Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

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Astronettes? Lady Astronauts? Astronauts!

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut Universe series is the latest rabbit hole I fell down. Or should I say a black hole that drew me in? Three main works have been published so far, as well as two novellas. Book four will hopefully hit the shelves next year.

I’d wanted to read The Calculating Stars for some time but the audiobook kept gathering dust on my TBR. After listening to The Original, co-authored by MRK, I decided to not ignore it any longer.

In this alternate history the fate of humanity is threatened shortly after the end of World War II. This time not by war, but by a meteorite, which hits the east coast of the United States of America. The impact is similar to the one that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and doesn’t bode well for humanity. Colonising space might be the only option for humanity’s survival.

Elma York, a child prodigy with two doctorates and former pilot in WWII, is at the heart of this series. She’s working as a computer for the International Aerospace Coalition to help bring the first man to space. But with her skills as a pilot she soon wonders, why she can’t become an astronaut, too. Women will be needed in space colonisation sooner rather than later. Which leads her to notice that not only women are left out of the space programme.

This character driven story uses the sexism and racism of the 1950s and 1960s, sprinkles a good portion of humour, lots of ambition, some grief and heart break, and character flaws on it and out comes a story with characters to root for.

Without wanting to give away too much about the content of the sequel novel, The Fated Sky, let me just tell you, I bought book two and three (The Relentless Moon) right after finishing The Calculating Stars.

The Fated Sky reminded me, in part, of Weir’s Martian and Artemisin part! Yet, it is it’s own unique story about the possible colonisation of Moon and Mars, including months of space travel with all its obvious dangers, but far more interesting and gross are the not so obvious dangers, like regurgitating vacuum toilets. I’m looking forward to the third book in the series, but I am pacing myself a bit, because the fourth book, The Martian Contingency, won’t be published before 2022.

The audiobooks are narrated by the author herself. Something that I enjoy very much in general and enjoyed with this series in particular. MRK does an excellent job giving Elma and her friends and foes a unique voice.

Lastly, I’d like to point out that I truly appreciate all the research that MRK put into the series to represent science and history as accurately as possible. I especially enjoyed the lengthy acknowledgements and lists of bibliography at the end of the books, which probably only represents a fraction of what the author actually learned and looked up.

5/5 Harpy Eagles for The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky

Quest to steal a stone

The Thief the first book in The Queen’s Thief series by Meghan Whalen Turner, published 27 December 2005. TheLadyDuckOfDoom and myself had this book on our #SeptreSummer reading lists and we accidentally on purpose read it at the same time; or rather we listened to it (see below).

Gen is a thief, currently in prison for stealing from the royal court and then unwisely boasting about it in a tavern.

The king’s magus needs something found, a trinket from the gods, and he needs a master thief to help him find it. So he dregs Gen out of prison and onto a horse and the quest begins.

Like all good quests to find hidden treasure this is a journey through enemy territory, dangerous terrain and with travelling companions who can’t stand each other. It could be very boring, if it wasn’t for the stories of the old gods and goddesses they tell each other to while away the time on the road.

Although the stories might be inspired by the myths, stories and the countryside around the Mediterranean, this series is not a retelling of any myths, it is set in its own fantasy world and has its own unique voice and plot.

Some reviewers classify this novel and series as Young Adult. I’m not so sure about this. The protagonist might be on the younger side and is often described as a boy and not a grown man yet, though the story reads far more mature than your average YA fantasy. Probably because the usual tropes, like chosen one, love triangle, etc, are missing.

The narration by Steve West is excellent and was the main reason for me to pick this book up as an audiobook. In fact, it was so good that I hopped from book 1, to book 2 The Queen of Attolia, book 3 The Kind of Attolia, and books 4 and 5, A Conspiracy of Kings and Thick as Thieves.

4/5 Harpy Eagles

4/5 Duckies

Let’s eat Grandma!

Star Eater by Kerstin Hall, published 22 June 2021.

This dystopian-esque fantasy novel has an MC fit for a YA novel, hereditary magic based on cannibalism, a Sisterhood of nuns running the government, a resistance movement, zombies, food shortage, and big cats.

