January 31, 2016

Review: Mechanica

Mechanica Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a delightful retelling of Cinderella, complete with magic, the fey, and one of the cutest mechanical animals I have yet run across. (I would pay good money if someone could make me a little glass-bodied, gear-driven horse.) The story is also a feminist updating of the traditional fairy tale, complete with a heroine that ends up, not with the prince, but with her own workshop and an independent life.

The basic setup is loosely the same--Nicolette's mother is a famous inventor who also uses Fey magic in her inventions, and dies when her daughter is only nine years old. Nicolette's father remarries, and the "Steps," his new wife and her daughters Piety and Chastity, come onto the scene. Nicolette's father also dies shortly afterwards, and the Steps promptly make Nicolette their house servant. But upon her sixteenth birthday, Nicolette discovers her mother's hidden workshop, and all the mechanical animals she left behind--including the miniature horse Jules--and she sets a goal for herself: start selling her inventions, find mentors and investors in the city, and set up her own business, just as her mother had.

Some other reviews have called this book boring. I don't see it at all. Nicolette is an inventor, and the minutiae of how she builds things is an integral part of the story. The only thing I think is lacking is a better defined antagonist--the author tries to use the Steps to fill this role, but the two daughters are fluffy and forgettable, and the stepmother, in the end, comes off as pitiable instead of nasty. The business about the Fey, the source of Nicolette's mother's magic, could have been better integrated into the plot, I think. There are elements of colonialism and discrimination that could have heightened the conflict and suspense. The ending also sort of peters out, with hints about a coming war with the Fey. I suppose this means there's going to be a sequel, but it seems like the last few chapters of the story could have done with a bit of tightening up.

I do want to commend the author for not bogging down the story with the romance. This is a thoroughly modern Cinderella, after all. Nicolette turns down her prince and does not regret it, and the central relationship in the book is her friendship with Caroline. (And also, I suppose, Jules and the various mechanical insects.) There are some faults with this book, but in the end it's lovely, and well worth seeking out.

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Review: Reawakened

Reawakened Reawakened by Colleen Houck
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My reaction to this book seesawed up and down as I read it. Some parts I liked, other parts I didn't. In the end, my overall reaction is pretty meh, and I won't look for the sequel, if there is one.

First, the good parts: The Egyptian setting and pantheon of gods is fantastic. That immediately makes this book stand out. The author obviously did her research, which I appreciate. She does well with the setting of both ancient and modern Egypt, and the claustrophobic feeling of crawling in tunnels under the pyramids.

Unfortunately, this does not translate to her characters, in particular the protagonist, Lily. There's far more telling to her characterization than showing, which put me off. (For instance, she claims to feel smothered by the high expectations of her parents, but I never saw a scene really illustrating this, so it just came off as rich-girl whining.) Then there is the problem of purple prose and overwriting, which kept popping up like a bad penny. Particularly when it came to Lily's romance with the Egyptian sun god she accidentally awakens, Amon. The appearance of another of the reawakened Egyptian gods, Asten--Amon's brother-- helped mitigate this somewhat, as Asten is the kind of vain irreverent smartass this story needed. (In fact, I would rather that Asten had been the plot's driver and Lily's love interest than his too-serious brother Amon. Asten gave the story a much-appreciated kick in the pants, but he was gone too soon.)

The main reason I read YA is that the better writers make their books appeal to a wider audience than just teenagers. Unfortunately, this book does not cross that threshold.

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Review: Rat Queens, Vol. 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth

Rat Queens, Vol. 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth Rat Queens, Vol. 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth by Kurtis J. Wiebe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first volume of Rat Queens last year, and immediately fell in love with it. It pushed all my feelgood buttons: strong female characters, irreverence, humor, unapologetic sexuality, cool art. This second volume continues in the same vein, even with the sudden switch in artists (due to the domestic violence arrest of the original inker). The new artist, Stjephan Sejic, has a leaner, more stripped down style. I think I prefer the brighter colors of volume 1, but given the darker turn of this story, the new palette is probably appropriate.

What I really enjoyed about this installment is the focus on the characters. We have extended backstories on Violet (actually seeing her with her beard) and Hannah (who we find out is the daughter of a demon, also getting an answer as to why she wears her hair so funky). Dee, or Delilah, discovers that her family's god (the titular N'Rygoth) really exists, and is far more of a monster than a being that ought to be worshipped. (In the end, she ends up the High Priestess of said god, which promises to be an exciting storyline for her. I hope the writer does it justice.)

