September 21, 2023

Review: Rat Queens, Vol. 7: The Once and Future King

Rat Queens, Vol. 7: The Once and Future King Rat Queens, Vol. 7: The Once and Future King by Ryan Ferrier
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I gave up on this series a while back, when Volumes 4 and 5 descended into a miasma of incoherence and retconning. I didn't realize it was still being published, but I just discovered this volume. Upon noticing that there was a new writer (since Kurtis Wiebe ran the original series into the ground), I thought....maybe it will be good again?

Unfortunately, maybe is sort of at best.

Oh, don't get me wrong, it's definitely better than Vol. 4 & 5. The new writer, Ryan Ferrier, has a better sense of story and pace. What he doesn't have, at least at this point, is a firmer grasp on the characters. I admit I missed volume 6 which apparently wrought some drastic changes on the Queens as a whole, including Hannah's losing an arm, Violet retiring and marrying the orc Dave (although I would have wished for a less cliched ending for her than to become a housewife and start popping out kids), and a brand-new Queen, the bespectacled, nerdy not-a-swordsperson Madeline, joining the group. Still, this volume doesn't treat Braga or Betty particularly well (Betty's alcoholism has gotten out of control and the Queens do a clumsy intervention). The best story is the first one, the one-off "Swamp Romp Special," with unicorns who turn out to be meat-eating assholes and the Slog Chimp. Violet is still in the Queens for this one (except she's drawn way too girly, which I have complained about before with this series--she needs to be more bearded and brawny) and Betty has not yet fallen into her alcoholic fog, although the foreshadowing is there. In the rest of the volume, the Queens tangle with a loser named Gary who is setting himself up as the self-styled "King of Palisades," although he's such an over-the-top entitled jackass he had me rolling my eyes a bit. But there are interesting plot threads in this story, including Dee's finally using her full god-powers to resurrect the Queens.

All that said, my overall impression is "ehhhh." Even with a different writer, I'm not sure it'd be worth it to buy subsequent volumes. Possibly if given more time, the new creative team would click better, but there's no denying the series has diminished greatly from the heights of the first two volumes. So I guess it comes down to if your love for the previous volumes makes you decide to take a chance on this unproven team. I'm still on the fence about that.

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September 20, 2023

Review: Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow

Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow by Tom King
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was okay, but Tom King has done a lot better (see: the two volumes of The Vision). I think the main problem with this story was not so much the character of Ruthye (a lot of reviewers were annoyed with her idiosyncratic and overly formal way of speaking, and the sheer volume of her narrative bubbles), but the fact that she wasn't really the right person to tell this story--it should have been Supergirl herself. I realize the writer wanted to view Kara from the outside, but that didn't seem the best approach to me, especially since the climax of the story--Kara's battle against the space pirates and the death of the flying unicorn/human Comet--was fought entirely offscreen. And the ending was more than a little ambiguous (it looked like the aged Ruthye killed Krem, after he had spent hundreds of years in the Phantom Realm earning his redemption) and didn't ring true, at least to me. This was enjoyable enough, I suppose, but for a truly superior graphic novel, read The Vision: Little Worse Than a Man and Little Better Than a Beast.

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September 14, 2023

Review: Translation State

Translation State Translation State by Ann Leckie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book takes place in Leckie's Imperial Radch universe, but it does not further Breq's story (although there is a crossover of a couple of characters, notably the artificial intelligence/ship Sphene). Instead, we have three new characters and their stories which shed a bit of light on the mysterious alien race the Presger and their Presger Translators.

If you're a big fan of Breq from the Imperial Radch trilogy, as I am, this might seem a bit disappointing, but give it a chance. These characters definitely grew on me as the story progressed. We have Enae, who after the death of her grandmother who dominated her all her life, is cast out into the galaxy to track down a person who disappeared two hundred years ago. No one expects her to find this person; it's basically makework to get her off her home planet for political purposes. But Enae is stubborn and determined, and ends up finding the person (or rather the descendant of the person) that no one thought she would find. This ends up setting the engine of the plot in motion and getting Enae in a whole lot of trouble.

Because the person she was sent to find turns out to be a Presger Translator. We haven't found out much about the mysterious, murderous and all-powerful Presger as yet (only that the treaty negotiated a thousand years ago by the Radchaai is seemingly the only thing keeping them in check), but quite a bit about Presger Translators is revealed here. This is all a bit icky to say the least--someone with an aversion to body horror might not be able to cope with it. Apparently the Presger Translators are genetically engineered and vat-grown artificial beings made of equal parts Presger and human DNA. As they grow they become more and more cannabalistic until the time of their "matching," when two individuals merge (literally as in melting into each other) to become a new singular person in two bodies. This is so one part of the new person can be sent to negotiate with alien species while the other remains with the Presger.

