Review: ‘Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds’ by Brandon Sanderson

Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.

A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems … for a price.

His brain is getting a little crowded and the aspects have a tendency of taking on lives of their own. When a company hires him to recover stolen property—a camera that can allegedly take pictures of the past—Stephen finds himself in an adventure crossing oceans and fighting terrorists. What he discovers may upend the foundation of three major world religions—and, perhaps, give him a vital clue into the true nature of his aspects.

Whenever I’m looking for an audiobook with some cool world-building to escape into, Brandon Sanderson is the first name I search up. He’s a prolific writer whose fantasy novels tend towards the weightier end of the spectrum (The Stormlight Archive paperbacks are released in two parts each).

This isn’t one of those tomes, and it isn’t fantasy. But it was exactly what I was in the mood for — a set of three novellas about the same character that are, together, novel length. The stories are set on Earth, more or less, though the technology Sanderson uses (such as the camera in the blurb) is outlandish and Leeds’s … ability? condition? … isn’t something that exists in our world, at least as far as I am aware.

The stories have elements of the thriller genre about them. They have clever banter (between various aspects, primarily) and are fast-paced enough to keep anyone happy — I was utterly engrossed from start to finish. And, as well as the fantastical technology elements, Sanderson also highlights — with beautiful prose — strange and unusual things that exist in our own world (for example, did you know molten iron fireworks are a thing?). It was like being inside one of his fantasy worlds, but so much more familiar.

I loved Stephen and those of his aspects we got to know. I wanted to take them all home with me, especially when things start to unravel for them (the first two novellas are lighthearted enough, but the third, Lies of the Beholder, takes a darker turn). I’d make them lemonade and wrap them in snuggly blankets by a fire.

You might think that a genius would be a hard character to get close to, but Stephen outsources all of his genius to the aspects — he’s closer to a project planner than anything else, coordinating the aspects and keeping them on task. It’s fascinating. I loved it.

Read this book.


Mini-Review: ‘Iron Lights’ by Felicity Banks

Emmeline Muchamore was respectable once. Her sweetheart, Matilda Newry, certainly put a stop to that. But when Emmeline gains magical insight into a disastrous future battle, she weaponises her wild reputation in order to draw trouble and death away from her adopted home … risking everything and everyone she loves in the process.

Iron Lights is a steam-powered tale of honour, love, magic, adventure, and mechanical spiders.

This will be a short review, because it’s of the third book in the series, and I always feel like people would find the reviews of the first — or even the second — book more useful. Also, everything I said in those reviews is true of Iron Lights (except that the back matter isn’t a story in the style of Choose Your Own Adventure but a series of of letters from side characters in the main book).

I really enjoy Emmaline as a main character. She’s the sort of intellectually curious scientist and adventer that I can’t recall seeing much of in fiction (even if she does lean a little towards the “mad” variety of scientist, if I’m honest). She’s also unfailingly polite; devoted to her sweetie, Matilda; and capable of coming up with the most harebrained schemes I think I’ve ever seen! I wonder if it’s because she gets the science of things, but not necessarily the humanity of them. Seriously, some of her schemes in this book were never going to end well!

I love the world that Iron Lights is set in, with its magically activated metals, clockwork soldiers and cyborg-ish creatures. I also love Banks’s writing style. It’s beautiful, and is a large part of how Emmeline’s pure Britishness is conveyed. I’m always left wanting more, wishing the stories weren’t quite so fast-paced, because I don’t want them to end.

If you enjoy alternative worlds and steampunk, and would like to see both of those things in a colonial Australian setting, then check this series out.

 


Where I’ve Been: A Sneaky Side Project

I know I’ve been quiet (Instagram posts notwithstanding) for the last month. I accidentally got caught up in a new side project that isn’t related to my writing — a project that was foreshadowed by my December blog post about The Sims 4.

I started a YouTube gaming channel. (Wut?)

I’ve been pondering investigating this for a while; my son is nine and an avid watcher of “let’s play” gaming videos on YouTube, so much so that he wants to have one himself, one day. I kept telling him that I didn’t know how it worked. (If you watch my channel, it’ll become pretty clear I still don’t! 😉 )  Simultaneously, over the Christmas break I got drawn into watching some Sims 4 let’s plays … and suddenly, in January, it seemed like a good idea to investigate starting one for myself.

