December 5, 2022

Review: Thunder In Her Veins

Thunder In Her Veins Thunder In Her Veins by Jason Aaron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first collection of the comics run that the 2022 Marvel movie, Thor: Love and Thunder is based on. The basic concept is that Thor's ex-girlfriend, Dr. Jane Foster, is found worthy to hold Mjolnir and becomes the Mighty Thor....but the hammer's magic cannot stop the cancer that is slowly killing her human form.

This is a dark, complex story, which includes Jane Foster as the Mighty Thor facing down, among other things, a war in Asgardia between the Dark and Light Elves, Loki, and Odin himself. The art (by Russell Daughterman) is very good, and I like the different fonts and colors the letterer, Joe Sabino, uses for various characters.

Even in this first volume, however, this is a far richer story than Taika Waititi presented in his movie. Of course, he really couldn't let Natalie Portman take the lead in a film ostensibly starring Chris Hemsworth, which I think worked to the detriment of the movie overall. Still, that's what the original source material is for: no matter what happens in the movie, this will always be there. In this case, you're better off reading the comic.

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December 3, 2022

Review: The World We Make

The World We Make The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Great Cities series, which was originally supposed to be a trilogy (as explained in the first book, The City We Became). Unfortunately, life, Trump and the pandemic caught up with the author during the writing of this book, and the series shrunk to a duology. I certainly can't blame the author, and don't mean to condemn her--but her decision does show. This book seems quite compressed, and the seams of what has been excised don't fit together in places.

That's not to say what we get isn't very good. Each character is given one or two chapters for an in-depth exploration, and there is even a chapter from the point of view of the antagonist, the Woman in White, otherwise known as the Lovecraftian city of R'lyeh. We also find out the origins of the multiverse, why it has been rebooted so many times, and why cities coming to life and manifesting avatars constitutes such a threat. This actually casts the series in more of a science-fictional, quantum-physics direction, notwithstanding the characters' proclamations of "city magic."

This book is also more overtly political than the first. Given the times in which it was written and where it is set, I don't know how it could be otherwise. The author calls out the less savory aspects of New York in myriad ways, as this excerpt from the climactic battle shows:

In anticipatory delight, she manifests her own battle configuration. The circular disk of her now spreads out like a Monstera leaf, streets splitting and walls folding back. From the splits emerge extra heads on long, armored necks. Each has its own eyes, mismatched and in clusters, some with slitted pupils and some with horselike bars and a few with wavy cuttlefish eye-smiles. Beyond this, R'lyeh has allowed them limited individuality: one has a chainsaw tongue, another a vacuum nose, while another is covered in mouths all singing an atonal, screeching battle hymn. They are more than they seem, these appendages: not just physical threats, but conceptual weapons. The mouthed head is formed from concentrated Staten Islander hatred of paying city taxes, for example. With it, R'lyeh means to rip out New York's civil service--all the bridge painters and street-sweeper drivers and even the people who work at the DMV, who are as vital to a city's life as any living thing's intestines. The chainsaw tentacle is powered by NIMBYism, meant to chop up chunks of affordable housing and public transportation expansions. And there's more, more, so much more. R'lyeh has spent these past few months learning all her prey's weaknesses, and--with the help of its most reluctant borough--designing a weapon to target each and every one.

This is clearly written by someone who lives in New York, who both loves and hates it, but more importantly knows it, from the inside out. This essence of New York carries through to the somewhat unexpected climax, which involves not a frantic battle but a not-quite-deus ex machina wherein the avatars of New York face down and call out the Ur-gods behind the multiverse, and stop them from killing off universes because of their fear of anything that is different. Which solves the ethical problem from the first book, and also fits in with the series' broader themes of social justice.

I could see the ghost of what would have been the third book in the final chapters and coda, and am a little sad that we won't be getting it. Still, even a rushed and truncated Jemisin novel is better than 90% of anything else out there.

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November 26, 2022

Review: The Spare Man

The Spare Man The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is basically "The Thin Man" in space, as the title would indicate: a locked-room-spaceship murder mystery, with updated versions of Nick and Nora Charles for a new century. In this case, Nick is Shalmaneser Steward, newlywed spouse and recently retired private detective/reality show TV host who becomes embroiled in the murders. Nora is Tesla Crane, billionaire heiress to the Crane fortune who is attempting to travel anonymously on the ISS Lindgren, an interplanetary cruise ship, and who ends up having to keep her spouse out of the brig and solve the murder herself.

