Review: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

a closed and common orbit coverA Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (UK link, US link) is a sequel to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. The interesting thing to note though is that it follows a completely different set of characters. The main characters of Common Orbit, Sidra and Pepper, appear in Long Way, but only in a few places. On the flip side, the main characters from Long Way are mentioned a few times but they never actually appear in Common Orbit. This means it’s possible to read Common Orbit without having first read Long Way. If you do read the books out of order, then the events of Common Orbit will give spoilers for a single plot thread of Long Way but not the main plotline. I heartily recommend both of these books and you can tackle them in whichever order you choose.

A Closed and Common Orbit is a story about figuring out who you want to be and making a purpose for your own life – which doesn’t have to be a purpose given by an outside force. It has two plotlines interwoven. The “present” plotline is focused on Sidra, an artificial intelligence program recently, and illegally, installed in a kit designed to mimic a human being. She has to deal with her new body, the restrictions imposed on her by her programming, and the fact that getting caught would mean her death. She navigates her new existence with the help of her friends Pepper and Blue, and later a new friend Tak (not to be confused with a character of the same name in the previous book). The “past” plotline tells of Pepper’s history. She was originally Jane 23, one of a group of girls genetically engineered to work in factories, her entire life focused on the tasks she was given. At the age of 10, she had never seen the sky and had no idea that there was a world outside her factory. This plotline tells of her escape from the factory and how she grew up, learned the skills she needed to survive, and came to the place where she is first encountered in the previous book.

The two plotlines come together towards the end of the book with the events of the past plotline becoming critical to the present plotline.

While there is some action, the story is primarily a character-driven one, dealing with the emotional growth of these two people, how they cope with their circumstances, and how they choose to define themselves. There is an underlying layer around the subject of exploitation, with both Sidra and Jane created for the purpose of performing task for their “owners”.

The story is very well written so that it tugs on the heartstrings and makes the reader invested in the lives of these characters who have gone through some awful things. The book deals with the after effects of those things – with characters having panic attacks and nightmares, struggling to deal with massive changes as they come out of traumatic events into somewhere safe. Even in the rich and imaginative setting, the emotional reactions of the characters feel grounded in reality.

Well worth a read and, as I said at the start, you can pick these books up in whichever order appeals to you. I found I actually liked this book better than Long Way, which surprised me because I really enjoyed that book too. Five stars. This one has been added to my favourites list.

The Confessions of Dorian Gray

I’ve just added some new items to my queer reading list – The Confessions of Dorian Gray (series 1 & 2, and series 3). I wasn’t sure about whether to list these as they are an audio drama rather than a normal book, but Amazon has them listed as audiobooks and the box sets have a record on Goodreads, so I figured they were close enough to count.

The stories are based on the premise that Oscar Wilde wrote The Portrait of Dorian Gray about an actual friend/lover of his, but that Dorian didn’t die at the end of the book and instead lived on until the modern day fighting demons, ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural threats. Dorian’s sexuality isn’t specifically labelled but I would describe him as pansexual because he will sleep with anyone he finds attractive, whether they be man, woman, or blood-sucking vampire.

The first two seasons are a selection of stand-alone stories that take place over the course of Dorian’s long life, often jumping forward a few decades between them. The third season has a more long-term arc. The stories themselves are still episodic in nature but there are plot threats that span between them, including a romance arc between Dorian and a male character that crosses three episodes.

Dorian is written based on the hedonistic character of Oscar Wilde’s book. He gets character development over the series, but he remains in it for the pleasures of life – be they sex, drugs, alcohol, or murder. It’s very refreshing in this story how open Dorian is about his sexuality, talking about being attracted to different genders without any hesitation of qualms, but it’s hard to forget that he is also written this way to be amoral and his sexuality is part of that portrayal. It follows the trope of bisexuals/pansexuals being sex-crazed, party animals and there are times when Dorian talks about his “sins” (hopefully referring to all the murder, but vague enough that it could also be including his sexuality). Some listeners may have problems with this portrayl. However, what I think redeems the story however is that there are episodes and arcs where Dorian is shown to care for people as people. There are some stories where he falls in love and these vary. There’s a story where he falls in love with a woman, another where he falls in love with a man, and then there’s his relationship with the murdering vampire (lots of canon bloodplay kink in that pairing) who he describes as the love of his life.