One of the two other protagonists, Reet, is unbeknownst to him a Presger Translator, discovered adrift on a ship as an infant and adopted and raised by a human couple. As the story unfolds he begins to manifest the oozing flesh-consuming traits of a Presger Translator, and after Enae finds him and everybody realizes what he really is, he is kidnapped to bring him back to the Presger so he can be properly matched. The person they're trying to match Reet with is the story's third protagonist, Qven, a juvenile Presger Translator who has been violated by an attempted forcible matching and doesn't want to go through the procedure at all as a result.

This story does not have the galaxy-spanning stakes of the Imperial Radch trilogy. The stakes are smaller here and very personal, so the characters have to be complex enough to make up for the relative lack of action (although once all three characters come together at a Presger station to decide Reet's fate, the plot ramps up a bit). For the most part this is the case. All three characters have satisfying arcs. Qven works through her trauma and decides to match with Reet after all; Reet accepts what he is; and Enae breaks free from the shadow of her grandmother and begins to become her own person.

Some might be disappointed with this because the Imperial Radch trilogy made such a splash and Breq is such a memorable character. However, even though this story is quieter, I found it compelling on its own terms. Certainly the Presger become even more of a nightmare when one sees what they have done to their Translators. There are themes of identity and gender, and exploring what makes a person. This book isn't as good as the Imperial Radch trilogy (then again, what is?) but it's a worthy story on its own.

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September 8, 2023

Review: Gryphon in Light

Gryphon in Light Gryphon in Light by Mercedes Lackey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the first time I have returned to the Valdemar series after a several years' hiatus. In counting up the number of volumes, I see we are nearly at 40. Most of those are trilogies set in various time periods; this particular one is about 10 years after the events of the Mage Storms, which pretty much upended the world. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it does mean (at least to me) that the worldbuilding is getting a little unwieldy and top-heavy.

This story centers on Kelvren, a gryphon who undergoes a radical transformation that basically turns him into a living magical Node, overflowing (and dangerously so) with magical energy. A big part of the plot is the attempt to stabilize Kelvren and keep him from blowing up not only himself but everyone around him. This is the most interesting part of the story to me--the minutiae of the author's approach to magic, and the rules she has set up. (I think an engineer would like this story, as the Adept Firesong ends up engineering an entirely new thing in the Valdemaran world to solve Kelvren's problem.)

But due to the politics of Valdemar and the surrounding countries, as well as a civil war that Kelvren tamps down due to his newfound magical ability, he has to be whisked out sight for a while. As a result, Kelvren, Firesong and an assortment of mages and intelligent animal races of Valdemar (which is also one of the more interesting parts of the story--said animal races have been genetically engineered with magic) undertake an expedition to Lake Evendim, where the gods of the neighboring country Iftel have identified a threat left over from the Mage Storms. This threat is expanding through all the magical planes and will affect the gods themselves if not stopped.

A lot of this story is identifying the problem/discussing the problem/implementing a solution, all in meticulous detail. As a result, the expedition itself doesn't get started till about two-thirds of the way through the book. This didn't really drag though, at least for me, because the characters and character interactions are interesting enough to keep one's attention. But anyone expecting a fast pace and big magical battles is bound to be disappointed. Also, because this is the first book in (yet another) trilogy, it ends on an irritating cliffhanger in the middle of a scene. This ending is downright clumsy, so if you don't like that sort of thing you might want to hold off till the rest of the series comes out.

Also, this book is not a good place to start on the series as a whole. There is a three paragraph Prologue that attempts to bring the reader up to speed, but it is woefully inadequate. The series is really getting to the point that it needs a Dramatis Personae and Timeline list before you even start. For me, the characters and writing is engaging enough to more or less overcome this problem, but it is something to consider.

Still, it was good to come home to Valdemar once again, and one must admire the skill of the author(s) in writing such a long-running series.

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August 27, 2023

Review: Camp Damascus

Camp Damascus Camp Damascus by Chuck Tingle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chuck Tingle (he's also on Bluesky, but I don't think non-invitees can see their threads yet) is the author of many self-published "Tinglers," which are (mostly) gay erotica intertwined with social commentary. This is his first traditionally published book, and while it has a few problems common to new authors, it's certainly worth reading.