The humor, quips and puns is not quite so prominent in this volume, given the darker storyline. I'm sure some people will miss that, but there is enough here to satisfy, especially given the greater depth to the characters. In any event, I'm looking forward to the next volume.

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January 18, 2016

Review: Lumberjanes, Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy

Lumberjanes, Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy Lumberjanes, Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is cute, and I didn't think I would enjoy it nearly as much as I did. It's ostensibly written for young girls, but I knew something else was going on from the second page, when one of the characters exclaimed: "What in the Joan Jett are you doing?"

From there, we were off on a rip-roaring tale of female friendship, agency, adventure, and overall awesomeness.

Our five titular Lumberjanes are attending a summer camp called the "Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types," with a theme of "Friendship to the Max!" (This volume is the collection of the first four comics, and is laid out like a "Lumberjanes Field Manual," including the different badges--especially the hilarious "Pungeon Master Badge"--and pages describing the Lumberjanes' purpose, programs, and objectives. It's an effective method of helping the reader suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the Lumberjanes' world.) Our characters are Mal, Molly, April, Ripley, and Jo, with the standouts, to me, being the latter two: Ripley is a fearless, impetuous little imp, and Jo is the science nerd (and I would say, the oldest of the five--there aren't any ages given, but it seems to me they'd be in the twelve-fourteen range, as befits their audience) who solves Fibonacci sequences.

Their adventures include fighting off three-eyed foxes, winding their way through an underground maze filled with talking statues and anagrams, battling yetis and river monsters, and falling in with a group of "scouting lads" who turn into frothing zombies at night. (Said scouting lads also includes a panel which convinced me that this comic isn't written entirely for young girls--the scoutmaster is a macho blowhard who spouts stuff like "Cookies are for the weak. Real men should be splitting wood and smoking pipes!" and "I am going to catch a fish by wrestling it away from a bear!" Only an adult could appreciate this over-the-top sendup of toxic masculinity.)

All in all, this little book is a delight. There are several sly pop-culture references, including a shout-out to "Holy Mae Jemison!" and an anagram of The X-Files' "the truth is out there." I'll certainly be on the lookout for Volume 2.

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January 17, 2016

Review: The Sculptor

The Sculptor The Sculptor by Scott McCloud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm just starting to dip my toe into the graphic-novel waters, and this is a helluva rock to trip over. I checked it out because I've seen it recommended by, among others, George RR Martin.

Well, they're right. This is just amazing.

This is a story about art, and life, and how much of the latter one is willing to sacrifice for the former. In the case of David Smith, the price he will pay is his life: he makes a deal with Death to be able to sculpt anything and everything he envisions. It's sort of a superhero power, to work stone, iron and any other medium with his bare hands like wet sand--but he has to use that power within 200 days, before he dies.

Just because he can now create these amazing sculptures doesn't mean he's suddenly famous. In fact, this becomes one of the many weighty questions tackled by this story: just what is fame, what does it mean, what is "celebrity" and is it worth it, and how does art tie with with fame and life and celebrity and love.

David can't outwit his fate. He agreed to this bargain, and he follows it through to the bitter end. Even more so, because during that 200 days he falls in love. If there's one knock against this book, it's how the author treats the character of Meg--for crying out loud, he didn't need to kill her off just as David's time was drawing to an end. That felt cheap and unnecessary. There was quite enough power and emotional resonance to the basic setup without resorting to the refrigerator.

The art was rather odd for a graphic novel. Others I've seen have had full-color panels; these are blue and black. Yet the art grew on me, to the point where I didn't miss the other colors. McCloud does wonderfully well with his limited palette, especially in the last few pages of the book when David's life flashes before his eyes. This is a powerful, poignant story, and it should be up for awards--and will be, if I have anything to say about it.

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Review: The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to last year's Hugo Award-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem. I read that book and didn't care for it much; the author pretty much sacrificed his characters to his ideas, to put it mildly. However, it was voted Best Novel, so when this one came out, I decided to give it a try.