My boy finds Sims 4 boring, honestly, but he’s very excited that I’m a YouTuber. He wants me to tell everyone I know so that lots of people follow me and I become super famous. #goals Of course, I’ve told maybe two or three other people, because I’m a middle aged woman and I suspected people might think I’d gone a bit senile!

What made me decide to write this post in the end was the fact that I had the exact same reaction when I was writing Isla’s Inheritance, my first novel. I was embarrassed. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it till it was done. And I get the same enjoyment from writing as I do from making these videos — The Sims 4 lets you create characters and tell all sorts of stories with them. It’s loads of fun, and I’m going to own it.

So, uh, I guess I should post the name of the channel.

It’s AussieCassPlays.

BE GENTLE WITH ME, GUYS. The first few videos I posted weren’t great — I had a few problems with the game sound. But the two children I know who watch a lot of this content assure me that my videos are better than average for a starting YouTuber — at least I’m not breathing all over my microphone, apparently! (Phew.)

If you don’t like The Sims 4, my videos won’t be for you … but if you want to have a quick look and make fun of my accent, that’s totally fine too!

I’m still writing. I don’t ever see that changing. And I don’t imagine this blog is going to turn into a Sims 4 blog — I’ll still post reviews and other writing-related news.

But I will do this too.


Review: ‘I Am Princess X’ by Cherie Priest

Once upon a time, two best friends created a princess together. Libby drew the pictures, May wrote the tales, and their heroine, Princess X, slayed all the dragons and scaled all the mountains their imaginations could conjure.

Once upon a few years later, Libby was in the car with her mom, driving across the Ballard Bridge on a rainy night. When the car went over the side, Libby passed away, and Princess X died with her.

Once upon a now: May is sixteen and lonely, wandering the streets of Seattle, when she sees a sticker slapped in a corner window.

Princess X? When May looks around, she sees the princess everywhere: Stickers. Patches. Graffiti. There’s an entire underground culture, focused around a webcomic at IAmPrincessX.com. The more May explores the webcomic, the more she sees disturbing similarities between Libby’s story and Princess X online. And that means that only one person could have started this phenomenon — her best friend, Libby, who lives.

I originally discovered Cherie Priest’s books over at Audible in the form of her historical steampunk zombie series, the Clockwork Century. (You can read the review of the first book here if you’re curious.) Sadly for me, after the third book, the series wasn’t available for me to buy on audiobook — I don’t know why. So I went hunting to see what other book series she had, and found (and was intruiged by) I Am Princess X. However, because the book includes comic illustrations that tell the story, I decided this was a book better read than listened to, and here we are.

This story is a fun mystery/thriller read, and the comic sections give it an extra something. They are beautifully illustrated by Kali Ciesemier, who drew a gorgeous Princess X. The book is worth buying for those alone, honestly — I loved studying them for the clues before reading on to see what May thought of them. And the investigations that followed were fun to follow along with.

One thing that was refreshing to see in this book is that it’s a YA with no romance. There is a male counterpoint to May, a late teen named Trick who helps her with the IT side of things, and I kept waiting for there to be a spark between them — it’s so common in YA that it was my default expectation, I guess. But I don’t require my books to have a romance sub-plot so the book didn’t suffer for it, in my opinion. (YMMV.)

The only thing that I didn’t 100% love about this story was that some of the decisions the characters made in the final confrontation confused me. It’s hard to say what they were without spoilers, but I think they made the situation more perilous for themselves than it had to be, and the reasons for doing so either weren’t clearly articulated or I missed them. (I did stay up very late finishing this, so it could well be the latter!)

Regardless, if you love a mystery that builds to a thriller-style climax, one with gorgeous art to go with it, then definitely check out I Am Princess X.


Review: ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ by Becky Albertalli

When it comes to drumming, Leah Burke is usually right on the beat – but real life is a little harder to manage. She loves to draw but is too self-conscious to show it. And she hasn’t mustered the courage to tell her friends she’s bisexual, not even her openly gay BFF, Simon.

