The Lord of Stariel

Twenty-something Hetta (Henrietta) Valstar, master illusionist, returns to the Stariel estate after six years of self-imposed exile. But it’s too late for this prodigal daughter to reconcile with her tradition-bound, disapproving father, the Lord of Stariel. She’s come home for his funeral and the choosing of the next lord. And here’s where it starts to get interesting: the new lord isn’t appointed by human rules. The land itself—Stariel estate, a living, willful, magical entity—chooses its lord, and the humans in the large, extended Valstar family have to accept its choice. They are, however, betting on one of two favourites: the late lord’s oldest son, Marius, and nephew, Jack, the Valstar everyone agrees is most qualified.

But something goes wrong at the Choosing ceremony, and the new lord is someone no one expected or wanted. Someone who doesn’t want the position. The new lord (Spoiler)
soon discovers that human disapproval and festering resentments are only part of Stariel’s problems. Bordering on both human and fae lands, and with its defences weakened, Stariel is beset by both overreaching human neighbours and vengeful fae. With Hetta, Jack, and Marius among the few family members aware that the new lord is a sham, they set out to uncover who sabotaged the Choosing ceremony and why, and to defend Stariel until a real lord can be chosen.

The Lord of Stariel, debut novel by New Zealand author A J Lancaster, combining fairy tale, mystery, family drama, and sweet romance, is a delightful story. Set in an alternate world similar to our own early 20th century, magically-powered cars and phones are just coming into widespread use, and the people of Stariel, far from the modern world of the country’s capital, disapprove of Hetta’s employment in the theatre with its loose morals. That is, they disapprove if they pay her any attention at all.

But Hetta is not someone they can ignore for long. Strong-willed and forthright, Hetta is an active agent, even in this man’s world, and quite capable of taking care of herself and others. I love stories with intelligent, competent, likeable female protagonists, and this is one. Plus, she has better taste in men than many romance novel heroines.

Hetta’s cousin, Jack, is also an intriguing character. He, like Hetta, works for Stariel’s best interests, struggling to overcome his resentment over being cheated of what he sees as his birthright. This shared sense of duty, in fact, is one of the things I like most about this story. It’s told with a light touch, but there are some serious underpinnings, notably family loyalty, teamwork, fair treatment, and reconciliation (or lack thereof).

There are, however, a few minor problems. The most serious is that the portrayal of Hetta’s brother, Marius, relies on some unfortunate stereotypes to telegraph why he’s not a serious contender for lordship. The big reveal about him was no surprise by the time it came. Sadly, neither were the other big reveals—I had the villain pegged early on. It also starts out a bit slow, although it picks up after the Choosing ceremony.

Aside from those problems, I loved it. I particularly like the ‘land-sense,’ the magical ties between the members of the Valstar family and the Stariel estate, and the glimpses we are given of the fae world. The Lord of Stariel is the first of four in a series. The second, The Prince of Secrets is already available, the third, The Court of Mortals, is due out soon. I’m looking forward to reading them.

Audience: Adults and teens. Contains nothing offensive that I noticed.

Posted in Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Kiwi author, Noblebright Fantasy | Leave a comment

Imperial Radch: Ancillary Justice

The Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie, consisting of the books Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy, is one of the most astounding and engrossing works I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. Given the number of awards these books have won—Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Arthur C Clarke, …—a lot of other readers felt the same way. There probably isn’t anything new I can say about them, but since this blog is mostly about books I’ve enjoyed, it’s still worth saying that I liked them, and why.

More space opera than hard sci-fi, this trilogy’s focus is on people and society rather than technological marvels, and like the best speculative fiction, shines a reflective light on our own time. The story starts out as an individual quest for justice but broadens into a wider slave rebellion, and by following a main character who is not human, extends our understanding of what a sentient being, worthy of respect and fair dealing, might be.

The Radch is a highly stratified, militaristic society, rather loosely based on the Roman Empire, that has minimised internal pressures and kept its economy growing by continual expansion, engaging in wars of conquest and annexing all the human worlds it comes in contact with. This strategy served it well for several thousand years, but contact with the non-human and highly destructive Presger has brought the expansion to a halt, and the Radch are struggling to come to terms with the new restrictions.

