December 9, 2017

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is based on Russian folklore, and abounds with Russian myths and monsters. It also takes a deep dive into the Russian culture and mindset of the 15th century, which makes it a welcome standout from the realms of generic European fantasy. A lot of this story takes place in the depths of winter, and the author is very good with mood and setting. You can feel the cold and hear the snow crunching under your feet.

However, this is a first book, and it suffers from some first-novel problems. For me, in particular, pacing and point-of-view were issues. The story seemed to drag in places, particularly in the first half. Admittedly, a lot of this is necessary setup and backstory, but that didn't make the pages turn any faster. Also, a great deal of this is written in omniscient third-person POV, which I hate. If you're going to have multiple viewpoint characters, fine, but at least use chapter or scene breaks to differentiate them. Headsurfing in the middle of a paragraph does nothing except yank me out of the story. It just felt as if the book could have used one more editing pass.

Having said all this, when the author finally gets rolling, the story shines. The latter half of the book is much better than the first half. Vasya, the protagonist, is a lovely character, the girl with the Sight who can see the demons and save her village, even though the village does not deserve her. I particularly liked the ending, when Vasya knows she cannot stay, and makes up her mind to leave her village and make her way in the world, throwing off the shackles the society of the time put on women. I think this portends an exciting story in the sequel. This book is flawed, but this is a promising new writer, and I shall look for the next book.

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November 30, 2017

Review: Acadie

Acadie Acadie by Dave Hutchinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those stories that has a stinger at the end, and this one is such a complete surprise that it makes you want to reread the entire thing right away, to see if you can pick up on the clues you missed before.

It also makes the book hard to talk about. Let's just say that this story is exactly the length it needs to be for this installment. Just in this novella, we have genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, quantum physics, and an Earth hellbent on pursuing a group of breakaway colonists and dragging them back for some supposed "justice."

Or do we?

That's the beauty of this little book. Once that twist comes, the reader isn't certain of anything anymore. One thing for sure, the writing draws you in; the narrator, John Wayne "Duke" Faraday, given a leadership role he didn't want and determined to carry it through nevertheless, has a marvelous, wry, put-upon voice. The worldbuilding seems to be well thought out (the image of two cats fighting in zero gravity will never leave me) and unintrusive, with little infodumping. It's an interesting read, and I hope the author writes more stories in this universe.

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November 27, 2017

Review: Legion

Legion Legion by Julie Kagawa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the fourth book in the Talon Saga, and it is the best. The only knock I have against it is that if you haven't read the previous books (Talon, Rogue and Soldier) you won't know what's going on, as this book picks up immediately after the cliffhanger that ended book 3. (Also? That ending was a bit of a cheat. This would be a vastly different book if Julie Kagawa had pulled a George R.R. Martin and followed through on her threat. It all depends on how much you like the character that almost died, I guess.)

Nevertheless, the series has steadily improved. The first book was a little too focused on the teen romance, to the detriment of the excellent worldbuilding. This book has a much better balance between the two. We get greater insight into the ruthlessness of the dragon organization Talon, as they succeed in nearly extinguishing their ancient enemy, the Order of St. George. St. George is no paragon of virtue, either, as their rigid, arrogant dragons-are-irredeemable-monsters mentality leads to their being virtually wiped out. Caught between this rock and a hard place are our characters, Ember, Riley and Garret, along with the intriguing Adult dragon Jade. This book ends with the stakes higher than ever, and sets things up for what promises to be a nail- (or talon-) biting finale.

Our protagonists are not neglected, as significant character development takes place for each of the three leads, and even for Ember's rotten little shit of a brother, Dante. (Truthfully, if I must comment on the romance, I wish Ember had chosen both Garret and Riley. One love for the dragon, one for the human. But I suppose Harper Teen isn't up to tackling polyamory just yet.) The pacing in this book is excellent and the battle scenes are riveting. If you like YA and haven't read this series, you're missing out. I can hardly wait for the final book.

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November 25, 2017

Review: The Punch Escrow

The Punch Escrow The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn't know anything about this book or author when I stumbled upon it at the library. Usually in my reading I get a sense of what buzzworthy books coming out I might like, but I hadn't heard a peep about this one. Nevertheless, I picked it up and skimmed the back cover, then read the intro. (Admittedly, the front-page quote from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan also piqued my curiosity.)

If you're reading this, then you're officially in charge of figuring out what to do next. I'm off the hook, probably because I'm dead. Consider the baton passed. Hooray for you.

Now that, my friends, is a hook. A snarky voice to grab the reader, and the implication of something big, life-threatening, and life-changing. After I saw that, I just had to check this book out.

