it and it was the best.

If world building isn’t really your thing (though this book will make it your thing) then read it for the characters. Each character aboard the Wayfarer is unique and each one of them has a beautiful story to tell, even if they may not all seem palatable at first (you’ll know exactly who I mean) but they are all characters worth your time. Seriously, Chambers has a gift, she’s not been twice shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for nothing.

 

As much as it pains me to say it, there is one little issue I had with the book. At first the dialogue struck me as a little forced, not all the way through, just a little at the start referencing mostly Kizzy the ship’s mechanic. Parts of her early dialogue were a little clunky and read almost like fanfiction. Unsurprisingly, when I listened to an interview with Chambers on the Breaking the Glass Slipper Podcast I found that The Long Way was originally self-published online and picked up by a big publisher (any budding SF writer’s dream). This explained the internet friendly dialogue to me, but honestly, there’s only a couple lines that felt a bit off kilter and I had to really dig to find that issue.

This book has become one of my absolute favourites, it’s a beautiful read and I even find myself writing with more gusto after being inspired by it. I am so excited to read A Closed and Common Orbit, the indirect sequel to The Long Way. I know it probably won’t happen but I hope Chambers is going to write more set in her wonderful world.

‘American Gods’ – Review

My goal in life is to be half as amazing as Neil Gaiman. I love everything he does. Gaiman could, quite frankly, set me on fire and I’d still give it five stars and add it to my Goodreads favourites shelf. American Gods lived up to my expectations and more. There is no way to explain the overwhelmingly beautiful atmosphere Gaiman creates, I can only explain it as a strange mixture of wanderlust and deja vu, the modern America he creates juxtaposes the vibes of the Old Gods so perfectly it’s almost overwhelming. It is all too easy to get lost in this book. The book follows Shadow, an ex-con who is offered a job by the mysterious Mr Wednesday after being released from prison. And what follows is an adventure of epic proportions.

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Showing off my spider coaster for Anansi

I usually pride myself in being well versed in my myths and folklore, but even I was blown away by the sheer amount of research and effort put into creating and personifying the gods. Some of the gods were hinted at with sly, punny names reminiscent of Pratchett, and others were explained outright. It was easy to follow, but also intrigued me enough to go and do my own little bits of research throughout the book. The sneaky education on folklore doesn’t overshadow the characters though, Gaiman has the ability to strike a perfect balance between beautiful description and diverse and fully fleshed out characters.

Alongside the main plot, there were small snippets of fictional characters moving to America and bringing their old gods with them to the new world. These small narratives serve to break up the larger story and expand on the world that Gaiman has created. The stories read like fables, history, and even gossip, so I didn’t even resent the breaks in Shadow’s tales.

There are a few parts in my edition where I felt that the plot was moving along a little slowly, but I did read the author’s preferred text which has about 12,000 extra words that were cut down before the initial publication. In hindsight I’m not sure there was anything that really could be cut out, I’m probably going to spend the rest of my life trying to compare the two and find every single word that was lost. But if you’ve not read either edition, I would recommend picking it up immediately, it didn’t win all those awards for nothing folks, it’s a must read for pretty much everyone!

‘Three Dark Crowns’ – Review

I’m only reviewing this book because it’s on my 2017 Must Read list, I’m going to paste my goodreads review in because I don’t think I could rewrite it any better here! Enjoy!

Full disclosure I didn’t finish this book. It was impossible to finish, I’ve never been so disappointed by a book in my life. I picked up this book full of hope, it came with the promise of strong female characters, politically dramatic plot, magical competition, and a thrilling matriarchal well built world that was sure to blow me away and leave me feeling refreshed and ready to go out and fight the patriarchy with quotes from the text.

It delivered on none of these promises. It did a U-turn. This is Theresa May in book form, I cannot get my head around why this was published or why it’s been allowed to expand its poison into a whole damn series, lemme break this trap down for you so none of you fall into it.

The book has three female triplets in line for the throne, all with different powers, one with poisons, one with nature and what not, and one with the elements, but only the elemental sister actually has any strength, like the book itself the other two sisters fall short and they all have to fight to the death and the winner is the queen. Boom. Sounds amazing no wonder I picked it up right? DO NOT BE FOOLED!

img_1820The strong female characters were carbon copies of each other that differed only in physical appearance and their magical powers, and frankly I didn’t care for them, Blake made no effort to put any actual character into her characters. As well as the three main characters being a let down, Blake threw in about eighty characters with only their names and no introduction or characterisation I don’t know who I’m meant to like or dislike or what. If these characters were a spice they’d be flour.

The plot, though an excellent premise was executed poorly, somehow Blake made it dull as dishwater and tried to force me to drink it, I have no idea how such a brilliant idea could be butchered like this, it’s like an actual butcher who was waiting for her nails to dry was hacking at this book hoping for a prime cut and only got the arse end of a cow. I’m mixing my metaphors and this review is STILL better written than this book.

And finally, possibly the least magical thing about this book, the magic itself. Two sisters have none, which would be great if they went to extremes to hide that fact but they don’t,

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This amazing map really misled me

and when the one sister did exercise her power it was about as exciting as eating stale biscuits with your nan whilst she talks about what Brenda said at bingo last week about her curtains. I’ve never seen magic written so underwhelmingly. Blake made me feel like a sixteen year old whipping up a storm strong enough to shake a building was no more interesting than mindlessly scrolling through Facebook memes in a doctor’s waiting room.