The story also has minor queer characters who appear for an episode or two. One of my favourites is Simon, who has a fling with Dorian in one episode and falls in love with him only to end up jaded when Dorian doesn’t love him back and just perceived what they had as a casual thing. Simon ends up having a marriage of convenience with a lesbian so that he can get ahead in a business run by homophobes and so that she doesn’t get cut out of the will of a very wealthy but very bigotted relative. Then there’s the fact that Oscar Wilde himself is a character in the first episode. It’s clear that while Dorian is a horrible person (but a brilliant character) that’s because of who he is and not because he’s into men.

I do recommend this series as a great fun set of fantasy/horror stories. I haven’t listed seasons 4 and 5 on my reading list because I only list books I’ve read (or in this case listened to) but I have got those on order and suspect I will add those to the list once I’ve heard them.

Review: How to Save the World by Tam MacNeil

How to Save the World coverHow to Save the World by Tam MacNeil (UK link, US link), not to be confused with one of the many other books with the same or similar name, is a book that walks the line between fantasy and science fiction. Monsters are rising from the sea and emerging from the forests, death gods who call to the people nearby. Anyone who hears their song is drawn to them and filled with the urge to commit suicide. A man named Cameron runs the company who produces mech – huge metal machines that can fight against these monsters. The mechs are designed to be driven by a human being, but the experience is horrifying. In this world, Alex and Sean are assassins working for Cameron, killing anyone he sends them after. They decide to escape their life by killing Cameron but when the attempt fails, Sean manages to get out and start a new life but Alex is caught and forced inside one of the mechs.

When I first started this book I had my doubts about it. For the first couple of chapters, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to connect with Alex or Sean, who we see committing murders without seeming to care about it. How wrong I was. It didn’t take long for the book to start exploring their history, the way they protect each other, and their desire to have a better life than the one they’re forced to endure. Once the book got going it was very easy to have sympathy for both of them and some parts of the book were absolutely heart-wrenching. I was in tears in places.

The story deals with some very dark themes and difficult issues. There are explorations of rape, child abuse, grooming, suicide, grief, and some scenes that can only be described as torture. These issues are dealt with in a very respectful way and it really tugs on the heart-strings, but it could be a very difficult read for some people because of how real the emotion feels.

The book is definitely driven by the emotion. There is some mystery and a fair amount of action, with the characters working to, as the title says, save the world from the monsters, but really the core of the book is the emotional journey between Sean and Alex.

The relationship between the two main characters is beautifully written. We get to see their history and the background behind their interactions as well as the moments on the page. It works in a very layered way. You can genuinely feel how much they love each other. The interactions with the other characters is great too, and there were some brilliant moments where we get to see the two main characters through the eyes of characters like Mad and Rak. We spend so much of the time in this book inside their heads that it’s interesting to see what they look like from the outside.

The only criticism I have of this book is that it needed a better editor. There were a lot of typos and there were several points where a new chapter or section started with a pronoun and it took me several paragraphs to work out who was the viewpoint character for this bit. A chapter would start with “he” and I would spend a page trying to work out if this was Alex or Sean, only to find out this bit was from Rak’s point of view. I through me out of the story. It’s a shame because otherwise this was a brilliant book.

Very emotional and highly recommended, but do be aware of the fact it tackles issues of rape and abuse. Five stars.

Review: The Dark Wife by Sarah Diemer

The Dark Wife - coverThe Dark Wife (UK link, US link) is a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Persephone. According to most traditional tellings of the story, Hades, the lord of the Underworld, carries off Persephone, daughter of the goddess of the harvest, to force her to be his wife. The gods attempt to rescue her, but because she’s eaten half a pomegranate while in the underworld, she has to live there for half the year, causing her mother to mourn her and thus causing winter.