There's a third character who is a near-protagonist in her own right: Gimlet, Tesla's West Highland White terrier and service/support dog. Several years previously, Tesla was in an accident that nearly killed her and left her with a spine full of titanium screws, chronic pain, and PTSD. She has panic attacks and flashbacks that Gimlet's presence and training help mitigate. Gimlet is an adorable little dog that (almost) everybody loves, and this plays a part in the climax.

One's enjoyment of this book will depend entirely on how well they like murder mysteries, as the SF setting and the science of an interplanetary cruise ship is dealt with in a pretty perfunctory manner. It's nothing like the hard science of the author's "Lady Astronaut" series, which among other things is a love letter to NASA and its checklists. I'm not very much of a mystery aficionado myself, and clues and red herrings tend to fly over my head. The mystery seemed to unspool very gradually and suddenly speed up at the end. I don't know if it's overly convoluted per se, but let's just say that the final reveal of the killer and his motivation felt a little underwhelming, at least to me.

More interesting are the two main characters and their relationship. The author writes long-term relationships and married couples very well, and that continues here. The only reservation I have is Tesla's being a billionaire heiress. She tries to be aware of her privilege and not stomp all over people, but the circumstances here are such that she can't help but do that to an extent, which Shalmaneser points out. That thread seems to be shoved under the rug a little, and I wish the author had spent more time on it.

This was okay, but I didn't like it as much as the "Lady Astronaut" books. If you want a great read, check out The Calculating Stars. It's an alternate history of the space race, something along the lines of Apple TV's "For All Mankind," and it's terrific.

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November 24, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: Star Wars: Andor, Season 1


For the most part, I have enjoyed Disney's Star Wars series. Of course, the reigning cute couple is still Din Djarin and baby Grogu, but Boba Fett and Fennec Shand made an interesting quasi-mob-boss and sidekick, even if she was sorely underused. Ewan MacGregor returning as Obi-Wan Kenobi and an older Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader was a nice second look at those characters' dynamic, although the show was stolen out from under them by Vivien Lyra Blair as the young Princess Leia. Quality-wise, I would have said The Mandalorian would continue to reign supreme, especially with the show's upcoming third season set to explore Mandalore and Din Djarin's dilemma of having a Darksaber and a rulership he does not want. 

However, that was before I watched this show, which proceeded to blow all of them out of the water. 

There is nothing "kidsy" about this show. It is family-friendly in the sense that there is no nudity or graphic sex scenes (though the characters are shown to be having adult sexual relationships) but the themes are thoroughly adult. The characters grapple with the Empire's growing fascism, and the slow creeping clampdown on their rights and freedoms, until a character's speech in the finale strikes the spark of rebellion. (It's a testament to the strength of the writing that the moments remembered are Luthen Rael's, Maarva Andor's and Kino Loy's speeches, rather than the action scenes, although Luthen has a pretty good action sequence getting away from an Imperial cruiser.) The season finale, "Rix Road," ties up almost all of this season's character arcs and subplots and sets the stage for the next season, when Cassian Andor will be going all in for the Rebellion. 

Since this is a prequel to Rogue One, we already know what his fate will be. Still, there is a lot to be said on the journey there. I particularly loved how new and/or side characters are given their due, even if they only appear for a few episodes. Andy Serkis's Kino Loy, only seen in the "prison break" mini-arc of episodes 8, 9 and 10, is a fully rounded character who meets an ironic and tragic fate, and you feel for him just as much if he was the show's titular hero. (The final episode of the prison arc, "One Way Out," is tied in my mind with "Rix Road" as the two best episodes of the show.) Season 2 is supposed to take some time jumps to bring the characters up to the beginning of Rogue One, although from what I've read the plan is to follow the structure of this season by breaking it up into three or four mini-arcs.

However they do it, this season was some excellent, excellent television. Many of the comments I've seen on IMdb and elsewhere express surprise at Disney's being able to produce such a mature Star Wars show as this, and they're not wrong. Of course, there is a place for a wisecracking Han Solo as well, but that character isn't found here (or at least not yet). But when you have such great writing as this...

Supervisor Lonni Jung: And what do you sacrifice?

Luthen Rael: Calm. Kindness. Kinship. Love. I've given up all chance at inner peace. I've made my mind a sunless space. I share my dreams with ghosts. I wake up every day to an equation I wrote 15 years ago from which there's only one conclusion, I'm damned for what I do. My anger, my ego, my unwillingness to yield, my eagerness to fight, they've set me on a path from which there is no escape. I yearned to be a savior against injustice without contemplating the cost and by the time I looked down there was no longer any ground beneath my feet. What is my sacrifice? I'm condemned to use the tools of my enemy to defeat them. I burn my decency for someone else's future. I burn my life to make a sunrise that I know I'll never see. And the ego that started this fight will never have a mirror or an audience or the light of gratitude. So what do I sacrifice? Everything!

