June 18, 2017

Review: League of Dragons

League of Dragons League of Dragons by Naomi Novik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the final book in the long-running and mostly worthy series. I've heard it referred to as "Patrick O'Brien with dragons." It takes place on an alternate Earth where there is a second sentient species--dragons--and said dragons are drafted to engage in aerial warfare, long before the airplane is a mote in anyone's eye. (Indeed, one wonders if air travel will even be invented in this universe.) Napoleon Bonaparte plays a huge role in this series, and in this last book he is finally defeated and exiled to the island of St. Helena, which is what happened on "our" Earth.

It's been evident for the last few books that the author is better writing her draconic characters than her human ones, and that pattern continues here. There is a surprising amount of humor in this story, especially in the chapter where Temeraire and Iskierka are arguing over which of their men will marry the peasant girl. We are introduced to a new character, the dragonet of Iskierka and Temeraire, Ning, who is a tart-tongued delight. Laurence is dealt with a little better in this book than some; at least he's gotten to the point where he'll refuse unlawful orders and stand up for dragonkind. (He also retires from the aerial service at the end of this book, which frankly he should have done at the beginning when he saw how Temeraire and dragons in general were treated by the British.) The overall running theme of this story is the dragons' fight to be recognized and treated as sentient beings, and the book ends with Temeraire planning to run for one of the twenty seats set aside for dragons in Parliament.

Having said that, there were some serious pacing and plot problems with this book. Especially in the second half, the author developed the annoying habit of leading up to an action scene, coming to the end of a chapter, and in the next chapter skipping right ahead in time and completely depriving the reader of exactly how our crew got out of their predicament. I don't know if she thought she needed to wrap the book up right now or what, but I would rather have had a fatter book and those scenes left in. This is particularly exasperating in the final showdown with Napoleon and Lien--are we to believe Lien, Temeraire's primary antagonist throughout the series, wouldn't put up a hell of a fight at the last? I don't remember any of the previous books doing this, and I wish she hadn't written the book like this.

Overall, this is an engaging series, and I do own all the volumes. Just be aware that the quality tails off at the end.

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June 13, 2017

Review: Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a great fan of the TV series based on these books, The Expanse on SyFy. I watched the first two seasons without having read any of the books. Now that I'm getting into the books, I must admit it's been a bit of an education. I can see where this book's storyline was changed (although not all that much, fortunately) and compressed, and I applaud the producers' decision to bring in a character who actually isn't in the print series until the second book. The series has definitely captured the gritty, messy future described in this book, where humanity has spread within the solar system but still hasn't left behind its endless fighting.

This series takes place about two hundred years in the future, when Mars, various moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and the asteroid belt have been settled, and Mars is in the process of being terraformed. The point is made that these new generations born and raised in space have already started to tweak human evolution, as Belters are taller and thinner than Earthborn humans, due to living in lower gravity. Mars is the golden child, with plenty of pretty military toys, technologically advanced; Earth is the aging mother, overcrowded (with a population of 30 billion--I cannot imagine this) but still supplying the colonies with food and air; and the Belt and its denizens are the orphans fighting to survive in the solar system's dregs. This tinderbox, and its very uneasy and delicate status quo, is upended by the discovery of an alien nanotech supervirus, launched at our solar system billions of years ago and kept from settling upon the infant Earth by a fortuitous accident (Saturn basically getting in the way). Unfortunately, an Earth corporation discovers this ancient invasion, and since Earth corporations are still assholes in search of endless profit even hundreds of years from now, it takes this virus (dubbed the "protomolecule") and promptly starts experimenting with it...on individuals and eventually a million and a half people inside a settled asteroid.

Our two viewpoint characters in this system-spanning disaster are James Holden and Joe Miller, the XO of the ice freighter Canterbury and a cop working on the asteroid Ceres respectively. Holden is an idealistic do-gooder in way over his head, and Miller the weary, hard-bitten soul who is just trying to solve a mystery and gets dragged into a mess. Of the two, Miller was the better character to me; I wanted to slap Holden several times. This is a very long book (561 pages) but unlike the last doorstop I suffered through, the pacing was good and the story flowed nicely, and infodumps were kept to a minimum. (No pages upon pages explaining how the Epstein drive worked, for instance. It's there, it uses fuel pellets at extremely high efficiency, it enables travel at high enough gees that drugs are required to keep people from blowing their organs and blood vessels, and we go with it.)

