2015 SFF Challenge Wrap Up

Ooops! I had completely forgotten to post the wrap up for last year’s reading challenge! It’s been sitting in my drafts all this time. Here it finally is in all it’s glory.

I had set myself 10 SFF books to read for the year 2015. I only managed to read six, but I really enjoyed all of them. The covers take you to my reviews.

The books I read (click the covers for reviews)

Ancillary Justice The Mad Ship The Goblin Emperor The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms Swordspoint A Stranger in Olondria

The books I didn’t get to

City of Stairs The Magicians The Mirror Empire Feed

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot Readthrough
I also made good headway in my project of reading all of Christie’s Poirot books in order. I read:

The Big Four – 2 stars
Poirot’s Early Cases – 3 stars
The Mystery of the Blue Train – 3 stars
Black Coffee – 2 stars
Peril at End House – 4 stars


A Stranger in Olondria Review (2015 SFF Reading Challenge 6/10)

A Stranger in Olondria
A Stranger in Olondria

By: Sofia Samatar
First published in 2012
Book 6/10 of my 2015 SFF Reading Challenge

Jevick, the pepper merchant’s son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home—but which his mother calls the Ghost Country. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick’s life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. Just as he revels in Olondria’s Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl.

A Stranger in Olondria is a beautifully written book that manages to evoke the feeling of traveling abroad and of suddenly seeing something gorgeous when you turn a corner. It also has a deep love for books, stories, and the wonder of literacy. I’m not surprised it won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2014 – the prose is so beautiful that it’s difficult to believe this is Samatar’s debut novel.

The main character, Jevick of Tyom, has lived all his life on his father’s pepper farm. His Olondrian tutor taught him to read and write, since there is no written language in his mother tongue, and Jevick grew up reading about the wonders of Olondria. After his father’s death he finally has the chance to visit the city of Bain on the yearly spice spelling trip.

Jevick’s reactions to visiting Olondria and seeing the beautiful city of Bain reminded me of my visit to Rome, or seeing the Place Masséna in Nice. That wonder of turning a corner and being presented with a beautiful sight that takes your breath away was captured perfectly. Jevick also visits more barren countrysides, which were also described well, conveying the feel of large space and long stretches of land and stars spreading around you.

In addition to the descriptions and the awe of the main character when he travels, the world of the book is built by stories. A lot of the characters tell stories: either their life stories, or a myth of their people. This abundance of stories makes the world seem old and deep, like there is so much history behind it, more stories than this book will be able to tell.

This book is best read in long doses, because it always takes a little bit of time to sink into the writing style, the atmosphere and the long descriptions. I was planning to give the book five stars, but I fell out of the enchantment right at the very end. I assume this was because of the flu I had, which hurt the attention span needed to fully enjoy the story and sink into the writing style.

The plot itself was very unexpected, not going where I was thinking it would go, at all. To be fair, I hadn’t read the back cover description. The plot, for me, was the least important aspect of the book. I was drawn in by the weight of history and by the descriptions. If you are a plot-centered reader, I’d be interested in your reactions to the book.

4 out of 5 stars

Swordspoint Review (2015 SFF Reading Challenge 5/10)


(The World of Riverside #1)
By: Ellen Kushner
First published in 1987
Book 5/10 of my 2015 SFF Reading Challenge

This classic melodrama of manners, filled with remarkable plot twists and unexpected humor, takes fantasy to an unprecedented level of elegant writing and scintillating wit.

On the treacherous streets of Riverside, a man lives and dies by the sword. Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes. Within this elite, dangerous world, Richard St Vier is the undisputed master, as skilled as he is ruthless – until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead of awe.

Swordspoint was exactly my cup of tea: interesting, complex characters, with a lot of plotting nobles! It had political intrigue and swordfights, as well as a focus on character relationships.

Swordspoint is a fantasy of manners book, or as it says in the beginning, a melodrama of manners. It’s focused on the character relationships, the customs, and the classes of the people inside this one unnamed city. There’s the upper city, called the Hill, where the nobles live, and the other side, Riverside, where the pickpockets, swordsmen, and people who don’t fit in with the society live.

The main character, Richard St. Vier,  is a swordsman. In this city the nobles solve their quarrels with hired swordsmen: the insulted party will hire a swordsman to challenge the other noble, who in turn will have his own swordsman take up the challenge in his stead. Richard is the best swordsman in Riverside, and the plot focuses on him, his boyfriend, Alec, and a group of nobles that plot against each other in the upper city.

