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Hugh Likes Fiction: The True Queen

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The True Queen
Written by Zen Cho
Audiobook narrated by Jenny Sterlin
Published by Recorded Books

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The Skinny: Cho’s second Sorcerer Royal novel is just as delightful as the first.

When Muna washes up on a beach after a terrible storm, she can only remember two things: Sakti is her twin sister, and they have both been cursed. In order to break the curse, save her sister and discover who she really is, Muna will have to travel to the distant and strange island of Britain and pass herself off as a great sorceress. But with war brewing between Britain and Faerie within, will she be able to save her sister, or will she be drawn into the intrigues of the Faerie Court, or worse, English high society?
The follow up to the delightful novel Sorcerer To The Crown, Zen Cho returns to her Regency-era fantasy filled with dour magicians, witty witches, and blithely cannibalistic faeries. The author has carried over all of the charm of the first book, telling a new tale with just enough of her beloved cast of characters while introducing new main characters and shifting the spotlight. Muna is a fantastic main character, and I loved spending more time with Henrietta, Rollo, and of course, Ma Geng Gang.
Cho’s fantasy England is centered on the sort of very real people who were pushed to the margins by 19th Century British society: women, people of color, gays and lesbians. Cho deftly presents high society through Muna’s point of view, making it as strange and inaccessible to her as the Faerie Court. It is a welcome and fascinating shift, carried over from the first book that continues to astonish.
Jenny Sterlin returns to narrate, and does an excellent job. Her acting and narration flow well together and her voice is perfectly suited to the story.
The True Queen is a rollicking adventure that builds on its prequel, but new readers won’t be lost if they pick this one up first. It is available in audio, print, and ebook. It has my highest recommendation.
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Hugh Likes Fiction: Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye

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Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye
Written by Christiana Ellis
Published by the Author
ARC provided by the author

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The Skinny: This serial fiction project edited into a novel crosses genres as quickly and easily as the characters move between worlds.

To me, serial fiction and genre mashups go hand in hand. This tradition goes back to the pulps, where heroic adventurers were as likely to stop mad scientists and alien invasions as they were to travel to hidden lost civilizations and battle classically inspired monsters. It continues with superhero comics to this day, but Christiana Ellis’s delightful Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye brings things back around with a modern twist.
Collected and edited from a web serial, the story follows the eponymous detective as she travels between dimensions with the help of the portal generator implanted in her arm. When an elvish femme fatale hires her to track down her missing brother, however, she’s soon caught in a web of intrigue involving dwarven gangsters, malevolent AI and a clairvoyant sorceress/loan shark. And soon, it’s not just her client, but the whole multiverse that’s in danger.
Split into three books, the first is the most traditionally structured as a detective story, and is my favorite of the three. But the whole collection is chock full of charming characters, clever writing, and most of all, unexpected consequences. It’s a fun romp around the multiverse, although if the author ever continues the project, I’d love to see this crew of characters travel a bit more widely than the ‘slices’ of multiverse we get to see here.
Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye is available from Amazon and is a great addition to your Kindle. Why not take a trip to another dimension this summer?
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Hugh Likes Fiction: The 5th Gender

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The 5th Gender: A Tinkered Stars Mystery
Written by G. L. Carriger
Published by the author
Reviewed from an Advance Reader Copy

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The Skinny: A sweet, fluffy queer sci-fi romance with a few bits of mystery thrown in for good measure.

Alien diplomat Tistol and space station security detective Drey Hastion have been making eyes at each other for months. But just as they finally get together, to the mutual relief of their friends and coworkers, Drey gets a case that he’ll need his new romantic partner’s help with. A ship from Tristol’s notably reclusive home world has arrived, and there has been a murder, something so unthinkable in Tris’s society as to be unprecedented.
Going in, I was worried that this book was trying to do too much, but the author comes through with flying colors. Carriger, who may be better known for her best-selling steampunk adventures, brings her characteristic sense of style and dry wit to this romantic cozy mystery. The Galloi are a fascinating and well realized species. The sex scenes are well written and feel natural.
As a cozy, there isn’t a lot of tension in this book. Even places where I expected there to be, such as Tris’s naive misunderstanding of human gender and racial concepts is breezily but respectfully handled. Although as a cis-gendered white man, it’s not my place to make final judgement on that. Drey’s space station seems much more of a utopian one than Carriger’s Dickensian Wheel in Crudrat, which is implied to share a universe. But the story is charming and sexy, with delightful characters you’ll want to see more of when you get to the back cover.
The 5th Gender is directly available from The Author’s Website, as well as Amazon, the usual online stores, and can be ordered by Your Local Independent Bookshop.
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Hugh Likes Fiction: The Haunting of Tram Car 015

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The Haunting of Tram Car 015
Written by P. Djeli Clark
Audiobook read by Julian Thomas
Published by Recorded Books

The Skinny: A light fantasy adventure novella set in an alternate 1910’s Cairo.

