September 21, 2017

Review: Sea of Rust

Sea of Rust Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book definitely falls into what I would define as High Concept. It can be summed up in one sentence: "What happens after Skynet/the Terminators/the Cylons win the war?"

No, folks, there isn't a plucky band of humans who defeat the machines. When this book opens, the war has been over for thirty years, and humans have been extinct for fifteen. (Although that sounds a bit suspect to me--there's no one left in the heart of the Amazon jungle? In the Himalayas? In the far north of Siberia? Maybe if there's a sequel, we'll find out.) That's part of what makes this book so unique: all the characters (except in the flashbacks) are robots. They're built by humans, of course, programmed to serve humans, and thus have a great deal of human-like behavior. But in the end they are artificial intelligences--alien beings--and in many subtle ways, this book makes that clear. They have their own culture, history and world.

C. Robert Cargill is apparently also a screenwriter, and I can see a rough three-act structure in the way this novel is written. The first third of the book introduces the characters and begins the worldbuilding; the second act is a little quieter, allowing for quite a few philosophical debates about the nature of intelligence and free will; and the third act starts with a jaw-dropping reveal of backstory which turns everything our protagonists thought they understood about themselves and their world on its head. From there the tension and action is ramped up mercilessly, as our plucky, 'scuse me, grumpy and cynical band of robots faces off against one of two OWIs, "One World Intelligences" (just think of them as competing species of Borg, if you're into Star Trek) seeking to assimilate any remaining "freebots." Cargill's prose is clean and straightforward, and he damn sure knows his way around a firefight. (I don't know if this book has been optioned for film, but I wouldn't be surprised. Although the amount of CGI that would be required to film this story--since it would be kind of hard to use human actors, except for the sexbots--would be unimaginable.)

I've seen some people complaining about the flashback chapters, but I really liked them. Since this story turns the man vs. machine trope on its head, we need to know how we got here, and Cargill delivers. These chapters also illuminate our main character, Brittle, a caregiver bot struggling to survive, who is reduced to cannibalizing her fellow robots for parts. (Yeah, they think of themselves as male and female, mostly because they were assigned gender by their previous owners. This also highlights a limitation of the English language, as it would be hard to have a whole book of characters calling each other "it.") Brittle has a very nice character arc in this book, developing from a cynical, selfish scavenger to a badass willing to sacrifice her existence for a chance to defeat the OWIs.

This is just a damn good story, and the philosophical and ethical underpinnings are the icing on the cake.

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September 16, 2017

Review: Brimstone

Brimstone Brimstone by Cherie Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cherie Priest wrote one of my all-time favorite books in Maplecroft--the story of the infamous Lizzie Borden wielding her axe against slithery, slimy Lovecraftian horrors. Besides her real-life heroine, Priest wove an exquisite tapestry of real people and places.

Now she's done it again with this book.

Brimstone is set in the real-life town of Cassadaga, Florida, the "Psychic Capital of the World," according to Wikipedia, and features its actual founding father, George Colby. (Although I doubt very much that gentleman really ran up against the hateful, witch-hunting, firestarting revenant pictured here.) The town is a character in itself, capturing the sights and smells and sticky subtropical heat of Florida wonderfully. (It sure doesn't make me want to live there, even before we get into the alligators and hurricanes.) Our two protagonists are Alice Dartle and Tomas Cordero, a budding medium and World War I veteran respectively. Alice heads to Cassadaga to liberate herself from her family, to stand on her own two feet and explore her psychic abilities:

I have some money, some education, and some very unusual skills--and I intend to learn more about them before I wear anybody's ring. If nothing else, I need to know how to explain myself. Any true love of mine would have questions. Why do I see other people's dreams? How do I listen to ghosts? By what means do I know which card will turn up next in a pack--which suit and which number will land faceup upon a table? How do I use those cards to read such precise and peculiar futures? And pasts?

I don't know, but I am determined to find out.

Tomas Cordero, on the other hand, is a damaged man, still trying to cope with his return from the war and the death of his wife.

