the Little Red Reviewer

Archive for the ‘Aliette de Bodard’ Category

These two books have nothing in common except I read them a few weeks ago, and never got around to writing a review of either one. But I want to write something about them before I forget them entirely. . .  this blog is, after all, my way of remembering the books that I have read.


So here are two super quick reviews of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker (2019), and Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard (2010).


Wait, wait, i just realized these books do have something in common – they both take place in historical fantasy settings. So there you go.

A paperback of Servant of the Underworld has been sitting on my bookshelf since I have no idea when.  My husband read it and enjoyed it, so I decided to give it a try too. It was a little weird to get into, but once I got on board for the characters and the world, I was all in.  This is a historical fantasy that takes place in the Aztec Empire in the 1400s. The main character, Acatl, is the high priest of the dead, and he does all this very cool stuff with literally going to the land of the dead, keeping the guardians of the dead in the land of the dead, where they belong. He has a strained relationship with his brother, who is a famous soldier.  Acatl’s younger sister, a priestess in training, keeps trying to get the brothers to reconcile. A strange murder takes place, and if Acatl gets drawn into the investigation. It’s so easy to blame the woman who hated the dead woman, but that would be a literal cop-out.  Acatl knows there is something more going on here.


I enjoyed this book, a lot.  It is fast paced and I loved the characters.  There is this underlying subplot that Acatl actually isn’t a very good head priest.  He doesn’t make the effort to get to know the other men who work at the Temple, he’s a total introvert. I also liked learning about his relationship with his brother, and their history.  Did Acatl join the priesthood to avoid becoming a warrior? Is his life’s work as worthy as what his brother does? There are not that many novels that deal with adult siblings who are still trying to get past their differences, I found that plot element refreshing.  the magic is also hella cool!


I liked this book enough to buy the sequel.  If you are a fan of historical mysteries, and/or urban fantasy mysteries, you’ll probably like Servant of the Underworld.  I’m kicking myself that I’ve had this book on my shelf for how many years? And i just now read it?


I received a review copy of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker.  This was a fun read, and there is this delicious twist at the end that made the book impossible to put down for the last 80 pages or so.  Parker is known for snark and unreliable narrators, so if you enjoy that style, you’ll probably enjoy this book.


The main character, Orhan, is a military engineer.  He’s also of a minority ethnic group. His unit trusts his engineering skills implicitly, and they basically go around the empire building and fixing bridges and roads, and making the sure the infrastructure is always in good enough condition so that the rest of the armed forces can get to wherever they need to go. War with neighboring Empires is ongoing and endless, to the point where border villages can’t keep track of what their nationality is.


When the city is under siege from the enemy,  Orhan decides to take his Engineering corps to the city and build up their defences.  As it happens, Orhan also has plenty of black market friends there, giving him the ability to forge documents, print money, and generally get shit done faster than any honest military man.  Before he knows is, Orhan takes literal control of the city. And really, all he wants to do is backwards engineer the enemy’s war engines, and see if his crazier engineering ideas will work.  As someone with the mind of an engineer, i got a chuckle out of his crew’s commentary on the insanity of trebuchets.


I mentioned that Orhan is of an ethnic minority. By the end of the book, everyone in the City knows his name, but very few people know what he looks like. There is a scene where he is resting by a fountain after a battle, and a guard comes up to him and basically says “get away from that fountain, that’s for blue people only”, and Orhan apologizes and backs away.  That scene did just about kill me.


People who are most likely to enjoy Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City are people who have read very little, or no Parker titles before.  First person POV, snark, sarcasm, banter, unreliable narrators, twist at the end, that is what Parker does. That seems to be all that Parker does.  This novel was fun, but it was also predictable. It was a beach read. Did I enjoy the banter, laugh at the snark, and appreciate the twist?  Yes. I did.  But still, this book felt like every other Parker book I’ve ever read.


The Tea Master and The Detective, by Aliette de Bodard

available March 31, 2018

where I got it: received ARC from the publisher (thanks Sub Press!)



Aliette deBodard’s newest novella, The Tea Master and the Detective (available March 31 from Subterranean Press)  wears the disguise of a space opera Sherlock Holmes type story, complete with an insensitive detective who is a master of deduction and the annoyed lackey who follows behind until finally seeing the light. I say wears that disguise because while this is a highly enjoyable and  tightly focused mystery, it functions better as a showcase for deBodard’s characterization and worldbuilding prowess. If you’ve not yet experienced the beauty of one of deBodard’s Xuya stories, The Tea Master and The Detective is an excellent entry point. (click here for an in depth chronology and list of Xuya stories, many of which are available to read online) If you enjoy character driven narratives, beautiful prose, and multi-sensory worldbuilding, this is the story for you.