So Leah really doesn’t know what to do when her rock-solid friend group starts to fracture. With prom and college on the horizon, tensions are running high and it’s hard for Leah to strike the right note while the people she loves are fighting – especially when she realizes she might love one of them more than she ever intended …

This book is the sequel to Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and if you haven’t read that or at least seen the movie (Love, Simon), Leah contains some major spoilers for it. So, you know, get onto that. (My review of that is here if you need further prompting.)

Leah on the Offbeat was a quick read. Albertalli is an absolute star at writing dialogue. A lot of of this story is told that way, with less of a focus on the text surrounding it, and it really works in this context. (Especially with the nerdy banter — all the Harry Potter jokes! Aah!) But dialogue does make for a faster read than pretty much any other type of writing.

Leah, the point of view character, is such a contradiction of a character. She’s anxious and closed off, and it makes her sarcastic and moody. She can be downright nasty at times — I especially felt bad for her poor mother. And at the same time, Leah is a totally relatable teen who struggles when she’s presented with awkward moments and socially tricky situations. I’m not saying I endorse some of her behaviour by any stretch — and her apparent inability to apologise when she screws up is a thing she doesn’t really grow out of during the course of this story — but I can understand it. I can relate to it. I know I had moments like that as a teen, though I was never as cool as Leah is.

There is one scene in Leah that a lot of people find problematic, and I can totally see why. It’ll be no surprise from the blurb that Leah falls for/has fallen for one of the females in her friendship group. (I won’t say who, because spoilers, but it becomes clear pretty early in the story.) That friend is questioning her own sexulaity, and goes from “hetero experimenting” to “lowkey bi” to “bi” over the course of the book. When the friend tells Leah she’s lowkey bi, Leah lashes out at her — which a lot of people see as policing the friend’s sexuality, and as totally uncool. Which it is.

But here’s the thing. I found that scene a bit of a revelation, as someone who has thought of herself as “lowkey bi” for a few years now (though not in those words). Because Leah’s reaction articulated perfectly for me why I’d be concerned about getting into a relationship with a woman. What if I wasn’t bi enough? Would it be fair to her? I felt seen. And the fact that Leah’s friend actually comes through the other side in this story to find acceptance was really heartwarming for me. (Also, if any of my family are reading this, uh, hi?)

Anyway. More broadly, the rep in Leah is everything you could hope for. Leah is fat and generally not ashamed of it, but has moments — like when she’s chosing a prom dress — where it is rubbed in her face. Those felt super-real to me. There is also a black character who deals with racism, as well as Simon and “Blue” (real name withheld due to spoilers), the gay pair from the first book, and minor characters from other minorities. You can tell that Albertalli did her homework. (I don’t know what her background is, but no way is she writing Own Voices for all those different groups at once!)

As far as the non-romance part of the story goes, Leah is a fairly traditional “last year of high school in Amerca” story: chosing colleges, changing friendship group dynamics, prom. I think that works, though, as a backdrop to Leah’s story more broadly.

Overall, I’d rate Leah as 4.5 stars — not quite as brilliant as Simon, but still definitely worth the read.


Goodreads reading challenge – 2018 wrap-up

I love my reading challenges, both the Australian Women Writers one and the Goodreads one. They help me stay motivated and remember not to let all the shiny things in life — like the Sims — distract me too much from all the books on my to-be-read pile. (As if the wavering, towering stacks weren’t enough reminder to chip away at them before they topple and crush me to death!)

I didn’t do one of these dedicated posts in 2017; I think I was a bit deflated at the fact I missed my reading goals that year. But in 2018 I lowered my Goodreads goal (and then met the 2017 goal anyway, as you do), which helped. It was all part of my 2018 resolution of being kinder to myself. Also, I didn’t have to power my way through all those Sanderson Stormlight Archive books in 2018, which helped even more — I only read one, which I’d already started when 2018 began. 😉

So here are the books I read in 2018, with some handy statistics for my own amusement. I haven’t included my own books that I’ve read in the editing process — except for A Hand of Knaves, given most of that book wasn’t by me — because then Goodreads asks me to rate them and I don’t feel comfortable rating my own books.

