September 25, 2018

Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing

The Only Harmless Great Thing The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read several realllly long books recently, so I decided to take a break. I wanted something short and sweet, and simple (or at least simpler). Of course, in pursuit of this, I chose a novella with a multi-layered storyline, meditations on the sentience of elephants, beautiful and brutal language, and a gut-punch of an ending that left me muttering, "There's dust in your eyes. There isn't dust in my eyes."

The elephant Topsy really existed, and was really electrocuted for murdering her human tormentor. There were really Radium Girls, young women poisoned by an uncaring corporation, given cancer by their using radium paint for watch faces. Brooke Bolander combines both these historical facts into a unique narrative of fury and hope, pain and rage and triumph. In this three-pronged alternate history, elephants are sentient beings communicating with humans via sign language, with their own culture, history and oral traditions. The relating of one of the elephant Stories is one of the most interesting parts of the narrative, because it speaks to the stories humans tell ourselves, to understand the darkest parts of our nature.

(One hopes, in this alternate history, Topsy and Regan, the Radium Girl who accompanies her on her last walk, become one of the Stories told by future generations of elephants.)

This isn't a nice story, but even in its bleakness it is a triumphant one. The characters are saying, "If we have to die, you will know we were here, and you will by God [and Furmother, in the elephant's Story] remember us." As legacies go, that's not a bad one. And this is a damn good little book. Read it.

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September 23, 2018

Review: Semiosis

Semiosis Semiosis by Sue Burke
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is definitely a case of the concept being better than the execution. There are some chewy, crunchy hard SF ideas here--humans colonizing a planet with sentient plants! Plant and plant/human communication! Philosophical discussions about a society based on Pacifism and various betrayals of the colony's governing philosophy along the way!--but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

For me, the reason for this is that I simply couldn't relate to the characters. This doesn't feel like a true novel, but rather a strung-together series of stories, each with a different narrator, covering the first 107 years of the colony's history. There is minimal development to most of these people, the lone exception being Stevland, the intelligent bamboo who saves and eventually becomes a member of the colony. Stevland is more interesting than all the humans combined, because it is such a morally gray character. At first it seems selfish and manipulative, rescuing the humans strictly to further its own cognitive development (it has a creepy vampirish habit of dissolving humans' bodies and ingesting their blood and bacteria as nutrients after their deaths, which leads to it becoming smarter). But as time goes on, it learns more about the humans and their Pacifist philosophy. There are several interesting discussions between Stevland and various colony members along these lines. Unfortunately, this is abandoned in favor of a more straightforward thriller-ish plot involving the Glassmakers, another sentient race that once co-existed with Stevland and built an advanced city the human colony moves to.

With the introduction of the Glassmakers, the book kind of sputters to a halt. The battle scenes between the humans and Glassmakers simply aren't enough to hold my interest. I guess the best I can say about this book is that it is intermittently interesting hard SF, but it doesn't follow through, and it doesn't really have characters I could care about. So for this one, my socks will remain firmly rooted (heh) to my feet.

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September 22, 2018

Review: The Robots of Gotham

The Robots of Gotham The Robots of Gotham by Todd McAulty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought this book nearly sight unseen. The editor is John Joseph Adams, who I have found usually has impeccable taste. Also, the cover art is intriguing and cool. That said, I'm glad I did--this is a fantastic, smart science fiction thriller, and it's on my list of the best books of 2018.

This book takes place in 2083, when artificial intelligence is in full bloom, and the robot population is expanding so rapidly it is on track to surpass the human population. Many countries are now governed (or ruled) by robots. (There is a neat chart on the very first page, the "2083 Sovereignty Matrix," which lists many countries of the world and how they are ruled, whether by Machine Cabals, Elected/Appointed/Hereditary human rulers, or Elected/Hereditary machine government. It's a concise piece of setting and worldbuilding that lets us know right away what we're getting into.) Our protagonist is Barry Simcoe, a blogger/engineer/entrepreneur who, because of his desire to impress a woman and out of his own sense of compassion, gets dragged into a world-changing conspiracy.