It never gets easier to say her name, but with practice and habit I can make it sound effortless. I can make it sound like I've fully recovered, scarcely a year since I came home from the front and they told me she was dead from the flu. She was buried in a grave with a dozen others, on the outside of town. Perhaps it was this grave, in this place--or maybe it was that grave, in some other quarter. No one was certain. So many graves had been dug, you see. So many bodies has filled them up, as fast as the shovels could dig. The whole world was crisscrossed with trenches and pits, at home and abroad. If the dead were not felled by guns, then they were swept away by illness.

It was just as well that I went to war. There was no safety in staying behind.

But when Tomas Cordero came back from the war, he brought something with him. Something dark and full of hate, that starts setting fires in the town where he lives. Something that Alice Dartle sees in her dreams. And when Tomas goes to Alice for help, he takes this something along with him, and unleashes it on Cassadaga.

Tomas and Alice tell this story in alternating first-person viewpoint chapters. A writer has to have a good handle on her characters to pull this off, and Priest succeeds admirably. I particularly liked the fact that there was no romantic relationship between her two protagonists (though there is a hint of romance at the very end, between Alice and someone else). This allows both Tomas and Alice to have their own backstories, desires, and agency, and doesn't cast either one as dependent on the other or on their relationship for their presence in the narrative. Establishing both these people takes up a bit of space at the beginning of the book, which some readers might view as slow. I thought both characters were interesting enough that I didn't mind, and in any case when Tomas gets to Cassadaga the book picks up.

In the end, this is a story about the power of love, and community, against the power of hate. It is a thoroughly delightful tale.

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September 13, 2017

Review: The Guns Above

The Guns Above The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There were a couple of times when this book nearly met the wall, especially in the earlier chapters. One of the characters (unfortunately, the main POV character) is such a vain, obnoxious, sexist ass that he made the book very hard to read. That is my main knock against this book: why, when you have such a wonderful protagonist as Josette Dupre, the first female combat airship captain, would you choose to tell her story through the eyes of the entitled male "fop" who is actively working to bring her down?

This seems to me to be wrong authorial decision. And while said "fop" does grow and change a bit through the book, and eventually comes to respect and support Josette, the entire narration of this novel just feels like a sadly missed opportunity. I would much rather have spent more time in Josette's head. What caused her to join the air corps, disguising herself as a man? What obstacles did she face to get to where she is? The topic of sexual harassment is notably glossed over in this book; one would think that should have been a major plot point, given the ongoing problems of integrating real-world armies. (Indeed, this book's supporting characters are poorly drawn and almost indistinguishable.) Instead, we have such irritating bits as Bernat's wanting Josette to "smile more" (AAARRGH! I hate that in real life, and I hate it more in my books). This just comes back to the fact that he is entirely the wrong viewpoint character for this book, and he almost sinks it.

Why then, you may ask, did I give the book three stars? Because of the fast pace, the tightly and carefully ratcheting suspense, and the thrilling battle scenes. I don't know if the author has ever been in the armed forces, but she certainly seems to know her way around a battlefield. The gore and the muck, the tedium and terror of war, are fully explored. The technology of a combat airship is well thought out, and there are exciting scenes of battles in cloud banks, and Josette's airship Mistral running silent like a submarine. Once we get into the actual fighting, the book picks up, and I raced through it to the end.

This doesn't take away the clumsily written characterization, however. Unless "the fop" is gotten rid of, or at the very least sidelined in favor of Josette Dupre taking center stage, I won't be picking up the sequel.

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September 10, 2017

Review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wasn't quite sure what to write about this book. I liked it; I thought it was relatively well written, for a newbie author; I appreciated what she had to say about being poor in America; but I wondered at the defensive tone seeping into much of the book.

Then I read some of the reviews on Goodreads, and I understood where that defensiveness came from.

