Thursday, 21 November 2019

Shout-Out: Starship Alchemon by Christopher Hinz

Nine explorers aboard a powerful AI vessel, Alchemon, are sent to investigate an “anomalous biosignature” on a distant planet. But they soon realize their mission has gone to hell as deadly freakish incidents threaten their lives. Are these events caused by the tormented psychic mysteriously put aboard at the last minute? Has the crew been targeted by a vengeful corporate psychopath? Are they part of some cruel experiment by the ship’s ruthless owners? Or do their troubles originate with the strange alien lifeform retrieved from the planet? A creature that might possess an intelligence beyond human understanding or may perhaps be the spawn of some terrifying supernatural force... Either way, as their desperation and panic sets in, one thing becomes clear: they’re fighting not only for their own survival, but for the fate of all humanity.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Book Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Pros: interesting characters, fascinating world, various necromantic magics

Cons: slow pacing at start, hard to keep characters straight

I’m using the book’s back cover synopsis as I can’t come up with a better one:

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will be become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.

Of course, some things are better left dead.

It took me a while to get into this book. I really enjoyed the characters and there’s conflict immediately, but there’s so much to take in with regards to their history and the setting that it just felt kind of slow. The main plot takes a fair bit to get underway which contributed to the feeling that the pacing was on the slow side, even though there was a lot of action.

The worldbuilding is rather neat, with different houses (each on their own planet) having their own style of necromancy. You really get to see the powers on display towards the end of the book. You only learn as much as you need to in order to understand this story, so there are no info dumps and a lot of unanswered questions regarding the larger universe.

The characters were highly varied and interesting. I did have some trouble keeping the various house members apart so I’m glad there was a list of characters by house at the front of the book. You’re introduced to everyone all at once which made it hard for me to remember who was who.

The book is told from Gideon’s point of view and she’s a cool character. There’s a fair bit of profanity and sarcasm. I really enjoyed seeing her develop as the story went on. I’m not entirely sure I believe how quickly she adjusted to a few revelations, but there was some emotional punch to the story.

The mystery of how to obtain Lyctorhood (immortality) was interesting and the story really kept me guessing regarding the murders.

It’s a unique book and worth picking up.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Book Review: In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Pros: interesting character, evocative writing, quick paced


Katherine Victoria Lundy is content to be the friendless principal’s daughter so long as she can read her books. When a mysterious door appears before her one day, she opens it and finds a new world, one with strict rules of fairness. She has until she turns 18 to decide which world she wants to live in, a choice that gets harder the closer the deadline comes.

This is a novella and so can be read in a couple of hours. It’s a great, fast paced story that’s hard to put down. I liked Katherine’s no nonsense behaviour and the world where people state what they want and try to deal fairly with one another (or risk discipline). I can understand why she’d want to live there as there’s something comforting in the idea of knowing that no one can take advantage of you.

I thought her choice at the end was believably difficult, with several sides to consider.

The writing was quite beautiful at times. Almost lyrical even.

While part of the Wayward Children series it easily stands alone and you don’t need to have read any of the others to fully grasp the story.

This is a great series and a good alternate starting point.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Accusations against ChiZine Publications

Several years ago, back when I worked at the World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, I heard of a new horror imprint that was starting called ChiZine Publications. They’d started as a local horror magazine and were branching out to publish short story collections and novels.

Over the years I went to several of their events: book launches at Ad Astra, evening readings at bars, the store hosted a few readings and launches. I reviewed some of their books on this blog and interviewed a few of their authors for an in store display and posting in full here online.

Several of their authors were regulars at the store and would chat with us and sign copies of their books when they came in to shop.

So it’s with surprise and horror that I’ve learned how the publisher has been treating some of their employees and authors. Apparently the close friends of the publishers (Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory) have been treated well, but others have had late or non-existent payments for work, missing author copies of anthologies, there are accusations of authors being intimidated (so they wouldn’t complain about lack of payment) and fears of being blackballed by the publisher so others wouldn’t work with them. One author has also accused another author of some vile racist comments.

I’ve been following the complaints via twitter and facebook but file770 now has a good overview so I’ll link to that post here.

As some others have pointed out, being a 2 person operation doesn’t excuse not paying people on time. If you can’t run the business properly, maybe it’s time to shut down.

