November 27, 2023

Review: A Stranger in the Citadel

A Stranger in the Citadel A Stranger in the Citadel by Tobias S. Buckell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was a bit disappointing, and the reason for that is the sketchy worldbuilding. It's a takeoff of Fahrenheit 451 set in the far future, and a very weird far future at that. It starts out with a fantasy feel, but clues are gradually dropped to make the reader realize that this is a story of humanity separated from its home planet, placed in some sort of dystopian "preserve" where all their needs are taken care long as they give up literacy and reading.

What bugs me about this setup is that it's never fully explained. The reader doesn't know who put humanity there, or what "there" even is....there's a scene where the two protagonists climb up to the "rim of the world," and look over the edge through the clouds at a fist-sized Earth far below. Which almost sounds like some sort of Dyson sphere encircling the planet? Except that would cut off sunlight from Earth, and it would be dead.

I understand the background and worldbuilding is not the focus of this story. This is a tale of what happens to humanity when their stories and knowledge are taken away from them and they are given a life with no needs or struggles (except that humanity, being what it is, starts separating into the have, the have-nots, the privileged rulers and the downtrodden ruled anyway). The second main protagonist, Ishmael (I kept waiting for him to say, "Call me Ishmael," but the author showed a bit of restraint), is the titular "Stranger in the Citadel," the librarian and gatherer of old forgotten knowledge whose existence is forbidden. He is captured and brought to the city of Ninetha, and presented to its ruler, the Lord Musketer. His youngest daughter, Lilith, is the main protagonist and narrator, the person who at first believes wholeheartedly in the gods' orders of "You shall not suffer a librarian to live," but undergoes a painful awakening.

Which is all well and good, and Lilith undergoes a nice character arc. The problem for me is without sufficient worldbuilding to provide context for the story, it kind of fell flat. The "archangel" the characters end up battling at the climax (which sounded like some sort of librarian-hunter android), who has pursued Ishmael and Lilith throughout the book, provides a few clues that only create more frustrating questions. The story is also extremely fast-paced, dialogue-heavy and description-light, which is appropriate for the Audible Original version it was first created as. But I wish that when it was made into a print version, the author had slowed down and expanded the background so the story would make more sense.

As it is, there are glimmers of something interesting, but the story does not go into the depth necessary to bring it out. Which is too bad, as I think that could have made for a better book.

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November 21, 2023

Review: System Collapse

System Collapse System Collapse by Martha Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the seventh book in an immensely popular series that basically resurrected the author's career. Her protagonist and narrator, the nonhuman cyborg and "security unit" who calls itself Murderbot, is a dream character: conflicted, anxious, cranky, unsure of how to relate to the humans around it, fighting with its unfortunate tendency to have emotions, and in this book, in the grips of PTSD from the previous novel, Network Effect . Murderbot, as it calls itself, basically wants to be left alone to watch its shows, which in this universe is never going to happen.

This book is quite a bit shorter than Network Effect, and almost reads like a chopped-off section of the previous book. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you're caught up with the series, but this is definitely not an entry point for a new reader. If you haven't dipped into the Murderbot Diaries before, you would be best served by at least reading the previous book. Or ideally the entire series, as Murderbot is delightful. In this story, the aftereffects from the previous story are affecting it to the point of it having human-style flashbacks which shut it down entirely. But it has to push on and protect its humans, who are trying to save a planet and its colonists from corporate slavery (the Murderbot universe is a prime example of capitalism taken to extremes). They are clashing with the representatives of a rival corporation, Barish-Estranza, and also dealing with the previous book's alien infestation. It all makes for a fast-paced stew, with Murderbot's struggles and increased anxiousness the cherry on top.

I don't think this book is as good as Network Effect, but Murderbot makes a few emotional breakthroughs along the way (small ones, as it still hates the idea of even having emotions, but hey, baby steps):

I know I needed trauma recovery, I just didn't want to help figure it out for anybody else when I was still figuring it out for myself. But at least I knew now that was what I needed. I wanted to send a message to Dr. Bharadwaj about it--I don't know why, but just telling her stuff made it easier for me to figure out what I wanted to do. I had asked ART for a detailed description of what its trauma recovery treatment entailed and it had sent me the file, I just hadn't been able to make myself open it yet.

