Review: Chaos on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer

Series: CatNet #2
Published by: Macmillan-Tor/Forge
ISBN: 1250165229
ISBN 13: 9781250165220
Published: April 2021
Pages: 304
Format reviewed: eVersion from NetGalley
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five
Lists: Favourites and Recommended
Related Reviews: Catfishing on CatNet (#1 CatNet)

I begged for there to be a second book after reading Catfishing on CatNet and my dreams were answered, almost as if CheshireCat was listening in on my conversation. (If only I were so lucky!) So we’re back with the team. Not much time has passed since the ending of the first book. Enough time for Steph’s mum to have made some progress on her therapy and for Steph to start at yet another new school. Only this time it’s under her actual name, with all of her transcripts and with nothing to hide. Her dad is in jail and they’re no longer on the run. 

Things never appear like they’re going to be quiet around poor Steph, though. On her first day in her new school she meets Nell who has been homeschooled up until the point her mother disappeared. Although their family always seems to have been religious (on the mother’s side at least), for the past two years they’ve been in a cult. But since her mother’s disappeared Nell has been sent to live with her father (who walked out on them when she was young). He now lives with a new wife, who has a girlfriend, and he (Nell’s dad) has a girlfriend himself. They all live together, so Nell now has a family of four adults in a nice polyamory family-unit. Despite Nell’s cult-religious upbringing she has a girlfriend herself, so I’m not entirely sure why this initially seems to disgust Nell when she’s telling Steph about it – perhaps it’s just in the way of ‘eugh adults’.

Either way, Nell seems to have baggage. It also appears as though her girlfriend (who was also part of the cult) has disappeared, and she fears she’s been sent to one of those illegal but probably-still-exist conversion therapy retreats under the guise of being ‘therapeutic Christian boarding schools’ or something. This is something that Steph asks CheshireCat to look into for them, but even our favourite AI is having trouble tracking her down… which, if you know what it’s able to do certainly says a lot for where Nell’s girlfriend must be stashed. 

There are also Pokemon Go style games and websites popping up more and more around the place – the kind that track where you are and give real-world quests, though as the book goes on they get more sinister. Instead of ‘walk 12k to hatch an egg to get a low-IV boring pokemon’, you get ‘walk into this hardware store, steal a hammer, leave it in this box for someone else to pick up’ and that kind of thing. And then riots and mass group activities start happening, where, at least, we see a version of the police that the author hopes could be reality someday… but more on that later. 

It also seems as though there’s another AI out there, one who is contacting CheshireCat, saying that they know who and what they are. This is the main crux of the book, and although everything ties in together (as well as into events from the first book, so you’d really have to read that one before coming into this one) is all about how we function as people – whether we are hardwired to be a certain way or if we grow organically, made of things around us. Even with AI this is the case, such as CheshireCat liking photos of cats rather than videos of dogs, and that sort of thing. 

We see most of the cast of the first book with a bonus introduction of a grandmother Steph never knew existed. The bonus about this book being set 10+ years into the future is that even the older generation have pretty incredible skills – this grandmother can steal cars and was one heavily into drag racing, so she’s their ticket in and out of some fairly tight situations.

Overall I found this book bleaker than the first. The riots, the religion, and everyone willingly doing absolutely stupid things because an app tells you to and so forth… it was all a bit depressing. I have no doubts that this was its intended impact, and it’s not as though the first book was all sunshine and kittens – it has a father trying to steal a child and guns and things after all, but this book… I don’t know. It hit a little too close to home, I suppose. This series certainly does make you stop and think for a while about all the tech we surround ourselves with, how easily we click allow to give various apps access to microphones, photos, app data and so on… 

But one of the positives was the police force. In the afterword the author references the tragic and disturbing death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. To that end, as this book is set in the future, the author has given us a police force she hopes they can work towards – one that isn’t threatening, one that seeks to help rather than hinder, and so forth. One of the interactions show them trying to get Steph a warmer coat when she finds herself out at night in freezing conditions, for instance. Seeing speculative fiction edging us towards this future to help make it a reality is something I want to see more of, certainly. 

I demolished this book in a day so I clearly couldn’t put it down and I needed to know what happened next. I also would love to see a third book. I just hope that Steph, Rachel, Nell, Glenys and CheshireCat can all go somewhere nice. Maybe it’s time they attend a convention and save the Concom from something. That’d be awesome. 