Us reviewers, we’re always talking about worldbuilding –  which among other things is literally how an author builds a world and how successfully they transport us, the reader, to that world. How big is the city? How wide is the river? How many ships are in the harbor? How small is the escape pod? What color are the androids?  How dark is the forest?  What color is her dress?


Did you notice something about all those worldbuilding questions?


They are all visual.


Don’t get me wrong, visual worldbuilding is important! I want to know that the city is so large you can’t walk across it in a day, that the river is narrow here but wider further south closer to home but I walk a ways to cross here because I refuse to pay the bridge toll, that there aren’t many ships in the harbor because of those idiotic tariffs, that this damn escape pod is so claustrophobically small that i can barely turn around and i’m about to lose my damn mind, that the android is a dull gun-metal grey, that the forest is as dark as midnight, and that her dress was blood red.


But there is more to the world than seeing.  Smell, taste, texture, memory, if presented right, those sensory experiences will tell you more about how a character has moved through a world than anything else.  deBodard does that kind of worldbuilding exactly right.


There is this gorgeous short scene (the best always are) where two shipminds are having tea together. They have tea and snacks, and they just chat.  There is tea, of course, but also a medley of sumptuous dishes. Both shipminds know that none of this is real. There is no food on the table, the two of them are physically incapable of actually eating or drinking anything. But the concept of the food reminds them of their families. The pork is the same dish from childhood festivals, the scent of the tea is the same of family discussions and decisions generations old. All of that and more, in a few short paragraphs about a meal that neither of the participants are actually eating. A meal that doesn’t actually exist, but symbolizes everything of import, connects these two people to family members and conversations that have been dead for decades.  More worldbuilding and characterization in that small handful of paragraphs than I sometimes find in an entire novel.  I’ve read this short scene like three times now. It gets better every time, like shining light through a prism and having it come out a rainbow of the rest of the story on the other side.

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A_Fantasy_Medley_3_edited_by_Yanni_KuzniaA Fantasy Medley 3, edited by Yanni Kuznia

Available Dec 31 2015

where I got it: received review copy from Subterranean Press (Thanks!)






Out of the four stories in this slim volume of goodness, three of them are connected to the author’s other works. Jaqueline Carey’s powerful peice, “One Hundred Ablutions” is a true standalone, although it could easily be expanded into a full novel or series.   Editor Yanni Kuznia (read my interview with her, here) chose her stories well – each of these features empowered characters, consequences, excellent world building and even a touch of humor at times.  Short fiction is my favorite way to try out authors who are new to me – instead of a 500 page commitment, I’m making a 20 minute commitment. And anyone can do that, right?


Kevin Hearne’s “Goddess at the Crossroads” is fun, funny and irreverent. Atticus gets a shiver up his spine when his apprentice quotes a particular Shakespeare play, and so he tells her about his run in with a few witches and the goddess they summoned. Fans of the Iron Druid series will get a kick out of this story, and for folks new to that series (hello!) there is just enough background and information that you won’t feel lost. Although this story takes place later in the series, it was a great introduction to Atticus and his abilities. Am I a terrible person that my favorite part of this story is Atticus’s hilarious dog Oberon?  Of all the great things I’ve heard about Hearne over the last few years (and I’ve heard a lot) the thing that made me say “holy crap! I gotta read this guy!” was the dog.


My favorite story in the collection was Jaqueline Carey’s “One Hundred Ablutions”. It was a smart move making this the final story in the volume, otherwise I would have been spoiled, and then disappointed that the other stories weren’t as powerful as this one. Dala is a Keren girl, and as such, is offered an opportunity to become an honored handmaiden for a Shaladan family of the ruling class. By “offered an opportunity” I mean she’s never given a choice, and by “honored handmaiden”, I mean slave. But it’s the ruling Shaladan who run this society, and therefore their words are used for things that have different meanings to different people. This story was absolutely gorgeously told, Carey’s prose is transportive. There was no need for me to reread this story to write this review, because Dala’s story was seared into my mind.  In a city on the brink of revolution, is “an eye for an eye” the answer? When violence is answered with violence, who will be left to mourn the innocent dead? Dala was a slave, locked into a ritual she didn’t understand, and the violence she witnesses brings the ritual full circle.   There are no words for the final scene of this story.