...and an actor of the caliber of Stellan Skarsgard to say it, I have to say I'm not missing the snark.

Please do yourself a favor and watch this. You won't regret it. 

November 22, 2022

Review: Soul Taken

Soul Taken Soul Taken by Patricia Briggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the thirteenth book in one of the few long-running urban fantasy series still standing. I like the world and the characters, but I think this one suffered a bit from "too much has happened to understand" syndrome. If you haven't read at least the few previous books (back to number #10, Silence Fallen) you will be hopelessly adrift. I think an "our story so far" prologue would help the reader.

Having said that, this is an entertaining entry in the series, fast-paced and suspenseful. Mercy, a coyote shapeshifter (and daughter of the actual trickster god Coyote) goes up against an ancient artifact that steals people's souls. She has a nice relationship with her mate, the werewolf and Alpha of the local pack Adam Hauptman, and the author makes good use of the side characters, in particular Zee, the grumpy and dangerous Fae who is Mercy's partner at her garage. Mercy is not superpowered and nearly indestructible like the werewolves (although she can see ghosts and has a few other tricks up her sleeve), which means she has to use her wits to survive. This makes her a more relatable character.

I don't think this entry in the series is quite as good as some, particularly Silence Fallen, but it held my attention well enough. However, I do wish the author would provide a brief recap at the beginning going forward.

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November 20, 2022

Review: Undiscovered Country, Vol. 3: Possibility

Undiscovered Country, Vol. 3: Possibility Undiscovered Country, Vol. 3: Possibility by Scott Snyder
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I've been continuing with this comic despite the batshit craziness of some (ok, a lot) of its worldbuilding. (Reviews of Volume 1 and Volume 2.) I guess that means the overall story is compelling enough to continue? That is probably true, but this is the first volume where I feel the writers deliberately pulled back from examining their story's premise in a way that would have added a lot more meaning and heft.

Nearly forty years in the future, when a group of people are trying to find their way out of a future America that has cut itself off from the rest of the world (never mind the global community/economy/information exchange is such that this couldn't happen; this is only one of the handwaves you have to look past to go with this), said group has reached the third of thirteen balkanized American zones: Possibility. As described in the comic:

Once populated by all the creatives responsible for the stories and myths and music and styles and culture that made America what it was to the world. The dream.

Out of all the zones, Possibility was tasked with making new creations that would redefine this land so that when the doors re-opened, the American dream would be renewed.

To pass through this zone, our group has to create a brand-new American masterpiece: a story, painting, sculpture, artwork--something that grapples with the myth/dream of America. Although one character immediately throws out a poem that works perfectly well for me:

Roses are red, violets are blue,
America's awful, and fuck you too.

I mean, this sums up the country in a lot of ways, past and present. But, y'know, if they had used that we wouldn't have a story.

The person who ends up being tasked to do this is one of the characters of color: Ace Zenyatta. He considers how to tell the American story and comes up with this:

Yes, I've been thinking about the quintessential American story. Immigration, assimilation, race, class...all part of it. But one story has captivated Americans since the beginning. Three words.

Rags to riches.

So many American stories follow that model. Someone comes from nothing and ends up on top of the world.

And I thought, really? The two white writers are having the black guy say this? Without mentioning America's history of slavery, genocide and Jim Crow, and how that plays into restricting who can actually achieve this rags-to-riches fantasy?

This would have been a very rich vein to tap if the writers had had the balls to really grapple with it. (Also, bringing in a writer of color might have helped.) As it is, they come close in a couple of places, but they end up pulling their punches and ducking away. This pretty much spoiled the impact of this volume for me.

Look, I'm sure many people read this comic just for its overall batshittery. It is pretty over-the-top compared to others. But it's disappointing that they come up with a storyline that is supposed to explore the mythology and dream of America--and they don't actually do it.

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November 15, 2022

Review: Ymir

Ymir Ymir by Rich Larson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cyberpunk is a relatively new genre of science fiction, generally agreed to have been started by William Gibson with his 1984 novel Neuromancer (with its classic opening line of "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel"--although that's a bit dated now, I guess). Since then there have been many different twists on the genre. This one combines cyberpunk with space opera, to middling effect.

Not that Rich Larson isn't an exciting new author. He turns out short stories like most authors do paragraphs (more than two hundred according to this book's Author's Notes) and I've read quite a few of them. His collection, Tomorrow Factory, is excellent. This is a novel-length expansion of those themes, with the addition of a frozen planet, an exploitative corporation, and ancient tech from a vanished race that has reawakened to spread havoc.