Presumably this trauma recovery will take up the next book, along with Murderbot's and ART's (which stands for Asshole Research Transport) further adventures. This isn't the best book of the series, but it's certainly worth reading.

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November 14, 2023

Review: The Spirit Bares Its Teeth

The Spirit Bares Its Teeth The Spirit Bares Its Teeth by Andrew Joseph White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This medical horror/ghost story covers a period in British history (the Victorian era) that was frankly terrible. There was rampant misogyny, sexism, and medical experimentation, according to the foreward/afterward:

The Spirit Bares Its Teeth was inspired by Victorian England's sordid history of labeling certain people "ill" or "other" to justify cruelty against them. Threats of violence enforced strict social norms, often targeting women, queer and disabled people, and other marginalized folks.

While terrible things were done to all kinds of people deemed "unfit" by Victorian society, when it comes to medical experimentation, so much of that pain and hurt was inflicted on racial minorities in particular, and it would be incorrect not to acknowledge that.

This book has a content warning before you start, and it needs one. There is a lot of medical/surgical/supernatural gore in this story, so if you're sensitive to that kind of thing, it's better to skip this book. (This was also the case with the author's previous novel, Hell Followed With Us, but I found both books to be worth reading despite this.)

The protagonist here is Silas/Gloria Bell, the trans son of a family who is trying to marry him off against his will (as was done in those days). This alternate history postulates that sixty years previously, the Veil between the realm of the living and the dead thinned to the point where it could be seen and opened by certain people: men and women born with violet eyes. The Royal Speaker Society has taken control of these people and their powers, and women have been banned from doing spirit-work altogether (as soon as they were found to be superior at the job, a law was passed by Parliament to restrict it to men only). But violet-eyed daughters are highly prized by the Society for breeding further Speakers (yeah, Victorian England was just a nasty-ass place), and as our story opens, Silas is attending his brother's wedding and being informed by his parents that he will soon be engaged as well.

Silas/Gloria is autistic, and this seems to be an accurate and sensitive characterization. He has trouble interacting with people, but has a razor-sharp mind when it comes to solving problems and performing surgery (which he has been teaching himself, dissecting various deceased farm animals; he has also been aided and educated in medicine by his older brother George). (This is also where the content warnings come in, as Silas performs surgeries on various characters, including a Caesarian section/abortion on a young woman who has been raped.) He tries to run away to escape his fate, but is caught and sent to Braxton's Finishing School and Sanitorium, a horrorshow of a place for people like him deemed "Veil-sick" (actually, anybody rebelling against the suffocating societal norms and the Royal Speaker Society's rules). There he will be "cured" and trained to be an obedient wife.

The mystery and horror of the plot is what is happening at Braxton's to people like Silas. He meets the person his parents were trying to force him to marry, only to discover this person is trans like himself; her name is Daphne. They end up falling for each other. This relationship feels really sudden and a bit forced, which is the only nitpick I have about the book; but at the same time, I can understand Silas's surprise and elation and finding someone like him. There are also scenes of physical torture (strangling) at the hands of the Braxton Headmaster, who is trying to force Silas's masculinity out of him.

The last third of the book gets more into the horror/ghost story, but the real horror lies in the misogynist and repressive people around Silas. He and Daphne do manage to make their escape, however, and bring down the Braxton school and its terrible Headmaster. This is a harrowing story in spots, but it speaks to people learning to accept who they are and fighting for their right to exist as themselves. That is a universal theme, and unfortunately it is even more applicable to the world today.

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November 8, 2023

Review: Starling House

Starling House Starling House by Alix E. Harrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've long been a fan of Alix E. Harrow, but this book elevates her to a whole new level. It is her unique twist on a Southern gothic haunted-house ghost story. It is also, as is a running theme with her work, a treatise on the power of stories, with nested layers of stories within stories, emerging from generations in the past; and how we use our personal stories to make our own hell, which can spill out and affect everyone around us. It is about otherworldly monsters and human monsters, and how they each feed upon and arise from the other. Finally, it is about the families we find and the homes we make, and how to throw off our previous guilt and despair and live to fight another day, no matter how the world around us seeks to crush us.