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The more short fiction I read by Aliette de Bodard, the more I like her. It took me longer than it should have to “get it”, but now that I do, I just can’t get enough. Most of her short fiction (or at least most of what I read) takes place in her expansive Xuya Universe, and specifically in its space age, when humanity has conquered the stars.  If you’ve read “Immersion”, or “On A Red Station, Drifting” (both Hugo nominees last year) you’re familiar with the Dai Viet of Xuya, you’ve smelled their pungent food, you’ve been aboard their mind-ships that are someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s aunt, those ships that are painted inside and out with scenes and symbols from mythology, you’ve run your fingers along the slick, slimy, pulsing wall of the ship’s heartroom, you’ve seen how their culture has been attacked by the warlike and aggressive Federation.  There is more than enough space out there, but still we fight for planets, colonies, stations, insisting that there isn’t enough to share.


“The Waiting Stars” opens in a graveyard.


These are the Mind-ships that were captured by the Federation. Not exactly prisoners of war, the mind ships have been crippled and left to die. Hidden in a dark corner of space, the Federation assumes the graveyard will be forgotten. But how can Lan Nhen forget her great great aunt, The Turtle’s Citadel? Lan Nhen will bring her great aunt’s body home, to be buried properly.

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The Apex Book of World SF, edited by Lavie Tidhar

published in 2009

where I got it: purchased new










I recently picked up both of the Apex Books of World SF.  I’ve had my eye on these anthologies for quite a while now.  Up till now, I’ve mostly read books by Americans, Canadians, UK’ers, and a few Australians. It’s time to widen my horizons, don’t you think?

The Apex Book of World SF offers a variety of types of stories, from the surreal to the relatively mundane, and some, such as Elegy and Compartments felt like they were completely outside of time, as if taking place in a world and a language that only have present tense. In many stories, names were left out, characters were just “the daughter”, or “the conductor”, or “the girl”. In English, we seem to have an obsession with naming things, we enjoy naming things, we enjoy giving each character a name that fits that person, we write entire stories that focus around naming.  In this collection enjoyed running into so many stores where the priority for what to name was so different. I imagine there was some context there that I missed, something of an implied title or connotation in “the girl”, or “the father”, something our English spellings aren’t quite equipped for.  But that’s all okay.

As with any anthology, there were a few entries that didn’t do much for me, but for the most part, the Apex Book of World SF was a winner.  I found myself rereading many of the stories, especially Compartments and Transcendence Express.  Somtow’s The Bird Catcher was a special treat, made only more terrifying after I did some further research.

Were there  cultural references that I missed in these stories? To be sure. Foods, or holidays, or colors of clothing, or being barefoot, or being a certain religion, or urban legends, these are all things that would register with anyone who grew up on that culture, but didn’t register with me because I didn’t grow up with those things.  Again, all completely okay, and didn’t stop me from enjoying the heck out of this anthology and going back to reread many of the entries.

And the best part is I’ve got the Apex Book of World SF 2 sitting at home waiting for me.  If you are looking for more diversity in what you read, this is an excellent anthology to start with.

Here are just some of my favorites out of the Apex Book of World SF:

The Bird Catcher, by S. P. Somtow – I’ve been looking forward to reading more from Somtow since reading Starship and Haiku. The Bird Catcher was written in 2002 and won the World Fantasy Award for best novella.

When Nicholas was a child, he befriended a serial killer. Caucasian, but still a refugee, Nicholas and his mother were among thousands who fled  China when the Japanese occupied Nanjing. On the boat to Thailand, Nicholas meets Si Ui, a strange, scared man, who speaks of insatiable hunger as he catches birds to eat raw. They each see something they recognize in the other.  Nicholas is young enough that he may recover, but Si Ui is scarred for life. Nicholas’s mother finds work in a clinic in a small village, and Si Ui shows up there too, as a farmhand.  On the surface, this is just a story about a little boy who finds a monster, and sees how easy it would be, how easy it *could* be to become a monster. When children go missing in the village, and are later found dead, Nicholas can stay silent, or he can brag about knowing the monster.

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I’m working my way through the Hugo nominated novellas! click back a day or two to see my thoughts on the others.


Having escaped the war zone, Magistrate Linh travels with a ship full of refugees to Prosper Station. She has distant relatives on the station, and hopes they will take her in. Of course they will, she’s family, and her mem-implants will prove it, should anyone question who she is. And if they should insist on questioning her Linh is quite used to staring down underlings. She should certainly be able to handle a few cousins who have never even seen the capitol, let alone passed their exams.

