January 18, 2020

Review: Magic for Liars

Magic for Liars Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a magical murder mystery that's also an exploration of familial bonds and how easily they can be twisted. It touches on the lies we tell each other and the lies we tell ourselves, and at the end, is a stark illustration of the old saying "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Ivy Gamble is a private investigator in a world where magic is real and those who possess it go off to attend magical boarding schools (although the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages is definitely not Hogwarts, nor is it intended to be). She is approached by said headmaster at Osthorne Academy to solve a murder. But Osthorne is also where her twin sister Tabitha works, the sister who wields magic as Ivy cannot, and who has been estranged from her for seventeen years, since the death of their mother from cancer.

Ivy knows she shouldn't take the job, but she does anyway. This humble beginning spirals into a story that rips open the festering wounds between Ivy and her sister and lays Ivy's own hard-drinking character defects bare. I suppose you could call Ivy an unreliable narrator, but the lies she tells herself are easily discernible from the context. Even the book's ending may be a lie. We just don't know.

The mystery is well constructed and the clues are fairly planted, and when the identity and motivation of the murderer is revealed the reader (or at least this reader) says, "Oh, of course." The character study of the protagonist and her sister is given equal importance, and the two storylines are expertly woven together. The pacing is good and the tension is expertly ramped up. This is also one of the few books I've ever read where (view spoiler)

This was a very solid, absorbing read, and definitely one of my favorite books from last year.

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January 12, 2020

Review: Queen of the Conquered

Queen of the Conquered Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was not an easy book to read. That's the first thing to say about it. It's very grimdark, not only in terms of the plot and characters--there's definitely no happy ending in this one, the protagonist almost gets killed several times, and even in the final pages we have no idea if she's going to live or die--but in terms of the themes. This book pulls no punches: the terrible history and legacy of white supremacy is thoroughly explored, not only in how it twists the conquerer, but how it damages the conquered.

Sigourney Rose lives on the island of Lund Helle, one of a group of islands conquered centuries ago by the pale-skinned Fjern, who then enslave the native population. She is only "free" (relatively so) because of an ancestor who saved and purchased his freedom, and the ancestor's master's wife who insisted her husband honor the deal and grant the newly freed slave his own island. But the "kongelig," the ruling families, have always resented the Roses because they dared to consider themselves equal to their oppressors, and in the book's prologue, Sigourney's entire family is murdered because of it. She is rescued and fostered by a kongelig on a neighboring island, and spends several years on the mainland, until she masters her "kraft" (her magical power, although in this universe most "krafts" seem to be variations of what are essentially psi powers). Then she returns, bent on carrying out her revenge, murdering those who killed her family, and freeing her people.

Of course, this does not go as planned, and in the process the entire rotten heart of the system is laid bare. As Audre Lorde so eloquently stated, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," which could be used as the subtitle of this book. In trying to gain the regency of the islands and carry out her revenge, Sigourney moves from oppressed to oppressor, from rebel to collaborator. She marries the son of one of the ruling families to gain power, and watches as the kongelig are cut down one by one. The back half of this book is a murder mystery and an interesting twist on the "white savior" trope, as (view spoiler)

There's a delicate, risky highwire act to having Sigourney as the central character, because she is not a good person by any stretch of the imagination. Of course, her entire life and worldview has been twisted by the system she has been born into, but there's something else I don't think anyone has commented on: her use of her "kraft" is simply horrifying. She is a telepath, and she invades people's minds and controls them without thinking twice about it. There is no discussion or even acknowledgment of the ethics of this. It illustrates the central truth of her character: to kill monsters, she must become one.

There are many layers to this book, and just as many trigger warnings needed. It's not for the fainthearted, I can tell you that, or those who can't face the truth of what white supremacy and slavery is. I'm not sure I'm glad this book exists, but there's no denying the need for it.