The plotting, characterization and worldbuilding in this book is just stellar. The author is a software engineer, so needless to say the robot ecosystem/evolution is well thought out. There are periodic chapters from a robot blogger, "Paul the Pirate," whom Barry reads, that provide crucial background information without dragging down the story. This is not a Terminator/Skynet situation--far from it; the robots are just as individualized as the humans, with their own internal struggles and factions. The book is 675 pages, but doesn't feel like it due to its excellent pacing. I particularly appreciated the fact that the characters aren't stupid or do dumb things because The Plot Demands It. They share information and think and plan as their situation gets more precarious, and the final showdown is a nail-biting confrontation where the characters' loyalty and friendship come through.

This story is pretty self contained, but the world is so fascinating I would love to see the author return to it again, whether with these characters or others. Highly, highly recommended.

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September 16, 2018

Review: Children of Blood and Bone

Children of Blood and Bone Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a marvelous debut novel, steeped in Nigerian culture, gods and mythology. It's a story of structural oppression, and fear of those with supernatural powers, and a king who is determined to persecute and exterminate an entire group of people to (he thinks) keep his country safe. It's about the lies we tell each other as to whom is fully human and who is not, and what happens when those deemed "less than" have had quite enough, thank you, and are determined to seize the power that has been denied them.

This is also the author's first published novel, and it shows, especially in the characterizations. There are three viewpoint characters: Zelie, chosen by Sky Mother to reawaken magic in the children of the maji, who were cut off from it eleven years ago when all the magic-wielding adults were killed; Inan, the son of the king who did the killing, and who wavers between lusting after Zelie and planning to murder her (Inan frustrated me; his was the most unfocused character, and it seemed like the author couldn't quite get a grip on him); and Amari, my favorite character, the timid, mousy daughter of the king who flees in horror from what her father is doing, and who develops into a "lionaire" by book's end.

(Yeah, about this world: supposedly it's based on the country of Nigeria, but I doubt the Nigerian people ride, instead of horses, HORSE-SIZED FELINES WITH CURLING HORNS. I need fan art on this IMMEDIATELY.)

This is a very fast-paced book, with many small chapters and frequent viewpoint switches. For the most part the story held together, except for an ill-advised romance between Zelie and Inan. This upped the teenage angst quotient considerably, and was unnecessary, since the basic plot provided all the suspense one could want. And the ending is a cliffhanger to make the reader scream in frustration. Still, this is a very good debut, and it's wonderful to see a setting, world and characters that's not just more boring European white guys. Yes, Tolkien and his knockoffs changed the face of fantasy forever, but there's so much more out there than Middle-earth. I'm so glad this book exists in the world, to show the new, exciting directions fantasy can take.

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September 9, 2018

Review: Before Mars

Before Mars Before Mars by Emma Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read one of Emma Newman's books before, Planetfall, and I hated the ending. (Review here.) Because of this, I hesitated over bringing this book home from the library. I finally decided to take a chance on it, and I'm glad I did, as this is a stronger novel in every way.

These books (there is a second in the series, After Atlas, which I've yet to read) follow the same storyline but focus on different characters. The setting in this book is the Mars colony, Mars Principia (also the name of the colony's AI), and the characters are its inhabitants (five). Our main character is Anna Kubrin, the geologist/artist in residence, sent there by the corporation that owns and operates the colony. In this future, corporations have taken over the world's governments, and own (pretty much) the entire population of Earth. One's value as a human being depends on how high up one climbs in the gov-corp.

This story is a pretty neat little puzzle box of a mystery, with some very interesting things to say about motherhood, postpartum depression, and how society treats women who become mothers. Anna was basically tricked into having her one child (by her needy, egotistical little prick of a husband) and knows she does not love her daughter Mia as she thinks she should. It's a viewpoint I've rarely seen expressed in fiction, and a lot of it was apparently based on the author's real-life experience. Anna is a well-drawn character, with realistic flaws and depth. But there are also larger themes in this book, themes of privacy and human rights, and a chilling backstory where the gov-corps have destroyed democracy. All these things come to a climax in a stunning plot twist about three-fourths of the way through the book, and the aftermath deals with Anna and her fellow colonists picking up the pieces and going on.

This book is a little bit on the nose with the current world climate, and as such is not a comfortable read. But it ends with a tiny, fragile hope for the future. Highly recommended.

