February 26, 2017

Review: Rat Queens, Vol. 3: Demons

Rat Queens, Vol. 3: Demons Rat Queens, Vol. 3: Demons by Kurtis J. Wiebe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of my favorite comic book series. I realize there is a bit of controversy about the original artist that I'm not going to get into. There's a new artist and colorist for this collection, and the artist, Tess Fowler, measures up fairly well, I think. (Although she does have a propensity for drawing outrageous breasts and buttocks, and the cover in particular is a teenage-male-gaze T&A fest. Come on. Betty the Smidgen was my favorite character previously, and all the more so here because she doesn't have bountiful cleavage and enormous knockers.)

This volume concentrates on the half-demon Hannah Vizari, and the Mage University she flunked out of (and, we find out, committed rather bloodier deeds during her stay there). Violet the dwarf is a bit neglected, but the human Dee and Betty--whose real name is Petunia Harvestchild; I'd go by "Betty" too--have their own substantial and funny storylines respectively. (Also, Violet and Betty should be paired more often. Their banter is delightful.) But the star of this show is Hannah. A great deal is revealed about her past, and the story ends at a very dark place: Hannah is embracing her demon side, and the Queens have broken up.

I don't at this time know if the series is going to continue. I hope it does, to resolve this cliffhanger if nothing else. (There is also an interesting little extra at the back, the story of Broog/Braga the orc. Although this one doesn't make a lick of sense artistically; Broog is definitely drawn as a male in the beginning, and at the end he becomes Braga, the daughter of an orc chieftain, with the aforementioned unfortunate huge breasts and no explanation. I know it may sound like I'm harping on this, but it gets tiresome, you know? Not all human females are double-Ds, and fictional women shouldn't be either. Especially when such large breasts would get in the way of their sword-wielding. Maybe some of these artists should investigate the original Amazon myth of the breast corresponding to their sword hand being amputated.) I think there is still a great deal that can be done with these characters, and I hope they'll be given a chance.

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February 23, 2017

Review: Everything Belongs to the Future

Everything Belongs to the Future Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was...okay. This is going to be a short review because there was nothing about this story and characters that impressed me well enough to wax rhapsodic over it. The worldbuilding is very thin, and while the characters are reasonably well drawn, their motivations and backstories are not explored in enough depth to make this an outstanding story.

Laurie Penny does have a sharp, concise writing style, however, no doubt due to her years as a journalist. I think she is a writer to follow, even if this story is unmemorable.

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February 21, 2017

Review: Lumberjanes, Vol. 4: Out of Time

Lumberjanes, Vol. 4: Out of Time Lumberjanes, Vol. 4: Out of Time by Shannon Watters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the best Lumberjanes volume I have read to date. (I missed no. #3, which was apparently not up to snuff.) This collection benefited greatly from the tighter, more adult storyline, involving the camp director, Rosie, the camp counselor, Jen, and a blast from Rosie's past named Abigail. The past-storyline panels are done in muted sepia colors, in contrast to the bright regular colors of the main panels. This effect is pretty cool.

(Also, whoever wrote the little intros to each comic in the collection, the ostensible first page to different sections in the Lumberjane Field Manual, was quite clever. It's worth your while to read each of these, as they, along with the various badges they are talking about, tie in with the story.)

In this collection, we get some welcome backstory on Rosie and the Lumberjanes organization in general, and one of the characters is revealed to be trans. The last page ends on a cliffhanger: our Lumberjanes think weeks have passed, but Jo's dads tell her it's only been two or three days. This sets things up very nicely for the next collection. All in all, this is well worth your time.

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February 18, 2017

Review: Arabella of Mars

Arabella of Mars Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think David D. Levine has invented an entire new subgenre with this book. I'm calling it "Pulp Steampunk Regency." Pulp because it harkens back to the sort of rip-roaring adventure that was first promulgated by Jules Verne; Steampunk because of airships and automatons; and Regency because the book is set in the England (and Mars) of 1813, with all the retrograde views of women, people of color (and, as it turns out, aliens) that the time period entails.

But whatever you want to call it, it's a helluva rocket (or rather airship) ride. To modern eyes, of course, the "science" is complete nonsense. There are no "swamps of Venus" or a breathable atmosphere on Mars, much less an atmosphere (and soil) that allows for the growth of forests. There is no "intraplanetary atmosphere," or an ocean of air between the planets themselves that replaces hard vacuum and permits airship travel to Mars, Venus and presumably other planets in the solar system. But this is no more ridiculous than the FTL drives that have been a mainstay of SF for nigh on to forever. I can forgive a lot of things if a world and its rules are well thought out and the characters are engaging. This book qualifies on both counts.

Our protagonist Arabella Ashby undergoes quite a bit of personal growth over the course of this story. She learns her own strength, both physical and mental, and though at the end she is forced to marry to assure the succession of her family's Martian estate (because the British Empire of 1813 encompasses all the settled planets, apparently), her husband-to-be turns the formula on its head by being a person of color. The author actually handles the racism/sexism/classism elements of the time period pretty well, all things considered. This is a book that sneaks up on you--the further along I read, the more I liked it. (And Levine's airships are much better than some, for instance Jim Butcher's.)

