October 16, 2018

Review: After Atlas

After Atlas After Atlas by Emma Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Planetfall series. I've now read all three, and with the way I disliked (extremely) the ending of the first, Planetfall, I'm happy to say this and the third book in the sequence, Before Mars, don't have much to do with the first other than existing in the same timeline. (Although if the series keeps going the disparate plots will inevitably mesh. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.) This book is more of a straightfoward mystery and police procedural (at least for the first three-quarters of the narrative) with a pointed commentary on a horrifying dystopian future where democratic governments have fallen, swallowed up by corporations whose only motivation is profit.

Our protagonist this time around is Carlos Moreno, an investigator for the former UK's Ministry of Justice. He is pulled into a suspected murder investigation, after the death of one Alejandro Casales, the leader of an American religious cult called the Circle. Carlos and Casales have considerable history, as Carlos spent eight years of his life in the Circle and his father is still a member. But he has no choice about taking the case, as he is in indentured servitude (read: contracted slavery) to the MoJ. His investigation pulls him deep into his own past, both of his relationship with Casales and the Circle, as well as the history of the Atlas expedition, the ship that left Earth forty years before. All this comes together in a smart, well-executed thriller with a shocking ending.

Each of the Planetfall books have been mysteries to one degree or another. This is more on the police procedural side, and Newman excels at it. She lays out her clues fairly and doesn't cheat the audience, and the procedural itself, in this cyberpunk future with (almost) everyone sporting implanted digital assistants and ubiquitous cameras recording the entire human population's every move, is fascinating. But there are also other ominous themes at work: the loss of privacy, the death of democracy, and the self-destructive bent of a society that would allow both to happen.

(view spoiler)

Carlos Moreno is a well-written character with depth, a dogged investigator who overcomes his personal demons in the end. Emma Newman has done a very good job of resurrecting my interest in the series, after the disastrous (in my opinion) ending of the first novel. Now I'm invested, and am looking forward to further books in the series.

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October 12, 2018

Review: Only Human

Only Human Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Themis Files. I really liked the first two; Sleeping Giants set up a fascinating concept, and Waking Gods carried through with slam-bang giant robot vs. giant robot action.

Only Human does neither of those things. The story kind of drizzles to a halt, with none of the action and worldbuilding of the previous two books. I think a large part of this is because the series' most interesting character, Kara Resnik, is dead, and her daughter Eva just isn't....up to snuff as a protagonist, let's say. She spends a lot of time after her forcible return to Earth whining and crying to get back to the aliens' planet and fighting (both with words and with robots) with her father. (And she doesn't even get to go back in the end. Rose Franklin brokers the truce between the fighting human factions, and sends the remaining robots back to the aliens' planet because the human race isn't mature enough to play with alien toys, and Eva doesn't insist on returning as well? That's kind of a letdown, and points out that the characterization in this book is simply lacking.)

Another not-so-good aspect to this volume is the heavy-handed social commentary. Now, every book ever written has a political viewpoint of some kind, especially in the SFF realm. Science fiction and fantasy writers use their imaginary worlds to comment on the human world they are living in. In this case, Earth after the alien-robot invasion is pretty much America after 9/11, on steroids. To put it bluntly, the entire human race has lost their effing minds, and has taken out their fear and trauma over being attacked on the people who least deserve it and have nothing to do with it: humans with certain percentages of alien DNA. I think there are some very valuable things to say along this line, and I commend the author for developing these parallels to the current state of American society. I just wish he had been a little more subtle about it.

Also, the ending is not terribly plausible. (view spoiler) It felt like the author wrote himself into a corner, and this is his not very good way of trying to wriggle out of it.

There's a lot to like about this series, especially in the first two books. I just wish the author had taken a deep breath and followed through on the ending. That would have made for a more unsettling, but more interesting book.

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October 10, 2018

Review: Inferno

Inferno Inferno by Julie Kagawa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The final volume of the Talon Saga is utterly dependent on your having read the previous four books. There's no attempt at a recap or a prologue bringing the reader up to speed--Kagawa dives right in, and it's either sink or swim. That said, this book ties up all the loose threads and brings the storyline home, in a spectacular and satisfying fashion.