On Prosper Station, Administrator Quyen has far more important things to worry about than finding quarters and a job for Linh, and the two women immediately begin to get on each other’s nerves, especially when Linh beings a friendly relationship with a male cousin who is already an embarrassment to the family. Quyen and many members of her family have been left behind on the station, while their more educated spouses have been forced to join the war efforts elsewhere. Quyen and Linh are opposites in every way, and they are both used to be being in control.

But Quyen isn’t alone in her leadership of Prosper Station. She’s aided (or perhaps it’s the other way around) by the Honoured Ancestress, the AI Mind who runs the software and interfaces of the station. The Honoured Ancestress was born to a human woman, but she was never human, she was always designed to be what she is: timeless and in complete control of herself. Except when she isn’t in control. Sometimes she ignores Quyen, sometimes she is silent when Quyen calls for her. Linh hasn’t much experience with AI Minds, but she has her own honored ancestors, those who live in her Mem-Implants, the uploaded minds and memories of her ancestors. They are a connection to her past, honored elders who guide her and remind her of proper manners and mannerisms.

Taking place on the edges of de Bodard’s Xuya universe, “On a Red Station, Drifting” touches on many traditions of China and Vietnam, including bloated and bureaucratic governments, ancestor veneration, and strict social protocols. I found the dichotomy and balance found between futuristic technologies and ancient traditions absolutely beautiful. Quyen is hearing an AI’s voice in her head, yet her home is steeped in tradition, in places quite literally engraved with ancient poetry. I read so much futuristic science fiction where the past is left behind and completely ignored, it was refreshing and comforting to meet characters who live in the future, but keep their deep connections to their past and to their traditions. A perfectly balanced dichotomy.

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hugo_smSo. I’m eligible to nominate and vote in the Hugo Awards this year. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the Hugos are basically the Oscars of the Scifi/fantasy community. it is a very. big. deal.

The nominating process was really fun. But now it’s time to look at everything in the voting packet and read as much of it as I possibly can. And it’s. . . intimidating. I’m slowly making my way through the “big” categories, short story, novelette, novella, novel, even Campbell award. I count myself very lucky that I’ve already read a few of the novels, two of the Campbell award nominees, and a two of the novellas. VERY LUCKY. Even with a head start, will I be able to get through everything I’d like to read by the end of July?

Let’s find out.

my voting plans will stay a secret, but as I get through categories, I’ll publish my thoughts, link to earlier reviews, and we can generally discuss.

There’s two really good reasons I’m doing short stories first. Actually, three really good reasons:

they’re all available online for you to read for free
they’re all pretty short
there’s only three of them

And the nominees are:

Immersion, by Aliette de Bodard
Mantis Wives, by Kij Johnson
Mono no Aware, Ken Liu
and here’s what I thought of them:

clarksworld deBodard

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Epic: Legends of Fantasy, edited by John Joseph Adams

published November 2012

where I got it: Received ARC from the publisher











Epic Fantasy requires the story to be bigger, the dragons be faster, the warriors be stronger, and everything generally be more. And Epic: Legends of Fantasy offers up just that – more mythos,  higher stakes, more of simply everything.

Many of the entries are part of the author’s larger work, taking place in an epic fantasy world that the author has already written hundreds and sometimes thousands of pages about. Randomly, the stories I read first happened to be part of larger works, and at first, the lack of stand alone works bothered me, but I quickly came to appreciate it, and to learn the collection had plenty of stand alone stories as well. An anthology like this is a brilliant method of introducing readers to these larger fantasy worlds created by famous authors such as Robin Hobb, George R R Martin, Michael Moorcock, Melanie Rawn, Tad Williams, and many others, and serves as an excellent introduction to the writings of newer authors  as well.

Some works were fairly new, but others were older than I am. the Moorcock for example was originally written in 1961. A pure classic sword and sorcery, complete with sexualized and helpless female, it might be offensive to today’s readers, but I’m happy Adams included it, as what’s the point of talking about Epic Fantasy if we’re not going to touch on the journey the genre has taken?

Clocking in at over 600 pages, Epic: Legends of Fantasy is itself a bit of a doorstopper.  We eat clunksters like this for breakfast, so I was surprised at how long it took me to plow through it. ahh, but spending 600+ pages in one fantasy world is one thing. Try spending that quantity of pages in over a dozen fantasy worlds. More often than not, my brain needed a little break in between.   This isn’t the kind of anthology to gorge on, this is the kind you savor, over many winter evenings.

Here’s my thoughts a handful of the entries:

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.