I really liked the characters in this book, although they might not be that likable in general terms. They are very complex characters and they have their own morals. They are not clear-cut heroes and villains; instead all of them are flawed in their own way.

My favourite character in the book was Richard’s boyfriend Alec, who is a very mysterious character. He’s not from Riverside originally, and no one really knows where he comes from. He dresses like a scholar from the University, but he talks like someone who is from an upper class. He has dark bouts where he turns suicidal, or at least very self-loathing, and he likes to stir up trouble. He goes around insulting people, even though he doesn’t know how to defend himself. Instead he incites quarrells and watches Richard fight them on his behalf, and he sort of gets off on that. All the time in the book I was wondering what his deal is.

Another thing that I liked about this book is that no one commented on Richard’s and Alec’s relationship. While there are gay characters in other fantasy books, they are often ostracized, and the same prejudices that are in our world are portrayed in the fantasy world. It was refreshing to see something different in this book, and I would like to read more fantasy like this. There are women from Richard’s past mentioned in the book as well, and the nobles in the upper city seem to also have their love affairs with both sexes. I’ve heard later that Kushner has said that all her characters in this world are bisexual. Like I said, it was very refreshing.

The majority of the book consists of the nobles’ schemes, which I found quite interesting to follow, even though they might not have been that complex. There was especially this one noble who was not the sharpest pencil in the box, and he sort of fumbled along with his plans. I knew nothing good could come out of them, but it was enjoyable to follow.

My reading experience was only bothered by some point of view changes. In one paragraph one character might be thinking something, and then the very next paragraph might be from another character’s point of view. At times I was confused since I’d missed that the POV character had changed in between. I learned to watch out for it, even though it mixed me up sometimes later on in the book as well. So the narrator is omniscient and tells all of the characters’ thoughts at one go, which was sometimes hard for me to follow.

I would highly recommend this book if you are interested in plotting nobles and characters with grey morals, as well as fantasy taking place in quite a small sphere, since the book takes place all in one city, with no travelling or quests or other epic fantasy staples. I really recommend Swordspoint and I’ll be reading more of Ellen Kushner’s work.

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms Review (2015 SFF Reading Challenge 4/10)

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

(Inheritance #1)
By: N.K. Jemisin
First published in 2010
Book 4/10 of my 2015 SFF Reading Challenge

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is an entertaining read that caught my interest from page one.

Yeine Darr’s mother belonged to the Arameri, the ruling family, but left them for love. After her mother’s death, Yeine is summoned to the palace by her grandfather. There she is unexpectedly made one of the possible heirs to the throne alongside her two cousins, who have lived in the court their entire life. To top it all off, the ruling family has control over four enslaved gods, who dwell in the palace, and Yeine quickly gets caught up in their plots, as well.

N.K. Jemisin has the fantastic idea of enslaved gods as weapons of mass destruction. The Arameri family rules the world, because they literally have the power of gods at their beck and call. They backed the right god during the war of the gods, and in return he gave the losing gods to the Arameri. So they can send, for example, the Nightlord Nahadoth, god of the night and chaos, to wipe their enemies out. Talk about unfair and overpowered!

What I really enjoyed about the book were the characters. Alongside Yeine, the gods were my favourites. I found their mythology so interesting! Another draw for me was the fact that this took place in a court setting. I have a weakness for court intrigue fantasy. More of that my way, please!

Now, there is a romance storyline in this book. Usually I don’t like a romance storyline to feature heavily in a book, but in this one it didn’t bother me. I’ve heard that it divides readers, though – some like the romance, some find it offputting. I liked following the characters too much to mind it. Actually, I found it quite interesting.

I was surprised to learn that this was Jemisin’s debut novel. I didn’t like her later series, the Dreamblood, nearly as much as this book. The first Dreamblood book was good, but I was much more quickly caught up in the story and the characters of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It is part of a series, but functions full well as a standalone book, which is refreshing. I will continue with the series later, since I had so much fun.

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Goblin Emperor Review (2015 SFF Reading Challenge 3/10)

The Goblin Emperor
The Goblin Emperor

By: Katherine Addison
First published in 2014
Book 3/10 of my 2015 SFF Reading Challenge

The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an accident, he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

The Goblin Emperor is a court-intrigue fantasy book with a very appealing main character.

Half-goblin Maia has lived all his life sequestered in a distant mansion, when the death of his elven father and all the other heirs to the throne in an airship accident makes him the Emperor. He has no knowledge of court politics, and the only person he knows is the volatile cousin whose bitter mood swings he has had to live with in his exile.