Review: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Winter's Orbit coverPublished by:  Macmillan-Tor/Forge
ISBN: 1250758831
ISBN 13: 9781250758835
Published: February 2021
Pages: 432
Format reviewed: eVersion from NetGalley
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Four out of Five
Lists: Favourites and Recommended

Originally published on Ao3 under the title Course of Honour, I read this in that format first. The two versions are fairly close, but the world building has been expanded upon and there are other significant changes which shows that this has had a professional editor go through it; it’s a bit more refined and tightened up. Both forms were damn good, for sure, and it’s clear why it was able to be picked up by Tor as it was already very publishable in its Ao3 format.

But I should go back to the start. Visualise an vast empire in space, with multiple planets involved, royal families, treaties and alliances through marriage. Prince Kiem, of Iskat has always had a knack of winding up in scandals whether it’s around his work-shy nature, lack of ability to study, and party/playboy history that’s been well documented in the media. He’s also incredibly friendly and manages to chat most people to the point of distraction – he seems to know everyone and remembers everything about them – all effortlessly – and so he focuses on charity work and that’s about it.

Another planet, Thea, has sent Count Jainan as a diplomatic aid and into an arranged marriage with Kiem’s cousin Taam (who is a ‘proper’ royal, unlike Kiem, who holds a significant rank in the military). Our story starts a few months after Taam is killed in an accident and when Jainan and Kiem are then forced into an arranged marriage of their own, to keep the alliance between Iskat and Thea (hopefully) unbroken.

Only, their marriage isn’t accepted by the strange and unnerving Auditors, and they’re soon running out of time before the next renewal of the Resolution, which could mean the relations between Iskat and Thea could break down entirely. Then it seems as though Taam’s death wasn’t an accident after all, incredibly important and valuable items are going missing, and interplanetary war is looking all the more likely.

So it comes down to Kiem and Jainan to not only sell their forced marriage into something the public love and care about, but to also figure out what happened to Taam and somehow stop an oncoming war… and how this is going to be managed by an ex-playboy and an incredibly quiet academic who also happens to have spent the last several years being emotionally, psychologically and physically abused by Taam is anyone’s guess. We have a slow-burn relationship as they realise that the other doesn’t find them repulsive (their initial co-assumptions) and their feelings for each other are actually reciprocated; Kiem feels he’d never be smart enough for Jainan, and Jainan feels he’d never be interesting enough for Kiem.

The cast of background characters are nuanced and believable, with there being just enough to give the feeling of a sprawling royal family (as the majority of the book is set on Iskat) with all the aids and so forth, to also not being so many that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who. Bel would easily have to be one of my favourite characters.

The plot and pace of the book is probably one of its stronger elements, with events happening naturally but drastically changing the dynamics and propelling the plot forward, allowing the characters to work things out for themselves without it seeming forced or heavy-handed.

I also liked the references to, for example, a bear – but that it doesn’t have fur and instead has six legs and seems to be reptilian? Little mentions like that were amusing and gave it the certain feeling of other-worldly, and maybe that either they’ve seen some pretty drastic evolution, or perhaps some cross-communicated exports of wildlife from the old world, or perhaps even some weird genetic splicing. Who knows? I loved it.

The tagline is “Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut” and I have to admit, I don’t quite see the Ancillary Justice link, especially as this is space-opera rather than science fiction, and I feel giving it that link may attract the type of reader who won’t be gripped by this book. RW&RB I can see, sure, if in how the characters interact and awkwardly try to work things through together – their age and something else about them feels a bit samey, and it’s a dynamic that I love.

I will also admit I don’t quite understand the whole ‘remnants’ thing, and feel that could have been explained clearer. As well as the Auditors in general. The relevance of either didn’t seem to make much sense to me, or feel as realistic as other points in how it fitted into the universe. Neither point took much away from the story though; it was still enjoyable regardless.

Also, trigger warning for the abuse that Jainan suffers, though in my non-existent experience with the matter I do feel that it’s handled well, without being gratuitous and almost so hidden that it takes Kiem almost 70% of the book to twig that something of that nature even happened.

The good is that people get to choose their own gender in this world, which is refreshing and no one cares. There’s no homophobia, and no mention of anything radical about the arrange marriages being m/m in both cases.

Overall I enjoyed it just as much as I did the original version, and I’m really looking forward to getting a pretty copy in January’s Illumicrate subscription box (if it is revealed that it is indeed the book we think it is).