This retelling has many of those same elements, but delivered with a new perspective and some significant changes. One important change is the fact that the ‘lord’ of the underworld is in fact a lady. Hades is female, and the title ‘lord’ is used by Zeus to mock her. The story also focuses on the idea from myth of Zeus being a rapist who takes what he wants. When Persephone’s lover is raped by Zeus and transformed into a plant, Persephone hates him, and ends up running away to the underworld to escape him, where she falls in love with Hades. Even the pomegranate plays a different role.

The story plays with many of the threads of ancient myths, such as the idea of the Elysium fields as a final resting place for heroes, and the three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the underworld, but with a new and refreshing take on these old ideas. I think part of the appeal of the story is the familiarity of these pieces and seeing them fit together in a new way, so I imagine that the story wouldn’t have the same appeal to people who are less familiar with the ancient Greek myths.

As it is, if you enjoy myths and want a story about immortal lesbians, then The Dark Wife is a very enjoyable story. It’s quite short and much of the focus is on the emotional journey rather than any action or adventure, but for fans of romance, I can see it being very much appreciated.

The characters are rounded and developed as people. The story is told from Persephone’s perspective, so we understand her motives and drives throughout the story, but there are a number of other characters who play important parts, including many of the gods, such as Hermes and Athena. The way the gods are portrayed compared to humans is interesting and feels genuine. The author explores how immortality would effect things like love and romance, especially when it’s between a mortal and an immortal. Despite all their powers, the characters in this story feel very human.

Four stars. One for fans of mythology.

Review: The Boy in Red by E M Holloway

The Boy in Red coverThe Boy in Red (UK link, US link) is the fourth book in E M Holloway’s The Sum of Its Parts series. It’s undoubtedly my favourite in the series, but it will probably only make sense if you’ve read the other three books first. There are a lot of references to the events of the previous book and characters show up without any real introduction (even though an introduction might have been a helpful reminder in the case of characters who only played minor roles in the earlier books).

In this book, Puck and his werewolf pack face a sorcerer who has heard of Puck’s reputation as the formidable “Boy in Red” (a reputation he earned based on his actions in the previous books) and decides to test his skills against him. This sorcerer casts spells that torment the pack as a sort of game to see what Puck’s reaction will be. Puck just wants to protect his pack, but the sorcerer is putting other people in danger and someone has to protect them too, even when they’re people Puck can’t stand.

On top of it all, Puck has to cope with going to school and dealing with an asshole teacher who seems determined to make Puck’s life hell. With all the magical attacks, this mundane issue could be the final straw.

I mentioned that this book is my favourite so far and that’s largely because the characters are established and have settled into their relative roles. This book jumps straight in with the plot and there is a lot of plot. The first book of this series felt as much like a murder mystery novel as a supernatural adventure and this book comes back to that. Puck has a puzzle to solve to figure out the sorcerer’s identity, to track him down and to find a way to stop him, and lot of this feels like a crime novel and the questions keep you turning the pages to find out the answers.

There’s also a lot going on in this story, with various plot threads that are all connected but that also feel strong individually, such as the conflict with Nealy. Here we have a very human conflict surfacing in the form of lawsuits and lurking, which is a stark contrast to the rest of the action, and which brings out a different set of reactions in Puck.

These events also bring out a response in Puck’s PTSD. This book, like the others in the series, deserves points for the careful handling of this difficult issue. Puck suffers from PTSD following the events of the first book and it’s clear the author put a lot of time and effort into research because Puck’s symptoms feel very real. This book explores the impact of his PTSD in a deeper way than some of the others and includes Puck starting therapy to deal with it.

There are a lot of characters in this book, with Puck front and centre as the protagonist, but with the rest of Puck’s pack, Puck’s father, a local magic-expert, others at school and their families, some teachers, the werewolf-hunters in the area, contacts Puck has from the previous book, law enforcement officers, and so on, until there are a lot of people involved. There’s a reason why I thought a bit more introduction to some of the minor characters might have been helpful because there are a lot of people involved. It can get quite complicated, but the interplay of all these different people makes the story feel very real.