And it's all wrapped up in some of the most beautiful, evocative prose you will ever have the pleasure of reading. One random example:

(describing the titular Starling House, p. 21)

The windows are filmy eyes above rotten sills. Empty nests sag from the eaves. The foundation is cracked and slanted, as if the entire thing is sliding into the open mouth of the earth. The stone walls are covered with the bare, twisting tendons of some creeping vine--honeysuckle, I figure, which is only ever a show tune away from gaining sentience and demanding to be fed. The only sign that anyone lives inside is the slow bleed of woodsmoke from a leaning chimney.

Towards the end of the book, as Opal describes how Eden has always rejected her (p. 281):

And I do know. I know what it is for your own people to turn their backs on you as easily as turning a page. I know all about cold shoulders and sideways looks, about being the only girl in sixth grade who didn't get a birthday invitation. I know the way people talk loud and slow to my brother, as if he might not speak English, the way they watch him in grocery stores even though everybody knows I'm the thief. Now I know about my mother, who was cast out for the ordinary sin of sex, and the far greater sin of refusing to be sorry about it.

Our first of two protagonists, narrating the first-person sections of the story (the other, Arthur Starling, has a third-person narrative) is Opal McCoy (although as she discovers, that isn't her real name), a white-trash daughter of the town of Eden, Kentucky. Opal's mother was killed in a car accident eleven years ago--she drove her red Corvette into the river with Opal aboard, and Opal does not remember how she got out. Ever since, she has been living on the fringe, lying, stealing and scheming to send her younger brother, Jasper, to a boarding school away from Eden. One night after work she walks home past Starling House, the hulking mansion on the edge of Eden that figures prominently in the town's history and myth. Long ago a mysterious young girl, Eleanor Starling, married into Eden's ruling coal family, the Gravelys, and all three brothers eventually died under mysterious circumstances. Eleanor built Starling House years later and wrote a children's book, The Underland, which tells a ghost story of demons in another world. And then she disappears, but the demons, called Beasts, are still there, coming out of Starling House on foggy nights. To contain them, the House draws Wardens to itself, and teaches them to fight. Arthur Starling, the other protagonist, is the current Warden, and he swears he will be the last.

That fateful night Opal is drawn to Starling House after dreaming about it for years, and even though Arthur comes to meet her at the gate and tells her to run, she returns. Arthur, burdened by years of guilt and loneliness, offers Opal the job of cleaning it, and since Opal needs more money to secure Jasper's tuition at the boarding school away from Eden, she accepts. Over the next several months she cleans Starling House from top to bottom, and slowly discovers its and Arthur's secrets. But since all of these characters' stories (and Starling House is definitely another character, sentient and quirky) interact with and feed upon one another, Opal has unwittingly been working for the man who let one of his Beasts slip past him one night....the same night Opal's mother died. Opal's and Arthur's slow-burn romance is cut short, and Arthur, driven by his guilt, will do anything to get Opal and her brother away from him and away from Eden, including granting the mineral rights to the property to the current generation of Gravelys, who want to reactivate the coal mines.

The climax ramps up to the ghostly demons being set free, and both Arthur and Opal descending into the Underland to stop them. There the final story of Eleanor Starling is revealed, along with the true origin of the Underland. Opal takes the Underland as her own and puts Eleanor to rest, and frees Arthur of his terrible obligation.

This is a wonderfully dense and layered story, and I think it would reward multiple readings. There are so many facets to the themes and plot, and the characters are real people, fallible and flawed and struggling. There are also several footnotes as the story goes along, and you realize that even though Opal is telling this story, someone else is writing it--and it isn't until the final pages that you find out who that is.

I think this book is fantastic. I've loved everything the author has written so far, but this is her best yet, and the best book I've read this year.

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November 2, 2023

Review: The Spice Must Flow: The Story of Dune, from Cult Novels to Visionary Sci-Fi Movies

The Spice Must Flow: The Story of Dune, from Cult Novels to Visionary Sci-Fi Movies The Spice Must Flow: The Story of Dune, from Cult Novels to Visionary Sci-Fi Movies by Ryan Britt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is neither your typical author biography, or a dissection of the themes and philosophies of the titular novel. It touches on both subjects a bit, but that is not the author's focus. Instead, Ryan Britt details the publishing history of the Dune series, its film history, and how Dune and especially its sandworms has gradually been absorbed into the popular culture.