Review: Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Series: Poison Wars #2
Published by: Tor Books
ISBN: 0765396947
ISBN 13: 9780765396945
Published: November 2020
Pages: 560
Format reviewed: eVersion from NetGalley
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five
Lists: Favourites and Recommended
Related Reviews: City of Lies (Poison Wars #1)

This has easily been my most anticipated book of 2020. And yes, that’s with more Murderbot and Empire of Gold and other also excellent titles. And while Murderbot has my heart, the Poison Wars series has my soul because all of the characters are just so vital to me. I’m a mix of what Kalina and Jov struggle with most – health and compulsions – and seeing them out there managing to save the lives of themselves and others, do what’s best for their kingdom, and still care for those important to them gives me hope for myself.

Anyway. Enough waxing lyrical for a bit, onto the book.  

We join our heroes two years after the events of the first book. Jov and Tain now have heirs who they need to train in their succession, and enough time has passed now that the theatre guild has put together a dramatic retelling of the siege, and part of it aren’t overly kind to the Oromani family. From here, as with the first book, life-changing events start taking place immediately and it soon becomes clear that someone is targeting very specific people to ensure it looks like the Oromani family are benefitting at every turn, so that perhaps it looks like the Chancellor’s shadowy friend Tain – who whispers are spreading out about his real role on the Council – may be getting a bit carried away…

So as if it wasn’t enough to be dealing with their usual duties as Credola and Credo, it’s also time for the biggest celebration Silastra has hosted. Karode, which involves games to display the best sporting ability each nation has to offer, lavish parades, and nights were celebrations take on a significantly more adult turn. It’s during this where the ever-careful Jov falls into something far more dangerous, and as if the book wasn’t hard enough to put down as it already was, be prepared to block out the rest of your day from that point on.

In short, I loved it. I loved the new characters – Dija, who is Jov’s apprentice – and Sjease, the new house manager and secretary to Jov and Kalina, who fits in perfectly to their secretive household and is of huge benefit to everyone, (beyond fixing Jov’s lack of taste in clothing.) I could certainly do with a whole series and/or side story involving either or both of these characters. Dija is so quickly intelligent, yet sensitive and fiercely proud of what their family does for the empire.

The plot itself was intricate and subtle mentions of things past crop up and become incredibly important – something so hard to pull off without it seeming forced, yet Hawke manages it with finesse. SO much happens within this book – and although it may be longer than some at 550 or so pages it keeps a consistent pace yet feels utterly realistic throughout.

The worldbuilding and passing of time was excellent, with the mentions of how particular clothing has changed rapidly as fashions come and go, how the city has changed since the siege’s destruction and the rebuilding that has taken place since. Especially how they’ve managed to put on such a show for their neighbouring royals and leaders in order to show off the best Silastra has to offer.

And the character development, I just – I have no words. At the start of the first book you may wonder how three young adults are going to cope when both Tashis are taken from them too early, leaving such a burden on their shoulders… and yet, here we are – two years on, and all three of them are pretty damn impressive with what they notice, what they figure out when a dozen other adults around them fail to, and now with the added responsibility of raising their heirs, well.

The background characters are also incredibly interesting, from a princess and an ambassador, to our favourite Lord Ectar who reappears, and a whole cast of villains from the first book as well as new who are targeting fair Silastra.

One of my favourite elements was the expansion from what we saw in the first book – where we see why things spiralled out of control – the Darfri situation – and how they were so integral to how Silastra was saved – we see now in the second book that just as in real life it hasn’t magically fixed everything. There’s still racism and childish taunts and accusations, and there are many heartfelt moments that are key in our world today akin to the Black Lives Matter movement – why is it always the Darfri who have to ‘try to understand’, ‘be tolerant and polite’ all to ‘not make you uncomfortable’. It’s impactful, and it has depth and meaning, and Hawke manages it all very well indeed.

This book has so much going on that I had to read it twice. I devoured it far too quickly and felt almost drunk on how amazing it all was… so I instantly started it again (not like I’d be able to read anything else for a few weeks anyway) so I could try to take it slowly and appreciate specific bits and characters. And, I won’t lie, cry all over again at a certain part.

tl;dr is I loved it, and I want more, and I can’t see what Hawke does next.

Review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Published by: Solaris
ISBN: 1781087946
ISBN 13: 9781781087947
Published: October 2020
Pages: 416
Format reviewed: eVersion from NetGalley
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five
Lists: Favourites and Recommended

Gyen Jebi lives in a country that lost a war and has been colonised by the winners six years previous. Because of this, there are careful decisions to be made about names, food, clothing, where to live, and so on, which displays either your obedience to the new laws and leaders or your defiance and thus, apparently, the need to be watched to ensure you’re not a troublemaker.