ChiZine has published some amazing books, but the harm they’re doing to the writing and speculative fiction community in Toronto seems to outweigh the positives.

I still have several of their books on my to be read pile. I don’t believe punishing the authors by not reviewing books is fair, so I won’t remove them from my pile. One author has been accused of using racist comments towards another author so I will not review that author’s books anymore (and if other authors are named in the future in such things - from ChiZine or other publishers - this will apply to their books as well).

However, until I hear these issues have been cleared up and proper apologies rendered, I won’t be supporting any more of their events.

I’m a bit torn on buying and reviewing newer books. Again, I don’t think authors should be punished for the publisher’s behaviour, but I don’t want to support the publisher by giving them money. I’ll have to think about this and see how things play out in the next few weeks.


High Fever Books has an updated rundown with more stories of mistreatment and the official ChiZine Publications statement (several of these are linked to on facebook).

Update Nov 9
Dora Badger has started a Google Doc with information on how you can support ChiZine authors outside of the publisher (other books they've written, patreon accounts, etc). It's a work in progress, as there are a lot of authors.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Ethiopia Trips: Books and Video clips

Here are the video clips I mentioned yesterday.

A Glimpse of Ethiopia from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

I hope you enjoyed some of my posts on the history of Ethiopia. Obviously I condensed a lot and left a ton out. If you’re interested in learning more, here are some of the books I read that are worth checking out. Many of them I read at my old university library (or this would have been some expensive research). I was lucky in that my university has begun a program teaching Ge’ez, the liturgical language, and so they have a very good collection of books on Ethiopia including some indispensable guide books by a press from Addis Ababa.

For a good overview:

African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia by Marilyn Heldman and Stuart Munro-Hay, 1993 - This is out of print but you might find it at a library (like I did). It’s a museum special exhibit catalogue with some fantastic essays on the history of Ethiopia followed by a gorgeous display of artworks. It’s the first book on Ethiopia I read and the one that showed me that the country’s history and art are incredible.

For history:

Ancient Churches of Ethiopia by David Phillipson, 2009 - A great book predominantly on the rock-hewn churches. It briefly goes over Yeha and Axum and ends with the Lalibela complex. There are floor plans and reproduction diagrams of what some older structures would have looked like.

Foundations of an African Civilisation: Aksum and the Northern Horn, 1000 BC - AD 1300 by David Phillipson, 2012 - This book gets very in depth and scholarly at times making it harder for the average reader to enjoy, but has a lot of great, detailed information on the topic.

Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270 by Sergew Hable Sellassie, 1972 - Written by an Ethiopian professor, this one is hard to find but really delves into the history of the country starting with all the primary source materials that mention the word ‘Ethiopia’ (and explaining that ‘Ethiopia’ in ancient times could refer to a lot of places/people including India, as trade goods from India passed through Africa).

Church and State in Ethioopia, 1270-1527 by Taddesse Tamrat, 1972 - The book is old but one of the few to cover this period of history. I found it a tough read, scholarly and not very engaging though it covers some tumultuous times.

The Ethiopian Royal Chronicles Edited by Richard Pankhurst, 1967 - I didn’t know this existed until I stumbled across it at the university library. It’s primary source writings from the Solomonic dynasty. It’s only excerpts with commentary, but it’s cool reading what Ethiopian nobles of the day thought was important to comment on.

If you can’t find any of these, the history section at the start of guide books is remarkably good for a concise but thorough overview.

For church artwork:

Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia by Maria-Jose and Bob Friedlander, 2015 - This has a fantastic rundown of Ethiopian saints, which differ significantly from those of other Christian denominations. If you’re interested in churches and religious paintings, this information is important. It also maps the paintings for a number of churches. I wish there were more photographs of each church they cover.

Ethiopia: The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom by Mary Anne Fitzgerald and Philip Marsden, 2017. - Documenting 66 churches, it’s a massive coffee table book with hundreds of gorgeous photographs.

Lalibela: Wonder of Ethiopia by Claude Lepage, 2012 - A fantastically detailed book on the church complex at Lalibela. Lots of diagrams and cross sections.

Next week I'll be back to more regular science fiction and fantasy content. I have a book review all ready to go on Tuesday.