This is a (marginally) better book than Three Body, but I wouldn't really call it good. I wonder if that has something to do with the translation. The translator for this book is Joel Martinsen, and the prose seems to flow far more smoothly. Unfortunately, that doesn't cure the author's propensity for great whacking chunks of technobabble throughout the book, to the point where I felt stuck inside a bad Star Trek episode. (I could have spent my entire life without knowing how to, in every excruciating detail, construct bullets from an iron meteorite that will penetrate a space suit, kill the person inside, and disintegrate on contact, for example.) This reaches its zenith in a frenetic action piece which I suppose the author thought would look good on a movie screen; it's where an advance probe sent out by the invading Trisolarans, called a "droplet" and constructed out of a material "a hundred times [stronger] than the sturdiest material in the Solar System", that has a surface like "a smooth mirror" (repeated ad nauseum), busts loose and destroys the entire human space fleet, a thousand warships, in twenty minutes. (Yeah, I know that sounds totally implausible. You'll just have to read the book to see if it passes muster. That is, if you can stand plowing through this five-hundred-page monster.)

The characterization in this book is not any better than the first, and in many ways is worse, particularly in regards to the female characters; to put it bluntly, the book is nearly a total sausage-fest. I guess this wouldn't be so much of a problem if you could tell the male characters apart, but with the possible exception of the nominal protagonist, Luo Ji, they're as interchangeable and bland as upside-down puzzle pieces. (After a while, I started skipping over the names entirely, as these people had no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever.) I suppose these cardboard characters are a minimal improvement over the tissue-thin characters of the first book, and in any case it's the hard science fiction ideas that propel this book and the series as a whole. However, I am not a physics student, and I do not need to know exactly how a thousand warships were destroyed, spread out over fifteen excruciating pages. If there are no people aboard any of those ships I have come to know and care about, the author is just spinning his wheels, and all those deaths mean nothing to me as a reader.

(This entire sequence pretty much meant nothing anyway, because the aforementioned Luo Ji singlehandedly stops the Trisolaran invasion, basically by running a giant bluff. The aliens are not poker players, that's for sure. Again, you'll have to read the book to find out. But I felt more than a bit cheated, because the climax meant this entire doorstop could have been reduced to novella length at the most, and I wouldn't have had to waste all those days on it.)

I'm sure some people will love this book, as it's the kind of old-fashioned idea-rich narrative that isn't published as much as it used to be. Unfortunately, it leaves me cold.

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January 11, 2016

Godspeed, Major Tom

So I imagine everyone has heard. The rock  n' roll band in Heaven has added another illustrious member.

David Bowie, 1947-2016

Everyone is talking about the music, of course. What I wanted to talk about here was his film work. He made quite a few movies, and two of them are favorites of mine.

The first, of course, was the wonderfully weird The Man Who Fell To Earth.

(Man, movie trailers were strange back then.)

Another highlight was the vampire film The Hunger, with Catherine Deneuve.

One of his best-known roles was Jareth the Goblin King, in Jim Henson's Labyrinth. At one of the places I frequent, we recently had a Best Fantasy Movie bracket, and Labyrinth finished quite high in the voting. (Although the movie didn't win, we agreed that "David Bowie's trousers" should have garnered some sort of Supporting Actor award.)

But my favorite role of Bowie's is Nikola Tesla, from the underrated Christopher Nolan movie The Prestige. This film has one of the creepiest endings I've ever seen. Not to mention the dueling eye candy of Bowie, Hugh Jackman, and Christian Bale. 

This is a sad day. But we have the music, we have the films, and most of all, we have the memories.


January 7, 2016

Review: Nimona

Nimona Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I tried twice to read this, and each time I bounced off. Nimona was a mildly interesting character, but that wasn't enough to overcome the general silliness of the world and story, and the simplistic and unengaging artwork. Definitely not for me.

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January 5, 2016

Review: Ancillary Mercy

Ancillary Mercy Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Warning: This will contain spoilers for all three books in the Imperial Radch series.)

This book is the last in what I think is one of the finest science fiction trilogies of this century. The first book, Ancillary Justice, rightfully won every major award in the field in 2014--the Hugo, the Nebula, the Arthur C. Clarke, Locus (First Novel) and British Science Fiction Assocation awards. The second book, Ancillary Sword, was regarded as a bit of a letdown by many--the dreaded "middle book" syndrome--but I was one of a minority who actually liked it better than Justice. It was a quieter, more introspective story, and it was definitely going in another direction than the splashier, steeped in ideas and worldbuilding tone of Justice. There are two very different threads throughout both of these books, and when I finished with Ancillary Sword I took a deep breath and crossed my fingers, hoping Ancillary Mercy would be the book to bring it on home.

