September 24, 2021

Review: The Cretaceous Past

The Cretaceous Past The Cretaceous Past by Cixin Liu
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a weird little book. I'm not sure if the author intended it to be a satire, a sometimes heavy-handed allegory, or a sort of hard-science Aesop's fable, what with the talking dinosaurs and ants. I'm also not sure it succeeds at any of them, no matter how you define it.

Cixin Liu, of course, was the first Chinese writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, a few years ago, for The Three-Body Problem....which, overall, I didn't like very much. I liked the second book of the series even less, and thought the third was the worst of all. Which begs the question, why did I buy this? Well, it's from the terrific small publisher Subterranean Press, which puts out lovely books. (I also got this in a dinged half-price sale, although I looked it over quite thoroughly and never did find the ding.) Perhaps I also hoped that at novella length, the author could control his penchant for "great whacking chunks of technobabble," and also since we're not dealing with any human characters in this story, they might be a little less...cardboardy.

Unfortunately, I hoped in vain. This is an alternate history of the Cretaceous, where intelligence evolved between two diametrically opposed species, dinosaurs and ants; but with the dinosaurs lacking manual dexterity, due to their huge clumsy claws, and the ants lacking (obviously) size and the dinosaurs' curiosity and creativity, two interdependent civilizations evolved instead. Basically, the dinosaurs invent things, and the ants engineer and maintain them, and neither civilization can really survive without the other.

This might make for a fascinating idea, but once again, the author falls prey to his propensity for little or no characterization (and in the case of the dinosaurs, making nearly every one of them an annoying, egotistical whiner with laughably bad dialogue and the cringing habit of injecting "Ha ha ha!" at the end of almost every paragraph). He needn't have bothered with any character names, as there was no telling the characters apart, and really not any reason to. We just have these two dysfunctional, co-dependent civilizations getting into fights and going to war with each other over and over again, until I finally started rooting for the asteroid to come along and end it all.

And at the conclusion of the story, I didn't even get that. This is an alternate history, after all, and while the Age of Dinosaurs did come to its end, it ended because of some human-style Mutually Assured Destruction weapons involving antimatter--which took an entire chapter, 13 excruciating pages, to describe. (Yeah, I use the word excruciating in these reviews a lot. That's what happens when the author insists on relating every damn detail of how his theoretical weapons work.) By that time, the dinosaurs were reduced to thinly disguised homo sapiens, with an Atomic Age, an Information Age, automobiles, computers, fossil fuels, environmental destruction, and a population of 7 billion. I kept expecting them to start morphing into humans at the end of the book, a la Animal Farm.

Which, come to think of it, might have made for a better ending than what actually happened: 3,000 years after the twin explosions of antimatter that scour the planet clean of nearly all life, two ants emerge from their subterranean nest and As-You-Know-Bob at each other for three pages, finally speculating about another creature with a smaller body and dexterous hands appearing and ushering in another Age of Wonder.

Well, gosh golly gee! Who on earth could that be?

Sorry for the sarcasm, but this book did disappoint me. I really should have known better, because I was so soured by the end of the Three-Body Problem trilogy. This was a cool idea...but cool ideas with no people (human or otherwise) do not good stories make.

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September 22, 2021

Review: When the Sparrow Falls

When the Sparrow Falls When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has really flown under the radar. I stumbled across it at the library, but I've heard very little about it, and I think I've only seen one prominent review of it. That's a shame, because while it's not quite the best SF book I've read so far this year, it does have an absorbing premise that held my interest.

It's set nearly two hundred years in the future, when Earth has been sort of "softly conquered" by three AIs, Confucius, George and Athena, known as the Triumvirate. As described in this book, the artificial intelligences don't necessarily rule over the world's countries--the US still holds elections every four years, for example--but George, named for General Washington, informs every decision the government makes. These AIs have solved most of humanity's problems (Confucius, the Asian AI, has solved the "carbon crisis") and created a digital realm where most humans upload to spend part or all of their time. The AIs themselves created the chips human consciousness is uploaded (or copied) to, called Sontang chips, and the Machine and its supposedly benevolent guidance extends over the entire globe.