The sections on the various film/TV incarnations of Dune, including the famous Alejandro Jodorowsky non-filmed version, were the most interesting to me. Each version gets its own in-depth chapter, with various actor/director/producer interviews. (It also helps that Denis Villeneuve's Dune is one of my favorite movies of the past few years.) The author also points out how Dune the book influenced cinema as a whole, as even the versions not made inspired other films and filmmakers, including Alien and George Lucas.

This is not a long book, but it is a well-researched and well-told story. From the forward:

What I hope lifelong fans get from this book is a larger view of the sweep of the Dune phenomenon and how its journey is as improbable as it is amazing. I hope, by experiencing the real-life story of Dune, you fall in love with the science fiction world of the novels, films, and TV versions all over again.

Maybe Herbert purists will be disappointed that this is not a deep dive into Duneworld, but the author does exactly what he set out to do. This is an entertaining, informative book.

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October 30, 2023

Review: Godkiller

Godkiller Godkiller by Hannah Kaner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This epic fantasy tackles the subject of gods in an unusual and interesting manner: the gods in this world are generated by human desires and failings. As people set up their shrines and bring offerings to those shrines, or pray to a specific god, they attract formless spirits who begin to take on the characteristics of the imagined deity until they manifest to life as the god humans first dreamed up. Of course, after their "birth" they usually become independent beings who then go on to wreak havoc, manipulating people to continue the worship that sustains them. This is the endless tail-swallowing cycle one of the characters in the book, King Arren, wishes to end (at least until the climax when he falls prey to wanting a god's power for himself).

We have four viewpoint characters: Kissen, the titular "godkiller" whose family was sacrificed to a fire god and who grows up to kill so-called "wild gods" who harm people in their quest for worshipers; Inara, a young girl who has somehow become bonded to Skediceth, a small "god of white lies"; Elogast, the best friend of the aforementioned King Arren who fought at his side three years earlier during the battle with the wild gods at the city of Blenraden; and the god Skedi, who manifests as a small shapeshifting flying animal, bound to Inara but trying to gain his freedom. All these characters come together in the midst of a burgeoning civil war and King Arren's running out of the time given him by the sacrifice of one of the very gods he claims to despise. Inara's entire household was massacred while she was away trying to convince Kissen to take her to Blenraden so Skedi can gain his freedom, and Elogast is also on a secret mission there to save his king.

This is the story of their journey to the dead city, the gods they meet and battle with, and what they discover about themselves along the way. All four characters undergo nice character arcs, but I think my favorite is the small god Skediceth, who wished to go to Blenraden to gain a shrine for himself and be free, but learns Inara and her love is enough for him after all. Kissen lets go of some of her hatred for the gods, and at the book's climax confronts the fire god who killed her family years before. Elogast, on the other hand, finds out his king is not at all the person he thought, and ends up throwing his hand in with the rebels.

The world is also well thought out and satisfying, with interesting questions about the nature of worship and the gods (since humans literally create their own gods). Every facet of this society is permeated with this reality, and the author has obviously thought through the ramifications of her concept. The only plot point that rang a little hollow to me is King Arren's sudden turn towards villainy at the end--that didn't feel quite earned. But otherwise, this book is well worth reading.

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October 23, 2023

Review: Sleep No More

Sleep No More Sleep No More by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 17th (!) entry in the long-running, and one of the few remaining, urban fantasy series follows right on the heels of last year's Be the Serpent . (Just as a warning, this book will make no sense unless you haven't read at least the previous volume, and preferably the previous two or three.) In the last book, Faerie was shaken up by the return of Titania, one of its original founders, inhabitants and Queens. The teeth-gnashing cliffhanger that book left us with sees Toby cast into an alternate version of Faerie where she was never a knight or a hero (or married to Tybalt); and where she is just a changeling (read servant/slave) who knows better than to resist her pureblood "betters."