To put it bluntly, many of the reviews here (the one-star ones in particular) have nothing to do with the merits--or lack thereof--of the book, and everything to do with the supposed shortcomings of the author. Sanctimonious, patronizing, name it. (To be fair, this site is not unique; the same kind of sneering it's-all-their-own-fault attitude can be found in the comments section of every article about poor people I've ever read.) I'm not going to mention anyone in particular; you know who you are. I would like to ask, though, just why you think demonizing, and dehumanizing, poor people is a good thing. Especially when a few bad breaks could land you, me, or any of us in Linda Tirado's situation.

Yes, she smokes, or she did when she wrote this. So what? She explains her reasons for doing so; I may not agree with them, but I have no business condemning her until I've walked a mile in her shoes, and neither do you. You think she has a bad attitude? I would too, if I were surrounded by people eager to bash me for something I had little to no control over. To paraphrase Darth Vader, I find your lack of empathy disturbing.

What I think her book clearly illustrates is that for many Americans, the so-called American dream doesn't exist any more, if it ever did. In today's unequal society, where a minimum-wage job doesn't even mean survival, much less living, you simply cannot pull yourself up by your Magical Bootstraps. You need help, and a lot of it. And it behooves me, as well as everyone else who has been luckier (and more privileged) than others, to provide that help.

You hang in there, Linda. Your book has revealed some ugly strains running through the fabric of America, and I apologize for that.

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September 6, 2017

Review: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 7: Damage Per Second

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 7: Damage Per Second Ms. Marvel, Vol. 7: Damage Per Second by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Any long-running series will have volumes of lesser quality. I own nearly all the Ms. Marvel paperback collections, and the last two, Super Famous and Civil War II, have been right up there in terms of quality, the latter less so than the former. The natural cycle of good/bad would dictate that we were due for a (relative) stinker...and unfortunately, this is it.

That's not to say that this collection is all bad. Parts of it were interesting (especially the finale with Bruno in Wakanda) but it doesn't hang together to produced a focused whole. The "internet virus" storyline, in the middle, was particularly ho-hum, at least to me. There were some good points about compassion, and being true to yourself and standing up to bullies. Zoe's and Nakia's little side story was touching. But the villain, the malignant computer virus who tried to blackmail Kamala, was definitely underwhelming, and the result was that the entire story seemed to be spinning its wheels. Also, I missed seeing Kamala's parents and brother; I've always thought that family dynamic was one of the cornerstones of the series.

(Also, can we get rid of the "secret identity" thing already? It's straining my suspension of disbelief to continue to assert that Kamala's friends and family don't know who she is. Bring it out in the open and deal with it. That would seem to be a far better source of stories than this was.)

I liked seeing how Bruno was adjusting to his disability and his life in Wakanda, and I can only trumpet over and over: MORE MIKE!! She deserves to be a full-blown sidekick, as far as I'm concerned. Hopefully the next volume will pick things up again, as this one simply missed the mark.

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September 4, 2017

Review: Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation

Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Damian Duffy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the graphic novel version of Octavia E. Butler's masterpiece. I read Kindred (the book) years ago; I need to read it again, as in a lot of ways I didn't really understand it. But I'm glad I picked this up, as this version of the story, condensed to its soul-shattering essence, shows the depth of Butler's enormous talent.

This is a story of slavery and oppression, and the psychology of both. The science-fiction, time-travel aspect is the most hand-wavey part of it, and I've seen other reviewers complain about how the mechanisms of both fell flat. Ignore these people, as the point is whooshing at skyscraper-like heights over their heads. Octavia Butler was not the least bit concerned with the how of Dana's arrival in 1815 Maryland. Her razor-sharp focus is on the characters, and what happens to them afterwards, and how the systems and mindset that made enslaving other human beings possible left its dark, ugly mark on everyone involved, a mark which echoes through this country's history down to the present day.

