August 13, 2017

Review: Killing Gravity

Killing Gravity Killing Gravity by Corey J. White
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the author's first book...and unfortunately it shows. I took a chance on it because I like Tor's new novella line. I've bought several excellent stories from it, but this isn't one of them.

Mariam "Mars" Xi (and that's the first problem--"Mars" is underwhelming as a character name, to say the least) is a psion on the run. She was created (or maybe enhanced--not really clear on that--but definitely experimented on) by a corporation called MEPHISTO, who are moving heaven and earth, and are willing to kill a great many people, to get her back. She is a voidwitch, a telekinetic who can do just about anything, from vaporizing human heads to hurling asteroids to crushing spaceships.

Now, I like psi powers as well as anyone, but Mars is so overblown as to be boring. Nothing can stop her, it seems, and as I followed her on her rampages, I kept wishing this psychic Superwoman would run up against some Kryptonite. There is some handwaving about her powers giving her migraines, but it doesn't amount to much, and certainly didn't make me think she was in any real danger. Limits are a good thing in stories like these, and I wish the author had given some thought to this.

Speaking of handwaving: the science in this is more than a little wonky. In this universe, FTL flight is achieved by the generation of artificial wormholes. It's specifically stated that "a wormhole always brings some gravity from its starting point," a bit of exposition that comes into play during the climactic final battle, when Mars jumps her ship from the edge of a black hole to the middle of the enemy fleet...and dragging the black hole's crushing gravity with her through the wormhole takes out a good number of the enemy ships.

I don't know about you, but I don't think either wormholes or black holes (or for that matter gravity) work like that. I suppose it's about as plausible as the ubiquitous "hyperspace" of most space opera--which is to say, not plausible at all--but this made me roll my eyes and mutter, "Oh, come on." It jolted me right out of the story.

Having said all that, there are a few pluses to this book. The pacing is good, the action scenes are suspenseful and tightly written, and Mars' pet Seven, which sounds like a cross between a very small cat and a sugar glider, is delightful. I want one! Unfortunately, for me the problems in this book mount up to the point where I don't feel inclined to read the sequel.

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August 9, 2017

Review: Raven Stratagem

Raven Stratagem Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to Ninefox Gambit, which is one of the best books I read last year. That said, that book did require a severe learning curve: the reader is thrown into this complex world with no explanation, and basically has to sink or swim. Anyone persisting beyond the first couple of chapters was richly rewarded, but it was an uphill grind for some.

Thankfully, this book pretty much solves that problem. All the things that made Ninefox so good are still here: the technology that fulfills Arthur C. Clarke's dictum of "advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic"; the political maneuvering and machinations; the bleak nature of the Hexarchate; and the great characters, especially Shuos Jedao and Kel Cheris. But this complicated stew is much more digestible this time around, and I think that's because the author has fully settled into his world. The writing is more accessible and self-assured, and Lee offers us actual explanations for things! They're not the least bit draggy or intrusive, flowing along nicely with the story.

And what a story it is: the four-hundred-year-old undead General Jedao who finally has the chance to gain his objective--to bring down the Hexarchate. In this universe, the Hexarchate is the ruling interstellar empire based on "abstract algebra," which is math that literally shapes the reality these people live in. (A similar idea would be a god who requires its worshipers' belief to continue to exist.) This veers very close to "unstoppable force meeting immovable object" territory, because if your high calendar makes your empire and your "exotic technologies"--i.e. your stardrive, technology and weapons--possible, then those in power will do just about anything to maintain it.

This is, I think, the genius of Lee's universe, because at its heart it asks the simple question: What price will you pay for your way of life? For so many in the Hexarchate, for hundreds of years, the answer was: Any loss of life, any suppression of people and rights and freedoms, is worth it. But then Shuos Jedao came along, and decided the Hexarchate is not worth it. For that heresy he was thrown into the Black Cradle (this is the one thing that's only vaguely explained, but as far as I can tell his uploaded personality was placed in something like a sensory deprivation tank. It's a severe form of torture to be sure, and he's kept "alive" only because he's a tactical genius and let out when the rulers have a use for him, usually to put down another calendrical heresy). Ninefox was the story of Shuos Jedao setting his centuries-old plan in motion at last, and this book is that plan coming to fruition.

We're introduced to several new characters, and I loved every one of them. While the previous book stuck pretty closely to Kel Cheris' POV, these new characters open up the world, and we can see just how ghastly living in the Hexarchate is. At the same time, there is a nice thread of wry humor running through the book, which is a welcome thing, as it balances what is a fairly grimdark narrative. At the end there is seeming success, but when Cheris reflects on what it took to get to this point, her depressing but true observation is: "The war never ends."

