Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

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Sceptre Summer Reading List Update – The Rt. Hon. Harpy Eagle Edition

When I wrote that list, inspired by TheLadyDuckOfDoom’s example, I thought this would work the same way all of my attempts at TBRs do: down the drain within days. Fortunately, I was wrong. Now, about six weeks into my summer reading, I have only seven books left on the list; there were twenty-three to start with. Should be doable by the end of summer – when’s that exactly?

Did I really read all of the other books on the list to the last page? No, I bailed on two so far.

The first that I gave up on: Nine Nasty Words. I did not like the writing style, the hilariousness felt forced. Not to mention that my perception of what are nasty words is different from that of the author. I have a potty mouth IRL, but I am dialing it down for the people around me. Furthermore, I didn’t agree to the way some of the research was presented and what kind of conclusions the author drew. One of my issues was, e.g., that the author compared the spelling and use of that nasty F word at the times of William the Conqueror (that’s late 11th century for non-history nerds) to the spelling and use of its 20th century German counterpart. Poor form for a linguistics professor.

The second book I gave up on was The Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking. I want it to be noted here that I did not give up because the book was bad, I gave up because I had somehow completely forgotten that the book was middle-grade. I might pick it up again at a later time, when I am in the mood for some really light reading.

Kit Rocha’s Deal with the Devil was absolutely not what I had expected. I thought I’d read about bad-ass mercenary librarians fighting for books. What I got was a dystopian romance with enhanced and cloned humans who have some sizzling between the sheets action.

The Dictionary of Lost Words, on the other hand, was really interesting. Based on historic events and the real events leading to the first publication of the Oxford English Dictionary, the author Pip Williams wove a fictional story about the forgotten female words in the dictionary. A story of growing up, of heartbreak, and finding your true self among the words of the dictionary.

Definite hits on my Summer Reading List have been The Calculating Stars, The Thief and Just One Damned Thing After Another. The only thing that kept me from binge-reading each of the series was starting the next series; which, of course, means that I got stuck on The Chronicles of St Mary’s with unfathomable consequences.

Now I am looking forward to the remaining seven books. I’ll be travelling to Mars (How To Mars) and outer space (Prime Deceptions), might meet the Rabbit Queen (Mary Toft; or the Rabbit Queen), learn about butterflies (The Butterfly Effect), and will hopefully find out who The Daughter of the Salt King is and Why Swearing Is Good For You, and eventually dive into the Octunummi. Not necessarily in this order, though.

Give me a break

Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace, published 04 May 2021.

This action packed, gaming dystopia, in a world where two corporations are at war with each other and the general population has to suffer from it is good, but nothing outstanding. The cover is great, though.

Unfortunately, the whole book reads like YA in the vein of Divergent, the few added “fucks” don’t elevate it to adult Sci-Fi.

The MC is an orphan, she lost her parents in the war when she was eight. She’s an introvert, yet needs to broadcast her gaming stream to earn money. She helps strangers, but is bristly towards her friends – she shares her hotel room home with eight other people. When she finds information about one of the corporations at war, she’s the only one who … yada yada yada

2/5 Harpy Eagles

Armchair Time-Travelling with St Mary’s

Oh, excuse me. That’s wrong. The highly secretive St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research doesn’t do time travel, they ‘investigate major historical events in contemporary time’. The historians of the institute are to observe and document, otherwise History will right itself (by erasing them). Add a bunch of eccentric scientists, technicians and engineers who like to blow things up on a regular basis, and you have a fun romp through time. In the case of this first book in the series, Jodi Taylor’s Just One Damned Thing After Another, the catastrophes stretch from Norman conquest England, to France during World War I, the Cretaceous Period and the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria – mind you, that wasn’t St Mary’s doing, though they tried their best.

If you’re into history, and explosions, mayhem, snarky characters, an extra portion British humour, lots of tea and even more booze, this is the series for you.

Jodi Taylor definitely did her homework in preparation to this book. Honestly, she even knows how to distinguish whether a British person has Saxon or Norman ancestry, something only history nerds know. [Yes, I knew before I read the book; guess that’s saying enough.]