This is the story of Rose Darling, a young queer autistic woman raised in a Christian fundamentalist cult, the Kingdom of the Pine. Over the course of the story, she discovers she was sent to the titular Camp Damascus, where she was subject to "conversion therapy" to attempt to eradicate her love for Willow, another young woman in their small Montana town. Only thing is, this camp, as part of its "therapy," tethers LGBTQ people to literal demons to "cure" their same-sex attraction. (Which doesn't work, of course--Rose and Willow still love each other, even when Rose can't remember who Willow is.) The "demons" are just one of the interesting aspects of this story--they're not supernatural but rather beings from another dimension who are sometimes flesh and blood and who are vulnerable to fire. This plays into the climax when Rose, Willow and their friend Saul burn down Camp Damascus and free the surviving demons, who take an appropriate revenge on the church elders who have enslaved them to use in their bogus "therapy."

Chuck Tingle is also autistic, and Rose's characterization rings true: the rhythmic movements she makes with her fingers to calm herself down and focus, the notecards she prepares with conversation topics, the curious hyper-rational way her mind works. She undergoes a convincing character arc in this story, rediscovering her sexuality and her love for Willow and discarding the cult but not her faith. The broader themes of this book are love and acceptance and sticking to who you truly are, and laying bare the horrors of weaponized religion.

The book is fairly short (only 246 pages) and the pacing is a bit uneven. Also, the ending is abrupt. I wish the author had spent a little more time on that. Still, this is a promising debut, and I'm happy to see it seems to be finding its audience.

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August 19, 2023

Review: The Last Watch

The Last Watch The Last Watch by J.S. Dewes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a grand space opera with universe-level stakes, but it would be a typical shoot-em-up and save-the-world were it not for the richly drawn characters. The characterization sets this book apart, even more so than the worldbuilding, which depends on whether or not you can accept the central MacGuffin of the plot: a universe with a titular physical Divide between our matter/reality and the void of nothingness from which the Big Bang sprang. I don't think that is a thing, and I especially don't think it could be found somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy, reachable by human technology (or rather stolen technology, taken from the Viators, the alien race humans fought to a standstill for a thousand years and condemned to extinction [maybe] shortly before the story opens). But there are usually one or more impossibilities baked into this kind of story from the get-go. In this case, the book as a whole is so strong they can be overlooked.

We have two viewpoint characters. Adequin Rake is the commander of the Argus, the kilometer-long two-hundred-year-old warship repurposed to stand watch at the Divide along with many other similar ships housing the Sentinels, the cast-off dregs of this society's galactic empire, the System Collective Legion. If you screw up and disobey orders too many times, you get assigned to the Sentinels at the ass-end of the universe to watch an invisible border that is suddenly doing some crazy ominous things. The second protagonist is Cavalon Mercer, a royal fuckup in two senses of the phrase, as he is heir to Augustus Mercer, the master manipulator behind the scenes of the plot. Cavalon is young and brash and idealistic, and ended up at the Divide because he blew up his grandfather's genetic-engineering facility, which he discovered was to be used to create clone soldiers to replace the Sentinels and eventually take over the Legion. Cavalon has a satisfying character arc through this story, going from a snarky, immature smartass to a selfless grownup who is willing to put his life on the line to save others.

The first few chapters set up the characters, world and relationships, and then the plot kicks into high gear: the Divide is collapsing, the universe contracting, and if not stopped it will wipe out everything. The reason why this is happening stretches far into the past, linked to the technology and (supposed) extinction of the Viators. When the Argus's section of the Divide contracts and wipes the entire ship and most of its crew from existence, Adequin escapes with a very few survivors and begins a frantic quest to learn what is going on and how to stop it. Adequin is another wonderful character, a woman with an almost fanatical loyalty to the Legion that is slowly, painfully undone as the story progresses and she learns how the Legion has abandoned the Sentinels to their fate.

This book is expertly paced, with the right amount of pauses for character interactions to allow the characters (and the reader) to breathe before the next crisis. I always have been a sucker for ancient technology (think Andre Norton's Forerunners and the backstory of The Expanse, among others) and this story has plenty of that. The ending is a bit abrupt (continued in the next book, The Exiled Fleet) so if you're not a fan of cliffhangers you might want to get both books at once so you can dive into the next.

I assure you, you will be in for one helluva ride.

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August 14, 2023

Review: Ogres

Ogres Ogres by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book starts out as one thing--or what the reader thinks is one thing--and turns into something very different by the end. The many layers to this plot and world are slowly and carefully revealed by the author, with all clues fairly set. It begins as a standard feudal fantasy, with the protagonist Torquell, the arrogant, entitled, clueless landowner's son, meeting the titular "ogres," the hulking monstrous owners and masters of his village. The ogre Sir Peter Grimes has come to collect his yearly tithes, bringing with him his equally monstrous and cruel son, Gerald.