This review is based on an ARC of the Recorded Books audiobook.

Where do I even start?

I’d have liked some pointers as to where we are, what kind of period of human history this might be similar too. The only information I get on that is there are horses drawing carts and cabs. Also gas lamps are mentioned once. So, probably somewhere similar to the late Middle Ages with gas lamps?

The main character El/Elfreda is a 22-year-old acolyte of the sacred order of sisters that is ruling Aytrium. She became an acolyte about a year ago when her mother went into her martyrdom. She is, [let’s say it together:], no one special and yet the chosen one to save the world. Add a love triangle or two to the mix,… Yet, the book is hailed as not YA.

The magic system: Magic is called Lace. It is used for protection and defence against Haunts (zombie men created through the Renewal ceremonies performed by acolytes, see below) mainly, but can also be used for compulsion of others. Furthermore, it is used to keep Aytrium afloat. [It’s not quite clear to me whether Aytrium is a country or a city with a few villages surrounding it. Also, it wasn’t clear to me that Aytrium was a floating landmass and has been floating for more than 500 years. It was first explicitly mentioned at about 60% of the audiobook; let’s hope the print edition will have a map that shows this.]  

The following paragraphs will contain spoilers. Frankly, I didn’t very much like this book. It is a non-YA YA novel with YA characters, having YA relationships, YA dialogues and affects, and the adults have betrayed them.

[Spoiler alert!]

Only the members of the Sisterhood have Lace. It’s hereditary magic, which means, it is passed on from mother to daughter after the mother starts her martyrdom. The martyrdom means, the mother falls in some form of coma after her own mother dies and her daughter now has to make weekly visits to her mother in the facility where martyrs are stored. This is a kind of morgue where the still breathing corpses are stored so that daughters can eat some of their mother’s flesh to replenish their Lace. In the flesh and organs, the magic is stored, hence the extremities are eaten first, the organs, especially the heart, last.

In order to keep the Lace within the Order, the members of the Sisterhood cannot have heterosexual relationships. How do they procreate then? The acolytes must perform monthly Renewal ceremonies where they have to have sex with a convicted murderer or rapist. If they get pregnant and the child turns out a boy, the child is given away, and the acolyte has to continue the renewal ceremonies. If the child is a girl, the acolyte keeps the child, raises it, and is henceforth released from renewal duty; grandmothers go into martyrdom and mothers and daughters now have the clock ticking for when they will ‘level up’ within the Sisterhood.

These renewal ceremonies create zombie-like creatures. The men the nuns have sex with catch some form of STD that turns them into Haunts that will, if they aren’t “sent over the edge” (can’t be killed, can’t stay in Aytrium either), haunt the Sisters in order to kill and eat them. Sometimes, men catch this zombie disease without having to have had sex with a member of the order, this means they are used in the renewal ceremonies until the disease is so far advanced that they have to be “sent over the edge.” [The term is mentioned early on in the book, but it doesn’t mean that the listener/reader automatically knows that Aytrium is a floating landmass. Could refer to a cliff-face over, say, an ocean, too.]

As it happens, the Haunts are exactly how the Chosen One story-line gets going. El, our doormat of an MC, hates having to eat the flesh of her mother, hates the Renewal – for obvious reasons – so when a cabal approaches her with the promise to get her out of renewal ceremonies, she agrees to spy for them. Like in every dystopian YA story, she learns about how the ruling class is cheating and suppressing critical information, she wants to support the resistance without actually betraying her vows to the order, her best friends are in the midst of it. And of course, her best friend, from when they were kids and who El has a crush on, caught the zombie disease from one kiss they shared. And of course, the sister of this guy, also El’s best friend, is someone who not only El has a crush on, but who secretly has a crush on El too – hello love-triangle. Luckily this is kept at a minimum. When El and some other members of the Order find themselves in a trap (one with a capital T, predictable from a mile ahead), El finds out that she is the one child born every 70 years that could make or break the Order. Either the Order will gorge themselves on El, because she has lots of Lace. Or El has to bring the Order down by sacrificing herself and her magic. Sacrificing herself will somehow bring her boy back from zombie-dom, so… the last 20% of the book are about how she gets to sacrifice herself.