(And of course it doesn't. There is one major player not dealt with, which will presumably be the focus of the third book in the trilogy, Revenant Gun.)

This book is just fantastic, every bit as good as the first if not better. I think it actually makes a better entry point to the series. I would recommend starting with this book and then picking up Ninefox Gambit. Either way, you're in for a treat.

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August 7, 2017

Review: All Systems Red

All Systems Red All Systems Red by Martha Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was originally going to give this three stars, but I've been thinking about it ever since I read it. It's a book that sneaks up on you and lingers in the mind, and any book that does that deserves to be rewarded.

The best thing about this book is, of course, the character of Murderbot: a self-aware SecUnit (security android) who has hacked its own governor module and removed the strictures that define its existence as a corporate-owned property. (The extent to which Murderbot--a cranky, snarky misanthrope who just wants to avoid interacting with people, read its books watch its downloaded entertainment feeds and be left alone--can be compared to this reviewer is left as an exercise for the reader.) Unfortunately, the planetary exploration team that has hired it comes under sudden attack, and it's left to Murderbot and its clients to figure out who is trying to kill them and why.

(Yes, the term "it" applies here, as Murderbot is a sexless, genderless android. There's also a fascinating throwaway bit of backstory wherein Murderbot reveals its governor module failed before, resulting in the deaths of 57 people, and it hacked the replacement module to prevent this from ever happening again. I hope this is explored in subsequent volumes.)

The story is fairly pedestrian and quickly resolved, but it's Murderbot's voice that carries the day. Througout most of the book it doesn't know what it wants (other than the next episode of its favorite entertainment feed), but once the crisis is over and its contract has been bought out by the grateful humans whose lives it saved, it realizes that what it's supposed to want and what it actually does want are two different things.

I didn't know what I would do on a farm. Clean the house? That sounded way more boring than security. Maybe it would work out. This was what I was supposed to want. This what what everything had always told me I was supposed to want.

Supposed to want.

I'd have to pretend to be an augmented human, and that would be a strain. I'd have to change, make myself do things I didn't want to do. Like talk to humans like I was one of them. I'd have to leave the armor behind.

For anyone who ever watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, Murderbot is the anti-Data. It's the furthest thing from the Pinocchio who wants to be human, and because of that it is as unique character I will definitely follow. The book ends with Murderbot taking off with a cargo transport, to make its own way and chart its own destiny.

I don't know what I want. I said that at some point, I think. But it isn't that, it's that I don't want anyone to tell me what I want, or to make decisions for me.

This is a lovely story, and I'm looking forward to the sequel.

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August 6, 2017

Review: River of Teeth

River of Teeth River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hippopotami in Louisiana! This is a thing that almost happened in our real history, as pointed out in the author's introduction.

In the early twentieth century, the Congress of our great nation debated a glorious plan to resolve a meat shortage in America. The idea was this: import hippos and raise them in Louisiana's bayous. The hippos would eat the ruinously invasive water hyacinth; the American people would eat the hippos; everyone would go home happy. Well, except the hippos. They'd go home eaten.

Much to everyone's disappointment, Congress didn't follow through on this plan, and today America lives a cursed life--a beef life, with nary a free-range hippo within the borders of our country.

Sarah Gailey takes this fantastic idea and runs with it, producing a weird alternate-history Western with cowboys, tame and feral hippos, a black Englishman with the wonderful name of Winslow Remington Houndstooth; a con artist who is overlooked because "nobody ever suspects the fat lady"; a non-binary weapons expert by the name of Hero, Houndstooth's love interest; and a deadly, double-crossing, pregnant female assassin. (Oh yeah, there's a pencil-moustached white guy to front the group and buy the necessary supplies, which is how we know the other characters are people of color, but he can't stop himself from cheating the villain at cards and gets messily offed not too many chapters in.) This motley crew comes together to perform a caper ('scuse me, an "operation," according to Houndstooth's repeated protests) and clean out the feral hippos from a damned-up lower Mississippi, and also serve as the instrument of Houndstooth's revenge for the villain Travers' destruction of his hippo ranch.

Yes, it sounds gonzo. Just go with it. It's a fascinating slice of alternate-history America, what could have been but for Congress' inaction. This is the kind of thing science fiction was made for, and I'm happy this book exists.

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Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones

Down Among the Sticks and Bones Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Wayward Children series, but in terms of chronological order, it's a prequel to the first book, Every Heart a Doorway. This tells the backstory of the twins Jack and Jill, what made them the way they are, and why they would do anything to return to their alternate fantasy world.