The exception to this is the lone holdout, the Caspian Republic, where artificial intelligences and any clones used to hold downloaded code are banned. This setup provides an inside-out twist on the usual AI tropes, because the Caspian Republic is a totalitarian hellhole dedicated to keeping the last free human beings inside their borders and away from the Machine. The Caspian Republic is a thinly disguised callback to the old Soviet Union and East Germany, with its bleak, grey setting and competing secret police, ParSec (Party Security) and StaSec (State Security) plus other factions fighting for control of the Caspian government.

Our protagonist is Nikolai South with State Security, an aging, cynical, thirty-year veteran of the service who is still reeling from the death of his wife Olesya twenty years earlier. Nikolai investigates murders, and he is drawn into two separate cases: the murders and illegal Sontang uploads of two sisters, and the death of one of the sisters' boyfriends, the famous Caspian journalist Paulo Xirau, who has been discovered after the fact to be an extremely illegal clone/AI who has been living in the Caspian Republic for many years. Nikolai is tasked by the head of State Security to squire Lily Xirau, Paulo's virtual spouse who has been granted special dispensation to come to the Caspian Republic in a clone body and identify her husband's remains. Only when Lily gets there, she is a dead ringer for Nikolai's dead wife...and the mystery begins.

This is a combination of a Cold War spy thriller and an examination of artificial intelligence, identity, life in a virtual world, and what all this means for what remains of humanity. This might not sound like it would work, but it does. In fact, as I was thinking of how to write this review, it dawned on me just how complex this story is. It's also unusual in that it was based on the author's previously written play, which is undoubtedly why it has a lot of dialogue and relatively few shoot-em-up action scenes. There's even a bit of philosophy and theology thrown in, namely a discussion of the "problem of evil" in which a famous Caspian Republic writer, Leon Mendolssohn, declares that "the Triumvirate rule over the world more effectively and fairly than any human government has been able to." Upon talking to Paulo Xirau, who admits to Mendelssohn what he really is, Mendelssohn writes a pamphlet advocating for "normalizing relations with the Machine world" and theorizes that:

Artificial intelligence is advancing so quickly and exponentially that before long there will come into being an intelligence whose power and understanding will be essentially infinite. An intelligence that could manipulate not only data but matter and physics. That could extrapolate the course of every atom with perfect accuracy throughout the entire history of the universe and could reconstruct flawlessly every individual that ever existed. He said that this was not something to be feared, but to be devoutly wished for. He hypothesized that once created, this intelligence would not be limited to linear time and that it could effect events in the past and the future and would retroactively rewrite history to lead to its own creation, and that once done, every human being who has ever died could be re-created. Perfectly Flawlessly. As if they never left. All of humanity would be reunited. Whole again. In a world without death. Or want. Or suffering. Forever.

In other words, the Machine would become God, and its digital virtual reality humanity's Heaven.

We don't actually see the God/Machine in this book, although it is implied to have influenced at least a few events. The story remains focused firmly on Nikolai and Lily, and what happens to them during and after the fall of the Caspian Republic. This serves to steer the story mainly clear of cyberpunky mumbo-jumbo, a genre I am not fond of. This book has maybe not made a breakout to the mainstream, but I think it is a unique, satisfying story--particularly the ending, which it nails--that deserves wider attention.

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September 18, 2021

Review: Sexual Justice: Supporting Victims, Ensuring Due Process, and Resisting the Conservative Backlash

Sexual Justice: Supporting Victims, Ensuring Due Process, and Resisting the Conservative  Backlash Sexual Justice: Supporting Victims, Ensuring Due Process, and Resisting the Conservative Backlash by Alexandra Brodsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I took a break from my normal diet of SF and fantasy to read this. This was an interesting, absorbing, and often infuriating read (especially the chapter on Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation, and how the Republicans lied and obfuscated and ignored other accusers and did everything possible to shove this guy on the Supreme Court). For the most part, I found the author to be fair-minded and even-handed in her points. She is obviously concerned about due process for all, accuser and accused, and points out that allegations of sexual harassment should be handed the same way as allegations of other crimes, such as theft and racial slurs (this is in a context of academia and the workplace, not necessarily a courtroom). One important point she makes is in regards to the idea of "exceptionalism," defined by her as "an assumption that sexual harassment allegations should be subject to different, and usually more demanding, procedures than all other forms of misconduct":