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January 7, 2020

Review: Fortuna

Fortuna Fortuna by Kristyn Merbeth
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I've had a run of bad books lately, and unfortunately this is another one. The worldbuilding in this one, while not outstanding, is adequate, and the setup could have been interesting. But the characters did this book in about halfway through.

I don't demand that my characters be likable. An unlikable character, if well-written with clear motivations and shades of grey, can be compelling. None of these characters meet that bar, except possibly for Corvus, and in the end he wasn't enough to overcome my active dislike of all the rest. I especially hated Scorpia, the 27-year-old purportedly grown woman who acts twelve at best, and who careens wildly between stubborn, impulsive, and Too Stupid To Live. Her jealousy, pride, and ambition gets everyone around her in trouble (I mean, smuggling in a creepy living plant from another planet, banned for good reason, that could spread and contaminate an entire biosphere? Come on now!). After yet another of Scorpia's reckless, dumb decisions, I had had it. Book, meet wall--or rather bed, bouncing indignantly from the pillows.

Bah. The library is getting quite a few unexpected windfalls from me lately. I can only hope my next book is better.

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January 1, 2020

Review: The Body: A Guide for Occupants

The Body: A Guide for Occupants The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I came to Bill Bryson via his travel books, which are absorbing and hilarious. I think my favorite is In a Sunburned Country. It reinforced my determination to never, ever live in Australia, but I thoroughly enjoyed his travels through it. This book, unfortunately, is lacking that trademark humor and whimsy--there's flashes of it here and there, but since he's figuratively dissecting the human body from head to toe, turning us inside out, and showing what makes us tick (at least as much as can be known), he simply hasn't got room for it. With that breadth of subject matter, this is of necessity a very thick book.

(That said, I do have one nit to pick. In chapter 18, "In the Beginning: Conception and Birth," on page 294, in describing the embryo's growth, he states this: "Now things speed up considerably. After three weeks, the budding embryo has a beating heart." This is not true. See here, here, and also here. This so-called "heartbeat" is just a flutter, and there is no proper heart as yet. I point this out because stuff like this is used to prop up "heartbeat" abortion bills, and as much as I like Bill Bryson, inaccuracies that support unconstitutional laws passed to punish women must be called out.)

I do wish he could have narrowed his focus a bit, as I think that would have made for a better book. Still, this is readable and entertaining, and I appreciate his effort and research.

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December 30, 2019

Review: Once & Future

Once & Future Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I tried my best with this book, but I just couldn't manage it. The description seemed like the kind of thing I would like: a queer, genderflipped version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, set in a space opera-ish future. Unforuntately, I got about two-thirds of the way through and my reading and enjoyment ground to a halt. The story is dull, the characters are thin and cardboardy, and the worldbuilding is embarrassing. (Sorry, but casting the Galaxy-Wide Corporation as the Big Bad without the slightest explanation of how it got that way and what happened to other planetary governments--not to mention what happened to Earth--doesn't cut it. Not to mention the science and technology doesn't even rise to the level of Star Wars Lite.) I was also reading another non-fiction book, and when I realized I looked forward to picking that one up and continuing a lot more than I did this, I knew it was time to give it up. This book gets donated to the library, and I hope they can find a better audience for it.

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December 28, 2019

Streamin' Meemies: The Mandalorian, Season 1

Yeah, I broke down and gave the Mouse some of my hard-earned money. (It is cheaper if you subscribe for an entire year, after all.) I've about reached my limit for streaming services, though; at least Hulu lets you put your subscription on hold for up to three months at a time. (And it will probably be the first to go, after Marvel's Runaways and The Handmaid's Tale is finished--or perhaps sooner if the latter continues on its downward trajectory.)

I came to this having never watched the Star Wars animated series (Rebels and Clone Wars), and I knew next to nothing about the Mandalorian backstory. A "Star Wars spaghetti western" was enough for me to give it a try. (That and, of course, all the Marvel series lining up.) I didn't have high expectations for this, and was rather pleasantly surprised.

