October 13, 2016

Review: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 5: Super Famous

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 5: Super Famous Ms. Marvel, Vol. 5: Super Famous by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I reviewed the previous Ms. Marvel, Last Days, I noted that the series had regained its usual quality following what I felt was a disappointing third volume, Crushed. This installment completes this return to form, taking its place alongside my favorite so far of the series, Generation Why.

I must admit that I haven't (so far) read any of the other relevant Marvel storylines, so I have no idea what went into Kamala Khan's becoming an Avenger. Not to worry. G. Willow Wilson does an admirable job of compressing these outside developments into three finely-drawn pages, and then we go back to the themes that make Super Famous such an excellent addition to the series.

In this volume, Kamala is torn between her duties as an Avenger and her family and friends. We realize, before she does, that she is stretching herself way too thin, and is trying, as she says, to be "too many things to too many people." Before this is resolved at the end, we are treated to two entertaining stories that drive the point home. In the first, her best friend Bruno (who she told in Last Days she couldn't be with because she had to devote herself to being Ms. Marvel) finds a girlfriend, Michaela "Mike" Miller. (By the way, Mike is an awesome addition to the series, and I hope we see more of her.) There is a bit of complicated arglebargle about Jersey City being taken over by a development company, Hope Yards, which turns out to be a front for the Avengers' old enemy, Hydra. Kamala and Mike work together to defeat Hydra (at least this time) and send it scurrying, but the tension between Kamala's private and superhero lives is driven home.

In the second story, Kamala's brother Aamir meets a young woman named Tyesha and wants to get married. Kamala's attempts to continue in school, help with the planning of her brother's wedding, and bust Jersey City's bad guys lead her to create copies of herself, aka "golems," so she can be in three places at once. This, of course, gets out of hand, and she ends up fighting a giant version of herself, and calling in Captain Marvel and Iron Man to help her out.

(Yes, Tony Stark has a couple of brief cameos here. These lead to the single funniest panel in the entire book, where he folds his arms, looks down at Kamala, and demands an explanation: "Spill it. Whatever it is. Otherwise, you're gonna have to explain the whole thing to Patriot Pants, and you know how he is." One can only imagine Robert Downey Jr. delivering this line.)

After taking in Carol Danvers' advice, Kamala realizes where her priorities lie. The themes of home and family espoused here may be simple, but sometimes the most basic ideas are the most powerful. In any case, Super Famous is delightful, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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"Your Face, It Was Apricot"

This is hysterical.

October 12, 2016

Review: The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics' Top Score—from Nadia to Now

The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics' Top Score—from Nadia to Now The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics' Top Score—from Nadia to Now by Dvora Meyers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was okay. The subject matter--the scoring format and history of gymnastics, from the viewpoint of the women who did or did not score a perfect 10--was interesting, and the author seems to have done her research, but she is not the most exciting writer in the world. She pales next to, for instance, Laura Hillenbrand. Also, with all the recent articles coming out about sexual abuse in gymnastics, the fact that she does not delve into this subject seems a glaring omission. Still, this is a fairly engaging book, especially when the author talks about individual competitors, such as Simone Biles.

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October 9, 2016

Review: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4: Last Days

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4: Last Days Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4: Last Days by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This volume of Ms. Marvel is much better than its predecessor, Crushed. That disappointed me, but in this volume we're back to the series' usual standard of excellence.

I haven't read the overall Marvel storyline, so I don't have any idea what's going on with the "incursion zone" appearing over Manhattan. To my mind, it doesn't really matter, as this volume is full of excellent character moments. Kamala meets up with her idol, Carol Danvers; she reveals who she is to her mother; she talks things out with her best friend, Bruno, and tells him that for now she must concentrate on being Ms. Marvel; she reconnects with a couple of friends; and in the most interesting vignette, we get to see a little bit of Kamala's brother Aamir, who just wants to "go to the mosque, volunteer, and read books."

The only complaint I have about this is that this volume only collects three of the comics, and the back half of the book is taken up by an Amazing Spider-Man crossover, which is pretty much filler and nowhere near as interesting.

I'm not into graphic novels to the extent that many people are, but this series has for the most part been a winner. Let's hope this high level of quality continues.

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October 5, 2016

Review: The Obelisk Gate

The Obelisk Gate The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to this year's Hugo Award winner for Best Novel, The Fifth Season. That book was the best book I read last year, and I was thrilled when it took home the rocket. This second book of the trilogy is, I think, just as good as the first, but in a different way.

(Warning: Spoilers follow. Proceed at your own risk.)