This particular storyline is wrapped up by the end, but a few lingering questions assure a sequel. I'm looking forward to it.

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February 15, 2017

Review: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is yet another re-imagining of H.P. Lovecraft's oeuvre, in this case "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath." Not having read the original, I'm sure I didn't pick up on many of Kij Johnson's references, but this lack did not impede my thoroughly enjoying this story. Starting with the main character: 55-year-old Vellitt Boe, a professor at a women's college in the "dreamlands," a world where capricious gods slumber and destroy, nature is in a perpetual state of upheaval, and physics as we know it does not exist.

Can you imagine that? A middle-aged woman, not relegated to invisibility, in charge of her own story? Sign me up.

It soon becomes apparent that although Vellitt's quest is important (she's pursuing a young student who ran off with a man from the "waking world," in fear that said student's father will shut down the Ulthar Women's College, one of the few opportunities available for women of the dreamlands), the journey itself is the point. Vellitt walks endless miles through nasty underground caverns, meets with and fights all sorts of dangerous creatures, and eventually ascends to the "waking" (e.g., our) world. (For much of this journey she is accompanied by a small black cat--which does not die. TAKE NOTE, JOE HILL!!!) Along the way, we are given considerable insight into the far-traveling young woman she once was, and how she is determined to be, as she puts it, more than a "footnote to a man's story." The only complaint I have about this story, and it's a minor quibble, is the abruptness of the ending. This storyline is wrapped up, but I would very much like to know what Vellitt does next.

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February 11, 2017

Review: Hammers on Bone

Hammers on Bone Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is another of the recent crop of Lovecraftian Mythos updates, this one set in London and starring (if indirectly) Shub-Niggurath. It's a taut, fast-paced novella about a hard-boiled detective who is hired by a kid to kill his stepfather. Needless to say, the detective gets more than he bargained for.

Cassandra Khaw is a fine writer. Her pacing is good, she creates the atmosphere of this story very well, and she has a knack for unusual metaphors and similes. For instance:

Croyden's a funny place these days. I remember when it was harder, when it was chiselers and punks, knife-toting teenagers and families too poor to make it anywhere else in grand old London, when this body was just acres of hurt and heroin, waiting to stop breathing. Now Croyden's split down the middle, middle-class living digging its tentacles into the veins of the borough, spawning suits and skyscrapers and fast foot joints every which way. In a few years, it'll just be another haunt for the butter-and-egg men. No room for the damned.

Of course, this being the Lovecraftian Mythos, the aforementioned tentacles figure prominently, along with eyes, blood and gore. However, Khaw practices admirable restraint along those lines--I've read far worse. The only thing that rubs me the wrong way is the casual misogyny of John Persons, our human/not human detective. This fits in with the noir tropes, but I still didn't like it.

All in all, this is not the best novella I've read this year, but Cassandra Khaw is a writer to watch.

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February 6, 2017

Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I almost feel guilty for giving this book only two stars, since it just won the National Book Award. But it goes to prove that no book is for everyone, and in this case, I have an apples-to-apples comparison to make: a book with a similar subject, storyline and treatment, Ben H. Winters' Underground Airlines. I reviewed it last year, and thought it was fantastic.

The main difference between the two is that Underground Airlines is a far more speculative story than The Underground Railroad. The former is an explicit alternate history; the latter has a whiff of fantasy elements, and not terribly believable ones at that. Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad is an actual series of tunnels and tracks deep under the earth, where real locomotive engines run? How and where, pray tell, did they hide the cubic tons of earth that would have to be excavated to accomplish this feat? How could they have disguised all the workers, equipment, and noise while the tunnels were being dug, and what about the inevitable collapses and construction accidents? I mean, I like my SFF as much as anyone, and a good deal more than some, but as far as I'm concerned your story has to make some internally consistent sense.

(And yes, I'm sure a historian and economist could tell me all the things wrong with the premise of Underground Airlines. That may be so, but Ben H. Winters' story makes sense on its own terms, and doesn't have such a huge logic disconnect jumping up and down and demanding the reader's attention.)

Secondly, for a book that just won such a prestigious award, the prose here is...pedestrian at best. The writing is terse and dull, and never sang, at least for me. The characters don't seem to be terribly deep, and Cora, the protagonist, was not relatable for me at all. I didn't particularly like her, but I can't think of another character I wanted to step up and take on the main role, which is a sure sign (or should be) that your characterizations aren't working.

The ending is the final problem...which is to say, there isn't one, certainly not in any sense of closure or satisfaction. The story just peters out, and one never knows if Cora finally reaches a place where she won't be betrayed and recaptured yet again, or if her slave catcher has finally gotten his comeuppance. After I turned the last page, I decided I didn't care that much, which is the kiss of death for any book. On the other hand, I cared about the characters in Underground Airlines.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but as far as I'm concerned Ben H. Winters' book is superior in every way to this one. It would definitely be the one I'd choose if they were placed side by side.