The Radch rely heavily on Artificial Intelligence, with their space stations and spaceships all controlled by sophisticated AI brains. Justice of Torren, the troop carrier at the centre of the story, is a sentient being but a slave to the Lord of the Radch and to her human officers. The fact that she loves her captain doesn’t mean she isn’t a slave. As a troop carrier, her holds contain thousands of bodies in suspended animation—bodies of captives from earlier annexations. When needed, they will be awakened, their minds wiped of all memories of their past lives, and equipped with implants that make them ancillaries: extensions of the ship’s AI. Peripheral Input/Output devices, in effect, feeding data to and performing tasks for the ship. Easily replaceable, and in sync with the ship and each other, ancillaries make perfect soldiers.

Breq, the narrator, was once an ancillary, but is now the sole survivor of the destruction of Justice of Torren twenty years earlier. Loaded with the ship’s memories and without a captain, she is a free agent out for revenge on Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch. While Breq is something that was not originally  human, but is now housed in a human body, the Lord of the Radch was once human, but may no longer be so. Her consciousness extended across thousands of cloned bodies connected by communications implants, Anaander Mianaai has a grip on power any earth-bound absolute rule would envy. She is everywhere and, with each of her individual bodies expendable, effectively immortal. She does, however, have a weakness. Her individual minds are no longer quite in sync—in computer science terms, a ‘split-brain’ problem. In fact, the crux of the plot is that she’s at war with herself over the future of the Radch. Spoiler.

The story is told in alternating chapters, with one thread following Breq as she obtains a deadly Presger weapon and then closes in on her quarry. The other thread follows the events, twenty years past, leading up to the ship’s destruction. In those chapters, the narration is first-person semi-omniscient, with point of view slipping from one ancillary to another, sometimes with disconcerting effect.

This is not initially an easy read. Not one I would recommend, anyway, to someone who is comfortable only with straightforward, linear narratives. The world-building is also complex, giving the reader a lot to absorb to make sense of the Radch universe. As an introduction to the science-fiction genre, this would scare a newbie away, but for an experienced reader this can be satisfying, at least partly because it does make you work at it a bit.

I also need to mention the pronouns. (Every review of this trilogy does, sooner or later.) Radch society does not distinguish by gender. Everyone, regardless of their biological equipment, is referred to by ‘she’ and ‘her’. In a couple of cases, from contact with a society that does pay attention to gender, we know that the ‘she’ referred to is in fact male. For others, we might be given a few clues, but we never know for sure.

Some reviewers don’t like this, calling it a gimmick, but I see it as serving a useful purpose in emphasising that gender really didn’t matter to this tale. Given a story about a militaristic society and the exclusive use of male pronouns, readers would visualise only men, and some of us would be annoyed or affronted that there are no women in it. In the obvious alternative, with clearly defined male and female characters, we fall back on our usual assumptions about gender roles. But here, with everyone being referred to as ‘she’, even when we know they’re not, we have to question our assumptions about every character. Does that make us visualise them as androgynous, or as a mixed bag? My husband kept looking for clues, guessing at the gender of each new character. I stopped that fairly quickly and imagined them as more or less androgynous, because in this gender-neutral society, the question was irrelevant to the plot.

(If someone argues that this is an artificial exercise and that grouping men under female pronouns makes them invisible, isn’t that what feminists have argued for decades about the use of ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘man’, etc. obliterating 51% of humanity? If Leckie’s use of female pronouns for all characters makes you uncomfortable, well, maybe that’s not a bad thing.)

Each of the three books has a satisfying semi-conclusion, but they are tightly coupled and must be read in order. The first book, Ancillary Justice, is the most challenging (and rewarding), partly because there is so much to learn about this fictional universe that we are always juggling multiple open questions. The second and third books are easier, with more linear narratives. The second book is the weakest—although still good—with Breq becoming a bit too holier-than-thou, and the Lord of the Radch missing as her foil. It picks up again in the third, with the reappearance of Anaander Mianaai.

There were a few things that bothered me: with antagonists involved in military operations for millennia, the space battle in Ancillary Mercy seems rather lame. Also, given the difficulties imposed on communications by the vast distances of outer space, even allowing for the use of star gates to travel between systems, Anaander Mianaai’s legions of bodies could never have been able to stay in sync. Her split brain problem would have destroyed her long ago. I had a few other quibbles, but the story was engrossing enough that I ignored them.

Trigger warnings: some violence and bad language, and a few non-graphic (so non-graphic we still don’t know who has which set of genitalia) sex scenes.