5/5 Harpy Eagles – queue the next book, please.

PS: Yes, I noticed the parallels to the TV series Timeless – which I binged with my daughter ages ago – but I venture that St Mary’s was first and is better.

The Acronyms are back

Or in other words, I’ve read the sequel to The Rise and Fall of the D.O.D.O. This time Nicole Galland did not co-author with Neal Stephenson, but wrote Master of the Revels with his blessings. It was published 23 February 2021.

The first book in this series was my first BuddyRead with TheLadyDuckOfDoom. I enjoyed the book very much and had been looking forward to a sequel ever since. To pass the time until said sequel might hit the shelves, I listened to the short stories, or rather DEDEs, of The D.O.D.O. Files on the Bound App.

Master of the Revels picks up right where DODO left off. Tristan, Mel, Frank, Rebecca, and the rest of the small team that had been cast out of the original D.O.D.O. programme have made Frank and Rebecca’s house their headquarters and are trying to stop Gráinne from changing history.

Gráinne’s latest plan to prevent the evolution of modern technology involves changing the witch scene(s) in Shakespeare’s Macbeth by adding real, very dangerous spells. Of course, Mel and Tristan are trying their best to prevent this, which results in the reader spending time with Will Shakespeare, and the titular Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, in Jacobean London.

I enjoyed this sequel, including the brush up on Shakespearean London. In fact, I couldn’t put it down and read it until the small hours of the morning. Still, there are a few things that I didn’t like about the book.

Mainly, the lack of help for some of the characters on DEDE who have gone AWOL felt strange. I’m not spoiling the story beyond what you can find in the blurb and in the pre-published prologue; contrary to all the rescue attempts we’ve seen in DODO, nobody seems to be too stressed to look into the missing DOer(s). Their absence is noted, and is fretted about, but it seems to be the opportune moment to introduce new and other characters’ stories. We know why Frank is absent, from the prologue, but not even Rebecca seems to be too worried about it at first; until she vanishes without further explanations. Tristan’s not reporting back leads to his new-to-the-whole-thing-but-Shakespearean-actress sister to be sent to 1606 to make sure the ‘cursed’ play turns out right. These plot holes are mildly annoying, especially since I am sure the reasons for the longer than planned absences will not or cannot be explained in the next sequel.

4/5 Harpy Eagles

Ghosthunting in Edinburgh

T.L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead, published 04 February 2021, is the first book in a new Urban Fantasy series set in a post-apocalyptic(?) Edinburgh.

Ropa is a 15 year old ‘ghostalker'[sic], which means she talks to ghosts and delivers their messages to friends and family within the city limits of Edinburgh. From time to time she dabbles in exorcism too. When a charity case ghost asks her to find her lost son, Ropa finds herself in the middle of a scheme that she can only solve with the help of old and new friends.

I liked most of the world-building, though I would have liked to know more about how Edinburgh, or Great Britain, or even the world, ended up being what it is right now. It’s hinted at only very vaguely. The titular Library of the Dead also only makes up a small part of the story and I would have liked to see much more of it. I hope it gets a bigger part in the sequel(s).

This is a fast paced story that’s taking you through the streets of Edinburgh, with a fun group of characters. Potential YA readers might be stumped by the 80s and 90s pop culture references throughout the book. I’m still curious to know how young Ropa – in a time sometime in the future(?) – came to know all those things.

3.5/5 Harpy Eagles; I’ll give it 3 Goodreads stars though, because I wanted more background knowledge to the world and wanted to see more of the library.

Lose Your Temper with Me

Nicky Drayden is an author who should get a lot more attention, if you ask me. Temper was quite the experience. It starts out as your regular kind of urban fantasy, and features a bunch of annoying teenagers. But things spiral out of control quite fast.

In this version of South Africa, it is normal to have a twin to balance each other’s character traits. The seven vices and virtues are split between each pair of twins and the vices are marked on your body for the whole world to see. The twin with more vices is seen as the lesser one and often faces severe discrimination and poverty, while the twin with more virtues goes on to lead a privileged life. The world building is very strong and believable, without needing to explain every last detail. Bonus points for introducing a third gender with ey/eir as pronouns.