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January 28, 2017

Review: A Taste of Honey

A Taste of Honey A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I bought this book on the recommendation of several people I know online, whose tastes generally seem to mirror mine. Their reviews were good, so I thought I'd give this unknown-to-me author a chance.

Unfortunately, the truism that "tastes differ" was confirmed once again, as I did not like this.

For one thing, the writing was far too frothy and artsy-fartsy to suit me. I haven't read any of the author's other work, so I don't know if this is his general style or an affliction of this story, but either way it didn't set well. Second, this starts out as a fairly generic fantasy, but about halfway through there is a sudden introduction of "gods," complete with psionics, Discorporate Intelligences (i.e. uploaded minds, it sounds like), holograms, hints of a terraformed planet, and highly technological dialogue. It's a clumsy, jammed-in retrofit, and it doesn't fit with the rest of the story at all.

Next problem: I did not like the main character. Aqib is a vain, arrogant little peacock who grated on me to no end, and frankly, his lover Lucrio could have done a lot better. But Lucrio made no great impression on me either; the best character in the book is Aqib's daughter Lucretia. However, this brings me to the third and biggest problem...


I couldn't figure out why this book jumps around so much. From past to future, back and forth between Aqib's and Lucrio's initial affair and events later on in Aqib's life. The last such event takes place when Aqib is 89 years old, and seems to fade into his death.

Or so we think....

But where were they now? The anguish and desperation he'd felt earlier this same morning, when he'd begged the Sybil: "Did I choose right? Or should I have stayed in Olorum?" No regrets, now! He wanted no life but the one he'd lived!

"Well?" The Sybil stirred in her glass. "There it is," she said. "Such life as you'd have lived, if you'd chosen Olorum."

Excuse me? You mean three-fourths of this book is nothing but an alternate timeline dream? Good God. Why did I waste my time reading it then, especially when I didn't care for it? And when the character I liked best never existed?

That is a plain and simple cheat, folks.

I'll donate this book to the library, or something. Someone is bound to enjoy it. I did not.

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January 24, 2017

Review: Runtime

Runtime Runtime by S.B. Divya
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is another of Tor's novella line. I must tip my hat to whoever is overseeing this, because each of these stories I have read so far is a perfect representation of its length and purpose. This story is a fine example of something with more worldbuilding and characterization than can be stuffed into a short story, but is a bit too light on plot for a full-fledged novel. But the novella length suits it very well.

In a near-future America with a rigid caste system, Marmeg Guinto is running in a grueling cross-country race, the Minerva Sierra Challenge. She is trying to win or place well to be able to afford the higher education that will gain a better life for her and her family. In this particular cyberpunk-ish future, her equipment includes exoskeletons and implanted computer chips, and teenage Marmeg is a coding genius. Spoiler: she doesn't win the race because of a technical disqualification, but the actions she takes during her attempt (saving another contestant from a rockslide) leads to her attaining her goal, and granting her a chance to get away from her overbearing mother.

All well and good. The writing is crisp and punchy, and the pacing is brisk. However, I didn't really connect with the characters. Honestly, the worldbuilding interested me more than the story itself. I would like to read another story in this world, with a real exploration of the caste system and the "licensing" procedure, and what that means for the unlicensed people. This story is a good introduction to the author's world, but I think she could do better with it.

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January 22, 2017

Review: The Arrival of Missives

The Arrival of Missives The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read some good novellas lately, but this one is, in a word, fantastic.

It is very British though. That is, the prose is lovely and precise and languid, and the narrative is slow and restrained, until that moment, not too far along (at least that's what happened to me) when you realize you've been thoroughly pulled in, and you can't put the book down.

This is a story of fate, and power, and a heroine who realizes, as stated in the book's final paragraphs:

His presence gives me an optimism I have not felt in months. I will find the other rocks, and I will smash them all. I will wage war against those that deem me, and others like me, unimportant.

I will fight to make this world a better one.

The protagonist, one Shirley Fearn, does not start out like this. This book's setting is just after the Great War (World War I) and the Spanish influenza. The year is not named, but as best as I can figure out it is in May of 1919. In the beginning, Shirley is a lovestruck seventeen-year-old, infatuated with her teacher, one Mr Tiller. She dreams of attending school in the next village, becoming a teacher herself, and returning to her home village to marry Mr Tiller. The journey from who she is at the beginning of the story to the firebrand she becomes at the end is fascinating in and of itself, but the impetus behind this journey makes the book unforgettable.

But most of all, this is a story of perception. One of the most important plot twists takes place near the end, when we view an event through Shirley's eyes that has previously been described by Mr Tiller. This event motivates Mr Tiller throughout the book, and leads to a murderous decision of his own. But when Shirley sees what Mr Tiller has seen, she notices something that turns the entire narrative inside out. This sneaks up on the reader on soft little cat feet, but when you realize what it means for the story...it's breathtakingly well done.

This should be on all the awards ballots this year. It's just that good.

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