This series did get better as it went along. The first book, Talon, relied a little too heavily on the starcrossed, Romeo-and-Juliet style teen romance. Admittedly, the fact of a dragon slayer's falling in love with the dragon he was sent to kill kickstarted the entire plot, but I could have done with a little less angst and a little more worldbuilding. Thankfully, this problem subsided in subsequent books (although we missed a chance for a polyamorous triad with the introduction of Riley, the protagonist Ember Hill's "fated dragon mate." That would have been....interesting, but in the end she chose her "soldier boy," Garret), and the plot focused on the threat the dragon organization, Talon, posed to the entire world. The final battle here gives us the death of the Elder Wyrm, the destruction of the hideous dragon-clone army, and Ember's ascension to the head and CEO of Talon. (The organization itself has to remain, as dragons are not ready to come out of the shadows. However, Ember is not going to be the murderous, sociopathic CEO her mother was.)

(This final battle, however, does illustrate one persistent sticking point in my suspension of disbelief--the existence of eighty- and one-hundred-foot dragons has never been revealed to humans? Satellites are a thing, and so is cell-phone video and Google Maps.)

All the characters here are well-drawn, and the entire series is expertly paced. If you like YA, as I do, I think you will enjoy this.

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Review: Exit Strategy

Exit Strategy Exit Strategy by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the final novella in the four-volume sequence of the Murderbot Diaries. The first volume, All Systems Red, won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novella, and those awards are well deserved. This novella wraps up the initial storyline (there is a full-length novel coming in 2020) and it is every bit as good as the first.

As always, Murderbot is a delight. In this book, it is crankier, snarkier and funnier than ever, wrestling with unwelcome emotions and finding it cannot run away from its--gasp--human friends, friends it never wanted to make but somehow ended up with anyway. This story comes full circle, bringing us back to characters from the first novella, particularly Dr. Mensah, Murderbot's initial "owner." (Along the way, we discover just why these "diaries" exist--there is a movement afoot in this universe to grant legal personhood to "constructs and high-level bots," and they want to publish Murderbot's story to bolster their case.) There are several laugh-out-loud moments, and the action scenes are tense and thrilling. It's just a very good story all the way around, and I'm down for more Murderbot as long as Martha Wells wants to write it.

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October 9, 2018

Review: Medusa Uploaded

Medusa Uploaded Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book straddles, in some ways successfully and others not, several different sub-genres in the wide field of science fiction and space opera. It's a generation ship saga, set aboard the enormous Olympia, a ship several miles long and wide, holding over two hundred thousand people and spinning to create its own pseudo-gravity. It's a slice of cyberpunk, complete with a complex virtual reality and uploaded VR "ghosts" of deceased people (who end up not being what they seem). It's a first contact story, as the "Graveyard" towards which the Olympia is headed apparently holds thousands of self-aware alien ships. But mostly, it's the tale of a bitter and deadly class struggle, with the protagonist, the lower-class "worm" and Servant Oichi Angelis, out to take her revenge upon the ruling Executive clans who sabotaged and blew up the Olympia's sister ship, the Titania, with Oichi's parents on board.

There's a few more layers to the plot than that, but there's enough cold-blooded murder and sociopathic mayhem throughout to make me wonder if the author based this book on one of the periodic historical revolutions that sweep humanity. Oichi herself is an uneasy, not very likable protagonist, who freely admits to being a serial killer without regrets. She ends up powering a revolution that frees the Olympia from the tyranny of the Executive clans, but it's very much an end-justifies-the-means sort of thing, with plenty of bloodshed. Meanwhile, the mystery of the Olympia's origin (and the people on board her) is partly revealed, as well as why they're going to the Graveyard and what they expect to find there.

As you can see, there's a lot going on here, and not all of it meshes successfully. I don't think the author has made up her mind what she wants this book to be, and the rather fragmented and jumpy writing style reflects that. There's a lot to like about the world, particularly the pairing of selected people on board Olympia with the Medusa AI units (which are self-aware, Lovecraftian, tentacled space suits) and the relationships developed. Hopefully in future installments, Emily Devenport picks one thing or the other, settles down, and writes a more straightforward narrative.

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October 8, 2018

"Life doesn't get easier, you just get stronger"



Screw Christopher Columbus. He brought nothing but death and destruction to this continent. Instead, let's celebrate the people who were wronged.

October 5, 2018

Review: The Ends of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses

The Ends of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses The Ends of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses by Peter Brannen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read some very good science books this year, and this is yet another. It discusses the six major mass extinctions in our planet's history (I always thought there were five, but Peter Brannen tosses in another one, the End-Pleistocene, which he pins on early humans). Of course, the granddaddy of mass extinctions is the End-Permian (252 million years ago), which is summed up in this cheerful paragraph:

To summarize: There was an ocean that was rapidly acidifying--one that, over huge swaths of the planet, was as hot as a Jacuzzi and completely bereft of oxygen. There were sickly tides suffused with so much carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide that either poison would have sufficed as a killer in its own right. There was a Russian landscape detonating and being smothered in lava several miles deep. There was a fog of neurotoxins and lethal smog streaming from these volcanoes and, high above, an ozone layer blasted apart by halocarbons, inviting a bath of lethal radiation at the planet's surface. There was forest-destroying acid rain and a landscape so barren that rivers had stopped winding. There were carbon dioxide levels so high, and global warming so intense, that much of the earth had become too hot even for insects. And now there were Kump's unearthly mega-hurricanes, made of poison swamp gas, that would have towered into the heavens and obliterated whole continents.