Posted in Science Fiction, Space Opera | 1 Comment

The Case of the Missing Kitchen

Suzie Emmett is having a bad week. It starts when she puts her hand through a window and needs stitches. It gets worse when her detective boyfriend takes her to a place she refuses to name, but that starts with ‘m’, to identify a woman who might be her sister Phillipa, but isn’t. On driving home—after the doctor told her not to drive—she discovers her house has been ransacked. Then to top it off, her two children disappear, and her ex-husband lies to her about where they are.

And that’s just Monday.

It gets more bizarre on Tuesday when she returns to her house—after her detective boyfriend ordered her to stay away—and discovers that her kitchen has had a makeover: all the cupboard doors and the countertop have been replaced. Why? And there’s another body resembling her missing sister in her pantry.

The rest of the week is an adrenalin-fuelled search for her missing children, racking up parking tickets she can’t pay off because she’s broke. With an ex-husband (father of her son), and ex-lover (father of her daughter), a soon to be ex-boyfriend, two sisters (one of them missing), and two brothers-in-law (one of whom may be having an affair with the sister who isn’t his wife) who all seem to know bits and pieces of some conspiracy that they’re not letting her in on, she doesn’t know who she can trust.

Set in the city of Wellington, The Case of the Missing Kitchen by New Zealand author Barbara Else is one of the most breathless reads I’ve ever encountered. Part murder mystery, part family drama, and part madcap farce, it starts at a run—the first chapter contains as much drama and action as some entire books—and the pace never lets up. Suzie’s narrative is close to stream-of-consciousness, with tangents going in all directions and weaving in bits of back story.

I read this aloud to my husband, and it seemed as if every other page triggered an outburst of “No, you fool, don’t do that,” but Suzie seems congenitally unable to do the sensible thing. Particularly after anyone tells her what to do. (I can’t really fault her for that. If I had sisters like hers, I’d have trust issues, too.) Multiple people tell her to stay put and stay calm. Does she? Of course not.

Suzie is an original, funny, endearing nutcase. Her fierce devotion to her children made me root for her; her creative use of a staple gun made me laugh out loud. The mystery, though well-plotted, is utterly ridiculous, but that’s part of the fun. Ignore the garish orange cover; it doesn’t do this book justice.

Posted in Kiwi author, Mysteries | Leave a comment

Volcano City: Earthcore Book Two

In Volcano City, book two in Grace Bridges’s YA Earthcore series, the crazed and villainous Mr B is back, and out for revenge on Anira and the superpower-endowed Earthcore team. Only now, instead of paving over and hiding natural wonders, he intends to prod a magma bubble into erupting and obliterating everyone in Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city. He coerces a boy from Rotorua, also gifted with superpowers, into helping him. While running tests on equipment provided by a mind-controlled British scientist, they trigger a series of earthquakes of increasing intensity. Will Anira and her friends figure out what is happening in time to stop it?

The action in this story is in Auckland but the Earthcore team’s superpowers are tied to the mineral-laden waters of Rotorua, and this is a major stumbling block for them. Away from home, the boy with the phenomenal eyesight is nearly blind. Anira’s mind is clouded, and she can’t remember what happened in Rotorua. Drinking water carried from the hot springs revives them and restores Anira’s memory, but a trip to Rotorua to collect the water and the other members of the team costs precious time, and they can fit only a limited amount of water and people in one vehicle.

The taniwha, the guardian spirits, are also tied to Rotorua, but they can travel with their chosen Earthcore humans when necessary, and when the humans call on them for help, the results are rather unexpected.

The elements that made RotoVegas, the first Earthcore book, appealing are still here: the teamwork involving a wide range of ages and abilities, the blending of Maori myth and modern New Zealand culture, and the sense of place, this time in Auckland. We learn a bit more about the taniwha and what they are capable of. Unfortunately, we also have to put up with Mr B and his cartoonish evil schemes, but if you enjoyed the first book in the series you will like this one, too.

Audience: primarily teens, but a clean, light read for anyone.

Posted in Kiwi author, New Zealand, Urban Fantasy | Leave a comment


For this year’s Banned Book Week, I re-read Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust memoir Maus. I discovered this Pulitzer-prize-winning graphic novel some thirty years ago when it was first published in book form*. It was deeply moving and disturbing then, and it hasn’t lost its punch on a re-read. It is—unfortunately!—still timely.

Maus consists of two intertwined story lines. One, set in the present day, depicts the author/artist, the child of Holocaust survivors, struggling to come to terms with his critical, demanding father and his mother’s death by suicide, and the toll that recording his father’s history takes on both of them. The other storyline, of course, is his father Vladek’s account of the war.