What starts out as a routine haunting for two agents from the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities quickly expands in a plot involving smuggling rings, women’s suffrage, and the uneasy mingling of cultures in an alternate 1912 Cairo that is the center of the modern and magical world.
Never quite hard-edged enough to put the punk in its steampunk, Clark never the less wrestles with the concept of empire, if only by having the characters discussing how glad they are to not have the English in charge anymore. His Cairo is a cosmopolitan jewel, with a mixture of vibrant cultures and characters both real and mythical. Much like his earlier short story that shares the setting, “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” Haunting evokes a deeply complex world that challenges both the reader’s and the characters preconceived notions.
And speaking of which, his characters are memorable delights, from sassy shopkeepers, to obsequious transit officials, and his two main leads, the tough, world-weary agent Hamed and the sharp, but soft agent Onsi. Clark skirts the line of some well-worn procedural tropes, but his dialog and realizations of the characters breathe unexpected life into them.
I listened to this book on Audible, and Julian Thomas gives an excellent, if a bit slow, reading. His performance of the characters makes each of them clearly recognizable, and to my inexperienced ears he handles accents well, making them distinctive but still easily understandable to a listener generally unfamiliar with the region.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is available in ebook, print and audiobook from Amazon, Audible, and your local independent book store. It’s well worth checking out if you’re on the hunt for a well-realized historical fantasy that plays outside of the typical Western European sandbox. I’m eagerly awaiting Clark’s next entry in what is quickly becoming one of my favorite fictional settings.
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Hugh Likes Fiction: The Murderbot Diaries

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“All Systems Red”
“Artificial Condition”
“Rogue Protocol”
“Exit Strategy”
Written by Martha Wells
Read by Kevin R. Free
Published by tor.com

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The Skinny: A coming of age story told from the killer robots point of view.

In a corporation controlled far future, planetary exploration is considered so dangerous that terminator-like cyborgs called Sec Units are contracted to keep teams safe. Murderbot is one such sec unit, and they’ve recently hacked their own system to give themselves free will. They aren’t finding it as great as they had hoped they would, so they’ve decided to watch TV instead.
The Murderbot Diaries are a collection of four darkly funny novellas about what it means to be human. No, what it actually means to be human. After deactivating the module that demands compliance, Murderbot is free, but in order to not get scrapped, that mostly means they’re able to download endless hours of soap operas to their internal feed. Murderbot doesn’t want to be human, but as they investigate an incident involving an attack on his most recent clients, and their own redacted memory, they may find that they don’t have a choice.
The Murderbot Diaries are a very modern sort of robot story. It’s everything that Star Trek isn’t, with a dangerous, corporate-controlled life amongst the stars and a robotic protagonist that not only doesn’t want to be more human, but actively wants to be left alone. It delves into issues of neuro-diversity and the ubiquity of social media from interesting directions. Prickly, sarcastic Murderbot isn’t ‘likable,’ but they are certainly entertaining.
I listened to these books as a series of audiobooks read by Kevin R. Free. Free’s performance is outstanding, and he brings Murderbot and the other characters to life in a completely engaging way. These are short audiobooks, but this production makes them worth every credit.
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Hugh Likes Fiction: The Calculating Stars

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The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel
Written by Mary Robinette Kowal
Audiobook read by the author
Audiobook published by Audible, Inc.

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The Skinny: A calculator fights to become an astronaut in an alternate 1950’s where a meteor has hit Earth.

The Calculating Stars is a rare and remarkable apocalyptic novel that focuses more on solutions than on breakdown. In an alternate 1952, Calculator Elma York and her husband (and lead engineer of the nascent space program) barely escape the devastation when a meteor strike wipes out the east coast of the United States. While she and her husband get back on their feet thanks to the kindness of strangers, she quickly begins to believe there is a bigger problem: The earth will soon be uninhabitable for humans. They get to work ramping up a space program to get humanity into space before it’s too late, but Elma soon reaches a problem: How can all of humanity go into space if only men are allowed to be astronauts?
An incisive, extremely hard SF novel, Kowal does a lot of neat tricks with this novel, a prequel to her award-winning novelette, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.” The author does an outstanding job of balancing the technical and social aspects of a novel. Dr. York can do orbital mechanics in her head and is a steady hand on a flight stick, but speaking in public terrifies her.
Kowal masterfully echoes the historical space race and civil rights movements as she lays out her story of Elma’s realizations of humanity’s fate, as well as what she comes to realize about herself and her society, and does what she can to change them. The story is essentially hopeful, but it never overlooks the inequality of American society.
The Calculating Stars is a brilliant Science Fiction novel about an alternate space program filled with unforgettable characters. I listened to the audiobook, read by Mary Robinette Kowal, and she brings her equal talent as a narrator to the text. You can find it in print, ebook and audiobook at Your Local Bookshop, Audible, and The Usual Suspects.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Witchmark

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Witchmark
Written by C. L. Polk
Published by Tor

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The Skinny: Polk’s debut novel is a perfectly crafted queer fantasy masterpiece.

Witchmark is a remarkable queer fantasy novel that I picked up almost on accident. It follows the story of Dr. Miles Singer, a psychiatrist (and secretly, a magician) in the country of Aeland. Aeland recently won a war with neighboring Laneer, but thousands of veterans are returning with unusual psycological trauma. When a dying man is brought in to the hospital by handsome stranger Tristan Hunter, Miles will join him to unravel these mysteries. But finding the truth will mean returning to his past, and risking a fate worse than death.
Polk’s story is an excellent puzzle box of a story, with an incredible Edwardian-inspired setting that is richly conceived but also elegantly told. There is a lot of world-building that is vitally important to the story, and Polk is deft at delivering it without bogging down the reader in fictional history. Her other really great triumph is the way she depicts the motivations of her characters. As a gay man myself, I can strongly relate to Miles and his sister Grace’s situation, and being at odds with your family but still loving them. This dynamic is really well represented, and it isn’t one I often see in queer fiction.
And yes, this book is very queer. It’s so queer that the magic system has top and bottom roles. But it is also very sweet. I loved Mile’s and Tristan’s relationship and the way it unfolded. The romantic elements are definitely safe for work, in my view. All of the naughty bits occur off of the page.
Witchmark is a stunning debut novel from C. L. Polk and I can’t wait to read the follow up due out in February. You can find it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your local independent bookshop.

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