This is a hard science fiction thriller set in the year 2147, with technology leaps and bounds beyond what we see today. I am a layperson, and I'm sure a real quantum physicist would be quick to point out the holes in this, but it's evident that the author has done a great deal of research to back up his extrapolation. (Some of this research shows up in the abundant footnotes in the first few chapters. Obviously, there is a danger that including footnotes will yank the reader out of the story, but since it's already been established that this is a document written after the fact, with the explicit intent of informing a future reader about this incident and warning them to keep on the lookout, some explanations for the in-story future reader, as well as the real-world reader, are in order. Not to mention there's a lot of snarky humor in this book, and this real-world reader, at least, can forgive a great many footnotes if that's the case.) Among other things, we have "replication printing," nanotechnology, artificial intelligence (including self-driving vehicles that insult their passengers, and apps that are regarded by many humans as members of their family), neural stem implants that function as everyone's phone/Internet access...and teleportation. Teleportation is the technology that goes horribly wrong and kicks the plot into gear.

All of which is fine and fascinating, and worthless without interesting characters to support it. Our protagonist, Joel Byram, definitely passes this test. His voice is the glue that holds the book together, even when he's writing chapters from points of view not his own (which is made possible by the existence of the implants, the "comms"). He's not a superspy or ex-military type. He's a nerdy Everyguy (who loves "obscure 80's new wave"--Culture Club, of all groups, is namechecked and quoted) thrown into an impossible situation. Sometimes, as the story makes clear, he comes across as a total asshole, but he's a stubborn, persistent, determined asshole who steps up and wins out.

In fact, the only reason I didn't give this book five stars is because the author's handling of the female lead, Joel's wife Sylvia, could have...been better, shall we say. She makes the mistake that sets the plot in motion, and she has some agency, but she also winds up needing to be rescued, and that gets old. Also, there is an unnecessary coda that is an obvious set-up for a sequel and detracts from the emotional punch of the ending. Still, this is a very good story, and well worth your time.

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November 19, 2017

Review: The Diabolic

The Diabolic The Diabolic by S.J. Kincaid
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whether or not you can enjoy this book will depend upon your tolerance of characters that are for the most part amoral, backstabbing, brutal, ruthless murderers. This includes the protagonist, although she has a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card in that she was specifically designed (genetically engineered) to be that way. These people are not nice or likable, not in the least...but they are damned compelling, with well-thought-out and believable motivations, given their circumstances. The author says this plot was partially inspired by the miniseries I, Claudius, but I'm also wondering if the infamous Borgia family also didn't figure into her worldbuilding. The grasping for power, the manipulations, and the murders sound like they came straight from the playbook of Cesare and Lucrezia.

In this future, we have a space-faring civilization dominated by a religious faction that rejects science and technology. If this sounds more than a little contradictory, be aware that a rather severe suspension of disbelief is required to get through the first half of the book. As a matter of fact, for this civilization to continue to exist at all, there's got to be artificial intelligence running in the background, keeping it working, to the extent that it is. This is hinted at in "machines repairing other machines," which is the explanation given for the starships with FTL travel, various kinds of robots, and some pretty advanced genetic engineering that is still a thing in this world, even if none of the humans seem to know diddleysquat about it and it's starting to decay. Which would bring into play questioning the personhood of said AI, the same way the protagonist questions her own personhood. But I can understand why the author never explores any of this, because her plot is pretty stuffed already.

Nemesis is our titular Diabolic, a genetically engineered superbeing/bodyguard chemically bonded against her will to protect one person: Sidonia von Impyrean, the daughter of a member of the Imperial Senate. Sidonia's father is a rebel, fighting against the Emperor's ban on science and technology, and as punishment he is ordered to send his daughter as a hostage to the heart of the Empire, the Chrysanthemum. But the Impyrean Matriarch comes up with another plan...since no one knows what Sidonia actually looks like, her Diabolic will go in her place.

From that beginning is spun out a fascinating tale of deception, spying, manipulation, court intrigue, murder, and an artificial being awakening to the fact that she is not so different from her so-called "masters" after all. A watershed event about halfway through the book spins the plot into high gear, and Nemesis partners with the supposed "mad nephew" of the Emperor, Tyrus Domitrian, to bring the Emperor down and restore science and technology. Naturally, Tyrus and Nemesis fall in love, and while the romance is front and center for the most part through the rest of the book, it's an important part of Nemesis' character development. For his part, Tyrus, while no more nice or likable than anyone else in this book (with the exception of the unfortunately too-pure-to-live Sidonia), develops into a very sympathetic character. He plots to kill his uncle, and ends up sending his grandmother to her death in the heart of a star. But the book makes clear that this sort of familial assassination is all Tyrus has ever known--his parents and siblings fell prey to his grandmother's ruthless hand--and he is determined to save the Empire and its people.