Scrape the surface of "exceptionalism" and you'll usually find misogyny beneath. Our collective fear of scorned, lying, irrational women who falsely "cry rape" has been ingrained in our culture and law for centuries, no matter the baselessness of the archetype. It serves as the unified, animating force behind the casual rape apologias, explicit doubts, and flawed policies that stand in the way of justice for survivors and an end to the violence. If we look at how rape victims have been treated historically, especially in criminal law, we can recognize contemporary exceptionalism as just the latest iteration of a long, terrible tradition. We believe we need special protections from sexual harassment allegations because we think that these accusations are particularly likely to be untrue.

No matter that the best research shows that only between 2 and 8 percent of rape allegations are false, on a par with false allegations of other crimes, and just because a prosecutor drops charges or declines to bring them doesn't mean a rape didn't happen. It just means they might not think they have sufficient evidence to prove it.

In the end, the author's conclusion is that sexual harassment should be treated as no different than other forms of misconduct, with clear policies for both accusers and accused, and suggests an even-handed set of procedures to follow:

Rules governing members' conduct should be clear and understandable. A harmed person should have the opportunity to lodge a complaint, and the other person should be informed of the details of the allegation. Both people should be told how the process will work and, if possible, assigned someone to help them navigate it. Each should be given the opportunity, with sufficient time, to present their side of the story and any supporting evidence, including witnesses. Both sides should be able to review the other's relevant evidence and rebut the account the other side gave. As part of that, they should both have the opportunity to present questions to the other, to solicit answers that might undermine the other's story. The complainant, not the accused, should bear the burden of proving the allegation. A conclusion should be made by unbiased decision-makers, who should explain their decision to the parties.

Of course, this would also require getting rid of the common kneejerk "bitches be lying" mentality, along with the cry of "boys will be boys" (as if boys are not intelligent beings who are quite capable of controlling themselves if they put their minds to it) and "we can't ruin a young man's life." (Never mind how the girl's life might be or already is ruined.) This is, of course, a contentious topic, but I think this book points to a convincing way forward.

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September 17, 2021

Review: Undiscovered Country, Vol. 2: Unity

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

In my review of the first volume of this series, I talked myself out of my original two-star rating. The more I thought about the worldbuilding, or rather the "worldbuilding," the less I liked it. But one must remember this is a comics-verse, where a great deal of the time ridiculousness is the name of the game. Even more so with this series, which unapologetically tips over the edge into batshit crazy.

At any rate, when I visited my local bookstore on Free Comics Day, I ran across this second volume. I picked it up and looked it over and decided it looked intriguing. The art was better and the characters seemed to be more interesting. And possibly enough time had gone by that I didn't remember how over-the-top gonzo the first volume really was. At any rate, I took a chance on it. It's definitely not in the running for the best comic of the year, as far as I'm concerned, but I will say I was pleasantly surprised. That's not to say the story and world still isn't more or less batshit crazy, but it does appear....how can I put it, more grounded in its craziness? More restrained? Giving the characters a bit of nuance?

In this future alternate history, the US has sealed itself off from the rest of the world, and no news and/or information (and precious few escapees, apparently) have emerged from the country for thirty years. In the age of the internet and globalization, this is of course the huge hurdle one must get over to read the series in the first place. Now I'm quite capable of granting one impossible handwave to a story I like (one must automatically do this with any SF story involving faster-than-light travel), but I will say this is by far the biggest eye-rolling handwave I have ever talked myself into granting. Maybe it's because the immediate problem the characters are trying to solve is the Sky pandemic, which has an 80% mortality rate and which the US claims to have a cure for. On the other side of Covid, that hits you a little differently.