I'm glad I watched the series first, as it made for an interesting comparison and I don't mind spoilers. This is a gritty, dirty, lived-in world, and the politics are as interesting as the protomolecule. It doesn't envision a particularly nice future humanity, with schisms and prejudices and tribalisms that endure beyond this planet and into the stars, but these many shades of gray make for fascinating reading.

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June 11, 2017

Review: Death's End

Death's End Death's End by Liu Cixin
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Oh, how the mighty have fallen, as least as far as I'm concerned.

The first book in this series, The Three-Body Problem, was released to considerable acclaim a few years ago, winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel. I didn't care much for it or the sequel, The Dark Forest, only giving them (barely) two stars each. Looking at those reviews now, I realize I was trying to be nice, for some incomprehensible reason. Well, that's enough of that. I have no problem saying that this book is a clunky, bloated, godawful mess.

I do wonder if this might be due to the different culture and language. (This is not knocking the translator, by the way--Ken Liu, the translator for the first in the series and this book, has done a masterful job.) Liu Cixin is the equivalent of a rock star in China, far more famous than hard SF authors tend to be in the US. The most affecting part of any of the books is the first section of The Three-Body Problem, dealing with the Cultural Revolution. I believe the author is a great fan of Arthur C. Clarke, and some of the other Chinese SF I've read seems to be quaintly retro, written for an audience fifty years past. All this adds up to a great whopping doorstop of a book that not only sends the human race four hundred but billions of years into the future...and unfortunately, felt like it took every minute of the universe's seventeen-billion-year lifespan to read.

Look, if you like your hard SF laden with physics to the point where it feels like a textbook--or maybe a dreadful, dull, droning lecture--instead of an actual novel; if you like books with characters that have no more life and personality than the flattened, two-dimensional state our solar system is reduced to (lovingly described in every excruciating detail over the course of 26 pages); if you like clunky prose that only comes to "life," such as it is, when the author is delving into yet another way-out-there theoretical scientific concept; if you like stories with such grimdark bleakness that there is no way out for the human race other than to sit in a mini-universe, outside the passage of time, until the main universe contracts and is reborn; then go for it with this book. I do not. This is by far the worst book of the series, and I am glad it has come to its end.

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June 4, 2017

Review: Midnight Riot

Midnight Riot Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the first book in the "Rivers of London" series, and based on this one, I have no desire to dive into any of the others. I supposed you could summarize it as "Harry Potter grows up and becomes an irritating, sexist London constable," but that would create a far better main character than this smarmy little twit.

(I do not like Peter Grant. Can I repeat how much I do not like Peter Grant?)

Having said that, what good exists in this book is the secondary characters (especially Peter's boss, the wizard Thomas Nightingale, who I really wish this book had focused on), the worldbuilding, and the city of London itself. London and its culture was as much a protagonist as Peter Grant, and a far more interesting one. There was a competent murder mystery/police procedural at this book's heart, if the damned main character would just get out of the way.

Bah. Fortunately, it didn't take me long to read this book, as that's a few days of my life I'll never get back.

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May 29, 2017

Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first book I've read in the Vorkosigan Saga, and somehow it feels appropriate to be coming in on the tail end of the series. I'm meeting the characters for the first time in their maturity, and in some cases the twilight of their lives (although Cordelia, at seventy-six, says she will live to be at least a hundred and twenty). There is a great deal of history here. These characters have weight and depth, and Bujold does a tremendous job of showing this, mostly through dialogue, as Cordelia Vorkosigan, her son Miles, and Cordelia's former paramour Oliver Jole (with her now dead husband, Aral Vorkosigan), reconnect, reestablish old relationships, and begin new ones.