This book follows up four months later, four months of Toby living in this alternate world and believing in all its soul-crushing tenets. The slow, painful unraveling of Titania's illusion/planted memories and Toby's return to the person she really is is expertly done. In the process McGuire asks some fascinating questions: who are we, without are memories? Can we become a different person entirely, if our memories are altered, and how do we get back to the person we were? And how will these competing sets of memories and experiences affect and change us? These questions are explored not only through Toby, but the Luidaeg and others. Along the way we look at our favorite characters with a sideways slant, as Toby sees them through the eyes of the person she could have been, if things had gone a bit differently.

It's an interesting way to see characters we've known across many books in a different and sometimes unflattering way (Tybalt, for one, briefly comes across as a possessive little snot). The pacing is excellent, as the story has to balance both the exterior action of Toby's journeying across Faerie to unravel Titania's plot, and the interior action of her recovering who she is and remembering those she loves. A lot of people learn things about themselves over the course of this book, and some of those things are not pleasant. This will shake up many of the characters' lives going forward.

It's unusual that an author can keep a long-running series compelling, and throw further surprises into the world, but McGuire has consistently done that with this series. The world of October Daye is as interesting as it has ever been, and it is definitely worth reading.

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October 17, 2023

Review: Thornhedge

Thornhedge Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a lovely novella that tells a gentle, almost cozy story, even if it has a few grimdark edges. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon) excels in thrusting ordinary people into extraordinary situations. Her characters are not superheroes or anyone with special talents or education just waiting to fall into a situation where they can be put to use. They're flawed, relatable people who second-guess themselves and make mistakes and muddle through as best they can, and usually through sheer persistence and stubbornness they triumph.

Such is the case here with Toadling, the human child swapped out for a Faerie changeling shortly after her birth. She is raised by the "greenteeth" ("slimy swamp-dwelling spirits who devour unwary swimmers") who nevertheless take her in and love her. After fifteen years pass in Faerie, but only a few days in our world, the hare goddess comes to fetch Toadling to learn the ways of magic, or as much as she can, since she is not particularly adept at it. This is so she may return to the mortal world:

"It has been five days, in the mortal world, since you were taken." He smiled faintly. "And so I have another few years to teach you what I can, and then I will send you back to the mortal world so that you may arrive on the seventh day, to stand as godmother to the child left in your place."

This child proves to be Fayette, the changeling daughter of Toadling's human parents, who is a Faerie-inspired nightmare. To put it bluntly, she's a sociopath who begins to torture animals at a young age, and if not actively shoving people down the stairs or goading them into heart attacks, she stands by and watches them die because she thinks it's fun. Toadling tries to control her, but Fayette is growing more terrifying as she grows older. Toadling finally realizes the only solution is to use her water magic (one of the few magics she's somewhat good at) to put her to sleep in the high tower of the castle, and make a thick thornhedge grow up around the tower so no one can ever disturb her.

That's right, this is an inversion of the classic fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty," where the princess is not in the least innocent, but is in fact a beautiful golden-haired monster. And so hundreds of years pass with Toadling, both in human and toad form, guarding the thornhedge and its sleeping inhabitant, until a knight named Halim comes in search of the story he has heard--a fable, really--about the tower and its beautiful prisoner. Toadling tries to talk him out of hacking his way into the tower, but he presses ahead and she ends up going with him, hoping to find some way to stop Fayette for good.

They manage to do so, purely by accident: Fayette wakes, struggles with Toadling, and falls out of the tower to land many stories below, quite dead. The hare goddess returns to fetch Toadling back to the greenteeth, but now that Toadling is freed from her unwelcome burden, she finds she doesn't want to leave Halim behind. So she returns to the mortal world, with the promise of one day coming back to Faerie.

This story could not be stretched out to fill a full-length book, but the novella form is perfect for it. Toadling is a marvelous character, and while the setting could probably have been fleshed out more (it's vaguely European, taking place around two hundred years after the Black Death) since the focus is tightly on Toadling and her dilemma, that doesn't matter so much. I don't think it's my favorite Kingfisher/Vernon story (that would definitely be A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking ) but it's right up there.

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October 15, 2023

Review: The Blighted Stars

The Blighted Stars The Blighted Stars by Megan E. O'Keefe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is following the recent trend (somewhat) of "sentient-fungi-zombie-invasion" (see: The Last of Us) but it is also very much its own thing. It has meticulous worldbuilding and excellent depth of characterization, and is just an all-around damn good story.