  • More than 75% of the books I read were by women writers (or had at least one woman writer contributor, in the case of the anthologies). Most of that was Sarah J. Maas (five books), and a decent number of female authors by whom I read three books. I am nothing if not consistent.
    • 31% of the books I read were part of the Australian Women Writers challenge, which clearly had a lot to do with the preponderance of women in my reading overall.
  • I read 69% speculative fiction (see again re: consistent, and also, teeheehee), of which the top three four categories were:
    • fantasy — 29%
    • steampunk — 12%
    • urban fantasy and science fiction — 10% each
  • Format-wise, 52% of my reads were paperback or hardcover books; 31% were audiobooks; and 17% were on my Kindle. (That’s pretty consistent with the 2016 numbers. The TBR pile topple-over threat is less intimidating for the digital ones.)

How did you go with your reading in 2018? What was your favourite book (or your favourite top five if you’re like me and can’t commit to one)?

Oh, and if you want to follow me on Goodreads and see all my reviews — although I almost always cross-post them here — you can find me here.


My 2018 in review

HAPPY NEW YEAR! (Well, it is here — though maybe not there, where you are. And if it isn’t, why are you reading this right now? Bookmark it and come back to it later!)

Like 2017, 2018 wasn’t a stellar year for me on the writing front. Or at least, that’s how I feel when I think about it — but I’m measuring that purely against the number of words I’ve written on my current novel manuscript. I’m maybe a third of the way through, and have been for a month or more. Everything has kind of … ground to a halt.

Still, one of my two resolutions for 2018 was not to be so hard on myself when I fail to meet my goals, so — in that spirit — I’m going to go over my accomplishments for the year. There have been a few firsts in there, which is actually kind of exciting when I think about it.

I released two new books: Guardian Angel and Rheia

Guardian Angel is a novella, and it’s maybe a quarter of the length of Rheia, so the grumpy cynic in me says it’s cheating, but she can go sit in the corner and sulk. Aside from anything else, urban fantasy is my jam and my comfort place, and working on Guardian Angel really helped me when I got stuck on other projects.

On the subject of Rheia, I love this book and am very proud of it. A friend told me she thought it was my best book yet, and I quietly agree with her (even as this fills me with terror regarding the next book, ahahahahasob). If you haven’t already grabbed a copy and you love the ancient world, creeping doom and/or steampunk, then may I urge you to check it out? 😉

(Actually, I technically released three books, as I also released an erotica novella, Kiss of the Succubus, under my Tammy Calder pen name. If you’re an adult and not related to me in any way, you can learn more about it here.)

I had a story published in the A Hand of Knaves anthology

Being a part of a multi-author anthology is something I’d always wanted to do, so it’s super awesome to be able to cross that off my bucket list. This one was published by the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, and working with the editors — Leife Shallcross and Chris Large — was a joy. 10/10, would do again.

I was part of the Shadows and Spellcraft book bundle

Again, this is something that had been on my bucket list. This urban fantasy book bundle has fifteen ebook novels and novellas, including Isla’s Inheritance — and it’s around US$4 for all of that, which is great value. And, again, working with this wonderful team of authors was both inspiring and educational. Seriously, I learned a lot.

I went out into the world and did author-y things

Okay, that’s not the best summary in the world, but bear with me. I went to the A Hand of Knaves book launch — a real-world launch, not the online ones I favour — and met new people and signed stuff. I also had a signing at BookFace here in Canberra, and signed even more stuff (mainly copies of Rheia). Given I never organised face-to-face promotional events because the awkwardness it inspires in me isn’t great, this was a pretty big deal for me.

See? Photographic proof! (Also, check out my low-key signing pen.)

A resolution round-up

At the start of 2018, I made two resolutions (one of which I’ve already mentioned):

  • Do better.
  • Forgive myself at times I don’t do better.

Comparing 2018 to 2017, I can definitely check the first one off the list. The second one … eh, it’s a work in progress.

This year, I want to finish the sci-fi draft that I’ve been wrestling with for the last few months. I’ve also got another idea that I plan to work on — stay tuned for more as the year progresses. Beyond that, my resolutions are the same as for 2018.

Do you do new year’s resolutions? Tell me in the comments below!