It helps that this volume digs into its crazy bananapants premise and provides at least a few explanations. It's also not trying to throw any and every nutty over-the-top thing at the wall to see what sticks...no talking carnivorous bison, for example (although the jingoistic, sermonizing Destiny Man from the first book still makes an appearance). The characters are more fleshed out and more appealing in this volume, and the art is definitely better. There's also a moral dilemma in this story, as our group winds up in the zone of Unity, one of thirteen "united sovereign territories" the newly isolated US has divided itself into. (If you think that harkens back to the original thirteen colonies, you're right. And once again, the Native American genocide is not mentioned, except for some genuinely offensive shit spouted by the Destiny Man about "what made us feared and obeyed, were our weapons. With the Colt .45 pistol...along with Winchester's rifle and Gatling's cannon, the lands inside our borders were tamed." Yeah, by murdering the Indigenous people who were already there. This is the huge elephant in the room that needs to be addressed.) In Unity, no one suffers...at the cost of being a compliant zombie. Of course, our six characters blow this all to hell. At the end, still on their quest to reach the place in the US that has the cure for Sky, they pass from Unity to the next territory, Possibility.

Despite my lingering reservations, this is a definite improvement from the first volume. Enough so that I will probably check out subsequent books in the series.


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September 15, 2021

Review: The Second Rebel

The Second Rebel The Second Rebel by Linden A. Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the first book in this series came out last year, I thought it was promising but flawed. This second volume pleased and surprised me: it has corrected most of my complaints, and showcases an improved, maturing writer with assurance and command of their story and characters.

The biggest beneficiary of this improvement is the character of Astrid, the titular First Sister of the initial volume. She was more than a little passive in that first book; not so here. She takes command of her story and life, and--especially at the climax--turns into a bit of a badass. The other three viewpoint characters, the returning Lito and Hiro and Lucinia sol Lucius, Lito's sister, similarly benefit from this book's deeper characterization. These four characters rotate chapters, and this split-storyline approach also shows off the author's prowess in plotting and pacing. Just when I was starting to think, "I wonder when we'll hear from [character] again?" I would turn the page and the next chapter would spotlight the missing character. This contributed to the story's flow and steadily rising suspense. The final chapter introduced a new POV character, not "new" in the sense of new to the story but new as to not having a chapter written in her viewpoint before. This chapter, together with the epilogue, set up the upcoming third book very well, and definitely whetted my appetite for it.

By this laser-sharp focus on the characters and each one's personal stakes, the author creates a tight, engrossing story. We also learn more about the Synthetics, the cyborg machine race that abandoned the inner solar system to humanity centuries before, and has apparently spread to other systems since. The Human factions of the solar system, the Icarii of Venus and Mercury, the Geans of Earth and Mars, and the Asters of the asteroid belt, are still on their collision course.

It's so satisfying to see a new writer improve like this. I really enjoyed this book, and am looking forward to the third volume of the series.

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September 11, 2021

Review: Once & Future, Vol. 3: The Parliament of Magpies

Once & Future, Vol. 3: The Parliament of Magpies Once & Future, Vol. 3: The Parliament of Magpies by Kieron Gillen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is more like it. After the balls-to-the-wall (and quite gory) action set pieces in the previous volume, Old English, this volume focuses a little more on the characters. Grandma Bridgette is her usual cynical badass self, and Duncan is settling into his role of monster slayer a bit better. This volume does have a bit more convoluted plotting than the previous two, as Kieron Gillen is trying to match his modern story to the many variations, twists and turns of the original Arthuriana. Gawain the Green Knight makes an appearance, and his story "infects" Duncan's girlfriend Rose (who thankfully has a lot more to do). This is all in service of the puppet master behind the scenes, Merlin, who is manipulating the overarching story to bring the mad undead king Arthur back to Britain. In a cameo at the end--in silhouette and black shadow, but the reader can tell it's England's current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson--"Bors" makes the mistake of revealing the existence of monsters the same moment as Zombie Arthur drinks from the Holy Grail, with the result that the entire country is sucked into the Otherworld.

("Bors" also gets his head handed to him by Arthur, quite literally.)