First off: these are some very lean and mean stories. They're almost all within the 30-40 minute range, with the finale, "Redemption," clocking in the longest at 49 minutes (partly because it fills in the exposition and background eschewed by earlier episodes). I imagine this is because the showrunners knew their audience would largely be comprised of Star Wars nerdheads who were aware of all background minutiae, so they felt they could dive right in.

And dive in they did, with this fast-paced story of the Helmeted Bounty Hunter of Few Words, tracking an "asset" that has eluded all who came before him. This, of course, is the series' secret weapon:

Baby Yoda, the Meme That Ate the Internet.

(Some of said memes are seriously clever. My favorite is this snippet from the show combined with music, in this case the breakout song from Season 1 of The Witcher, "Toss a Coin To Your Witcher." Hopefully you can watch this before Disney throws a fit and pulls it down.)

(Apparently the showrunner, Jon Favreau, persuaded the powers-that-be not to leak the existence of the precious baby [and thus not release any toys] until the show came out. This was a stroke of genius, even if Disney didn't get its billion or so merchandising dollars this Christmas.)

Story-wise, this was a combination of episodic and serialized, although even with the one-offs you could sense the underlying arc. We dive into the Mandalorian culture (their tag line, "This is the way," became an instant classic), and get a glimpse of life away from the familiar Star Wars universe we've seen so far, free of the Jedi, the Sith, and the Force. (The characters have no idea what Baby Yoda is, and the Mandalorian Armorer says she's heard "legends" of a "race of sorcerers called the Jedi.") It's a tidy eight episodes that doesn't drag or overstay its welcome, and builds to a very satisfying finale. "Redemption" was directed by Taika Waititi (who voiced one of the show's best side characters, the bounty- turned nanny-droid IG-11), and his trademark wacky sense of humor was there from the first scene. (In fact, the entire sequence at the beginning with the two stormtroopers felt improvised, as Waititi did with so much of Thor: Ragnarok.) The pacing was strong in the finale, balancing the blaster battles with necessary exposition, and he tugged at viewers' heartstrings with the sacrifice of IG. I also must praise Deborah Chow, who directed two of the season's best episodes, "Chapter 3: The Sin," and "Chapter 7: The Reckoning." Reportedly she's going to be in charge of the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series; if so, that show is in good hands.

(And may I mention how gratifying it is to see a female character onscreen who isn't a waifish, stick-limbed white chick? Gina Carano, as Alderaan Rebel trooper Cara Dune, looks like she is physically capable of tossing people over her head, and proceeds to do just that. She isn't a bad actor either.)

The season ends with Mando taking on full responsibility for Baby Yoda, following the Mandalorian "way" of the Foundling, which he himself was. This is a terrific setup for Season 2, and I'm looking forward to it.

December 25, 2019

Streamin' Meemies: The Expanse, Season 4

I am a big fan of The Expanse, so as much as I sometimes want to lash Jeff Bezos for Amazon taking over the world, I will always thank him for rescuing this show. I will state upfront that I thought Season 3 was about as perfect a season of television as I have watched in a long time, so this season had a lot to live up to.

I am happy to report that for the most part it did.

This season is mostly based on the fourth book, Cibola Burn. (You can tell which season it is by the title of the final episode, as they always use the book titles.) I say "mostly" because there were characters and storylines from the fifth book, Nemesis Games (which I have not yet read) woven into this season. (Thinking about that, that was a helluva sign of confidence from the showrunners, as they did not know the show would be renewed for season 5--which it has been--while they were making this one.) One thing which immediately became apparent is the complexity of the season: no less than four storylines were being juggled. Chrisjen Avasarala's running for election as head of the UN on Earth; the Rocinante crew on Ilus; Bobbie Draper on a deteriorating Mars; and Drummer and Ashford (and Marco Inaros) on Medina Station, guarding the ring gates. I'm sure the editors groaned when they heard this, but they did a tremendous job. The pacing of the individual episodes always flowed well, even when switching back and forth between storylines.