This is also supposed to be loosely based on Beowulf, but the only reference I can see is the name of the cyborg monster, called "grendel." Our protagonist Yorick is called back to the titular planet Ymir twenty years after he left to kill the grendel. Yorick carries all sorts of baggage with him, which is gradually revealed through the story. He is not a particularly likable character, although we come to understand him along the way. In the end, he does face up to the demons he left behind, and manages to sort of repair his relationship with his estranged brother.

This is okay, I suppose, but I didn't like it as well as other things I've read by the author. If you're just getting into Rich Larson, spring for the above-mentioned short story collection. That will give you a better idea of what he can do.

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November 11, 2022

Review: The Mountain in the Sea

The Mountain in the Sea The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first challenge of writing "hard" science fiction is of course getting the science right. The second is turning out a story instead of an academic lecture, complete with characters and stakes. I've never read Isaac Asimov, but his characters are famously paper-thin and his ideas carry the day. This book is stuffed full of big ideas--cephalopod intelligence, android intelligence, the definition of consciousness, culture and language, and more.

But for all the top-heaviness of the ideas and the philosophical discussions, it doesn't fall short as an actual story. To be sure, it's a bit slower than some might like, as there are places where the science and ideas take center stage. That's why it's good that there are two side storylines adjacent to the main storyline, as those side storylines are where the action is. All three stories and characters are neatly woven together at the climax. Some of the blurbs for this book call it a "thriller," and while I'm sure that was a good marketing tool, it's not really a thriller, at least in my estimation. It is, however, a very good look at a possible near future where humanity makes its first contact with an alien intelligence that's been right here with us, in the depths of the sea, all this time.

Octopuses are, from what I've read, one of the prime contenders for the next sentience to evolve on our planet. But there are big obstacles to their doing so, and this book discusses them in detail. This long excerpt sums it up:

"Look," Ha continued, "there are limitations that would keep them from ever being able to form a conscious, communicative life or a culture."

"Life span," Evrim interjected.

"Life span is one, yes. Not the only one, but one of the largest. They only live two years, in the larger species, and far less time than that in smaller species. Some live only a season. Down in the deeper parts of the ocean, there are octopuses who live longer--ten years or more. But those are cold-water creatures. They wouldn't be among the most intelligent octopuses: In the deep their lives are simpler--they are creatures of routine. Everything is slowed down. The smart octopuses would be the ones nearer shore, in environments that provide them with diverse challenges, problems to solve."

"Okay, but if they could overcome life span--what else would stand in the way?"

"A hell of a lot. Their mating patterns, for one. The males turn senescent and wander after mating until they die. The females starve themselves to death tending their eggs. And even if the parents survive, once the eggs hatch, the young of most species float to the surface and drift in the plankton before settling to the bottom at another location. That kills any connection to place or kin. There are species that live on the bottom in juvenile form--but it doesn't much matter, if their parents are dead soon after they hatch. There's no way to pass on learned experience. No culture to be born into. And since they are solitary, there's no group knowledge either--so there is no way for them to pass any knowledge from one generation to another, and virtually no passing of knowledge from one octopus to another in the same generation. Imagine where we would be if humanity had to restart its cultural progress with every generation. As intelligent as they are, each individual octopus is a blank slate. The only thing passed down to them by their parents to help them survive is their physical form, and the instincts written into their genes. Everything else they have to learn on their own, wandering the ocean floor."

But in this book, there is a group of octopuses that has overcome those obstacles, and this story is about their discovery and the efforts of the main character Ha Nguyen to communicate with and understand them. It's also the story of Ha and her companion, the android Evrim, to preserve them and keep them free from harm, protecting them against the corporations wanting to exploit them.

In this near-future (no dates are given, but it's several decades from now, at least), the oceans have been overfished to near extinction, and artificial intelligence has progressed to the point where self-driving cars, self-flying airplanes and helicopters, and self-propelled ships are commonplace (indeed, one of the previously mentioned side storylines takes place aboard the Sea Wolf, an AI-controlled illegal fishing boat). Another of the main characters, Evrim, is the world's first artificial intelligence/android proven to be conscious and self-aware, and humanity's panicked reaction to that results in its being banished to the Con Dao Archipelago, where the octopuses are discovered. The archipelago is owned by the tech corporation Dianima, the same company that created Evrim. These two things are not coincidental, and this plays out throughout the story.