Vladek’s story starts in Poland in the mid-1930’s, with his courtship and marriage to the well-to-do Anja, and continues through his conscription into the Polish army. He spends some time as a German POW, then is released and reunited with Anja, but their trials are just beginning. By 1943, after being in hiding for months, they make a deal with smugglers for transportation to Hungary, but are betrayed and sent to Auschwitz, and then Dachau. That they survived seems largely due to Vladek’s resourcefulness and grit, augmented by some lucky breaks. They were helped by strong family ties and friendships, but also suffered betrayals from some they had expected to be sympathetic.

Vladek is flawed but fully human, annoying and appealing both, and all of them—Vladek, Anja, Vladek’s second wife Mala, and even Vladek and Anja’s son Art, born after the war—are deeply scarred by their experiences.

When I saw this on a list of banned and challenged comics/graphic novels, my first thought was that the challenges had come from Holocaust deniers, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case. Although there may have been some, the case study provided by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund doesn’t list any. What they do list includes objections to the visual portrayals of the different ethnic groups: Jews as mice, Germans cats, Americans dogs, and Poles pigs. That last is deeply insulting, made more so coming from a Jew, but Vladek and Anja were Poles as well as Jews, and the animosity they encountered in Poland would have been most bitter.

The other instance, where Maus was actually suppressed, serves more as a warning against over-zealous filtering. Due to the swastika on the cover, this anti-Nazi memoir was pulled from bookstore shelves in Russia in 2015 due to passage of a law forbidding Nazi propaganda. (Reminds me of the internet filters against sexually-explicit content that won’t let through useful information about the treatment of breast cancer.) In the context of history, if we avoid unpleasant topics we risk historical amnesia. As horrific as the events depicted in this book are, it is far better we be aware of them and vigilant against their reoccurrence, rather than falling back into those dark days unaware. Although lately it feels like we’re charging into the dark at full throttle with our eyes wide open.

Audience: adults, older teens.

* Individual chapters were published in Raw magazine between 1973 and 1991. The first half-dozen were collected and published as a book in 1986, the rest in a second volume in 1991. Now it’s generally packaged as a set, or in one volume. This is among the earliest to demonstrate that a graphic novel could be a powerful story-telling medium for an adult audience, not just kids’ comic books.

Posted in History (non-fiction) | Leave a comment

Banned Books Week

This coming week, 22 – 28 September 2019, is this year’s American Library Association’s Banned Book Week. I’m familiar with several entries in their list of 2018’s most challenged books, and have already blogged about both Alex Gino’s George—number one on the list—and Raina Telgemeier’s Drama. Lovely books, both of them. Stories that deal sensitively with LGBTQIA issues should be encouraged, not censored. I endorse the ALA’s stance on these.


Words matter. The choices we make—sometimes subtle, sometimes unmistakable—can cause a concept to spring to life in a reader’s mind with exquisite clarity, or make it so muddy they miss the point. Or veer between calming passions and inflaming them. As a writer of decades worth of technical documentation, I’ve been trained towards precision and clarity. As a writer of fiction, I’m still working on that, but I know the choices matter. I assume an association of librarians understands that, too.

That’s why the phrase “Banned Book Week” irritates me, and has for some time. The books on that list have been “challenged” (more on that later), but most attempts at banned them have been unsuccessful. The United States government hasn’t censored children’s books in decades. (It has censored journalism, quite recently, too, but that’s a rant for another day.) No one is telling bookstores they can’t stock the books on that list. Anyone can go online and buy those books without restriction. Their authors haven’t gone to prison for writing them; their publishers haven’t lost their homes, businesses, or freedom for printing them. You want to hear about banned books? Consider Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which couldn’t be sold in the USA for 30 years. Or Madame Bovary, Doctor Zhivago, and Lolita, which have all had government bans. Or The Satanic Verses, whose publication forced its author to go into hiding. There are plenty of cases today worldwide where writers—particularly journalists—are imprisoned or in fear for their lives for what they have written. That’s censorship.

(This is not to say that greater restrictions on what fiction can be published in the USA couldn’t be imposed by the federal government. They could be, have no doubt about it, and would if the religious right-wing radicals had their way. But the long term trends in the USA have been towards greater liberality. Why do you think the right wing has fought so hard for control of the Supreme Court? Because they know that in the long game, they’re losing control of the culture.)