Acting-wise, I must single out the two that particularly struck me: Frankie Adams as Bobbie Draper, and the incomparable Shohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala. Adams has really grown into her role, giving Bobbie Draper a depth and nuance that I don't think was quite present when she began. (Also, I didn't really notice until this season how tall and muscled she is, especially compared to some of the other characters. I wondered if this was the directors' using different camera angles and such, but according to the show's Twitter feed, this is how the actor appears in real life.) As Bobbie was not in Cibola Burn until the book's epilogue, I am grateful the showrunners devised this storyline for her this season (reportedly based on one of the Expanse side novellas). Seeing Mars society falling apart after the discovery of the ring gates and the 1300+ inhabitable worlds beyond them, thus rending the terraforming of the planet unnecessary and wrecking their economy in one fell swoop, makes a powerful statement.

Shohreh Aghdashloo gets a meaty storyline this season, as Avasarala succumbs to the lure of political power and goes so far as exploiting the memory of her son's death to win the election (which she loses anyway). She also gets to let loose with F-bombs, which doesn't make as much of an impact as one might think, because everyone else does as well. Still, she spits out her "fucks" so nastily, and the actor's famous gravelly voice is perfect for them. The costume designer did an excellent job with Avasarala's costumes, as the character's dress and makeup choices turn out to be important indicators of her emotional status.

I also must note Cara Gee and David Strathairn in the Medina Station plotline. Drummer's choice to vote to spare Marco Inaros will come back to bite her big time, no matter that she did it to pacify the rival Belter factions. Strathairn, as Klaus Ashford, elevated every episode he was in, and [spoiler] I will miss his character. But the show did right by him.

Plot-wise, there is a lot going on here, and I think the season will reward rewatches. Let's not forget that the Expanse books are thick volumes. Cibola Burn runs nearly 600 pages, and translating that into ten episodes--and putting in the stuff from Nemesis Games--isn't as easy and seamless as the final product looks. This is where I think the heart of the show's success is having book co-authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck heavily involved in its production (they write several episodes this season, including the finale). This makes the shift from print to film much easier and keeps the quality high.

Favorite episodes: ep 6, "Displacement"; ep 8, "The One-Eyed Man": and ep 9, "Saeculum." I wasn't as fond of the finale, "Cibola Burn," because it felt like a leeetle too much setting up for the next season, even though it was necessary. Still, talk about whetting the viewer's appetite for what's to come. If they keep on like they have been, Season 5 is going to be fantastic.

In short: this entire series is highly recommended. If you have Amazon Prime (and even if you don't, since the seasons are coming out on Blu-Ray), don't miss it.

Review: Shattered Bonds

Shattered Bonds Shattered Bonds by Faith Hunter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There's not many long-running urban fantasy series left nowadays, but this is one of them. I had actually skipped a few of the books after reading the opening volumes, but I decided to dive back in again with this one. I was pleasantly surprised, both with Jane's character growth and the deepening layers of Hunter's world. In the earlier volumes, Jane was very much the "lone wolf"--or "lone skinwalker"--depending on no one but herself and actively shirking responsibility. Needless to say, this tended to get her in more trouble. This fault, and its consequences, are dealt with fully in this book, as Jane learns exactly what happens when she tries to run away from her duty.

Jane's relationship with Beast, her mountain lion second soul, is also a highlight of the series. The two of them are working together more than ever before, and this deepening partnership saves the day on more than one occasion. (Jane also promises to find a mate for Beast and have some kits. That should be interesting.) The vampires and witches in this world are a bit different than the norm, with the former in particular coming in for some fascinating world-building. There are also other magical creatures introduced, including a unique (at least to me) variation on arcangels I want to see more of.