In the far future, Earth is in the process of being overwhelmed by "the shroud," an invasive, plant-destroying lichen that cannot be killed or eradicated. The five ruling corporate families in this future, known collectively as MERIT, are attempting to build orbiting stations and find habitable planets for the population to escape to. These planets are known as "Cradles," and the story opens with the first of our main viewpoint charcters, the heir to the Mercator dynasty Tarquin, riding the starship the Amaranth to survey one of the newest Earthlike worlds, Sixth Cradle. Several of the previous Cradles have been contaminated by the shroud, and the Mercators are attempting to find both Earth-like worlds and planets that have stores of the mineral relkatite, a MacGuffin of sorts that is used to manufacture warpcore containment and several other things that this universe's technology is built upon.

But Sixth Cradle is already contaminated by the shroud and dying, and as the Amaranth arrives it is fired upon by its sister starship the Einkhorn. Tarquin escapes with the captain and several others in a shuttle that lands on the planet's surface. Among those others is his "exemplar," Lockhart, a dedicated bodyguard to protect him. But Lockhart is not who she seems....she is actually Naira Sharp, a "Conservator" (anarchist/revolutionary/terrorist depending on your point of view) who is convinced that the Mercator family is behind the shroud that is destroying worlds. She has come to destroy this expedition and save Sixth Cradle, but she is too late.

There are several technologies in this world that play an important role in the plot, especially the dual conceits of "neural maps" and "printing"--that is, digitizing one's memories and consciousness, storing it, and downloading it in a newly printed body after the previous one's death or in this case, after arriving at one's interstellar destination. Of course, this brings up all sorts of questions: namely, are the newly printed bodies just shells awaiting a download or actual people? ("Misprints" also play a prominent role in the story.) And when your current printed body dies and your memories and map is "cast back" to its main storage by way of quantum entanglement, is that still you or just a copy of a copy of a copy? (The story seems to be split on this, as Naira Sharp dies towards the end of the book without a chance to download. When she is printed again, she is without the relevant memories and is depicted as a different, separate person. The reason this is not presented as functional immortality is that a neural map can only handle a certain amount of downloads before it "cracks.") There is also the Mercator family's secret to mining and processing relkatite: they use an alien fungus, Mercatus canus, discovered on the crust of Venus that bioleaches and purifies the mineral. (When I read that, I thought, "And nothing can go wrong there....")

Now stranded on the surface of Sixth Cradle, Naira and Tarquin, mortal enemies (at least from Naira's point of view) must work together to solve the mystery of the shroud and what is happening to inhabitable worlds, and how the Mercator family ties in to all of it. What they discover has profound ramifications and threatens the survival of humanity itself.

These characters are drawn very well, but Tarquin Mercator undergoes the best character arc. His entire worldview is upended as he discovers what his father Acaelus has done, both to Naira and to humanity. The plot unfolds with many twists and turns, but because the story as a whole is so well paced (rapid-fire action interspersed with deepening characterization) the book's 483 pages never sag. There is also the beginning of a romance between Tarquin and Naira, but it never overwhelms the SF elements of the story.

I just loved this book. It's fat and twisty and complex, but there's not a wasted scene or moment. It's the first of a trilogy (of course) and I can't wait for the next.

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October 7, 2023

Review: The Blue, Beautiful World

The Blue, Beautiful World The Blue, Beautiful World by Karen Lord
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I gave this book 130 pages, and I could not get into it. It's a first-contact scenario written from the viewpoint (well; mostly--about a third of the way through it shifts to a group of young people who, unbenownst to them, are gathered together and prepared to make the actual contact) of aliens who are on Earth and have been for decades. They are pop stars, actors, diplomats, and other important personages who have woven themselves into the fabric of Earth culture and life. Earth is currently isolated from a five-member galactic confederation with its own culture, economy, and political intrigue, and the aliens already on Earth are worried about being infiltrated by competing factions in said confederation. Unfortunately, I realized after I hit page 130 that I didn't care about any of it, and my TBR pile is too high to further waste my time.

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