This is the first hint that something is skewed in this bog-standard fantasy world, because the Grimes' vehicle, as described, sounds a lot like a car (or a SUV). The "ogres" are described as being ten feet tall, hulking, greedy and cannibalistic (after Torquell loses his temper and strikes Gerald, his father is killed and eaten to make an example). Torquell ends up killing Gerald and fleeing to join the outlaws in the woods. He is eventually tracked down and imprisoned in one of the ogres' cities, where he is taken into the household of the Baroness Isadora Lavaine. The baroness is a scientist with her own extensive estate, and it is there that Torquell slowly learns the truth behind his world.

This comes about halfway through the book, and we discover this is not a fantasy world at all--it's ours, a future post-apocalyptic dystopia. The full horrifying impart of what has been done is not clear until the end, but it involves genetic engineering in an attempt to save the human species and planet that also (intentionally) creates a master class and an engineered, docile serf class. (The Economics, as the engineered humans are called, are specifically said to be "small," presumably leaving less of an environmental impact. This, with the descriptions of the normal-sounding houses, vehicles, etc, along with the way the Baroness Isabelle treats her staff as pets, makes the reader wonder if the "ogres" are in fact normal humans and the "Economics" are artificially created hobbits.) But Torquell, as he comes to find out, is a throwback to the humans of old--both in size and aggression--and he starts a revolution.

This is a rigid, class-based world, with the "ogres" exerting tight control over what remains of the human population to prevent repeating the mistakes of the overpopulated, polluted, war-torn "Brink." Of course, their power has corrupted them entirely, and they engage in war games and rule over the "Economics" with a tyrannical fist. Torquell's revolution tears through this world, until the twist ending where he succumbs to the lure of the power offered him by the ogres, to keep the lands and villages he has won if he leaves the ogres alone from here on out. It is implied that if he does not, the ogres will use pre-Brink weapons, like chemical/biological agents and/or nuclear weapons, to stop him.

This is where the genius behind the author's use of second person to tell the story comes into focus. Because the second person narration is not Tchaikovsky being cute and artsy-fartsy. There is a hidden hand telling the actual story, a hand that is revealed to be the power behind Torquell's revolution, using him as a highly visible bomb-thrower until he succumbs to the lure of the ogres' power:

But when you're property, it doesn't matter if your owner treats you well or badly. The ownership is all. We don't split hairs about who is a better slave master. And you would have been the best owner of all, and that still isn't enough reason to keep you alive once you've decided that owning people is fine, just so long as it's you that owns them.

As you can see, there's quite a few layers to this story, both in terms of worldbuilding and themes. What is the nature of power, and can it ever be wielded responsibly? What is human nature, and are they destined to destroy themselves and the planet? Can the human species and the planet be saved, and who decides? There's a lot packed into this book's 159 pages, and all of it is worth reading.

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August 13, 2023

Review: The Scourge Between Stars

The Scourge Between Stars The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I know "split personality" isn't really a thing for people, but such an appellation definitely applies to this book. It owes a heavy debt to Alien, of course; it could easily be described as "Xenomorphs aboard a generation ship." Said generation ship--or ships--there's an entire fleet returning from a failed colony on Proxima B, trying to limp their way back to Earth--is infected by native Proxima life, which could be described as Xenomorphs with crab claws and shells who like to snack on human organs. They can also hibernate for decades, and do just that, in the generation ships' food storage silos. When they finally awaken, they promptly start running amuck and killing people, until the brave first mate of the Calypso, Jacklyn Albright, manages to take them down.

Just writing it out like that makes it sound rather cliched and derivative, doesn't it? It really isn't. This is a novella, which is a perfect length for the story; stretch it out to a novel, and I don't think it would have worked. But the novella format provides just enough room to establish the characters and atmosphere--the Calypso and the other ships of the returning flotilla have many more problems than the aliens, at first: their ships are breaking down, the math of interstellar travel isn't working, Jacklyn doesn't think her ship and its six thousand inhabitants will survive the return trip to Earth, and there is growing unrest and rebellion onboard the Calypso. The ship has been subject to what is called "engagements," which is attacks from invisible outside enemies that breach the hull and shear off parts of the vessel, all of which is taking place before the Centauri, as the aliens come to be known, awaken and go on the prowl.

When this happens, the plot shifts into high gear, and the pacing becomes relentless. Jacklyn is as much of a badass as Ripley, and fights the Xeno-crabs to a standstill, finally putting on a suit, deliberately breaching the hull, and ejecting them into space. If the book had only ended there, even though we wouldn't have known if the flotilla made it back to Earth, the story would have been well served. But this, unfortunately, is where the split-personality part comes in. The other part of the plot, the part hinted at by the "engagements," as well as the strange android Watson who seems to have some link with whatever is causing them, comes to the fore after the elimination of the aliens...and proves to be a wholly unnecessary, mystical dea ex machina that damn near had me throwing the book against the wall. It also all but ruined the suspenseful rocket ride that had come before.