So what does “challenged” mean? If I’m reading the data correctly, many challenges are raised by individual parents or small groups in a community who don’t want their children exposed to the book in a classroom setting. Often the reason given is that the book is age-inappropriate for their children. “Challenged,” then, doesn’t distinguish between those who want the book banned completely—for obscenity, blasphemy, or whatever reason—and those who are willing to let the book remain on the shelves in the town or city library, or even the school library, available to other children, as long as their child doesn’t have to confront it. That, it seems to me, would be a useful statistic, but if it is available, that isn’t obvious to me from the ALA website.

If a book is challenged because parents don’t want their children forced to read it, is that so bad, if they don’t block access for other children? It’s perfectly legitimate for a community to have discussions about what they consider age-appropriate material. That’s democracy in action! Their conclusions may not match mine, but I can’t fault them for being concerned for their children. And this cuts both ways; my husband and I would have raised a fuss if their teachers had tried to inflict that religious propaganda known as “intelligent design” on our children.

Despite my reservations about “Banned Books Week,” I agree with the ALA goals, which are to support “the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”

Most of the books being challenged address real-world problems that our children are regularly dealing with—that’s why they matter. Some of them, like George and Drama, expand our sense of what’s normal, and encourage empathy and compassion. If any child struggling with gender identity or sexual orientation sees themselves in those books’ characters, and find comfort that they are not alone, that is a good thing, and justifies the books’ shelf space.

Posted in On Reading | 2 Comments

Before the Fall

One summer evening a private jet takes off from Martha’s Vineyard, en route to New York City. There are ten people aboard: seven passengers and three crew. Among the passengers are the Bateman family: father David, mother Maggie, daughter Sarah, and son JJ.

Sixteen minutes after takeoff, the plane crashes in Long Island Sound.

The plane breaks apart on impact. Floating amid the burning wreckage are two survivors, the boy JJ, and an artist, Scott Burroughs, only on the plane because Maggie Bateman, an acquaintance he had encountered earlier in the day at the local farmer’s market, had offered him a ride when he mentioned he had business to attend to in the city.

With JJ clinging to his back, Scott—a champion long-distance swimmer in his youth—begins the swim for shore. Hours later, they crawl up onto the Montauk beach. A fisherman takes them to the hospital, and Scott’s second, and longer, ordeal begins.

After the opening sequence of the crash and the Scott’s epic swim, Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall weaves back and forth between past and present, as the authorities begin their investigation into what brought the plane down. Vignettes of the people involved and how they came to be on the airplane that night are interspersed with the progress of the investigation and the media frenzy, and its impacts on the lives of the artist and the little boy’s remaining relatives.

This book is billed as a thriller, but it isn’t really successful as one. The author throws in various red herrings in the lead up to the big reveal of who was responsible and why, but the actual revelation was a bit of a letdown. For me, the more interesting story centered on the artist, and his shock and confusion as his life is changed drastically and irrevocably. Before the crash he was a struggling artist, a womaniser and recovering alcoholic who had recently turned his life around and begun to paint with renewed vigour. After the crash he becomes a celebrity whose art is suddenly worth many thousands and a suspect in the ongoing investigation. He is also a victim of sustained character assassination by a vicious TV newscaster convinced he was carrying on an affair with Maggie Bateman and was somehow responsible for the crash. Anyone disgusted with the privacy-invading and twist-the-story-to-whatever-sells tactics of the news media will find Scott’s face-off with the newscaster gratifying.

The other aspect that gave the story emotional resonance was the relationship between the artist and the boy: the trust the boy shows in the man, and the adult’s ongoing sense of responsibility for the child.

It’s not a great book; the pacing has problems in some places and it is littered with minor inconsistencies and clunky metaphors. But it is entertaining, and the survivors’ story has heart. Read it as the story of someone’s life turned upside down by a catastrophe and the resulting news coverage, rather than as a thriller, and it will be more satisfying.

Trigger warnings: violence, kidnapping, violent sex, bad language

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Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot

What do you get when two writers play the Letter Game, in which they take turns telling the story by writing letters to each other in character, with the only rule being that they must never reveal their ideas about the plot to each other? When Patricia C Wrede and Caroline Stevermer played, the result was Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot. Part Regency Romance (it’s set in 1817), part fantasy with a dash of intrigue, this is a romp through an alternate England alive with magic.