As always, the art is just gorgeous in this volume. I gather it's rather unusual for an artist and colorist to stick with a title as long as Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvillain have for this one? I am grateful, as the consistency in the colors, panels, character placements and designs is a big part of why this series is so good. With the closing cliffhanger of this volume, future installments in the series promise a big shakeup in the overall story. Looking forward to it.

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September 10, 2021

Review: Once & Future, Vol. 2: Old English

Once & Future, Vol. 2: Old English Once & Future, Vol. 2: Old English by Kieron Gillen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second volume in a series that turns the Arthurian legends on their head. In this story, Arthur is an undead zombie monster returned from an alternate dimension to conquer Britain, and the protagonist Duncan McGuire and his saucy badass grandmother Bridgette are the only things standing in his way.

This volume is more of a straightforward action story, lacking the family drama that comprised much of the first volume. I preferred the former's emphasis on character myself, but having said that, this is an entertaining and fast-paced story. (If very bloody; at one point Bridgette wields a chainsaw against a monster and is covered in gore from head to toe.) What makes this volume--and indeed, the entire comic--stand out is the artwork. The artist, Dan Mora, puts together some excellent panels, with a sense of pace and spacing I don't often see. The colorist Tamra Bonvillain also does some very good work, with bright skies and colorful monsters.

The story also has some meta commentary on stories, as part of the worldbuilding deals with stories coming to life--in this case, the legend of Beowulf, Grendel and his mother, as all three make an appearance as actual monsters for Duncan and Bridgette to fight. There's also a clue as to the next Big Bad--a dripping-fanged creature named Bors, which makes me wonder if it's going to be a comics monster version of Boris Johnson. 

Altogether, this is a beautifully drawn, absorbing comic.

September 6, 2021

Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built

A Psalm for the Wild-Built A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read several of Becky Chambers' books in the past, and they've all had the same tone as this book: laid-back character-based stories. She simply doesn't do galaxy-spanning problems and extinction-level stakes. Because of this, her full-length novels tend to be warm, fuzzy and meh, at least for me. This novella, however, I really liked.

It's a simple, straightforward story of Sibling Dex the traveling tea monk and the robot Mosscap they run across in the wilderness. (As an aside, the job of "traveling tea monk" sounds like the coolest thing ever--Dex makes the rounds of a regular circuit of towns and villages, serves custom tea blends and listens to people's problems. They're actually more of a traveling psychologist. They also live in what's called an "ox-bike wagon," which as described sounds like a double-decker tiny house on a bicycle frame.) This all takes place on Panga, the moon of a gas giant apparently settled so long ago by humans that Earth is never mentioned. The most important point in Panga's history is what happened several hundred years ago when all their factory robots suddenly "woke up," evolving to sapience, asked to be left alone by human society and walked into the wilderness, never to return. This apparently sparked a bit of an environmental revolution on Panga, as fifty percent of the moon's single continent is set aside to remain unspoiled wilderness, and their society shifts from growth-oriented capitalism to an eco-friendly, sustainable development.

All this backstory makes for some fairly complex worldbuilding, but it's unobtrusive and takes a back seat to the two characters, Dex and Mosscap. Dex is a restless dreamer, dissatisfied first by their life in the monastery and then their work as a traveling tea monk, though they admit they are very good at it. Mosscap was chosen by its fellow robots to contact humans again after a two-hundred-year absence, and ask them a deceptively simple question: "What do you need, and how might I help?"

This is a quiet, calm, soothing story built around Dex's existential crises and Mosscap's quest to discover what humans have become since the robots left. It's a couple of incidents and a series of philosophical conversations along their journey, but because the main characters are so well drawn, nothing about this story is boring despite the lack of life-altering stakes. The dedication reads, "For anybody who could use a break," and that's what this is. Drink some custom tea blend, listen to Mosscap opine about the purpose of life, and relax. Tomorrow you can save the world.

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September 4, 2021

Review: Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite

Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite by Zoraida Córdova
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is an attempt to take a fresh look at the vampire trope, giving it a more modern spin. Unfortunately, because these are mostly young-adult tales focusing to a greater or lesser degree on teenage angst and struggles to fit in, it gives the stories a sense of sameness that reduces their impact. Having said that, there are a few standouts.