Definitely my favourite so far in the series, but as I said, if you’re new to these books you should probably start off at the beginning to save yourself a lot of confusion.

Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen coverRed Queen by Victoria Aveyard (UK link, US link) has a lot of the standard hallmarks of a young adult dystopian novel, but it approaches them in a way that makes the story feel new and different. It is the story of Mare Barrow, a girl from a downtrodden people who finds herself in the middle of the political intrigue and machinations of the ruling class.

The world is divided into Silvers and Reds. Those with silver blood have amazing abilities, including controlling fire, manipulating metal, or even entering people’s minds and controlling them. The reds… don’t. Without power of any description, the reds do menial labour, working as servants, factory workers, farmers, and so on to produce the necessities and the luxuries that the silvers enjoy. Reds are also sent into pointless wars as canon fodder if they can’t get a job soon enough.

Mare Barrow is a red girl from a poor village, who steals to help her family survive. When she steals from the wrong person and gets caught, she expects to lose her hand. Instead, she gets offered a job as a servant in the palace. In a very public accident, she and the rest of the world discover that Mare has powers of her own – the ability to control electricity. Because the royal family can’t admit that anyone with red blood has power, they create a fiction that Mare is the lost heir of a silver family, and betroth her to one of the princes. Mare is suddenly trapped in a world of politics and intrigue. If she plays her part, she can keep her family and herself alive, but there is a rebellion stirring and she might be in a position to help all reds in a way she’d never imagined possible.

What I like about this book is the way that the characters all feel like people. There are a lot of different personalities mixed in, from the major characters to the minor ones, and they all have layers. A character who is cruel and vicious shows that they can be a loving parent. A character who at first seems kind and caring can find ways to rationalise brutal actions and a status quo that hurts millions of people. In the world of the silvers, there are characters you can connect with and feel sympathy for, even while they turn a blind eye to the fact that reds are being downtrodden. This focus on the people makes the book feel very real. Even in this sci-fi/fantasy setting, the reactions of the different characters to the events of the book felt very genuine.

The plot is also one that kept me hurrying through this book. It has layers and factors, with the in-fighting within the silver houses, the rebellion of the reds, and Mare just trying to keep her family and friends safe. There were twists I didn’t see coming, but afterwards I could spot the seeds that had been leading up to them.

One thing I struggled with was trying to keep track of all the different silver houses, their house colours, and their powers. Fortunately, part of the story involved Mare struggling to learn all that, so there were reminders and it became another way to connect with the protagonist.

If you enjoy YA dystopias, I definitely recommend Red Queen. It’s the first of a series and I have the second one on order and I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next.

Five stars.

Review – Murder in Absentia

Murder in Absentia coverMurder in Absentia by Assaph Mehr (UK link, US link) is a strange mixture of high fantasy, murder mystery, and historical novel, with a bit of action adventure thrown in for good measure. The protagonist, known as Felix, works as an investigator in a fantasy world inspired by ancient Rome. He has some training in magic and a reputation for discretion, so when the son of a prominant citizen is found dead under mysterious circumstances, Felix is brought in to investigate.

In many ways, the story has a lot of the hallmarks of a standard murder mystery, with a dead body, leads to follow, a number of suspects, and some red herrings. At the same time, it also has an interesting and unique approach to the fantasy elements. The Roman-inspired setting is one I’ve not come across in a fantasy world and it gave the book a sense of originality. It’s clear that the author has done a huge amount of research into the history to create a world that feels authentic and internally consistant. There is a lot of background detail in everything from the miniatudes of daily life to the bigger picture view of history, trade and government. There are occasions when it feels that there might be too much detail (with discussions between characters on the creation of a specialist fish sauce, a lot of lists of the specific foods eaten at meals, and paragraphs of exposition explaining the political history of key locations) and there were a few points in the book when I wondered if maybe the author should have toned down the background information, but the end result is a fantasy world that feels grounded in reality. You can really believe in the people, the places, and the reality of existence in such a place.