Just FYI: The resistance see the Sisterhood as a tyrannical order of outsiders and want to get rid of them. The Sisterhood was able to crush all attempts so far, but the resistance is gaining ground, not least because some members of the Order are secretly working with them?

The food shortage seems to be a regularly occurring problem the Aytrium is facing, based on draught years and rain seasons. El works for the department that is responsible to find alternative food supplies. But, once the Chosen One plot gets under way the food shortage is no longer mentioned. I assume it is all resolved due to the way the story ends. Still, this subplot took up a lot of pages, just to be ignored in the end.

Also, there were big cats that were used for long distance travel. They were kept in stables and were probably only for the use of members of the Sisterhood. They can cover ground fast and they are warm in a chilly night.

The titular Star Eater is someone who might have eaten an actual star or someone who was considered the star, or ruler, of the people. Anyway, this eating of the star made the Star Eater so powerful with Lace she managed the ascension of Aytrium all on her own. How? Why?

To be honest, this book left me with a lot of questions about heredity, about the magic system, about the Haunts, about the original Star Eater and how and why Aytrium became a floating land, about what the rest of the world looked like, about why there is a resistance to the Sisterhood when we never get to see what’s so bad about it and know nothing about whether the general public is actually observing the Sisters’ religion, the (forced) bi-sexualism, and so much more.

1/5 Harpy Eagles – lots of unused potential, lots of predictable twists, reads YA although it is not supposed to be.

Talk dirty to me

Ha, made you look, right?

I love a good audiobook. What’s even better than a good audiobook? An audioplay. Better than an audioplay? [Yes, yes, there can be a superlative here.] Better than an audioplay is an audioplay based on a story by Neil Gaiman, played by a whole cast of gorgeous voices and narrated by Neil himself. That’s reason enough for me to not fiddle with the speed of my audioplayer, which I usually set to somewhere between 1.75 and 2.5.

The Sandman audioplay is based on the DC comics/graphic novels of the same title. I’m going so far as to say that I enjoyed the audioplay much more than the GNs, because the cast surrounding James McAvoy makes the story/stories really come to life for me.

I can’t say much more without either starting to go all CAPS, or gushing about details. Get yourself a copy of the original version – trust me, I dared to listen into the German version for a few minutes, just not the same feeling – and enjoy it. Each episode is worth your time, and, at the same time, you can pace yourself by at least trying to listen to not more than one episode at a time. Something I failed at spectacularly.

5/5 Harpy Eagles

An audiobook Original

The Original by Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal, narrated by Julia Whelan, published, as audio only, 14 September 2020.

In a future where people can prolong their lives with weekly boosts of their nanites (nanobots), or by getting a clone in case of a fatality, Holly wakes up in a recently cloned body. She soon finds out that her husband had been killed. Furthermore, she is but a mere Provisional Replica only alive for four days, enough time to find her “Original” and kill her for the murder of her/their husband. For this purpose, the replica was enhanced with deduction and combat skills, but is missing all the AR features of Holly’s old life/body.

Holly now has to come to terms with being a replica under control of the authorities. Getting around in an augmented world in a body that cannot opt in to see the themes. She has to find out where her Original is hiding, why and if she truly killed her husband, and what all this has to do with the community of Check-outs, people who have opted out of using nanites and the AR enhancements they offer.

This book is an audiobook only. Julia Wheelan’s narration is spot on. She manages to admirably convey Holly’s history with her husband – in flashback scenes – as well as Holly’s underlying feeling of running out of time, having to come to terms with the whole situation, and finding her identity as a clone. The sound effects that were added to the narration enhance story and narration even more.

I enjoyed unravelling the mystery of Holly’s husband with her replica. The short story made me wish it had been longer. I would have liked to stay in this world for a few more pages, or rather a few more minutes.

4/5 Harpy Eagles

Tideline – by Elizabeth Bear, read by LeVar Burton

I’ve always enjoyed reading Elizabeth Bear, and recently, I’ve been slowly reading through her short fiction, compiled in The Best of Elizabeth Bear. Tideline, specifically, won the Hugo and the Theodore Sturgeon Award in 2008.