On one level, I get it. The author had pretty much written themself into a corner by making the situation so bleak to begin with (Jacklyn's last desperate order to get the ship away from the Centauri led to them draining all their power and becoming adrift). But for crying out loud, don't resort to some quasi-magical solution out of left field to rescue your characters. This made the ending deeply unsatisfying, at least for me. Which is a shame, as the most of the book showed a good grasp of atmosphere, pacing and character. This is the author's debut, so I can grant them some leeway, but this will have the unfortunate effect of me approaching any further books with more than a little skepticism.

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August 12, 2023

Review: Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods

Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This author tends to be a "marmite" author--you either love her or hate her. I've liked her, especially at shorter lengths--her novellas Comfort Me With Apples and The Refrigerator Monologues are worth checking out--but I bounced off the full-length work of hers I attempted, the gonzo, over-the-top Space Opera. The latter was a high-concept tale (Eurovision, the European singing contest, in space) that might have made for a compelling story if the author had toned down her paragraph-length sentences and thesaurus vomitus writing style. I know a lot of people liked it, but I couldn't get into it.

But this book surprised me by being what Space Opera could have been, to my mind, if the author had exercised some restraint. I chalk that up to its intended audience: this is a middle-grade fable/fantasy, with the titular Osmo Unknown an ordinary boy (even though he lives in a village that is slanted just a bit sideways from our reality) who gets thrown into some extraordinary adventures. Valente's lyrical, lush writing style is still in evidence, with considerably more digestibility:

The moon rode high in the sky. It shivered off its red haze and turned big and silver and flat as a bony kneecap. Its surprised, gap-mouthed face stared down at him as it moved through the stars.

There are whole other worlds that lie just outside Osmo's village of Littlebridge, and a history that goes back farther than he ever knew:

Once upon a time, in the beginning of the world, a certain peculiar Forest fell in love with a deep, craggy Valley.

This one sentence is the key to the entire book, and the author makes good on the promise of it. She reveals it slowly and steadily throughout the book, along with fantastical creatures (another main character is Bonk, a skunk/badger/wombat cross, or "skadgebat") and even more fantastical worlds. There are myths and monsters, paper seas and "pangirlins," and through it all Osmo has to navigate this impossible quest his mother inadvertently sent him on and make it back to his village. Along the way he untangles the treaty that threatens Littlebridge, reconciles the Forest and the Valley, learns about himself, and makes the friends he never had in Littlebridge.

The only reason I didn't rate this higher is that the author almost fell prey to her "space-opera" syndrome through the middle of the book: the pacing was off and there were a few too many fantastical worlds for Osmo and his companions to tumble through. But I hope the author can use this more straightforward and disciplined writing style for future books. I could have finished Space Opera, and definitely appreciated it more, if it had been written like this.

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August 7, 2023

Review: In the Serpent's Wake

In the Serpent's Wake In the Serpent's Wake by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to Tess of the Road, which I liked well enough. This book has a lot more action, more point of view characters, and opens up the world. It deals with some heavy themes: colonialism and war prominent among them, as the story is set in this world's Archipelago where the Nimysh are exploiting and oppressing the natives. (It's pretty easy to substitute our world's Europeans for the reprehensible, patronizing Nimysh. Some of this commentary/condemnation veers towards the heavy-handed, but I often think bludgeoning people over the head with their sins is the only way to get them to wake up.)

Tess is a more sympathetic character this time around, trying to come to terms with the mistakes she make in the first book and make restitution. (Restitution is another theme running through this book.) The other characters, particularly the Countess Margarethe, have epiphanies of their own about what they are doing in this world. Marga realizes her silence in the face of her friend's terrible actions is enabling her and making things worse, and she vows to speak up and fight back. She also realizes she has to defer to and follow the lead of the people being oppressed (there's a neat scene where her white-savior complex is called out). If there is to be another book in the series--and there probably is, judging from the ending--I hope it follow Marga rather than Tess, as Marga is frankly the more interesting character.

What spoiled me with this book is the odd and uneven pacing. There's so much careful setup in the beginning and through the first two-thirds of the story that doesn't pay off in the end--the climactic battle is reported second-hand--and almost all the storylines are left dangling. It was nice to see the deeper worldbuilding, but I would rather have had a tighter and more cohesive plot.

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