The Kump mentioned here then compares these conditions to the modern day:

"Well, at the rate at which we're injecting CO2 into the atmosphere today, according to our best estimates, is ten times faster than it was during the End-Permian."

Books like this are very important. They point out the brutal truth: If humans continue on our fossil-fuel-burning suicidal march, we will probably destroy ourselves and much of life on Earth as well. The planet itself will survive, and life will return, albeit in a radically new fashion, as has happened after each of the previous mass extinctions. But civilization will be gone, and so will Homo sapiens. All because of a few decades of deliberate blindness and unmatched greed, and for what?

This is an interesting, well-written book, but it is not a happy one. Too much here strikes way too close to home. I don't know if it's even possible, now, to stop what's coming, but I commend this author, and others, for writing books like this, which use the past to illuminate the present.

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September 30, 2018

Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky

Beneath the Sugar Sky Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Wayward Children series, and lighter in tone than the first two. It's more of a straightforward quest plot, with less emphasis on atmosphere, setting, and characterization. This doesn't necessarily make it a bad book--we learn more about the divisions and definitions of McGuire's series of Worlds, particularly Nonsense worlds--but it's not sticking with me as strongly as its excellent predecessor, Down Among the Sticks and Bones.

What this book does do is catch us up with some characters in the previous two books. I enjoyed seeing Nancy, and how she's flourishing since her return to the Halls of the Dead. It also introduces new characters that I would be interested in seeing in subsequent books, especially Layla, the Baker of Confection, the sugar-laden Nonsense world in which most of this installment takes place. I do hope Layla's story is told in another book. I also hope we get a book focusing on Kade and what happened to him.

Overall, this is a worthy addition to the series.













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Political Interlude

So this is what this country has been reduced to.




Even if Brett Kavanaugh we not creditably accused of sexual misconduct, his screaming, crying, out-of-control performance during the hearings disqualifies him in and of itself. (If he were a she, I daresay it would be called "hysterical.") He evidently believes that just because of his penis and melanin-free skin, he is entitled to sit on the Supreme Court, and woe to anyone who gets in his way.

If this were a movie, it might be called "The Last Stand of the Angry White Male." Because it is a last stand. Because young people were disgusted by the Republican Party's naked power grab this week, and hopefully they will rise up and vote. Looking back, I hope Christine Blasey Ford (and Julie Swetnick and the other women who have come forward), will be remembered as heroes. But I'm sad that revealing their pain, and dragging them through the mud, is the price that must be paid for excising the cancer that is spreading through this country.

September 29, 2018

Review: The Black God's Drums

The Black God's Drums The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This little book packs quite a lot into 100 pages. African orisha magic, airships, a pair of nuns who dabble in chemical warfare, a white girl named Feral who was raised in the swamps around Lake Pontchartrain, and a supernatural weapon that freed the slaves in Haiti all take part in this alternate history where the Civil War was fought to a standstill and New Orleans is free and neutral territory. (This is also an alternate history where "General" Harriet Tubman is running a guerrilla war, smuggling slaves out of the Confederacy. That would be a fascinating tale. Hint hint.)

New Orleans is, in fact, the actual star of this story, even more than the nominal protagonist, Creeper (short for "little creeping vine"). The writing is lush and atmospheric, the setting expertly drawn. Creeper is a thirteen-year-old orphan, a scrappy street urchin who survives by her wits and carries around the African goddess Oya inside her. Having stumbled upon information concerning the stolen superweapon, the Black God's Drums, Creeper teams up with the aforementioned nuns, Feral the swamp girl, and Ann-Marie St. Augustine, captain of the airship Midnight Robber, to rescue the weapon and save New Orleans.

This is a fast-paced adventure story that works in an impressive amount of worldbuilding and characterization in its small space. It could easily be expanded into a full novel, and I hope the author will do so. Maybe not with this particular story, but I would love to read the further adventures of Creeper and the Midnight Robber (and General Tubman!). There are many possibilities here, and I hope we get to see them.

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