There's some pretty potent themes in this book. McGuire takes on parenting and gender, and harshly condemns anyone trying to force children (or people in general) to be someone they are not. This is exactly what Jack and Jill's parents, Chester and Serena Wolcutt, do. These are two people who never should have had children. They basically each want a Mini-Me to show off to their friends, and they want their kids to fit into perfect rigid genderfied boxes. Jacqueline--never "Jack"--is the pink germophobic princess, terrified of dirt, forced to sit still and be gentle and feminine and quiet; and Jillian, the girl who, in her father's eyes, should have been a boy, is the rough-and-tumble tomboy forced into short haircuts and soccer leagues, regardless of whether she actually likes soccer. This suffocating existence lasts until the girls are twelve, when they discover a portal into their perfect fantasy world, the Moors. The Moors is a brutal, bloody place, full of vampires, monsters, werewolves, and Lovecraftian-style Drowned Gods, but it is where Jack and Jill break free from their boxes. They are adopted, respectively, by a mad scientist and a vampire, and spend the next five years becoming the people they were never allowed to be.

I actually liked this better than the first book in the series, Every Heart a Doorway. The plot is tight and streamlined--no unnecessary murder mystery. The omniscient narration could have been very off-putting in the hands of a less skilled writer, but it perfectly fits this creepy, claustrophobic story. The only (minor) disappointment is the bleak, abrupt, terrifying ending: terrifying because Jack and Jill have returned to our world, and the reader knows all too well they should not be there. This is an excellent series, and well worth your time.

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Review: Cordelia's Honor

Cordelia's Honor Cordelia's Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This omnibus collects the first and seventh volumes of the Vorkosigan Saga, Shards of Honor and Barrayar. The former was Lois McMaster Bujold's first published novel, and it shows. Shards isn't a bad book, but it suffers from uneven characterization and such a breakneck pace the reader hardly gets a chance to take a deep breath. These problems are solved in Barrayar, which is a better book than its predecessor in every way. The writing is more self-assured, the characters are fully fleshed-out people, and Bujold has clearly settled into her world. There is a great depth of history and culture in Barrayar, and three of the best characters in science fiction--Aral Vorkosigan, Cordelia Naismith, and Miles Vorkosigan--are on full glorious display.

What sets Barrayar apart, though, is that Bujold absolutely nails the ending. I must quote the book's final paragraph, because if you don't get a little misty-eyed after reading the struggles of Aral, Cordelia and Miles, I don't know what to say.

Welcome to Barrayar, son. Here you go: have a world of wealth and poverty, wrenching change and rooted history. Have a birth; have two. Have a name. Miles means "soldier," but don't let the power of suggestion overwhelm you. Have a twisted form in a society that loathes and fears the mutations that have been its deepest agony. Have a title, wealth, power, and all the hatred and envy they will draw. Have your body ripped apart and re-arranged. Inherit an array of friends and enemies you never made. Have a grandfather from hell. Endure pain, find joy, and make your own meaning, because the universe certainly isn't going to supply it. Always be a moving target. Live. Live. Live.

Barrayar won both the Locus and Hugo Awards for Best Science Fiction Novel in 1992, and it's easy to see why. It's a smart space opera, but most of all it has memorable characters and it has heart.

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July 30, 2017

Review: The Queen of Swords

The Queen of Swords The Queen of Swords by R.S. Belcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a rough time rating this book. Parts of it I liked, and parts of it I didn't care for. That may be because it's the third book in the series and I haven't read the other two. Copious references are made to previous events, but the author does a nice job of summing them up, so I don't think that's the problem. This book has two main characters and two timelines, and it seems to me what I'm having trouble with is the fact that one character and timeline resonated for me, and the other simply did not.

Well, let's start with the character/timeline that absolutely worked: Anne Bonney. I would LOVE more books about her. She was a real person, a female pirate in the 18th century, and as far as I can tell, the author pretty much stuck to the facts of her early life. The branch point into the author's alternate history and universe begins in 1721, when Anne goes on a quest for her last great treasure, and falls into a world of gods, magic and vaguely Lovecraftian monsters. This quest takes her into the heart of Africa, where she meets a priestess of an ancient society of women called the Daughters of Lilith, who are fighting another ancient society of monsters called the Sons of Typhon. This priestess, Raashida, convinces Anne she is destined to take on what is called Lilith's Load, and protect the world from the Sons of Typhon. Anne does this, and her bloodline now belongs to the Daughters.

(A lot of Anne's story takes place in Africa. Since the author is a while male, this is a rather sensitive and potentially problematic storyline. He seems to have done his research and handles the various tribal cultures and customs with respect, and also tackles the racism and colonialism of the era. But I don't know enough about the real history to comment.)