Money is tight though, so Jebi obtains a new name in line with what the colonisers like to see, and attempts to pass the Ministry of Art examinations in order to obtain a decent job, to get the money needed for the various debts they and their sister have endured.

Jebi’s sister, Bongsunga, is furious when she finds out. She hates the Razanei – the conquers – and the fact that Jebi is not only bowing and impersonating them but the insult that it brings to her deceased wife, Jia, who died in the very war against the Razanei six years ago. So much so that she throws Jebi out of their home.

And that’s the set up. Jebi is an interesting and complex protagonist. They are non-binary and it’s refreshing to see such flawless and easy representation – nothing is made of it at any stage. Nor in the other characters, such as Jebi’s sister having a wife, or another character being in a polyamory relationship, and this being shown in various mentions of dress, haircuts, and in a very deliberate way a sex scene is written that is respectful yet quite romantic and sensual. It’s good to see this being treated like a norm, and not something that makes Jebi or the other characters as distinctively other.

As the tale progresses we find Jebi backed into a corner, trapped by poverty and their respect and the honour they owe to their sister, even with the tiny thoughts of how if she threw them out do they really owe them this after all (the answer is always yes). Jebi finds themselves working for the Ministry of Armor of all places, as an artist, at least, but in something truly terrible. Practically a prisoner they live underground working on a weapon and are only allowed back to the surface with a guard for company. From there they discover even more terrible and interesting things, gain friends and meet other curious characters, and throughout the notions of polite and guarded speech are shown throughout to denote hierarchy and so forth as demanded by age and experience and so forth.

The worldbuilding is effortless, which is making this hard to review. There’s so much going on and so much shown in so few words that it’s difficult to get across just what everything means, from the wanton destruction of artefacts from the country’s past by the Razanei, to the philosophy throughout, to how otherwise fluffy this can sometimes be… and then there’s the dragon, too, of course.

Overall this was an excellent tale that I devoured in two sittings and only because one was on a lunch break which I couldn’t really ignore, otherwise I’m sure I just would have kept reading – work be damned. I look forward to reading more of the author’s work in future.

Review: The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk

Published by: Erewhon
ISBN: 1645660079
ISBN 13: 9781645660071
Published: October 2020
Pages: 384
Format reviewed: eVersion from NetGalley
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five
Lists: Favourites and Recommended

In a world where women are prized for their magical ability but only for what they will therefore bestow on any children they may have, Beatrice refuses to do well during Bargaining Season so she can be married off. She’s torn, of course. If she does her duty as any good daughter should, then she’ll possibly save her family from the debt that’s steadily mounting.

The reason for not wanting marriage is that at the wedding, the bride is shackled with a band around their neck which suppresses their magical ability, so as to not harm their upcoming unborn children. Only once they have been a year into their menopause are they freed, now that they’re no longer any use as far as producing an heir anyway.

That will take far too long for Beatrice, as far as she’s concerned. She wants magic and she wants it now, but to manage this she has to find specific grimoire’s that will teach her how to prove her magical ability once and for all. And it’s only right when she uncovers an exceptionally good one that it’s taken literally from her hands by a sibling duo of far better status than she is. Socially niceties means she has to relinquish her claim, but at least she gets a slight boon in return – notice from this high born family, which will elevate her own family, and may mean a better marriage prospect for her… one she doesn’t want at all but her family needs… and then, well, if her possible partner really is that handsome, kind, intelligent and such a good kisser… and if this all possibly turns into a love match then perhaps it may not be the end of the world if she marries a certain gorgeous Llanandarian.

I’ve read Polk’s Kingston Cycle (or at least, the first two books as the third isn’t due out until next year), so I was fairly sure I’d enjoy this one. I wasn’t counting on being unable to put it down, even though that’s how I felt with Witchmark and Stormsong… I suppose I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I especially love how Beatrice isn’t alone in this – she isn’t a ‘weird’ person all alone for wanting magic. The friendship between her and Ysbeta is excellent and I wish there was more of it. And I also loved how Beatrice’s sister calls her quite rightly selfish – one can totally understand why Beatrice may want for certain things but honestly, sometimes life just isn’t fair. And if her Bargaining is the only thing that can save their entire family from ruin… well…

Okay, I devoured this book in an evening. One reason for this is that I’ve just got an ARC of Hollow Empire by the very fantastic Sam Hawke and I want to re-read The City of Lies first so I’ve got an awful lot of reading to do… but it’s also because this was SUCH an amazing ride from start to finish, and they managed to do the impossible, and I love all three main characters to bits.

Preorder this book. Buy any limited edition that comes up. Own it in all formats. Love this book.