One problem with such a realistic setting, given the historical source, is the subject of slavery. This is a very sensitive topic and the author can’t avoid the fact that slavery was a fact of life in the historical period that is acting as a source for this fantasy world. It is a very difficult challenge to create a protagnist who would consider slavery a normal part of life without making that protagonist instantly dislikeable. Felix wasn’t cruel or mean to slaves, and at times treated them with the same courtesy and respect as the free citizens in the world, but it’s still difficult as a modern reader to connect to a protagonist who uses slave labour and watches brutal gladiator matches without a twinge of remorse. The situation is helped somewhat because Felix does acknowledge that slaves are very much people, with their own desires and ambitions, and on more than one occasion he contributes to coins that the slaves are saving up to buy his freedom.

The other challenge with this book was the use of Latin terms. The author makes use of Latin words in places, liberally scattered through the text. While this adds to the sense of authenticity when talking about the colleges and politics, it also proved a challenge. Many of these terms could be worked out from context, others I dredged up from my memories of GCSE Latin, but there were times when I was thrown out of the story while I tried to work out what a word meant. A bit more explanation in English to translate these terms would have been helpful.

From a plot perspective, the book is a nicely constructed murder mystery, with Felix travelling around to investigate, following leads, and gaining new information as the book progresses, providing more clues. The story is definitely a murder mystery first and foremost, and it was the mystery that kept me turning the pages to find out what happened.

I didn’t really connect with Felix as a character, so this isn’t going to make my favourites list, but if mysteries and complex worlds, give this one a try. Three and a half stars.


This post is part of Mystery Thriller Week. Find more book reviews along with trailers, interviews, prizes and more.

Review: Writing Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall

Writing Fight Scenes coverWriting Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall (UK link, US link) is a great resource for writers of action stories. It includes both information on getting the details of a fight correct as well as advice for crafting an action scene in a story. Its subject matter is varied, with a lot of time spent on the use of historical weapons and hand to hand combat, but with pages also devoted to guns, sea battles, and even magical fights. The only types of fights I can think of that aren’t covered are spaceship battles and aerial dogfights. Everything else has a place somewhere in the pages.

The information given is clear and concise, making it a straight-forward read, which is always an advantage in a factual book. I read it straight through, but the way it’s organised means you could easily jump to a particular chapter if you wanted advice on, for example, how your werewolf protagonist would fight in their animal form (yes, animal fights are covered too). It’s obvious the author has put a lot of planning and research into this book and it pays off.

One thing I liked was the way the author addressed the fact that writing a story is not always realistic. Some genres demand vivid realism, but others want action to be light and fun. The book goes into the different approaches that can be taken, and when either is appropriate (e.g. don’t write gruesome, traumatising realism in a children’s adventure book) as well as how to blend the approaches for a middle ground between drama and reality. This sort of detail is what makes this a book about writing rather than just a book about fighting.

The one thing that annoyed me while I was reading though was that it felt like I was only getting half of the content. The book is filled with links out to YouTube videos to show demonstrations of weaponry in use, or examples of fight scenes from movies. This would have been fantastic if this content were given as an online course – the combination of text and video content would work really well – but I first read this book while I was sitting on a plane with my kindle in flight mode. I couldn’t jump out to YouTube every couple of pages to watch a video. In several places, it felt like I was missing out on important information because I couldn’t watch the videos. I understand that author wanting to include extra resources, but I would have preferred it if the text of the book had included more descriptions of what the videos showed so that those readers who couldn’t have internet access could still get the same experience.

The same applies to images. There were several points where I thought diagrams or pictures would have been useful, such as when explaining the differences between various sorts of polearms. In a few places there were links out to pictures on the internet but, as with the videos, I couldn’t take advantage of these when I was first reading the book. The book could definitely have been improved by bringing these images into the pages.