This story is also an examination of violence and abuse. Since the original storyline has been stripped down to fit in the graphic novel format, one can readily see the steady escalation in each successive chapter. In the beginning, Rufus is an innocent child, parroting the white supremacist mindset of his elders without understanding it. But as he grows, and continues to drag Dana back in time to save him, one can see the poison of antebellum society taking hold, despite Dana's best efforts to get him to see his slaves as people, not property. His obsession with Alice (and with controlling the slaves in general, as he's now the "Massa" after his father's death), who he rapes and fathers several children with (echoes of Thomas Jefferson), marks the point of his being past redemption, although Dana doesn't see this until the very end. She's remembering the child she rescued. But when Rufus states his intention to make Dana his sexual slave just as he did Alice, she resorts to what is, at that point, her only way out (since in that time and place she obviously can't expect help from the law or society in general)--she kills him.

By that time, the reader--or at least this reader--can't help but see the homicide as justifiable.

No doubt many people will feel the print book portrayed all this better. And this is, after all, pretty much an apples to oranges comparison, as a graphic novel necessarily takes a quite different tack. As I was reading, I thought at first that I didn't care much for the artwork. But after finishing the book and thinking about it some more, I find the art is growing on me. It's bright and harsh, all sharp lines and sometimes ugly sepia tones, but that's appropriate to the ugly story Butler is telling. Let's put it this way: it's about the furthest you can get from Marvel or DC Comics.

This book is tough to read, but don't let that stop you. And mourn that such a monumental talent as Octavia E. Butler was taken from us so soon.

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Review: Within the Sanctuary of Wings

Within the Sanctuary of Wings Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the final book in a thoroughly enjoyable series, and as such the revelations come thick and fast. The world of Isabella Trent is a sometimes thinly disguised Victorian England (with dragons--not as fantastic magical creatures, but as a real-world species subject to scientific scrutiny), with all the racism, sexism and colonialism of the day. The author does engage with this to an extent--Lady Trent is sponsoring a suffragette, for instance--but this obviously isn't a book about an alternate-history Victorian Revolution. It's about dragons, and science, and the scientific method, wrapped up in a character with a charming, memorable voice.

The bombshell reveal in this book prevents me from discussing the plot as much as I'd like. Suffice to say that Isabella is told about the discovery of a possible new species of dragon in the Mrtyahaima Mountains (a stand-in for the Himalayas), and in her usual single-minded way, she organizes an expedition to go there and check it out. (You know the author has a firm grasp of her character when said character acknowledges herself to be, as described by her husband, "the most practical and deranged woman he has ever met.") The story of what she finds there--and how she brings it to the world's attention--is a wonderful capper to this series.

The character and voice of Isabella and the compulsively readable prose carry the day. As a reader, I felt the author was in control of her characters and world at all times (which does not always happen in a multi-book series). Isabella is a scientist and a scholar, and it was a delight to see her lend her considerable intellect to solving the many problems she faced. The only noticeable problem was the sagging pace in the middle, an unfortunate side effect of the plot. Still, this book wraps everything up quite well, and both it and the series as a whole is recommended.

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August 30, 2017

Review: Hunger Makes the Wolf

Hunger Makes the Wolf Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alex Wells is a new author to me, but is one whose work I will be seeking out in the future. This is a first novel and has a few hiccups, but overall is a solid piece of work.

In particular, I appreciated the development of the two main characters. Hob Ravani, interplanetary biker and mercenary, starts out as a depressed, disillusioned screwup, recently disciplined by her leader and reduced to the status of "pup" (really the bottom of the ladder in her biker gang, the Ghost Wolves). By dint of stubbornness, hard work, and her own "witchy" ability to control fire, in the end she not only comes out on top, she is the leader of said Wolves. The other protagonist, Magdala Kushtrim,begins the story as a shy, mousy young girl whose father tries to pay for her passage offplanet (which does not work out), and ends the book the schemer and manipulator behind the scenes with grand plans to take down TransRift, the interstellar company with its thumb on the mining planet of Tanegawa's World and the people who live there.

Along the way we have an interesting world, a mining planet contaminated by something alien, something that rearranges the DNA of certain people and gives them powers, called "witchiness." This particular story line is wrapped up, but there are enough questions to warrant a sequel. I don't think this book quite rises to the level of being award-worthy, but it's a good story and worth reading.