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September 4, 2018

Review: Space Opera

Space Opera Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

And my run of good books comes to a screeching halt.

That isn't really fair, I guess. I'm sure a lot of people like this book. Unfortunately, this book isn't for me. I tried to read it, but I had to give up about halfway through. Valente is a good writer, especially at shorter lengths, and I've read and liked things of hers previously, in particular The Refrigerator Monologues. But this book is so over the top that I felt exhausted trying to read it. I call the writing style for this book thesaurus vomitus, and it's just not something I can read for very long.

(For example, the first sentence of the book:

Once upon a time on a small, watery, excitable planet called Earth, in a small, watery, excitable country called Italy, a soft-spoken, rather nice-looking gentleman by the name of Enrico Fermi was born into a family so overprotective that he felt compelled to invent the atomic bomb.

The entire book is like this.)

Which is sad, because I think there might be a good story here, if I could get into it. From what I've read about the book, it's basically Eurovision (the annual European singing contest, which I've also never watched) in space. Which is why I suppose it's over the top, but that doesn't make it any less exhausting. I've struggled with this book for about a month, and I finally had to give it up. So if you like absurdist humor, paragraph-length sentences, and a stream-of-consciousness narrative, give this a try. I'm moving on to to other things.

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September 3, 2018

Review: Spinning Silver

Spinning Silver Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, I've had a run of really good books lately, and this is yet another one.

I've followed Naomi Novik throughout her Temeraire alternate-history series (with dragons), and her Uprooted was one of my favorite books from a few years ago. Uprooted seemed to signal a new phase to her career, of expanding upon and retelling familiar (and not so familiar) fairy tales, and adding her own unique spin to them. Spinning Silver continues this tradition, as a very loose interpretation of Rumplestiltskin.

By far the strength of this book is the characters, with the lovely, evocative writing and the well-drawn setting close behind. There are three main viewpoint characters. The first, and the nominal protagonist, is Miryem, the moneylender's daughter who takes over the family business from her ineffectual father and whose real-world skill in turning a profit attracts the attention of the king of the Staryk, Novik's version of the Fae. Wanda is the poor daughter of a drunken father who just wants herself and her brothers to survive, and is drawn into Miryem's orbit in trying to pay off her father's debt. Finally, there is Irina, the daughter of a duke who is also a descendant, through her mother, of one of the Staryk, and who is a pawn in her father's attempts to ingratiate himself with the tsar of their country, Lithvas. Irina ends up unwillingly married to the same tsar, who (view spoiler)

(There are also a few other viewpoint characters. This book is told in its entirety in first person, and there are no notations of POV switches, just line breaks. However, within a paragraph or two I knew who was narrating and where we were. This speaks highly to Naomi Novik's skill in characterization and plotting, to handle these POV changes so seamlessly.)

As you can see, each of these young women is being held down and oppressed, to one degree or another, by the men in her life, and all their arcs involve trying to free themselves. This book's other themes include duty and sacrifice, stepping up and taking responsibility, and the love of a found family as well as a born one. The pacing is measured and deliberate, especially in the beginning, but everything that might be construed as making the book "slow" becomes important in the end. And the prose is just so beautiful: you can feel the icy puffs of the Winter King's breath, and the silver coins slipping through Miryem's hands as she changes them to gold.

The only character I gave a bit of side-eye to is the king of the Staryk, who was a stubborn, prideful, arrogant ass, at least in the beginning. But that same stubborn pride, and his insistence on bargaining to get what he wants, is the thing that helps Miryem to grow and gives her the strength to defeat the enemy of the Staryk in the end. Even the designated "bad guy" (the tsar) has a revealed backstory that caused a few second thoughts, at least in this reader. This is just a lovely, magical book all the way around, and I highly recommend it.

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September 1, 2018

Review: The Fated Sky

The Fated Sky The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to The Calculating Stars. I've read that the story was originally supposed to be all one book, but the author asked that it be split in two. This was an inspired decision, as I can't imagine trying to cram both stories into one book. Even the covers reflect the difference: blue for the first book and the launch to the moon, and red for this one and the First Mars Expedition.