I do think this book is a thorough and comprehensive guide to writing fights, definitely useful to anyone who wants to learn to write thrillers or other action-heavy stories. Definitely read it when you have an internet connection though if you want to get the full advantage out of it.


This post is part of Mystery Thriller Week. Find more book reviews along with trailers, interviews, prizes and more.

Review: Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day coverEvery Day by David Levithan (US link, UK link) is the story of A, who lives each day in a different life. Each morning they wake up with a new body, a new name, and a whole new life. They must bluff their way through the day and then, the next morning, start all over again. They have no control over whose body the inhabit and no way to stop the transfer happening. Normally, they try to leave the people they inhabit exactly the same after the experience, but sometimes they make exceptions to the rule, such as when they spent the day in the body of a girl contemplating suicide.

When A meets Rhiannon, one day is enough to fall in love. A doesn’t want to leave her behind when they move into another body and so they start taking stupid risks for the chance to see her again. And now one of their hosts knows he was possessed and is desperate to find out what happened.

This was an enjoyable book and it was fun to see the different lives A briefly experiences. It gives a real variety of family situations, from an undocumented underage worker to the rich and bitchy queen of a high school. The book is really good for the diversity of people included, with A jumping between bodies of different races, different genders, and different sexualities. I loved that it showed the depressed sufferer as having serious problems with her brain chemistry that impacted A as well, rather than being dismissed as a “bad mood”. A themselves describes themselves as not really having a gender. Because they jump around each day, they don’t really feel either male or female but a bit of both.

Plot wise, most of the book is about A trying to stay with Rhiannon, but there is the threat of Nathan poking around, trying to uncover the truth. It’s more of a romance than an adventure.

I enjoyed this book. There were a couple of things that irritated me, including an event that happens near the end, so I won’t spoil it for anyone, but on the whole it was entertaining and enjoyable and kept me guessing. Four stars.

Review: Viral Nation by Shaunta Grimes

Viral Nation coverViral Nation is a post-apocalyptic book with many of the standard hallmarks of a YA dystopian story. The world was ravaged by a deadly plague and now the few survivors have come together into a small number of cities. They are all reliant on a drug that keeps the virus suppressed. Without regular doses, the virus will return. In the cities, law is kept because a time portal lets the authorities know what crimes will be committed so that they can stop them before they happen.

Clover is an autistic girl who depends on her support dog Mango to help her through loud and crowded situations which are incredibly stressful to her. She is extremely intelligent and is accepted into the prestigious Academy, only to be told that Mango can’t stay with her. When she refuses to be parted from her dog, she is sent instead to be a time mariner – to travel through the portal to bring back information from the future. In her new job, she learns that the system may not be as perfect as she’s been told.

The story is told largely from the perspectives of Clover and her brother West, with occasional sections from their father’s viewpoint. Clover’s character is a real strength for this book. Her experiences and thought processes are clearly described and made understandable to non-autistic readers. The way she behaves feels completely genuine and there is a real emotional connection. That feeling of reality is also reflected in the way she is sometimes treated by other characters in the book because of her autism. There were times when I felt fury and indignation on Clover’s behalf about the unfairness of how she is treated and I wished I could leap into the pages and yell at the other characters.

On the other hand, I didn’t think the plot did justice to the strength of the main character. There were a number of plot elements that seemed really convenient. I don’t want to give spoilers, but in particular the way the time travel is handled seems to lack consistent logic and there are details that are revealed that make no sense and seem to be there only because it furthered the plot.

The book also suffered a bit for being obviously the first one in a series. There are a lot of significant plot points that go unexplained which is frustrating, but I know I do this in my own series, so I can accept this. I trust that these mysteries will be resolved in the second book of this two-part series. The second book is already out, so at least I won’t have to wait to get the answers.

This isn’t going to make it on to my favourites shelf, but it’s an enjoyable read if you like dystopias and especially if you like well-written representations of autistic characters. Three and a half stars.