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August 27, 2017

Review: American War

American War American War by Omar El Akkad
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I went back and forth on how to rate this book. There are many good things about it, things the author did well. At the same time, there's a giant elephant in the room the author ignored, to the book's detriment. I find this happens a lot when a so-called "literary" author ventures into the science fiction arena--to be done well (at least in my opinion), the worldbuilding has to be front and center. Not at the expense of the characters and plot, of course, but if you're writing SF and you don't have a believable world, all the pretty prose and deep characterization simply isn't going to make up for it. It's a trap I often see, and unfortunately Omar El Akkad has fallen headlong into it.

First, the good: This book is, indeed, beautifully written, with lovely flowing prose and stellar characterization. Our protagonist, Sarat Chestnut, is simultaneously a sympathetic and unlikable character, which is no mean feat. She does terrible things, but the reader understands why she does them at every point. This book is set in the latter part of this century, when climate change is really kicking in and the US has been balkanized as a result. Many coastal cities have drowned, the state of Florida has all but disappeared, Mexico has reclaimed much of its former territory and climate refugees from the coasts have streamed into the center of the country. In response to the passage of the Sustainable Future Act, a bill prohibiting the use of fossil fuels anywhere in the United States, five Southern states secede and the Second American Civil War rages for twenty years.

Unfortunately, at this point the speculative element breaks suspension of disbelief, and you can probably figure out why. This is because this book isn't primarily an SF story--it's a story of terrorism, and the stupidity of the War on Terror. (There's even a thinly disguised Guantanamo Bay called Sugarloaf, where Sarat is taken and tortured.) We see clearly where clamping down on "terrorists" backfires completely, only creating more of them, and making them more ruthless with each successive generation. Sarat's family, with one exception, is wiped out; she grows up in a refugee camp, and is thus ripe for recruitment into an organization that murders generals and eventually unleashes a ten-year plague on the remaining population of the United States.

All well and good, and tautly written. But the worldbuilding that leads up to this is simply not plausible, and this is because the author ignores the 800-pound gorilla in the corner: namely, the ugly strain of white supremacy and racism which has been present in this country since its inception, and is even now raising its rotten head yet again. To be frank, sure we could have our Second American Civil War, and this could even be over "state's rights" to continue to use fossil fuels, as heavy-handed and obvious a metaphor for slavery as this is. But it's a poor, unnecessary, and ultimately pointless metaphor, because no matter the ostensible reason for the five-state secession, you damn betcha the non-metaphor real thing of white supremacy and slavery would be coming to the fore in the Free Southern State once again. It's a disservice to the book, and something of an insult by the author, that he dismisses this predictable outcome completely.

This pretty much soured the book for me, as I kept waiting for the author to tackle this or at least mention it, and he never does. It's unfortunate, because as dark and bleak as this book is, it's exquisitely written. If he had just thought through his premise and its ramifications, he would have a four- or five-star winner. As it is, I can't really recommend it.

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August 26, 2017

Review: Agents of Dreamland

Agents of Dreamland Agents of Dreamland by CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think Caitlin R. Kiernan is one of the most overlooked, underrated writers of our time. She's won World Fantasy Awards and her work regularly appears in year-end "Best Of" editions, but she's never had the commercial breakthrough that many lesser writers have garnered. It would be a great thing if Agents of Dreamland changed that.

Let's see, where shall I start with this novella? Its layered, dense, fantastic writing? Its non-linear time structure (albeit clearly indicated by the chapter headings)? Its creepy, paranoid atmosphere, an artful, unexpected blend of the Lovecraft oeuvre and The X-Files? Its horrific story of a fungal alien invasion fit to give anyone nightmares? Its complex characterizations, as effortlessly written as I've ever seen?

I've read quite a few novellas so far this year. This one is a standout. Please, buy this and give Caitlin R. Kiernan the fame she deserves.

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