Monday, 4 November 2019

Ethiopia Trip: Wrap-up

 Ethiopia was an amazing trip. Seeing the various rock-hewn churches was incredible. We went with a company based in Addis Ababa called Awaze Tours that took care of all of our hotel reservations, driver, local guides, food (restaurants for lunch, hotel restaurant for dinner), and internal flight. Everyone we dealt with there was great. Our driver and guides were professional and knowledgeable. We only had to pay for alcoholic drinks, tips (the biggest expense in country), and souvenirs. And our international flights, of course. We did the Historic Route A trip.

Food was a mix of Ethiopia (generally stews of lentils, chickpeas, meat and/or veggies on injera, a sourdough from tef grain made into a pancake) and European (generally Italian, I’m assuming due to their occupation of Ethiopia during WWII - so a lot of pizza and pasta).

Their fruit juices, more like smoothies, were fantastic. Towards the end of the trip we tried the avocado juice, which is made with citrus and sugar and is SO yummy.

The airport going home had some unexpected surprises. We didn’t know we’d need proof of our flight to be allowed into the building and had some tense minutes trying to come up with something. We’d done online check-in for our flight but weren’t sent the confirmation email. Luckily my sister had a print out of our flight times which the guard accepted. Once in the building we immediately had to go through metal detectors and x-ray machines. It was full airport procedure, so off with the coats, shoes, empty the pockets, take out the laptops and tablets but liquids could stay in bags. We then got to check our bags. I considered keeping mine as it was small enough for the cabin but I’m glad I didn’t. We then had an immigration check and the security gate. In the terminal we started looking for our gate and glancing in some shops. Turns out if you still have birr (local currency) you can get things pretty cheap. If you’re spending American dollars though it’s a real price gouge. We found our gate and had to go through security AGAIN, this time with the full body scanner. Good thing we had the full 3 hours because we made our gate only a few minutes before boarding started.

Ethiopia is a gorgeous country. Here’s a video I made of panning shots of some of the amazing views we saw. Tomorrow I’ll post a video of clips mostly take from the car driving through various locations and a reading list if you’d like to learn more about the country and its history.

12 Views of Ethiopia from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Ethiopia Trip: Gondar

Oral traditions and later medieval writings say that Yekuno Amlak was an Amhara prince who traced his lineage to the last Axumite king. With the help of Tekle Haymanot, a monk who was later sainted, he overthrew the las ruler of the Zagwe dynasty and reestablished the Solomonic line in 1270. This is also when the Kebra Nagast (The Glory of Kings), which tells the story of how the Ethiopian kings were descended from the union of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon was compiled and popularized.

For the next few hundred years the royal family travelled around the country in a tent city, using up resources before moving on.

Gondar was chosen to be a permanent capital by Emperor Fasilidas in the early 1600s due to its location at the centre of three trading routes. He expelled the Jesuits who had helped the country with the muslim invasions of the 1500s but who also kept pressuring people to convert to Catholicism. Fasilidas started a royal compound with castles influenced by Portuguese architecture. (Our guide said he wanted to build a more impressive building than the Europeans.)
His castle now graces the 50 Birr bill. 

Following monarchs built additional castles, administrative buildings, thermal baths, lion cages and more in what is now called Fasil Ghebbi (The Fasilidas Complex or Royal Compound).

Another nearby building is called Fasilidas’ Bath. During Timkat (January 19th or 20th), which celebrates the baptism of Christ in the Jordan river, celebrants bathe in the waters.

Founded by Emperor Iyasu I, who reigned from 1654-1706, Debra Berhan Sellassie church is one of the most iconic churches in the country. Famed for its ceiling of painted cherubs (angels) and fully painted walls. The church itself is shaped like the Ark of Noah, only upside down. The building was originally circular but was rebuilt later in a rectangular style. The thatched roof is modern. 

The Gondar Emperors were patrons of the arts and there are two distinct Gondarine styles.

In the 1700s Emperor Bakaffa died and his widow Empress Mentewab (whose crown name means 'how beautiful she is') became regent for their son. She had a castle complex built on a different site, called Qusquam, after a city the Holy Family stopped at on their way to Egypt when Christ was a child. Here’s a photo of the banquet hall ruins. The builders reused some older carved stonework when building it.

Gondar is an interesting city. We stayed at the Goha Hotel which had a wonderful panoramic view. You could even see Fasil Ghebbi from there.