I don’t want to give too much away about the story of Tideline, I think it is best experienced without much information. But I will quote the introduction by C. L. Polk in The Best of Elizabeth Bear:

“Tideline” is a heartbreaking, beautiful story about family and remembrance that pairs up a warmachine and the boy who found her…

C. L. Polk, The Best of elizabeth bear

When reading short fiction, I always check LeVar Burtons Podcast for the story. And there it was, read in 2020. Hearing this story was one of the most intense audiobook experiences in my life. The story is not only read, through subtle sound effects and the different voices LeVar Burton gives the characters and the narration, it feels like so much more. And all that in 45 minutes. I cried at the end. And after that, a little bit more.

If you have some time, or want to give short fiction a try, I cannot recommend this enough.

Break a Curse, or two, or three…

In order to properly review the third book in Brigid Kemmerer’s Cursebreaker series, I made my way through the first two books on audio.

  • Book 1: A Curse So Dark And Lonely, published 29 January, 2019.
  • Book 2: A Heart So Fierce And Broken, published 07 January, 2020.
  • Book 3: A Vow So Bold And Deadly, published 26 January, 2021.

Spoilers ahead! Though I am trying to not spoil too much of the stories.

A Curse So Dark And Lonely – the first book – is a Beauty and the Beast retelling with a twist. Prince Rhen was cursed to repeat the season of his eighteenth birthday until a girl/woman would fall in love with him. He was cursed by a sorceress, because she could not lure him into her trap and make him marry her after they spent one night together. More than three hundred seasons after the curse only Rhen and his personal guardsman Grey are left in the castle. This time Harper is the girl that’s supposed to fall in love with Rhen. Harper is from Washington DC, had a rough-ish upbringing and isn’t easily cowed by Rhen and Grey. This is what I most liked about the story. Harper does not swoon at the sight of a chiselled jaw, nor is she overly impressed by Rhen’s royal title. Instead she gives as good as she gets. For some time there was a hint at a possible love triangle with Grey, which, fortunately, turned out to be just friendship. Phew!

A Heart So Fierce And Broken – the second book – is more about Grey and what his live turns out to be following the end of book one. It’s interesting to see his character arc, and that of the people around him. But what happens in his part of the story, and in Emberfall and the surrounding kingdoms, was no big surprise to me, which made this a typical middle book.

Book 3, A Vow So Bold And Deadly, brings all the main players together onto one playing field. Eventually, some characters find out that talking some problems through might actually help solving them. [big eye-roll here] Of the three books this was certainly the most predictable in terms of outcome. Yet, there were a few twists that even redeemed book two. I’m still going so far as to say that book 2 and 3 could have been pulled together. This would have worked as a duology, too.

The audiobook narration of book 1 and 2 was good. Each character had it’s own narrator, which helped flesh them out some more. Some of the American English pronunciation of one particular character in A Heart was a bit grating to my ears, but that’s because I’m a snob.

If I had to pick a favourite from the series, it would be the first book, A Curse So Dark And Lonely, just because it had a new twist on the Beauty and the Beast retelling; the fierce female MC stayed strong to her character even when faced with a seemingly flawless prince.

On travelling the Continent

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss, published 10 July 2018. The second book in “The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club” series did not disappoint at all. If you’ve got the chance, get the audiobook version. (I’m going to rave about it further down.)

Let’s shortly recap [spoilers for book 1 ahead!]. The first book was about Mary Jekyll, daughter of the famous Dr Jekyll, who’s assisting Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in solving the Whitechapel Murders. This leads to her finding out about the secret Alchemical Society her father was a member of; and she finds the daughter’s of other Gothic mad scientists: Diana Hyde (her half-sister), Justine Frankenstein, Catherine Moreau and Beatrice Rappaccini.

The second story picks up a short while after the ladies have settled in the Jekyll household, calling themselves the Athena Club. From a telegram, they learn that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped. Of course they have to rescue yet another daughter of a mad scientist from being experimented on. This time though, they have to travel to Vienna and Budapest for their rescue mission.