This is a mature book, written by an adult for adults. There are themes of aging, acceptance, moving into a new period in one's life (retirement, which means something far different in this universe and to Cordelia; for one thing, due to uterine replicator technology, she is going to be starting a brand-new family at the age of seventy-six, using previously frozen eggs and sperm from herself and Aral), and reconciling the past with the future (mainly in the person of Miles, who had no idea of the nature of his father's poly marriage). Cordelia is the kind of woman I want to be when I grow up: completely at home in her own skin, content with her life, and needing no one. She is delighted by the new turn in her and Oliver Jole's relationship, but she will not go with him to what once was her home planet, Barrayar, if he takes an offered promotion there, and she is not shy about telling him so. (This conflict is resolved at the end of the book; Oliver turns down the promotion, retires from the military, and finds a new career and purpose of his own, with Cordelia on Sergyar.)

There's nothing earth-shattering in this book. The fate of Sergyar and Barrayar does not rest on Cordelia's decisions, and no one dies. (Aral died three years before, but Cordelia and Oliver talk about him so much, he's basically a third protagonist. This is all done in a healthy way, however, as the fond reminiscences the two principals have about someone who was vastly important to both of them, while they have nevertheless moved on with their lives.) The tone is quiet and restrained, but there is a great deal of wry humor, all character-based, and I laughed out loud several times. One passage in particular made me chuckle, when the truth about Cordelia and Oliver is finally revealed to her son (p. 214):

Cordelia perked up in the hope that this might lead into some more personal revelations, but instead Oliver went off into an enthusiastic description of the Serena lake life as observed through the crystal canoe. The flash of self-forgetfulness brought his considerable charm to the fore, and Ekaterin [Miles' wife] smiled.

"But you can't be planning development out that way," said Miles. "Mother is trying to get people to move away from the local tectonics."

Cordelia abandoned patience as unrewarding. "Actually, Oliver and I are dating."

Miles stared. The silence stretched just a little too long, though Ekaterin raised her eyebrows, looked back and forth between Cordelia and Jole, and ventured, "Congratulations!" Miles closed his mouth.

In another moment, he opened it again. "Er...what exactly do you mean by dating? In this context."

"Screwing, dear," Cordelia replied, in her flattest Betan tones.


Cordelia Vorkosigan is a badass, and everyone in this book knows it.

These are, by far, some of the most fully-realized characters I've read recently, and it was a pleasure to eavesdrop on these pivotal moments in their lives. Now I'll have to go back to the beginning of the saga, and see how they got to where they are today. Given the author's obvious skill, I'm sure I'll enjoy the earlier books as much as I did this one.



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May 26, 2017

Review: Full Fathom Five

Full Fathom Five Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book I've read in the Craft Sequence, and I liked it better than the first. Maybe that's because I'm more familiar with Gladstone's world (and an inventive, layered, complex world it is), and maybe it's because the setting for this book--an island, with the appropriate isolationist economy and worldview that the villain will repeatedly murder to defend--has a laserlike focus that the first book seemed to lack. In any event, I can see the improvement in the author's (heh) craft: the pacing and plotting are tighter (perhaps a touch slow in the first half, but necessary to set up and advance the storylines of the two protagonists), the characterizations better, and the ending is nicely landed.

Most of all, the author avoids dragging his story down with infodumps, despite this being an extremely complicated and unique universe. (I mean, hell, in Gladstone's world, gods and goddesses are literal beings that live by and through the numbers and fervency of their worshipers, and they can die. In fact, the death of an idol, which here is an artificially created deity that doesn't quite have the worshipers to attain full sentience, kicks off the book.) He reveals just what you need to know at any given moment while getting on with the story, which inspires trust in the reader. I assumed I would be able to figure everything out by the end, and I did. It was also and absorbing and rewarding ride getting to that end, thanks to the sparkling characterizations of Kai and Izza, the protagonists.

In addition, there's a nicely plotted mystery involved, which ties in with themes of change and the acceptance of the fact that your small, isolated piece of real estate and culture cannot, and will not, remain static forever. The villain wants to hold back that metaphorical tide, and does some terrible things in service to his goal. (He also has a seriously creepy police force in the Penitents, living stone statues that swallow people whole and infect their minds in an attempt to brainwash them.) In the end, he is defeated by Kai and Izza, in a hard-fought and very much earned victory. The book ends on a bittersweet but hopeful note: change is coming to the island of Kavekana, but thanks to the efforts of these two, the people are far better prepared to meet it.