The story opens with Cecelia Rushton (Wrede’s character) writing from her country home in Essex to her cousin Kate in London with the news that a neighbour, Sir Hilary Bedrick, has been appointed to the Royal College of Wizards. There’s also mention of another neighbour, the Mysterious Marquis of Schofield. Within a few exchanges, Kate in London (Stevemer’s character) is writing about her adventure during Sir Hilary’s investiture ceremony, where a mixup leads to her nearly being poisoned. The chocolate pot—a very valuable chocolate pot, stolen from the Marquis—makes its first appearance, and she becomes acquainted with the Marquis, the poisoner’s intended victim.

Things soon get delightfully complicated, with Kate agreeing to a sham betrothal to the odious Marquis. (You can see where this is going, can’t you? And if the Marquis’s reasons for the betrothal don’t make a lot of sense, well, I did say it got complicated.) Back in Essex, Cecelia is working at cross purposes with James Tarleton, a friend of the Marquis, who is convinced that the loss of the chocolate pot is his fault, and that Sir Hilary has it and is up to no good.

As Kate and Cecelia get drawn deeper into the schemes swirling around the Marquis and the chocolate pot, they find themselves in serious danger. But neither one is the helpless passive female their older relatives keep trying to force them to be, for which the Marquis and Mr Tarleton should both be suitably grateful.

(This is not, by the way, anywhere close to an accurate representation of an upper-class woman’s life in the real 1817 England. The antics of these two irrepressible young women would have scandalised society and caused them and their families to be ostracised. Having a talent for magic would have changed the dynamics between the sexes, certainly, but the resultant society would either have (a) been unrecognisable as Regency England, or (b) imposed such severe restrictions on women’s use of magic that no man would ever have considered teaching Cecelia anything about it. Oh, well, this is fantasy…)

Given the nature of the game these two writers were playing, the fact that the plot makes as much sense as it does is rather remarkable. It’s a triumph for the seat-of-the-pants school of plot development. (That is, working out the plot as the story develops, rather than planning it out before starting to write.) The writers did, of course, clean things up a bit, dropping some loose threads and tying up others, before publishing the final version, but there are still some plot holes. Not everything works, but the pleasure they had playing this game comes through. I had more sheer fun reading this lighthearted tale than in just about everything else I’ve picked up recently.

It’s cotton-candy fluff, but delicious fluff.

Audience: teens and up. Nothing offensive that I noticed.

Posted in Alternate History, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Shards of Honor

In Shards of Honor, the superb introduction to Lois McMaster Bujold’s many-volume Vorkosigan saga, Commander Cordelia Naismith, citizen of Beta Colony and head of a planetary survey mission, is down planet with a small team of scientists when they are attacked by the militaristic and highly aggressive Barrayarans. Caught by surprise, and with the other members of her landing party dead or dying, Naismith orders her out-gunned ship, still in orbit, to run for home, leaving her at the Barrayarans’ mercy. She is soon captured by a man with a fearsome reputation: Aral Vorkosigan, the Butcher of Komarr, a man who ordered the slaughter of innocent civilians after they surrendered to his troops.

Vorkosigan, she soon finds out, is in the middle of a vicious political struggle within Barrayar. One faction sees this uncolonised planet as a strategic stepping stone on their way to expansion and dominance of their neighbours, the more peaceful Betans and Escobarans. The raid on the Betan scientists, which Vorkosigan had expected to be a straightforward and relatively peaceful capture of prisoners, turned violent when some of his own men used it as cover for an attempted assassination, and he is left for dead. He and Naismith embark on a 200 kilometre trek through native bush populated by aggressively carnivorous local fauna to reach a Barrayaran supply cache. If they are going to survive, they will have to work together. They do, and develop a mutual respect, sharing secrets over the nights’ campfires, and she learns he is not the coldblooded monster he is reputed to be. He is, in fact, a man of great personal honour, who gave his word to the prisoners at Komarr that they would not be mistreated, and was betrayed by a political operative who ordered the slaughter carried out in his name. He is now fighting a losing battle to keep Barrayar from engaging in a war it cannot possibly win.

Naismith and Vorkosigan are attracted to each other. (You did see where this was going, didn’t you? This is, after all, part of the Vorkosigan saga.) The only surprise is how early in the book their acknowledgment of the mutual attraction comes. But of course, an uneventful courtship doesn’t make for an interesting story, and Naismith’s crew reappears, against orders and in league with Vorkosigan’s enemies, to rescue their now very conflicted commander.