Plot-wise, this is a fast-moving story with real consequences, some of them bad. The characters must face up to what they have done and are doing, and Bruiser (Jane's boyfriend) gets some good scenes along those lines. The ending set things up for a changed characters and world going forward, and definitely reignited my interest in this series.

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December 24, 2019

Review: Catfishing on CatNet

Catfishing on CatNet Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the novel-length expansion of Kritzer's charming Hugo-winning story, "Cat Pictures Please." The original was a funny, whimsical little story of a newly emergent artificial intelligence who wants to help people and look at cat pictures. This expansion has that, but it also asks pertinent questions about the ubiquitous intertwining of the internet into our lives, and how an AI develops a conscience and a set of ethics.

It's set just a few minutes (a decade or so) into the future, where 25% of cars on the road are self-driving, and robots teach sex ed (in a hilarious sequence where the protagonist and the AI reprogram said robot to answer questions with accurate information instead of the standard chickenshit "You must talk to your parents about [subject]" answer). Our protagonist, Steph--or Stephania--lives with her mother, a woman on the run from Steph's father, a charming psycopath. The very first scene in the book has Steph's mother hauling her out of the town where they're living in the middle of the night and moving to another small town. Because of this chaotic lifestyle, Steph has no friends other than her online friends on CatNet, a suspiciously well-run site with no spam and an admin, CheshireCat, who appears to be constantly online.

But Steph's past is buried in secrets, as she begins to discover. In the process, her friends on CatNet, and especially CheshireCat, become even more important as those secrets begin to unravel. CheshireCat, of course, is our very young and inexperienced AI, whose actions are pretty much the definition of "unintended consequences." CheshireCat faces some tough ethical dilemmas throughout this story, and the author introduces an interesting formula for the AI's developing an ethical outlook. Put this together with the story's rather unnerving (especially at the climax) examination of how the internet is wound into society's every move, and you have a thought-provoking book, despite its teenage protagonists and fast pacing.

Steph is a well-drawn character, and the characters as a whole are so very teenage. (The scene where Steph and her new friends Rachel and Bryony are fleeing from Steph's father while Rachel and Bryony are simultaneously fighting in the front seat of the car particularly struck me as being true to life.) The only quibble I have about the plot is what I thought was an unnecessary side point of just why Michael Quinn, Steph's father, is so hot to find her and her mother. I think it diluted the domestic violence angle of the story, and also diluted Quinn's worth as a villain. But seeing CheshireCat stumble, make mistakes and learn in the fight to protect its friends was a delight.

This storyline was pretty well wrapped up, but the last chapter and epilogue set things up for a sequel. I'm definitely up for it.

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December 21, 2019

Review: Storm Cursed

Storm Cursed Storm Cursed by Patricia Briggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Urban fantasy isn't the force it once was, but there are still a few long-running series out there. The Mercy Thompson series is one of them. This is the eleventh book, and while I didn't like it quite as much as last year's excellent Silence Fallen, it's still an entertaining blend of vampires, werewolves and witches. In this case all three of the above interact with the human world, which brings the messiness of human politics into the mix.

As always, our protagonist is Mercy Thompson, the skinwalker daughter of Coyote. Mercy is endearing precisely because she isn't a superpowered badass; she's a coyote shapeshifter, which means she can't take on a werewolf or a witch head on and has to rely on stealth, smarts and cunning. (That doesn't mean she doesn't have surprising powers of her own--she can see ghosts, and as she discovers at this story's climax, she has her father Coyote's power over the dead.) It thus falls to her mate and husband, Adam Hauptman, the leader of the local werewolf pack, to get the big fight scenes. The mature, supportive relationship between the two is one of the highlights of the series, as they have each other's backs at all times.

A story and world like this can easily become fraught with cliches, but Briggs manages to keep her universe relatively fresh. A big part of this is the supporting characters, particularly Stefan the vampire and Zee the fey. This book doesn't offer any big character reveals or world-shattering plot changes, but it's a good entertaining read.

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