Maia is a marvelously likable character, and to me he was the main selling point of the book. I loved him! He feels so alienated: he has been raised by an abusive man, he doesn’t know anyone in the court, and he is the only goblin there among the tall, pale elves, if you don’t count the servants. Maia is very easy to sympathize with, and he feels like a real person, his inner voice is so genuine. You can’t help but root for him as he tries to learn how to rule and to get used to the fact that he can’t be bossed around like when he was little. All this while feeling like he can’t trust anyone. Other characters that I enjoyed include Maia’s bodyguards, and his marvelously competent secretary, Csevet.

Katherine Addison has created a complete fantasy court with new titles, etiquette, politics, and customs. The huge amount of names and titles could be overwhelming, but I actually liked it, since Maia was quite overwhelmed by the court, too. I would like to just start from the beginning and read this again, since I know more of the customs and remember all the characters better now. There’s a glossary at the back, but when a person can be referred to as title + surname or first name + surname, it will get confusing at times. Especially when there might be a female title + surname, and a male title + surname from the same family, and you have to remember which was which.

I recommend this to people who like character-focused, slower fantasy books, and don’t mind being bombarded with a lot of fantasy names. While the court intrigue scheming might not be very intricate, the main point is the character’s journey, and I felt with Maia every step of the way.

5 out of 5 stars

Liveship Traders Books 2 & 3 Review (2015 SFF Reading Challenge 2/10)

The Mad Ship
The Liveship Traders Trilogy

By: Robin Hobb
First published 1998-2000
Book 2/10 of my 2015 SFF Reading Challenge

Wizardwood, a sentient wood. The most precious commodity in the world. Like many other legendary wares, it comes only from the Rain River Wilds.

But how can one trade with the Rain Wilders, when only a liveship fashioned from wizardwood can negotiate the perilous waters of the Rain River? Rare and valuable, a liveship will quicken only when three members, from successive generations, have died on board.

The liveship Vivacia is about to undergo her quickening as Althea Vestrit’s father is carried on deck in his death-throes. Althea waits for the ship that she loves more than anything else in the world to awaken. Only to discover that the Vivacia has been signed away in her father’s will to her brutal brother-in-law, Kyle Haven…

As part of my SFF Reading Challenge at the beginning of the year, I challenged myself to read the second Liveship Traders book. After I had read it, I immediately went ahead and finished the trilogy, so I’ll review both the second book, The Mad Ship, and the third, Ship of Destiny.

You can read about my impressions of the first book, Ship of Magic, in a separate review: https://maijareads.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/ship-of-magic-review-2014-high-fantasy-challenge-410/

The Liveship Traders trilogy mainly follows the members of one family, the Vestrits. Unlike Robin Hobb’s The Farseer Trilogy, which was told through one first person perspective, this series has many point of view characters, and is written in the third person. The main characters are from three generations in the Vestrit family: the grandmother and family matriarch, Ronica, her children Althea and Keffria, and Keffria’s children, Wintrow, Malta, and Selden. But there are also liveships and sea serpents and pirates, as well as a mystery character that some of the readers might recognize.

I had found the first book to be a bit slow, and it hadn’t yet made me form strong connections to the characters. This definitely went out the window the moment I started reading the second one. The build up in the first book had laid the foundation of making me care about these people. The plot also started to move at a breakneck speed, with revelation after revelation thrown at us. I grew to like some characters that I’d found annoying before, and in true Hobb style, there were some new awful people added to the cast that I quickly learned to hate with a fiery passion! The second book was a wild ride, and my favorite of the whole trilogy.

The third book was good with all the plot lines converging and coming to an end, but since most of the character development and big revelations had happened in the second one, I didn’t love it as much. There were also a lot of threats of sexual violence, as well as actual rape, and I grew a bit tired of that. There were some occasions in the second book already, which didn’t bother me then, but when so many more were added in the third one, the sheer amount wound me down. By getting tired of it I don’t mean that the subject should not be written about, nor that Hobb handled it gratuitously: I mean started to grow cold, to harden myself to expect this all the time, and it made me distance myself from the book. The book was good, but this distancing really marred the emotional connection I had with it, which is part of why I didn’t enjoy it as much as the second one. Perhaps if I had read it a decade ago this wouldn’t have happened to such a degree, but there’s been so much sexual violence in fantasy stories lately, what with the emergence of the grimdark genre and the decisions of a certain TV show, that I feel oversaturated by it. But let’s move on.