As you can probably tell, this is a dense, layered book, and not a light read by any means. I found it fascinating, and the characters are well-drawn enough to keep the attention of those who might tend to be bogged down by the science. But make no mistake, the science and philosophical ideas found here are the focus of the story. If you want a fast-paced book full of action, there's no use even starting this. But if you want an absorbing story of alien intelligence (the octopuses presented here are far more alien and potentially deadly than anything moviemakers can dream up) and the human reaction to revelations that will shake the foundations of our world, then pick this up.

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November 6, 2022

Review: Furysong

Furysong Furysong by Rosaria Munda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've had good luck with the series I've read so far this year, as in the final and/or latest book in the sequence has proven to be the best yet. That holds up with this book, which brings the Aurelian Cycle to an emotional, cathartic ending.

The book's acknowledgments refer to this series as "Plato's republic with dragons," and while I haven't read Plato to understand that reference, there has been a lot of twisty-turny politics and revolutionary fervor in this story. It was a little bit overwhelming in the last volume, but this one clarifies where our characters' loyalties lie, and what they will do to free their island of Callipolis from the tyranny of the dragonborn.

Classism lies at the heart of this story, as the dragonborn--the families who tamed dragons and trained their children to ride them and rule--view the serfs, which one of our protagonists Antigone sur Aela is one, as subhuman and undeserving of basic rights. The dragonborn were overthrown in a bloody revolution ten years prior to the opening book in the series, Fireborne, but in the second book they returned to oust their own conquerers, with the help of Princess Freyda from the mainland and her enormous dragon, called a "goliathan."

(And just having seen the monstrous Vhagar depicted on HBO's House of the Dragon, I have a pretty good mind-picture of how big Freyda's dragon is.)

In this book our two main protagonists and viewpoint characters, Lee and Annie, return along with two others: Griff Gareson on the island of New Pythos and his lover, Delo Skyfish. These four intertwining storylines are adroitly juggled and all the characters are given satisfying arcs. Indeed, this is the most emotional of the three books, with more than one section where the room got quite dusty as I was reading. The characters have matured and step up to free Callipolis from its conquerers, as well as tearing down the system that allowed the dragonborn to dominate and rule. There is heartache and sacrifice along the way, but in the end their world is remade and they are looking forward to a better future.

The dragons also get more time in this book, although some of the creatures' worldbuilding was a bit hinky--they have retractable fangs? Really?--and the phenomenon of "sparking" and "dousing" individual dragons seems to be more in service of plot demands rather than make any actual biological sense. Still, it was gratifying to finally get to know Annie's dragon Aela and Lee's mount Pallor a little better, even if a tragedy lay in store for Lee and Pallor. Lee's and Annie's romance also intensifies in this book, and it's handled in a refreshingly adult manner, with almost no angst.

This book steps up its game and brings everything to a satisfying conclusion. I would definitely recommend this book, and the entire series, as one of the best things I've read this year.

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November 4, 2022

Review: The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Note: Just before I started this, word came down that Netflix has renewed its Sandman series for its second season, which will presumably tackle this volume. Talk about serendipity.)

Dream of the Endless, or Morpheus, is sometimes not the main character in this comic, but in this volume he takes center stage. This is the rematch between Dream and Lucifer Morningstar, but it turns out not to be a fight at all. When Dream shows up in Hell to rescue the past love he condemned there ten thousand years ago (Dream apparently has spells of being a dick, and this was one of them), he finds Lucifer is kicking all the demons and dead out and closing up the place. And because Dream is there at the very last, he ends up unwittingly getting the key to Hell as Lucifer leaves.

This may be devilishly underhanded on Lucifer's part (see what I did there), although the story seems to indicate he really wanted to leave it behind. Ten billion years of supervising Hell can wear on anybody, I suppose, even a fallen angel. At any rate, Dream is now stuck with Hell and has no idea what to do with it. Worse, gods and goddesses from all the other pantheons hear about this and show up at Dream's doors, determined to get the key by hook or by crook.

(This will be an interesting part of the adaptation, seeing as Thor and Loki figure prominently in the comic. We're so used to the Marvel versions of these characters, it will be fun to see how they are depicted here.)

The solution to Dream's dilemma is an unexpected twist, and an even more dickish move on the Creator's part. It also leads to a rather unsettling ending to the story, as the new overlords of Hell are going to be worse, in an entirely different way, than Lucifer ever was.

Dream is set back on his heels a bit, and has one of the few instances of remorse and regret I'm sure he's felt in his long life. We also see more of the Endless, with a focus on the youngest, Delirium. This is going to be a fascinating story to bring to the screen, and I'm really looking forward to it.

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