Cue a hundred and fifty years later, with Anne's multiple-greats granddaughter, Maude Stapleton. In one of the previous books, Maude released Typhon from his prison, and this comes back to bite her, big-time. As far as I was concerned, Maude's storyline bogged the book down, because it felt like the author was losing control of his world. As just one example, Anne Bonney is still around when Maude is a child, specifically nine years old and several years after that, since Anne is mentioned as having given Maude her initial training. Which would have made Anne Bonney about 140-150 years old? Of course this is a fantasy, and there's several hints given as to how this might have happened (ingesting the Blood of Lilith), but all the people who have no idea this underworld of gods and monsters exists go around ignoring the fact that they're talking about Maude's great-great-great-great-grandmother? Who was still alive till 20-odd years ago? Come on, people.

Also, Maude is damn near as invulnerable as Superman (at least until she meets the Sons of Typhon), and there's no kryptonite to be found. Now, I like a badass female fighter as much as anyone, but the Daughters of Lilith take this rather over the top (their fighting techniques supposedly inspired all the martial arts in existence). There's also a convenient metaphysical place known as the Record which Maude discovers she can tap into (fifty years earlier than any other Daughter being able to do it), where she can converse with the spirits of the previous Daughters (and her own mother, apparently), and solve all her problems. I could go on, but you get the idea--it felt to me like the worldbuilding was coming apart, and my suspension of belief stretched to the breaking point.

Which is sad, because Anne Bonney was wonderful. I would love reading the story of how she rescued the tree people and acquired her sentient warship, the Hecate. She was a realistic, flawed, human character. Unfortunately, at the end of the book we're left with Maude Stapleton teaching and nurturing the next generation of the Daughters of Lilith, and after her disappointing story in this book, I'm not inclined to go any further.

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July 27, 2017

Review: The Refrigerator Monologues

The Refrigerator Monologues The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1999, comics writer Gail Simone came up with "Women In Refrigerators," a comic book trope where female characters are injured or killed as a plot device to move the hero's story arc forward. I know she didn't expect Catherynne M. Valente to write a lovely little book about this idea eighteen years later, but this novella, or maybe short novel, both brings this repulsive idea to life and turns it inside out, to memorable effect.

I've been iffy about most things I've read from Valente so far. Sometimes her prose seems lush and lyrical, and simply purple and overwrought at other times. That is definitely not the case with this book: her writing here is tight and punchy, and the voices of the characters shine through. This is a series of six interlocking stories set in Valente's comic-book universe, where six (sometimes thinly disguised) wives and girlfriends of superheroes tell their stories. These women are all dead. Now they are members of the Hell Hath Club, and they meet in the Lethe Cafe in Deadtown to tell their stories, the deaths that provided fuel for the men left behind. As Valente puts it, in three scorching sentences that are the heart of this book:

I belong in the refrigerator. Because the truth is, I'm just food for a superhero. He'll eat up my death and get the energy he needs to become a legend.

(I'm trying to figure out which current or past characters these fictional women represent. Paige Embry seems to be Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man's dead girlfriend; in the second story, "The Heat Death of Julia Ash," by far the most unsettling story in the book, Julia Ash is apparently Jean Grey from the X-Men; Pauline Ketch, with her terrible dysfunctional relationship, is obviously Harley Quinn; Bayou is Mera, wife of Aquaman; Samantha Dane, in the last story in the book, is the stand-in for Alexandra Dewitt, the girlfriend of Green Lantern who was killed and stuffed in a refrigerator, thus starting this whole thing. The only one I'm not sure about is Daisy Green? From various comments I've read, her analogue is Karen Page, but I don't really know who that is.)

This is a powerful little book. It tears apart the idiotic "women in refrigerators" trope and shows it for the sad, sexist fail in storytelling it really is. (Yes, I know it's not restricted to superhero universes--vigilante tales often start with the deaths of the hero's wife and family to send him on a revenge quest to slaughter those responsible, although the recent film John Wick turned this on its head a bit by sending the retired assassin after the people who killed his puppy. Thus pointing out the stupidity of the entire idea.) It's the most tightly written story I've seen from Catherynne Valente, with the novella/short novel length being exactly right. It's well-thought-out and entertaining, but at the same time it gives you a lot to think about. Most likely you'll never look at a comic book story the same way again.