I’m not usually this harsh about books, honestly, but I’ve been looking forward to this book for so long and I’ve never been hurt so bad.

‘Dawn’ – Review

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler is the first of Butler’s books I’ve ever picked up, and the first in her Xenogenesis series, and I’m extremely excited to go on and read more! The novel follows Lilith as she wakes up thousands of years after a great war on Earth, having been abducted by aliens who evolve by melding genes with other species, and they have come to breed with the last few humans.

img_1809The plot was thrilling, though not quite as thrilling as the aliens themselves. It was refreshing to read about aliens that were in no way humanoid, and were in fact alien. Over the years I think that I have accepted aliens as humans painted green or yellow or pink or some other strange colour, but not really thought about the possibilities of how they could differ from humans. Butler taught me to think otherwise, and it was refreshing.

What was once refreshing, but has now become all too real, was Butler’s terrifying look at the failings of the human race, mostly in regards to mob mentality. For years I’ve been strangely terrified, almost embarrassed, of how aliens would view humanity, and Butler seemed to explain that fear perfectly. Though I did enjoy it, I think I might have to look into some more utopias to read very soon.

The one thing that threw me was Butler’s writing style. My studies in creative writing always had one solid rule I tried to stick to which was ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ (excellent advice for any budding writer right there). But I felt as though Butler did a lot more telling. Some of it was done through the lense of explaining the events to an alien who might not understand, but the reader was most definitely not the alien and the reader got a little bored with reading what started to sound a bit like a documentary style report. As an avid reader of multiple series though I understand that often the first one pales in comparison to a fully built world, and I still look forward to reading the next one!

‘Illuminae’ – Review

Illuminae was recommended to me by a friend, and peaked my interest because it’s written in the good old found file form I used for my dissertation piece. I didn’t think that my dissertation would ruin the form in my opinion for about a month, so it took me a while (and getting my grade back) to eventually pick it up and give it a go. And I’m so glad that I did. Illuminae follows the story of Kady and Ezra, two recently broken up teens whose home planet is attacked, leaving them both on different ships in an escape fleet trying to uncover a whole bunch of craziness. The characters themselves annoyed me a little bit at first, having to wade through their messages to each other was painful and genuinely made me cringe, but that just added to the reality of the characters. All seventeen year olds make me cringe, I’m not sorry. The characters were well rounded, and had intertwined backstories that was exciting to unravel and learn about bit by bit. However much I loved the characters, we’re here for the SF so let’s get to it. There are definitely SPOILERS AHEAD.

img_1797First of all, I loved the ships. The spaceships that is, I wasn’t shipping any characters. Due to the form of the book there was multiple maps and floor plans of the ships which I just really loved looking at and studying. Call me a nerd, but a spaceships floor plan in a SF novel is about as exciting to me as a map in a fantasy novel, by which I mean I loved them and I nearly cried. The variance in ships was interesting to me, there were larger battle ships and smaller science vessels that couldn’t make long distance travel without a larger companion. This called to mind those small fish that latch onto sharks and feed off them to survive, and I like the idea that space travel can be associated with the ocean. Although the authors clearly didn’t intend this I just loved the idea and thought I’d throw it out there.

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Some lovely blood splatter

Second of all, I loved the warfare used in the novel. The characters fled their planet due to capitalist disputes about the mining going on there, and the biological weapons used mutated into a terrifying disease aboard the ships that caused sufferers to basically become blood thirsty crazed killers. And I won’t lie, I loved it. It felt like space travel got an upgrade with zombies, except these zombies are still smart, still human, and are their best friends. I love it. As well as the biological warfare, the larger ships used nuclear weapons against each other which really surprised me. However, as the book goes on it made a little more sense to me, in this future the battles are fought throughout the universe, what really happens if you set off a nuke in space? Aside from hurting the people you’re fighting not much, even the radiation poisoning has a futuristic cure that I thought tied it up quite nicely, but I wish it hadn’t. I love a bit of gore, hence why I loved the terrifying disease plot, but I feel if an author wants to use nuclear weapons in their story and doesn’t explore the general horror of it then they’re missing out!

And finally, the final part of this book that basically made me lose my mind, you guessed it, it was the Artificial Intelligence. Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a little too obsessed with robots and AI and god did I love this one. The use of the form let us see directly into the AI’s mind, showing its thoughts and inner monologues as data files img_1801which was actually quite haunting. Throughout, the reader is unsure of if the AI has been damaged or if it’s simply doing it’s job using logic human emotions couldn’t allow and it felt quite reminiscent of Asmiov’s I, Robot, but really a lot more terrifying. I really hope that the future books keep the AI aspect because the AI as a main character was incredible!

In spite of all my freaking out about this book there was one small problem I had with it. The form, though extremely impressive for most of the book, failed a little a few times. There were some parts that had a dark grey font on a black background that was infuriating to try and read, and some dialogue was strewn about pages in no particular order which (although great at depicting the chaos of the scenes) disrupted the reading process for me so badly I put it down for a little while. If you’re able to see past these few little issues I think it really is worth a read, and not just for YA audiences, it’s an excellent book and perfect for any SF lover.