Second books in trilogies are often accused of being boring, or not as good as the first. To be sure, they have a necessary and unavoidable task, which is to set up the third and final book. Nevertheless, if handled right, they can become their own unique thing, especially if they take the story in unexpected directions. A prime example of this is the middle book of Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Sword. I am of the minority who liked that book better than the first volume, the multiple award-winning Ancillary Justice, and not the least because the sharp right turn it took and the seeds it planted paid off beautifully in the final book. The Obelisk Gate doesn't take this particular tack--the story continues as first established in The Fifth Season, and the narrative is more conventional (which is a relative term, as the POVs are either second person or third person, present tense). The protagonist Essun's chapters are still told in second person, but we don't have the braided three-character narrative, which is gradually revealed to be one person (Essun) under different names and at different points in her life.

What The Obelisk Gate does do, and do damn well, is take a spectacularly deep dive into its characters: Essun, her daughter Nassun, and the stone eater, Hoa, who is revealed to be the actual narrator of the story, with his sections in first person (and in first person as if talking to Essun--I'm not sure what "tense" that would be). Nassun's chapters are heartbreaking, the story of a little girl who is gradually forced to become what she thinks is a monster, a monster who will destroy everyone she loves. This is part of the setup for the third book, where I'm afraid, if I'm reading this right, Essun and her daughter will square off in a deadly, world-changing conflict.

This book also answers a great many questions raised by the first book (and asks still more). When I read the first book, I thought it had a very science-fiction feel, with the heavy emphasis on geology and what seemed to be psychic powers. In this book, the concept of "magic" as the basis for orogeny is introduced, although it's a unique definition of "magic" that, to me, still has a definite SF feel. (Your mileage may vary, which is why I tagged this one "science fantasy.") I love it when things are explained and those explanations make sense within the context of the story, as these do.

Overall, this book is not quite the shocker that The Fifth Season was. That book shook its readers (or at least this one) to the core, with its rich setting, its assured writing, its spot-on pacing and characterizations, and its unique structure. Now, in this book, the settings, characters and conflicts are set, so it is a quieter sort of story than its predecessor. Nevertheless, it is a very rewarding tale in its own right, and I can hardly wait for the final volume.

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September 28, 2016

Review: Invasive

Invasive Invasive by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book proudly wears its references on its sleeve. It's the child of Them! and Jurassic Park, with a large helping, now that I think about it, of George R.R. Martin's Sandkings. This is, depending on your point of view, either a good thing or a bad thing; the book is either paying homage or shamelessly ripping off. Personally, I think Wendig's book suffers by comparison to all three, and in my view it is not as memorable as any of its forebears.

This does not exactly make it a bad read, but it is not an outstanding one. It is fast, furious, snarky, depressing, harrowing in places, and unfortunately forgettable. I'm sure a movie will be made from it one of these days, but I won't be seeing it.

My main complaints are with the characters and the pacing. With the exception of the protagonist, the characterizations are shallow, and I didn't care about any of these people. (I eventually grew to resent the one- to three-page vignettes of characters that only existed to be devoured by our genetically engineered killer ants. At least Chuck Wendig was an equal-opportunity fridger--both men and women suffered this fate. But I would rather not have been introduced to them at all than to repeatedly see how many ingenious ways the ants can kill people.) The protagonist, Hannah Stander, was actually a well-fleshed-out character, and I wish the story had been told from her first-person point of view rather than the frantic, jittery third-person present-tense POV used. This ties in with my second complaint: the relentless, damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead pacing once the action gets going. There was no time to think or breathe. Again, that will make for a good film, but I don't care for it in a book. There has to be a chance to pause and reflect, to give the reader time to absorb what's happened and get ready for the next plot twist.

Ultimately, this was a summer beach read, nothing more. It's not something that's going to stick with me, or a book I will care to revisit.

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September 25, 2016

Review: Breath Of Earth

Breath Of Earth Breath Of Earth by Beth Cato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One reason I bought this book is its fantastic cover. It intrigued me: who is this woman and what is she holding? Then, after downloading the sample chapter from Amazon, I was hooked. I had to know how this story ended.

This is a steampunk alternate history, incorporating real-life characters (Theodore Roosevelt was prominently mentioned, though he never appears; I hope he shows up in the sequel) and tackling some sobering themes, including oppression of women and persecution of Chinese immigrants. The latter is a little-known and shameful history in early 20th-century California, as the author explains in her Author's Note. She had to do considerable research for this book, as the story is set at the time of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 (there is a bibliography of her sources in the back). It shows. The scenes set in the quake and its aftermath are harrowing.