The story is told by Catherine Moreau, with lots of interjections throughout the writing process from the, sometimes bickering, young ladies and the household staff. It took me some time to get used to it in the first book, but I was actually looking forward to it in this second book.

Book 2 leaves us with a cliffhanger for the final story (really?) The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, published in 2019. I’ve already added it to my TBR in the audiobook version, because s.b.

What I truly loved was the audiobook. The narrator, Kate Reading, does an amazing job with all the different characters’ voices, but much more with the languages involved. It was fun listening to this story, and should I ever meet Ms Reading in real life, I’ll have to bow to her. Especially because, as a native speaker of German, I have to say, she managed 99% of the German words accurately – not once did her German sound false. Neither did her French or Italian – I should not comment on the Hungarian and Latin, but I am fairly certain she did those well too.

In short, get the audiobook. It’s 24 hours long, but it’s fun to listen to.

Addition by LadyDuckOfDoom: I love this series! I’ve read all three books, and now I am jealous that I did now listen to the audiobooks.

Addition in response to LadyDuckOfDoom: But I’m fairly certain you’ve got the print editions on your shelf, which I don’t have. So we’re both jealous. I’m not going to punch you in the arm for it. And I hope you’re not going to kick me Diana-style under the table.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

You may know Zen Cho from her books Sorcerer to the Crown, but with The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, she proves that her writing also shines in a shorter novella form. And you can’t help but get interested with a beautiful title and cover like that.

The book follows Guet Imm, a votary of the titular order. She joins a group of bandits after being fired from her job in a coffee house because of a commotion one of the bandits started. While Guet Imm befriends the right-hand man of the group’s leader, trouble is on the horizon because of the items they are planning to sell. From the outset, you would expect something really action-packed. It starts with a martial arts fight scene, after all. But what you get is a warmhearted novella about a found family with strong themes of acceptance. Devotees of the order also have some tricks up their sleeves, and there may or may not be magic involved.

The audiobook was done really well, and it was easy to keep track of the characters. I think listening to it really added to my enjoyment of the story, as it provided an easier access to the Asian names for me.

Hell’s Librarian is a badass!

I managed to squeeze both of A.J. Hackwith’s Hell’s Libary books into this week. I listened to them, I confess.

Book 1: The Library of the Unwritten, published 01 Oct 2019.

The Library of the Unwritten had been on my radar for a while, but I wanted to wait until the second book was out before I started. It was well worth waiting a year before reading it.

This Urban Fantasy is mostly set in Hell, but also in Seattle, and some other realms of the dead. Hell has a huge library, where librarians serve as punishment for their sins in life. When an unwritten book escapes to Earth to haunt its author, the librarian, her apprentice and a newly arrived demon have to travel to Earth to bring the book back. At the same time, a scrap of the Bible of Hell arrives at the Pearly Gates, which prompts two angels to be dispatched to find the whole book and bring it to Heaven. Of course, all hell breaks loose when their paths, inevitably, cross.

The world-building is fabulous. Just the idea of a library in Hell, where all the unwritten books stay, need to be repaired over time, become restless, their characters becoming corporeal and wandering the aisles of shelves. Perfect. Add the different realms, based on different religions/pantheons.

Each chapter is told from a different character’s POV. This is well-balanced and allows the reader to get more familiar with the whole cast. May I say, I loved Claire the Head Librarian, and Hero, and Leto, but I might have just lost my heart to Walter. Must be a Pratchett thing. You’ll know when you read the book.

Book 2: The Archive of the Forgotten, published 06 Oct 2020.

The Archive of the Forgotten picks up a few months after the end of The Library of the Unwritten. Since anything I might write now could end up being a huge spoiler for the first book, I’m going to just say this. It’s just as good as the first book, it has new plot twists ready for you, it shows the characters growing, evolving and leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling at the end. Not to mention, lots of ideas to possibly explore, because Hackwith has added a few more wings to the library.

The audiobook narration was good – it’s just, I hate it when a “library” turns into a “liberry”, but this might be due to listening to the audiobook on 1.75 times the normal speed.

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