The back half of this book, needless to say, is a helluva ride, with plot twist upon plot twist. Despite her being capable of and awakening to love, Nemesis is still a Diabolic through and through, as she informs Tyrus at the end of the book. (There's a reason they are both likened to scorpions, in the fable of the scorpion and the frog.) This is not your standard young adult sci-fi tale. If you can handle the blood and the body count, it's a pretty fascinating world.

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November 18, 2017

The Trump Presidency: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

John Oliver knocks this out of the park. Spread it far and wide. Main takeaways:

1. Delegitimizing the media

2. Whataboutism

3. Fake news

Also, an iPhone would make a better president.

November 10, 2017

Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There seem to be a lot of rave reviews for this book, but unfortunately I just don't feel it. This is the second "literary" SF book I've read this year, and for me it's failed in pretty much the same ways. The writing and characterizations may be very good, but the science is simply lacking...and I'm sorry, but you can't have science fiction without fairly plausible science.

This book takes place aboard a generation ship (and a huge sucker; it has multiple decks with thousands of inhabitants each and is fusion-powered) 325 years into its voyage. I take it our Earth is supposed to be the "Great Lifehouse" from which the Matilda launched after some unspecified ecological disaster. Hundreds of years later, the ship seems to be wandering the cosmos (although from the patently awful ending, I'm wondering if it even made it out of our solar system) with no clear goal or destination. Over this time, a religious, oppressive society has developed, based on race. It's no secret that this book is basically the Antebellum South in space; it's even on the dust jacket copy. Which is fine, as this is the subject the author clearly wanted to tackle, and their worldbuilding, characters and conflicts are centered on this theme. But I just wish Solomon had written their book in a contemporary context and left the SF out of it.

It's a shame that overall this doesn't work for me, because parts of it are very good indeed. The main character, Aster, is intersex and neuroatypical, perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum. Her harsh, relentlessly literal characterization rings true on every page. The other characters, including her Aint Melusine, her self-destructive friend Giselle Nwaku, and her ally and mentor Theo Smith, are also well drawn (these three each have a first-person viewpoint chapter, which is a nice way of getting the reader inside their heads). The worldbuilding on board Matilda is intriguing, with each deck having its own culture and language. With these people having spent 325 years on this ship, there's a nice weight of history, and the past--in particular, the story of Aster's mother--becomes more and more important as the story progresses.

Unfortunately, it's the science that does this story in. I don't usually say this, but I wish the author had been even more handwavey about her science than she already is, because then the story could have sat better with me. As it is, the parts where she tries to describe the ship's fusion drive, and the way the Field (crop-growing) Decks rotate, and how the ship is piloted, are just...bad. Slingshotting this enormous vessel around a black hole to change its trajectory? Come on. And the ending, while it's explosively plotted, important to Aster's characterization, and well-paced, scientifically is...ugh. There's no telling where in the universe we actually are, but even if the Matilda was only a few light-years away from our solar system, there's no way Aster could have made it back to Earth aboard a shuttle. She would have starved to death and/or run out of oxygen long before. That last chapter, in fact, pretty much spoiled the entire book for me, because of that and also because of the way it seemed to dribble to a halt with no real point.

If you can overlook this kind of thing, more power to you. I can't. This book is very ambitious, and I commend the author for that, but the execution of this idea is, to me, a total misfire.

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November 5, 2017

Review: $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a sad and depressing book, because it drives home how much the United States, as a country that is supposedly the richest on Earth, has failed millions of our fellow citizens. This book chronicles how, after the ill-advised ending of "welfare as we know it" in the 1990's, a different kind of poverty began to raise its head--households receiving SNAP (food stamps) but no cash at all. From the introduction:

America's cash welfare program--the main government program that caught people when they fell--was not merely replaced with the 1996 welfare reform; it was very nearly destroyed. In its place arose a different kind of safety net, one that provides a powerful hand up to some--the working poor--but offers much less to others, those who can't manage to find or keep a job. This book is about what happens when a government safety net that is built on the assumption of full-time, stable employment at a living wage combines with a low-wage labor market that fails to deliver on any of the above. It's this toxic alchemy, we argue,that is spurring the increasing numbers of $2-a-day poor in America.

This book follows several families that fall into this spiral, in four different communities. (It's no coincidence that almost all of them are people of color.) In the process, it lays waste to the idiotic idea that poor people should just "pull themselves up by their bootstraps"--there usually aren't any boots, let alone straps. Time and time again, we're shown a perfect storm of interlocking factors, many of which are out of the person's control, that end up casting them down into this extreme poverty. These people are trying to cope as best they can, in sometimes illegal ways, but frankly who can blame them? If I had absolutely no money coming in and no job prospects, I might end up selling my kid's Social Security number too.