Rebecca Roanhorse's "The Boys From Blood River" takes its inspiration from the 80's movie The Lost Boys, with the story of a gay Native teen who nearly turns to the titular "boys" to save him after his mother's death. But he is unable to meet their price--the death of the only person in his little town who's been kind to him--and he is able to make them go away, at least for a while.

Julie Murphy's "Senior Year Sucks" offers a bit of a twist on the "Vampire Slayer" trope, with this slayer, Jolene Crandall of Sweetwater, Texas, allowing a newly turned vampire to attend her senior year of high school.

Samira Ahmed's "A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire" is a comedic vampire story, told as a new vampire discovering a "Vampersand" app on their phone, dispensing all sort of cultural-specific advice. The tone is light and snarky, but it tackles some serious subjects such as colonization and cultural appropriation.

Dhonielle Clayton's "The House of Black Sapphires" has an abrupt and somewhat dissatisfying ending, but its setting is original and fascinating. I would love the author to expand this into a novel, as I think it has the most potential of any of the stories.

But the most memorable and disturbing story is Kayla Whaley's "In Kind," when a disabled girl is made into a vampire after her father attempted to perform a so-called "mercy killing" on her. It's raw and visceral, and explores the terror of a helpless person when their caregiver turns on them. Grace, the protagonist, repays her father's "kindness"--not with his death, but with exactly what he deserves.

Overall, this anthology is pretty uneven, and its vampires are not the "Nosferatu"-type psychotic undead monsters of old (though thankfully there are no Twilight-style sparklers). It was a pleasant enough way to pass a few hours, but save for the exceptions noted above, none of the stories really stuck with me.

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August 31, 2021

Review: Spectrum

Spectrum Spectrum by Julie E. Czerneda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the latest entry in the second trilogy about this character: Esen-alit-Quar, the "blue blob" alien who forms an attachment to a human, Paul Ragem. The first trilogy set in this world (which I own) was published more than twenty years ago, and this second trilogy picks up the plot threads in the final book: Esen and Paul have built their All Species' Library of Linguistics and Culture, dedicated to promoting understanding between the galaxy's sentients.

As always, the appeal of this series is the character of Esen. This story is told from the first-person viewpoint of the alien, which in the wrong hands--indeed, in the hands of just about anyone except this author, who is a biologist and knows how to create believable alien species--could have been a disaster. But Esen is a delight. She is over five hundred years old, a slip of time to her all but immortal species (as I understand it, they can be killed but don't die due to old age), which works out to a child of about ten years in Human terms. Esen's character reflects this: she is childlike in many ways, naive and impulsive, still possessing a wide-eyed innocence despite the many things she has seen. She calls the Human Paul Ragem her "first and best friend," but they have more of a parent-child relationship. So much so that in the previous trilogy, Paul goes into hiding for over fifty years, faking his death, to protect the secret of Esen's existence.

This book tells the story of Paul and Esen battling an extradimensional monster called the Null that resembles what Esen describes as a "trapdoor spider," spinning out threads of energy to capture starships in translight (this universe's faster-than-light travel method) and suck their energy dry, in the process slaughtering the crews. This being has sucked Paul's mother into its maw, and is using her artificial robotic eye to track other starships. (In the process keeping her alive, or at least parts of her, in its gut. This is a horrifying fate, and one cannot blame Esen at the climax, when she enters the Null with a hidden bomb to destroy it, and finds all the remnants of Veya Ragem's body and ends them.)

The only knock I have against this book is that it takes a long while to get going. A goodly portion--nearly the first half--is devoted to shenanigans at the All Species' Library, depicting the relationships between the various characters. While seeing the immense variety (and in many cases, absurdity) of the aliens Czerneda can create is always interesting, I do wish the book had been paced a little better. But when the Null is identified and the stakes are revealed, the plot kicks into high gear and carries through to the end.

The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, promising a different storyline than the one so far (if it's picked up). This is a solid series with an interesting protagonist, and I will keep reading.

(Sorry for the belated adding of the actual review; Goodreads doesn't cross-post the text for some reason.)

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