Our core characters, the married couple Nathaniel and Elma York, engineer and human computer/astronaut respectively, return. Set in 1961, a decade after the first book, there is a thriving colony on the moon and training has begun for the mission to Mars. Elma is a self-described "glorified bus driver," shuttling people around on the moon. But there are rumblings on Earth, people denying the coming catastrophe of climate change after this alternate history's meteor strike (shades of today, minus the meteor), and to ward off the defunding of the space program, Elma York, the famous Lady Astronaut, is added to the Mars mission.

The First Mars Expedition is the focus of this book, spelled out in gritty, obviously highly-researched detail. If you've never thought through the nasty ramifications of an E. coli infection in space...let's just say this book will teach you many things. Mary Robinette Kowal captures perfectly the beauty and horror of space travel, the fragility of little tin boxes traveling 34 million miles to Mars, and the audacity of the human race to think they could even pull off such a thing.

One of the themes of the first book was 1950's sexism, and Elma's struggle to have herself and other women added to the astronaut program. Since this book is set in the early 60's, with this alternate history's Civil Rights Movement in full bloom, the focus here shifts to racism. Elma may be sensitive to double standards and sexist slights, but she's still a clueless white woman in terms of race, as the book aptly points out. There's some nice growth for Elma as well as the other characters, including Stetson Parker, a carryover from the first book. Stetson in particular is shown to be far more complex than he was given credit for, even though he's still quite the ass. And of course the heart of the series remains the mature, supportive relationship between Elma and Nathaniel, as the two of them decide not to have children so Elma can join the First Mars Expedition.

I just love both these books to pieces, and wholeheartedly recommend them. I've heard the author plans to write more in this series, and I can only say, Please! I will read them as fast as she puts them out.

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August 28, 2018

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked this book, but it was really hard to read. This is a collection of Ta-Nehisi Coates' previous essays written for The Atlantic. I had read them on his blog, but here they are expanded with new introductions to each article. These introductions, detailing Coates' state of mind while writing them, are invaluable. The essays form a picture of the meaning of Barack Obama's presidency, coming from the mind and pen of a gifted African-American man who has become one of this country's foremost writers on race.

That being the case, the epilogue of this book, a new essay titled "The First White President," was the equivalent of a body blow. Coates lays bear the election of the current horrid occupant of the White House as belonging both to the backlash against President Obama and a last-gasp effort to maintain white supremacy in this country. (And, as we've found out since, prodded along by Russian hackers, and the insane Republican obsession with Hillary Clinton and her husband.) This final essay is a downer, buoyed (if one can call it that) by the author's trademark pessimism. But that makes this book even more important, and I hope it will find its way into school classrooms as required reading on race in America.

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August 24, 2018

Review: Arabella The Traitor of Mars

Arabella The Traitor of Mars Arabella The Traitor of Mars by David D. Levine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third volume in the Adventures of Arabella Ashby, a steampunk, alternate history, Jules Verne-esque pulp Regency adventure. Following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in the previous book, Arabella Ashby and her now husband, Captain Pradash Singh of the Honorable Mars Company airship Diana, return to Earth to find that England, as the solar system's only remaining superpower, has set its sights on Mars.

I'll be honest: I didn't like this volume quite as well as the first two. The "science," of course, is completely unbelievable: Mars inhabited, with its own native species! Venus the same! A solar system filled with air--the "interplanetary atmosphere"--that airships can navigate! But this has been baked into the books from the start, so the reader must grant this suspension of disbelief and move on. If a particular reader can do so, of course. I could. The reason I didn't like this book as much is the frenetic, tightly stuffed plot that seemed to come at the expense of character development.

This book covers a twelve-year time span, and A LOT happens: the Mars Rebellion, the overthrowing of English rule, and Arabella's life on Mars afterwards. This is not to say that the rebellion tale isn't good in and of itself--the fight scenes, especially, carry on the excellent tradition of the previous books. One can smell the smoke of the cannon balls and feel the heat of the burning sails, and the splinters of the broken masts. But I would have preferred a little less action and a little more about the characters, especially the natives of Mars who seem to be given pretty short shrift in favor of our human heroine.

It's just a bit of a letdown, especially compared to the previous book, Arabella and the Battle of Venus. But it's still a solid story.

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