This is just the beginning of a wild rollercoaster ride as the two juggle demands of the heart with wartime duty to their respective societies and responsibilities for the lives of many innocent people on both sides. Naismith and Vorkosigan are adults, and act like it. Both are well-developed characters, fleshed out in dialogue, gestures, and actions. And Naismith is a terrific female character: an active agent with a strong personality and deep moral convictions.

I’m a late-comer to the Vorkosigan party. I don’t know how I missed out earlier on this science fiction classic, but now that I’ve read a few of Bujold’s stories, I’m eager to read more. Shards of Honor is space opera at its best: large scale, exciting adventure with high stakes, with moral dilemmas that reflect on contemporary society. The stakes here are high indeed, and the story contains adventure, heroism, colourful villains, and a clean, sweet romance. What more could one ask for?

The book ends with an epilogue titled “Aftermaths.” This short story dealing with consequences of the war was  originally published separately and doesn’t have anything to do with the Vorkosigans. It’s an intriguing story on its own, but if you’re not prepared for it, it can be confusing.

Trigger warnings: war, violence, attempted rape, sadism, mental breakdown, and psychiatric misdiagnosis. (Hm, sounds rather awful, doesn’t it? But the tone is not grim dark, and the physical details are skimmed over. It’s an easier read than this list might suggest.)

Posted in Space Opera | 2 Comments

RotoVegas: Earthcore Book One

Strange things are going on in the New Zealand resort town of Rotorua. Tourists targeted in a rash of pickpocket incidents seem dazed, unable to give a clear description of the thieves. Ghostly visitors drive a family out of their home. And Anira, a teen settling in for a week’s holiday with her mum and younger brother, has her perceptions enhanced and her mind thrown into overdrive when breathing the steam from a hot springs in their campground by the lakeshore.

Anira hadn’t wanted to go to Rotorua at all. She would rather have stayed in Auckland. But her mum had insisted, and once in town Anira soon finds others who have superpowers apparently bestowed by Rotorua’s sulphurous waters. Among them are a teenage boy with eyesight good enough to pick out details on the far lakeshore, a young mother who can make fire in her bare hands, and a retiree who can run across the surface of the lake. Anira brings them together, insisting they need to know why have been so blessed. Calling themselves the Earthcore, with Anira as their de facto leader and the blessings of a local Maori iwi (tribe), they step up to the challenge of thwarting the schemes of the mysterious Mr B, who seems to have a serious grudge against the entire town.

Unfortunately, Mr B is the weakest part of RotoVegas, the first book in the YA Earthcore series by New Zealand author Grace Bridges. He’s a cardboard villain, with no apparent motivations other than unreasoning hatred and standard evil-overlord megalomania. Moreover, his own superpowers don’t make a lot of sense. If the Earthcore team’s superpowers are gifts of the taniwha (spirits from Maori myth), then who bestowed a very powerful gift on this man they disapprove of?

I had another negative reaction to a minor plot point: when Anira decides to stay in Rotorua at the end of the week with someone she’s just met and her mother didn’t know, her mother doesn’t object. Would I have let my mid-teen daughter do that? Not a chance, especially when she appears to be in the throes of her first romance. Even if she were staying with someone we knew well and trusted, I’d leave with a fervent ‘Dear God, give her more sense than I had at that age.’

Aside from those problems, there are several things I like about RotoVegas:

  • The Earthcore team with its members from all ages, not just oddball teens. The group includes several teens, but also the afore-mentioned mother with a nursing baby, the speedy retiree, and two adults working in the tourist industry. None of them, at either end of the spectrum, are dismissive of the others because of their ages.
  • The respectful treatment of Maori culture and mythology. (Respectful as far as I, a newcomer to New Zealand, can tell, anyway.)
  • A friendly relationship between a teenage girl and teenage boy that didn’t turn into an angsty hormonal-driven romance, despite their mothers’ ‘help’.
  • The unusual nature of some of the superpowers, not all of them immediately or obviously useful.
  • The sense of place evident in the descriptions of the town of Rotorua and the surrounding area. With its in-your-face geothermal activity—geysers, steam venting from random holes in the ground, sinkholes suddenly opening in someone’s yard—Rotorua is a place where the veil between the worlds seems very thin, and anything can happen.

Audience: Fine for teens, and a clean, fun, light read for adults too.

Posted in Kiwi author, New Zealand, Urban Fantasy | Leave a comment