One of the front blurbs on this book mentions it as belonging to the "urban fantasy" genre. This is a misnomer, as it is no such thing. Humans populate this world, but it does not reflect our continents and cities, and culture- and history-wise it is very much its own thing. Max Gladstone's excellent worldbuilding is just one of the attractions of this series, which I wholeheartedly recommend.

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May 16, 2017

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

A Closed and Common Orbit A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is the quintessential comfort food. It's science fiction, but not especially hard science (a couple of things are pretty handwavey, but just enough to be passable), and space opera, but not the system-spanning, fate-of-humanity kind. It features one main character that is an artificial intelligence, downloaded into an android body, who wants to co-exist with humans rather than kill them, and another character that's one of a genetically engineered, cloned slave class, bred to do the nasty work that other humans (presumably natural-born ones) don't want to do. There are many directions the author could have taken this story, some of which would, frankly, have been more interesting, which is why I haven't given the book more stars. In particular Jane 23/Pepper's character is a bit of a disappointment. She's one of the cloned kids who sort, clean, and restore the planet's industrial scrap, and die very young due to heavy metal/radiation poisoning. Yet she has no interest in helping the girls left behind at her factory, and the next generation of clones to come, even after she escapes offplanet. The author dismisses this idea with a few sentences and some shreds of hastily-forgotten guilt, which do not ring true, and seem to me to be very much a missed opportunity.

However, it's plain this wasn't the angle the author was interested in. She wanted to write a tightly focused, character-based story of acceptance and finding where you belong, and misfits making a home and family for themselves. This is not to say said story is bad. For what it is, it's well done, particularly the characterization of the two main protagonists, and the prose is breezy and flows well. But in the effort to make the book warm and fuzzy, the potential weight of the story is discarded. It's warm-hearted, and cute, and feel-good...and utterly lightweight and forgettable. This book will have its fans, and rightly so, but I prefer to have a little more grit and shades of grey in my space operas.

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May 11, 2017

Review: Three Parts Dead

Three Parts Dead Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By all rights, this book should be a jumbled mess, as Max Gladstone seemingly threw everything into it except the kitchen sink. It's an urban fantasy, a courtroom drama, and a murder mystery; it's a coming-of-age story with three young protagonists struggling to find their place in the world; it's an examination of faith, in this case in a very literal way, as the "gods" in this book gain their life, sentience and energy from the devotion and fervency of their worshipers; and it's an alternate-world setting, as humans are (for the most part) the main characters, but this is very much not our Earth.

I wouldn't have thought such a mishmash could work. But it does, wonderfully.

There's some excellent worldbuilding here, the best kind--the reader is given the impression that we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg, that ten percent or so above the waterline. There's a dark, complex, ancient and not-so-ancient history that threatens to rear its ugly head at any time. This is embodied in our two main characters; first, Abelard the priest of the fire-god Kos Everburning. Abelard is a very engaging character, as he is young and unformed and has a poignant crisis of faith through the book. The other main character is Tara Abernathy, a woman of color (and no whitewashed cover! Hallelujah!) who wields the Craft, a magic system that draws upon starlight and moonlight, among other things. (It also extracts a pretty hefty price, as the author makes clear. This is a side element of the story I wish had been explored further, although admittedly there wasn't time for it: why people choose to study the Craft despite knowing what it will eventually do to them.) There are several other viewpoint characters, including Tara's boss, Elayne Kevarian; her former professor, Alexander Denovo, the villain (like all great villains, he is given a believable backstory and motivation, and in the very last scene of the book he gets a delicious comeuppance); Shale, a gargoyle; the vampire Raz Pelham, captain of the Kell's Bounty; and Catherine Elle, a vampire addict who moonlights as a Blacksuit, an avatar for the goddess Justice.

There's a complicated plot here, with each of these characters having a crucial part, and it was a pleasure to watch everything come together. But the star of this show is this world and its history, and I look forward to following Max Gladstone as he further explores it.