But her worldbuilding impressed me the most. This is the most important element of a good story for me, followed by characterization and plot, and Cato aced all three. This is is a world where magic and mythical creatures--here called "fantastics"-- exist (one small detail that tickled me was an offhand comment about unicorns pulling wealthy people's carts in the San Francisco Heights), magically powered airships roam the skies, and "geomancers" prop up world economies and wield vast power. They are defined thusly:

Geomancy, however, was a rare skill among people and relied upon kermanite, an even rarer crystal that acted as a supreme electrical capacitor. Wardens absorbed the earth's energy from earthquakes and then channeled their power into kermanite, which was then installed in all varieties of machines. No other battery could keep airships aloft.

Kermanite had stimulated the Roman Empire two millennia past; now it was the Manifest Destiny of the United Pacific [United States and Japan; in this history, Japan and its airships helped the North win the Civil War] to govern the world, thanks in no small part to geomancers.

Unfortunately, the attitudes toward women in this history remain the same, and our protagonist, Ingrid Carmichael, a woman of color, bears the brunt. She is a female geomancer who is not supposed to exist, and she struggles under the same discrimination and constraints. Beth Cato sets all this up admirably in the first couple of chapters, and then we are plunged into a crackling good story, with mystery, intrigue, romance, well-developed secondary characters (including a transgender man) and culminating in the terrifying set piece of the earthquake. The book doesn't end there, but damn those chapters were outstanding.

It's always a pleasure to take a chance on a brand-new author and be so well rewarded. If you've never given Beth Cato a try, read this book. You won't regret it.

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September 18, 2016

Review: Behind the Throne

Behind the Throne Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was....okay. It's basically a court intrigue with a thin veneer of science fiction and space opera slathered on top. It follows a pretty standard formula: the heiress who fled home gets dragged back, the empire is in chaos, her family members are being murdered, and she has to decide whether to take up that life she turned her back on. Along the way she picks up unexpected allies, proves to be doggedly hard to kill, and in the end is crowned Empress after all.

That could be a good story in the right hands, but unfortunately this isn't. The writing is just adequate, and the characterizations are shallow. There's an attempt to create a unique culture, a pseudo-India (as in the subcontinent, not First Nations) transplanted to another planet--most characters have Indian names, there is a pantheon of Indian gods, and everyone wears saris--that I wish the author had never included because it just comes off as painful and awkward. Another not-so-great worldbuilding idea is that the society is matriarchal because the radiation from when the planet was first settled killed off most of the men, the women assumed leadership roles, and now men are viewed as being generally inferior and incapable of ruling, or some such. Obviously that's a commentary on today's society, but it's not terribly well-thought-out.

This book isn't really bad; it falls more into the category of "a mile wide and an inch deep." It's a decent read, but it lacks the thought, depth and spark that would make me search out the sequel.

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September 13, 2016

Review: Ninefox Gambit

Ninefox Gambit Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my second five-star read of the year, and as far as I am concerned it is knock-your-socks-off good. Having said that, this is not an easy read by any means. In fact, the first chapter alone will undoubtedly put off many potential readers, who will wind up scratching their heads and asking: "What the hell is going on?" This is due to the book's extreme in media res format; you are thrown into the middle of a battle and introduced quickly to the main characters, with no explanation or backstory. The narrative is, basically, sink or swim.

This book is set in a far-future universe, with protagonists who are called "human" but share very little of what I would consider human, with technology that could be described equally as virtual reality, magic, or Arthur C. Clarke's formula of tech so advanced that it is indistinguishable from magic. Any of the three might fit, and part of the fun is figuring out your own formula for how everything works. The reader has to do this because, again, there are no explanations. Yoon Ha Lee is apparently the anti-infodump writer, although he does rather better with his characters, especially his undead general, Shuos Jedao (whose consciousness, or uploaded brain, or something, has been imprisoned for four hundred years in a "black cradle," and hauled out only when the ruling hexarchate wants to put down another rebellion).

This book sounds confusing as all get-out, but it sucked me right in and I didn't want to leave. The protagonist, Kel Charis, who is put in charge of quashing the rebellion at the Fortress of Scattered Needles and unleashes Shuos Jedao to do it, is a fascinating character: singled out because of her penchant for mathematics (which becomes bloody damn important at the end), and thrown into the middle of something she does not know how to handle. The relationship between Charis and Jedao is the heart of the book.

This book will greatly reward re-reads, I think, because in going through it again the reader can pick up more clues about the technology (and what "calendrical rot" means--I still haven't quite figured that out, although I think it has something to do with these "calendars" influencing the fabric of reality in a given location). In any case, this book is breathtakingly original, and it will be up for awards next year if I have anything to say about it.

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