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July 19, 2017

Review: The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help

The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book constituted a break from my usual diet of SF and fantasy. I've never heard any of Amanda Palmer's music, or participated in her Kickstarters and Patreon, but I have followed her blog for years, after meeting her via Neil Gaiman (to whom she's married). This is a combination of a self-help book, an explanation of how she manages her free-for-all Internet business and musical presence, a discussion of Life and Art, and a memoir. The writing style is very freewheeling and stream-of-consciousness, so if you don't like that sort of thing, be warned.

For me, the book was most successful as a memoir: chronicling Palmer's marriage to Neil Gaiman and the illness of her dear friend and father figure, Anthony Martignetti. (Sadly, Martignetti has since died.) She reveals some pretty intimate details about her life and marriage, unusually so for a celebrity, but that is definitely Amanda Palmer--TMI is her middle name. Her writing has a coherence and an emotional punch in those sections that is not found, for the most part, in the more rambling sections about her music and art. That's not to say that the latter subjects are bad, just that they're not as interesting. The book does seem to get better and more focused as it goes along.

All in all, this book was a pleasant enough diversion. It won't win any awards, but it's an engaging look at the life of one of the more unusual artists and musicians of our times.

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July 16, 2017

Hugo Voting: Best Series

The nominations for Best Series (a trial category that may or may not be a one-off. I think it does present logistical problems, as voters have quite enough to read already, between judging one year's finalists and nominating for the next. Still, I gave it my best shot):

The Craft Sequence, by Max Gladstone (Tor Books)
The Expanse, by James S.A. Corey (Orbit US / Orbit UK)
The October Daye Books, by Seanan McGuire (DAW / Corsair)
The Peter Grant / Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch (Gollancz / Del Rey / DAW / Subterranean)
The Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Harper Voyager UK)
The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)

This one was tough. I actually did no's #4-7 quite a while ago, and then wrestled with, thought about, placed and replaced my Top 3 choices in endlessly different combinations for the past several weeks. I deliberately waited till the last day of voting to finalize my choices, so I wouldn't be tempted to fiddle-fart around with the numbers over and over again.

But here they are. My ballot:

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

7) The Peter Grant/Rivers of London series

You know, I think a successful series also requires a good, relatable main character. Said character doesn't necessarily have to be likable--a well-written character is quite capable of being compelling without being likable. But one's main character should not be anything like this smarmy little twit named Peter Grant. "Harry Potter grew up to be a smug, irritating London constable" is not a good look on anyone, and this book spoiled me on reading the rest of the series.

6) No Award

League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

5) The Temeraire series

This series came to its end this year, which is sad, as I loved the dragons. (With the possible exception of the first three books, Naomi Novik has been better at writing her draconic characters than her human ones.) I think the series did come to a (mostly) satisfying end, but serious plot and pacing problems with this book prevented me from placing the series any higher.

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

4) The Craft Sequence

This series takes a little different tack than some--here we have a shared world with different main characters, at least in the books I read. (I will admit I didn't read all the books in these series; there simply wasn't time. But I read enough of each to get a sense of the characters and story, and I felt I was able to fairly judge them.) Max Gladstone's worldbuilding is intricate and complex, unique in urban fantasy (by the third book, I didn't think it was "urban" anymore, if it ever was). It suffers a bit from not having a single consistent main character, though.

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

3) The Expanse

I love the TV adaptation of these books on Sy Fy. Of course, we're talking about the print series here, which is an entirely different beast. These are fat books with complicated plots and multiple POVs. Most of the time I don't particularly care for the latter, preferring to stick with one protagonist; but in this series, the author makes it work. It helps that in this universe, the politics of Earth/Mars/the Belt (and beyond, as revealed in book #3, Abaddon's Gate) is as fascinating as the "kickass space opera" aspects. I may have ended up placing the series in this slot, but I did so by a hair.

2) The Vorkosigan Saga

Honestly, I expect Lois McMaster Bujold to win this category. (I placed this series second basically by a coin toss.) Aral Vorkosigan, Cordelia Naismith and Miles Vorkosigan are three of the great characters in science fiction, and Bujold already has four Hugos for works in this series (three Best Novel awards, for The Vor Game, Barrayar and Mirror Dance, and Best Novella for "The Mountains of Mourning"). It's space opera in its grandest form, with interstellar wars, culture clashes, and a physically limited hero who has to outthink his opponents rather than outfight them.

The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire

1) The October Daye series

Urban fantasy, as a genre, is generally overlooked at the Hugos. If the Best Series category goes forward, that would be one way of remedying this. (I had several urban fantasy series on my own ballot.) For me, a successful series has to have A) a great central character; and B) complex worldbuilding. This series definitely delivers the goods. Toby Daye has an unforgettable voice, and Seanan McGuire's Faerie is fascinating.

Next: Best Fan Writer, and finally, Best Novel