This is a sobering look at one of America's deepest moral failings. It should make you angry. It certainly did me.

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October 27, 2017

Review: Defy the Stars

Defy the Stars Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Among other books, Claudia Gray has written two well-received Star Wars novels, Bloodline and Leia: Princess of Alderaan. I haven't read them, but I have seen good reviews. My own exposure to this author comes from her young-adult novel Fateful, which has a premise ("werewolves on the Titanic") that in the hands of a lesser writer could have failed miserably. But Gray pulls it off, and in so doing I noticed her skill in characterizations.

That ability is on full display here, with two characters that are so real they could step off the page into your living room. Noemi Vidal lives on one of Earth's five colony worlds, Genesis, which is as lush and green as Earth is brown and dying. Genesis deliberately limits its technology to preserve its environment; Earth wants to move its billions to Genesis, who fears that once here, they will start poisoning Genesis as well. Earth is trying to force the issue, sending armies of mechs (not really robots, although artificially created; they're a mixture of organic and mechanical and are more cyborgs) through the artificial wormhole connecting Earth and Genesis. The war is going badly for Genesis, to the point where they're planning a suicide mission known as the Masada Run: seventy-five ships ramming the Gate, killing themselves and taking it offline temporarily, hopefully allowing enough time for Genesis to build its defenses. Noemi is one of those who has volunteered for the Masada Run, and she expects to die in twenty days.

Abel is a mech, the first artificial intelligence (of twenty-six models total) created by Burton Mansfield. Abel has been drifting on an abandoned ship close to the Genesis Gate for thirty years. His very first chapter makes it clear that his isolation has changed him; deepened his mind, forced his brain to make connections it would not otherwise have made. During another Earth/Genesis skirmish, Noemi and her seriously injured friend Esther land on Abel's ship. Noemi, looking for medical supplies, restores power and frees Abel. His programming dictates that he obey and protect Burton Mansfield--but Mansfield is nowhere to be found. Therefore, since Abel believes as a mech his purpose is to obey humans, and Noemi is the only human to be found...he transfers his obedience to her, his enemy.

From this simple beginning springs a storyline that takes Abel on a journey where he will become, if not precisely human, far more than a programmed, obedient mech. Noemi wants to save her planet, and what begins as a trip to each of Earth's five colony worlds, hunting for the equipment that will let her destroy the Genesis Gate, ends with a realization that a resistance to Earth is arising and perhaps the Masada Run isn't necessary. Along the way, as you probably surmised, there is a slow-burning romance between the two: more on Abel's side than Noemi's, as he realizes that the changes that took place during his thirty years of isolation enable him to question his programming and eventually question and disobey his creator, Burton Mansfield. (There's a particular reason why Abel was created, and his finding out just what Mansfield intended for him is the last straw.) These same changes allow him to transcend his limitations--and love a human. At the end of the book, they aren't together, which is actually an unusual twist, but it felt completely earned. Noemi is able to stop the Masada Run, and Abel is set free, to make his own choices and live his own life.

Our two protagonists, and all the secondary characters, are marvelously handled throughout. This book is 500 pages, but for me it was absorbing from beginning to end. The only reason I'm giving it four stars instead of five is that a few aspects of the science and world felt a little handwavey. Nevertheless, this is a very good book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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October 25, 2017

Review: Heathen Vol. 1

Heathen Vol. 1 Heathen Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wish Goodreads had half stars. This is actually a 3.5, and that's because the art in the first two issues of the collection seems crude and unfinished. The art definitely improved towards the end, but I think the first two issues could have used another pass. (Also, I guess it's unusual for the writer and artist, in this case Natasha Alterici, to be the same person.)

At any rate, this is a nice story, based on Norse mythology and set at a point where Christianity is just beginning to make itself felt. Aydis is a girl exiled from her tribe for kissing another girl (the sentence was "marriage or death," and her father supposedly chose the latter and set her free instead), and goes on a quest to rescue the spellbound leader of the Valkyries, Brynhild. As things develop, Brynhild and Aydis end up having separate but parallel storylines, with both concentrating on saving LGBT people who might be exiled or murdered in this society. At the very end, Aydis lays down a challenge to Odin, who is evidently the series' overarching "big bad."

The goddess Freyja also makes an appearance, along with immortal talking wolves Skull and Hati, and Aydis' own horse, Saga, who is actually a supernatural being called a "wight." All three provide some comic relief in what is a bit of a grim story. All told, I think this is a promising debut, and I will be on the lookout for the next volume.

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