Ann Leckie has done just that. In spades.

It's only now that I've read all three books that I can see the themes the author has woven throughout her narrative. Indeed, the books' titles sum up these themes pretty well. On the surface, you'd think they merely reflect the three classes of warships found in the Radch empire: Justice, Sword and Mercy. But as with most everything in these books, there's deeper layers of meaning, seen only when the totality of the story is laid out. In the first book, the final surviving fragment of the artificial intelligence of the troop carrier Justice of Toren, our protagonist Breq, is fired up--indeed, well-nigh obsessed--with exacting her revenge, and justice for the people slaughtered by her ship's destruction, upon the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai. As a character, Breq is still very much an "ancillary," flat and stoical and emotionless, looking at the world through an AI's eyes. At the end of this book, Breq casts her lot with the more pacifistic side of Anaander Mianaai's fractured consciousness (and yes, I know I'm greatly oversimplifying the plot), partly because, I think, she begins to realize that as much as she wants to, she cannot destroy the Lord of the Radch. How can one ancillary bring down a ruler with thousands of different bodies spread across as many star systems?

In Ancillary Sword, we take a complete left turn: Breq is given her own ship and command in a remote system far away from Anaander Mianaai, and through solving the problems and weathering the crises in this story, she learns to be both more than human (because she doesn't want to be human) and more than the A.I. she once was. (Ann Leckie also begins to display the puckish sense of humor that will come into full flower in the third book, i.e. Athoek Station's penis festival.) The book ends with Breq knowing that she will never have what she had as Justice of Toren, but realizing that what she now has may just be enough. The "sword" has been sharpened, and is ready to take flight on its own.

In Ancillary Mercy, the themes that have been woven into the story from the start burst into the open: the treatment of the AIs by the Radchaai Empire, and Breq's fight to, not necessarily destroy Anaander Mianaai (since it's abundantly clear by now that she can't do that), but to divorce herself, her ship and friends and ultimately all the AIs in the Empire, from the Lord of the Radch, and to carve out a space where she, and they, will no longer be property, but people. To do this, she enlists the gun that has been sitting on the mantlepiece since the first book: the alien race the Presger (still unseen at the end of the trilogy, but as far as I can gather some kind of fantastically technologically advanced hive mind), the one thing that scares the crap out of Anaander Mianaai.

(In fact, in the climax to the book, there are a few almost throwaway lines that are among the most poignant of the entire series. It's during the final showdown with Anaander Mianaai, and Sphene, another ancillary from an ancient warship that has fallen in with Breq, is upbraiding the Lord of the Radch.

"Usurper," replied Sphene, with an eerily bright smile. "If I were to punch you in the face right now, or maybe throttle you for a minute or two, would that affect this extremely stupid agreement with my cousin? I want to so very much, so much that I'm not sure I can put it into words for you, but Justice of Toren will take it very badly if I endanger Athoek Station."

"Can I be a cousin, too?" asked Station, from the wall console.

"Of course you can, Station," I said. "You always have been."

Breq, the Sword, is indeed here, kicking ass and taking names; but true to the title of the book, she is asking for--and showing--Mercy. Mercy for herself, her family aboard her ship, and her expanded family of AIs. She demands the alien Presger grant the AIs the status of "Significant", which will in effect free them from Radchaai slavery. The book, and the trilogy, ends on this hopeful note, and also ends with one of the best feelings a work of fiction can give the reader: that these people are real and alive in some alternate dimension, and their lives will go on far beyond the point when the last page is finally turned.

(Of course, there's a lot more to the final book, particularly humor. As in laugh-out-loud in several places, involving Sphene, the Presger translator Zeiat, tea, and fish sauce. I think most every reader I've talked to would pay a great deal of money for the Continuing Adventures of Sphene and Zeiat.)

This book--indeed, all three books--demands to be reread, to pick out the things so skillfully placed that can only be seen and understood with knowledge of the entire trilogy. In many ways, it's old fashioned space opera with a distinctly modern edge: themes of gender, identity, self-determination, of finding your place and fighting for it, of demanding to live your life on your terms, not anyone else's. It's just masterfully done, braiding everything together to such a satisfying conclusion. These books are the best I have read in a long, long time.

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