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May 7, 2017

Review: The Princess Diarist

The Princess Diarist The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a tough book to read, and is a bittersweet review to write, knowing that this woman's witty, funny voice will not be heard again. Supposedly, Carrie Fisher was a top Hollywood "script doctor" (brought in to fix shooting scripts, often at the last minute) for years, and after reading this book, I can see why. Her writing abilities, to me, are especially evident in the prologue and the first three chapters, where her sardonic, snarky wit shines. This is encapsulated in a rather creepy anecdote told about Warren Beatty, her costar in her first movie, Shampoo.

Warren, the star, cowriter, and producer of Shampoo, was asked by the costume department if he wanted me to wear a bra under my tennis clothes or not. Warren squinted in the general direction of my breasts.

"Is she wearing one now?"

I stood there as if my breasts and I were somewhere else.

"Yes," responded Aggie, the costume designer.

Warren pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Let's see it without."

I followed Aggie to my hamster-cage trailer and removed my bra. Whereupon I was returned to Warren's scrutiny forthwith. Once again he squinted at my chest, impassively.

"And this is without?" he asked.

"Yes," Aggie groaned.

"Let's go without," he pronounced, directed, charged, commanded.

My breasts and I followed Aggie back to my dressing zone and the subject was closed.


Good heavens. That sort of thing would be enough to put me off acting permanently, and also watching Warren Beatty's movies.

Of course, the big reveal in this book is the fact that Fisher and co-star Harrison Ford had an affair during the filming of Star Wars. Mr. Ford, to be frank, does not come off very well in the telling. There was a fifteen-year age gap, and Fisher was an insecure young woman with incredibly low self-esteem, something Ford plainly recognized and took advantage of. Carrie Fisher writes about him from a place of hard-won perspective and dignity forty years later, and is far kinder to him than he deserves. (Screw these strong, silent, uncommunicative John Wayne types. This particular one was apparently good in the sack, but even if he hadn't been married at the time, I would have dropped him like a hot rock. Which, again, speaks to the inherent creepiness of the whole thing.) She also includes an extensive selection from the journal she kept during filming, most of which was naturally about the affair. Some of her poetry wasn't too bad, and as raw and unfiltered as her nineteen-year-old thoughts and emotions were, she did an excellent job of capturing them. One can see the glimmers here of the professional writer Carrie Fisher would become.

There are so many different directions this book could have gone, and I wish she had delved into the filming itself in more detail. Still, what I've read has encouraged me to look for her other work, and mourn the loss of this woman. RIP, Carrie.

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May 2, 2017

Review: Too Like the Lightning

Too Like the Lightning Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is going to be a hard review to write, because even after finishing this book, I'm not sure I liked it. I didn't hate it, and I was definitely fascinated by it, but I can't even say I really enjoyed it. It's a difficult, frustrating, dense, hard-to-understand read, and several times through the slow, sagging middle I almost put it down. However, Ada Palmer must be one of the best writers I have ever read, because despite all this, with my looking for any excuse to stop reading, she would write one more scene I had to finish, and one more...and before I knew it, I had turned the last page of the book.

I will say one thing, this is unlike any SF book I have ever read. It's a far-future (four centuries, to be exact) tale that's nearly impossible to categorize. Is it, as I have heard it described, a dystopia masquerading as its opposite? Is it a 25th century history text? Philosophy text? A detailed, deep-dive discussion of the Enlightenment? Or a thinly disguised retelling of the French Revolution, with the addition of a kid who can work unexplained, seemingly supernatural miracles? Complete with an unreliable narrator who often breaks the fourth wall and frequently has arguments with his reader, who he assumes is looking back on the world of 2454 with as much distance as ours is removed from Voltaire, the most frequently mentioned philosopher in these pages? Said narrator, Mycroft Canner, is revealed to be quite a nasty piece of work, and yet you can't help feeling sorry for him. I didn't like him, but I could certainly understand him, which is a testament to the author's skill.

You would have to read this book at least twice to even begin to digest it. Frankly, I'm not sure if I can do that. I normally wail and gnash my teeth over infodumps, and with the exception of the final eight chapters, that's basically all this book is. Yet it held me riveted, and not in a trainwreck kind of way, either. I don't know if I'll dare attempt the sequel...but I don't know if I'll be able to resist.

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