Let’s talk about the characters. My favorite character in the series was Paragon, the mad liveship. His life was just such a mystery, his storyline was very interesting, and I really sympathized with him. In the first book it took me a while to get used to the idea of living ships, but Paragon quickly became my fave. My next favourite was Malta, who I grew to love as the series went on. I also liked Wintrow and Vivacia, although perhaps more in the first two books than in the final one. And of course Amber, who could forget Amber? One character that I never found interesting, though, was Brashen. I didn’t really get anything out of his point of view chapters, except when he hung out with Paragon. I was also surprised that Althea really didn’t have that much to do.

The pirate captain Kennitt, the man with almost zero morals, was a very intriguing character. While I never liked him in the sense that he was likable, I found him very interesting to read about. He was so messed up. The way he had almost no concept of trust or friendship, and instead manipulated other people’s perception of him, as well as continuously misunderstood the motives of the people closest to him, was interesting to follow.

When I originally read Hobb’s books, I was so into Fitz and the Fool from the Farseer trilogy that I skipped Liveship Traders and just read Tawny Man when it came out. It was such a bad idea! I’m now rereading Tawny Man, and there are so many callbacks to this trilogy in the first book already. But even if you leave Hobb’s other books out of consideration, the Liveship Traders are just, plain and simple, great books, with amazing writing, surprising plot, and characters that have so much depth your feelings don’t know what to do with it all.

I gave the second book 5 stars and the others 4, so the whole series gets
4.5 out of 5 stars.

Ancillary Justice Review (2015 SFF Reading Challenge 1/10)

Ancillary Justice
Ancillary Justice

(Imperial Radch #1)
By: Ann Leckie
First published in 2013
Book 1/10 of my 2015 SFF Reading Challenge

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Once, she was the Justice of Toren – a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.

Ancillary Justice mixes big concepts with an easy to read narrative voice and engaging characters. It is a marvelously assured and ambitious debut novel.

The main character Breq used to be a spaceship: an AI who consisted of thousands of formerly human bodies. She was the ship, the ship’s maintenance crew and some of its soldier force – these bodies animated by the AI were sometimes called “corpse soldiers”. The captains and lieutenants on the ship, though, were living people from the Radch Empire. At the beginning of the book, Breq is just Breq: a mind in one body, and we are taken on a journey to learn what caused this, and what she will do next.

I do not have a long history as a science fiction reader, and this book is often quoted as being difficult to grasp, especially for SF newbies. I didn’t find the book to as difficult as I had been made to expect. Perhaps it was because: 1) I knew beforehand that the main character used to be a spaceship AI with one mind and many bodies, and the fact that the spaceship uses ‘she’ as a third person pronoun for everyone, 2) I’m Finnish and we also have just one third person pronoun (“hän”, for both genders), 3) I had warmed up my science fiction reading with Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean le Flambeur trilogy, filled with notoriously difficult language.

Ancillary Justice was a thrilling story – at one point I had to put the book down to cool off, ’cause I was so afraid of everything that could go wrong, but then had to pick it up again and finish it, ’cause I really did want to know what would happen! While being thrilling, it also managed to be dialogue-heavy and character-focused. I thought the book had a good balance.

I remember smiling at a review I read on Amazon, which was basically, and I quote “no epic descriptions, no space battles, just lots of cups of tea!” and thinking: that sounds amazing! Characters sitting around drinking tea! I guess if that bothers you, this might not be the book for you, but I have to say that there are some spaceships and revenge and excitement, also.

To me, the characters felt alive. Breq was a great main character, and it was interesting to see how she reacted to and dealt with different people. I was interested in her trudge through the snow with her unwilling companion Seivarden, Seivarden’s moods, and Breq’s past with Lieutenant Awn – a character I especially loved. I was surprised to learn that I was more emotionally invested in the book than I had thought when I spontaneously teared up at one point.

I’ve heard some people say that this book is only popular because of what they call “the gender thing”, but I can’t help but think that those people haven’t actually read the book. Gender isn’t a big part of the story; the main character just uses the pronoun “she” because her culture doesn’t have separate pronouns (like Finnish). Her culture also doesn’t have many outer differences between the sexes, and since different alien cultures have different gender cues, she gets easily confused. The “gender thing” is only a big deal in our world, because we have the presupposition for characters to be male. So the author could’ve written that the main character only used the “he” pronoun, but that wouldn’t have produced the same effect, since people are used to expecting people to be male unless stated otherwise.

Ancillary Justice was exciting and engaging while also being character focused. It combined great ideas with a quest/adventure plot. It just pulled everything off, and was a fantastic read.

5 out of 5 stars