Our main character is Auben, one of the rare cases with six vices and therefore destined to get into a lot of trouble. As can be imagined, the relationship with his holier-than-thou six-virtue-twin Kasim is getting more and more strained the older they get. When Auben begins to hear a voice that really speaks to his darker side and may be Icy Blue, the most powerful demon of their religion, their relationship really starts to fall apart.

Usually I don’t stick with books starring really annoying teenagers – and believe me, this book is full of them – but since their behaviour was always rooted in their vices/virtues I could stand it and follow along. Once the story around Icy Blue really comes into focus, things really hit the fan and it even gets quite gory. It was just so much fun to witness the mayhem.

The main thing I liked about this book is that all characters are morally grey, even the most virtuous ones. Maybe especially them? Ultimately, it is a story about how labels like vice markers do not define you. I do not give it a full star rating because you really have to get through a couple of pages full of teenage drama before the fun really starts.

4/5 Magpies

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

Bloodlines

Fantasy is full of bloodlines; the (hidden) heir to the throne, magic running in the family, the chosen one, and so on. But how might a bloodline based Sci-Fi novel look like?

The plot of A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel, published 02 February 2021, is based on two feuding bloodlines. We have women who pass their historical, scientific and personal knowledge down through the generations; and seem to be identical replicas of each other. And there’s a group of men who’s been trying to track them down and kill them over the centuries.

The story starts during the 1940s, with Mia being sent to Nazi Germany to help extract Wernher von Braun before the Russians get to him. Mia is the hundredth generation of identical women who have shaped the history of humankind in order to “take them to the stars” and it’s her duty to get the space race going no matter the costs.

The women have left a lot of carnage behind them during the thousands of years they have tempered with human history. They have shed their own blood and that of innocent people, all in the name of a set of certain rules that will allow them to protect their aforementioned knowledge and use it to help humans to get into space.

Their enemy, ‘the tracker’ is not just one person, it’s a group of a father with his four sons. They have been trying to find these mother-daughter duos for ages, literally tracking them since they first appeared on Earth, and likewise leaving dead bodies in their wake.

Yet, are those two factions enemies, or was a huge part of the knowledge lost in the early days of the one hundred generations of women? When the enemies do collide, it seems that the male side knows more about their origins and alludes to a first contact story-line that will hopefully be picked up in the sequel.

I liked the idea of the story, but it reminded me a lot of the film Hancock, just that we don’t have immortal beings here, but immortality is gained by practically reproducing identical replicas with each new generation. Georg Mendel, him of sweet pea fame, would love this; he’s mentioned in the book.

3/5 Harpy Eagles

Sharks in the Time of Saviours

I’m not even trying to think of a clever blog post title here because the book title is so beautiful. Sharks in the Time of Saviours is Kawai Strong Washburn’s debut novel and it is one of those magical realism books that makes you think about it for days after finishing it.

In the book, we are spending time with the Flores family, mostly in Hawaii. The story is narrated from a first person point of view, alternating between the different family members. The family is hit hard by the collapse of the sugar cane industry, and their economical situation is getting quite desperate.

That’s when their younger son Nainoa is saved from drowning during a family trip by nothing other than a shiver of sharks. (Which is now my favourite collective noun alongside a murder of crows, but I digress.) The family takes this as a sign that the ancient Hawaiian gods are on their side. After the incident, Noa is considered a legend. You might imagine that this does not sit too well with his siblings. Growing up, all three siblings head over to the US mainland and try to make their own separate ways. Each of them finds that it is hard to shake off the past, and tragedy forces them to come back to Hawaii.

After the initial shark incident, I expected more fantastical elements to pop up throughout the story, but they take a backseat. This is more of a family story than a fantastical one, but it still had me turning the pages. The changing points of view certainly helped with that. I really enjoyed to spend some time with Nainoa’s siblings Dean and Kaui, to see what not being The Special One did to them.

A note on the cover: I first noticed the book because of the bright and slightly bonkers US cover, but bought the UK version in the end. After reading it, I think the quieter blue colour is a better fit for the story.

4/5 Magpies

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.

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