October 12, 2019

Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Vol. 1: High School Is Hell

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Vol. 1: High School Is Hell Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Vol. 1: High School Is Hell by Jordie Bellaire
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an updated reboot of the Buffyverse, as is clear from the cover--Buffy is holding a stake in one hand and a cell phone in the other. The first issue starts with her already having gained her powers and moved to Sunnydale, just like the show (which I watched religiously during its run). There are immediate differences: Willow is already an out lesbian and sporting the chin-length bob of later seasons, not the longer hair of the first; Cordelia is an actual nice person, not a "mean girl"--although from some remarks she makes, I wonder how long that's going to last; Spike and Drusilla make their appearance right away; Anya is already running the magic shop; and Robin Wood from Season 7 is a teenager at Sunnydale High.

If all this sounds overstuffed, it kind of is. This volume covers the first four issues of the comic, and for the most part it feels far too rushed. It seems like Jordie Bellaire is trying to get the Scooby Gang back together too fast, without letting the different relationships evolve naturally. For example, Buffy meets and hangs out with Willow and Xander in the first issue, and elicits enormous laughter when attempting to explain the existence of bumpy-headed vampires to them; and yet only two issues later, when she confronts Spike and Drusilla, they come charging in with a shovel and a baseball bat to help her. The shock of and reaction to their discovering that demons and vampires are real things, and the Hellmouth is in Sunnydale, is completely glossed over.

All that said, I will pick up the second volume. I just hope the pace slows down a bit and the characters are given some room to breathe.

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October 11, 2019

Review: Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You

Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You by Scotto Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a neat little tale of Lovecraftian horror and rock and roll, encapsulated perfectly by the cover blurb: "Moore understands a key truth about Ziggy Stardust: Rock and roll messiahs are really fucking scary."

One could say the central figure of this musical horror story, Airee Macpherson, is sort of a genderbent Ziggy Stardust. If one defines a "genderbent Ziggy Stardust" as a "psychopathic criminal from a future dimension," who is using a sinister marriage of music and occultism to blast open a portal to return to her dimension. Our story is narrated by an unnamed music blogger who stumbles upon a new band, Beautiful Remorse. The very first chapter, Track 01, describes the effect this music has on him (or her? The story doesn't specify either way):

Time stopped while I was listening to it. Elation swept through me, as if I could die now, secure in the knowledge that I had at long last heard the most beautiful piece of music in the world and if I never heard any other music ever again, it wouldn't matter, because all music after this was going to sound like shit anyway.

Our music blogger hunts down the band's singer, Airee Macpherson, and scores an interview with her the following night at the band's show in Houston. Thus begins a steadily ratcheting tale of terror and suspense, one track at a time, with Beautiful Remorse's musical horror virus spreading throughout the land. The blogger is complicit and admits it, refusing to leave the tour even when band members are sacrificed onstage. There's obviously a Lovecraftian feel to all this, even if Cthulhu isn't mentioned (especially when Track 07 opens the wrong portal and a giant tentacle comes through). With Track 09, Airee finally manages to open the right portal, and disappears into it after leaving our narrator with Track 10 and a promise: if anyone ever wants her to return, just play the track and she'll come back to finish what she started.

The last chapter, "Coda," picks up the story ten years later, when--you guessed it--the final track gets loose on the internet. The song's name? "Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You." Which is a shivery bit of meta, ending on a promise of unopposed mayhem. This is a taut, well-written horror story that's worth your time.

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October 10, 2019

Review: The Haunting of Tram Car 015

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Last year, P. Djeli Clark wrote the excellent novella "The Black God's Drums." This novella takes place in a different world, an alternate-history Cairo where alchemy is a real thing, magic works and djinns and various otherworldly beasties exist. This makes for several interesting worldbuilding concepts, including one where Egypt kicked the British out forty years before and there is a Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Our two protagonists, Hamid Nasr and Onsi Youssef, are agents of said Ministry.

What starts out as a seemingly simple case--the haunting of a tram car by an unknown supernatural being--steadily escalates into a crisis. This story is well paced and tightly written, and the world is something I would like to explore further. Clark tells this story with a great deal of droll humor that had me laughing out loud more than once. Having said all this, I didn't like this as much as "The Black God's Drums." But it is worth your time.

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Review: Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This novella started out very promisingly. The protagonist, Bee, and her lover Chela are trapped in a cave system; Bee doesn't remember what they did to be marooned there, and Chela refuses to tell her anything beyond that they're telepaths and they killed four thousand people. The first three chapters are very good, intriguing and well paced. Then another telepathic voice intrudes on Bee's mind, the mental voice of the wife she's forgotten, and Jasmine breaks Bee out of the Matrix-like hold she's in....

And the whole thing goes downhill from there.

Honestly, I wish the editor had insisted the author chop the remaining four chapters right on out. This is simply not the story that should be told, in my opinion; it's not well thought out and characterized at all, and the worldbuilding (what there is of it) is severely lacking. The end reveal (who Chela really is) had me rolling my eyes. It's sad, because I would have read the heck out of a story featuring Bee and Chela trying to escape from their prison, and exploring whether Bee really is a mass murderer. I only rated this book (barely) two stars because of the first half. The book felt like a cheat, setting itself up to be one thing and then doing a completely unearned turn in another direction.

Don't waste your time with this one. I'm afraid you'll be disappointed.

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Review: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is terrifying. Up till now, I hadn't read such a thorough explanation of the horrors climate change will visit on the planet, and the first section of this made me want to hide under the bed. I can understand why Greta Thunberg and other young activists are so pissed off right now, because they'll have to live with the consequences of the world's inaction.

A good companion to this book would be The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions, by Peter Brannen. This book points out that all but one of Earth's past mass extinctions were fueled by climate change. This includes the end-Permian extinction that killed between 90-95% of all life then existing on Earth. The Uninhabitable Earth starts out comparing current trends to this extinction, in one of many chilling paragraphs:

In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 250 million years ago; it began when carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is one hundred times faster than at any point in human history before the beginning of industrialization. And there is already, right now, fully a third more carbon in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years--perhaps as long as 15 million years.

I recommend this book, but be prepared to be depressed afterwards. And then emerge from under the bed and prepare to fight, because this is the only Earth we have, and there is no Planet B.



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October 7, 2019

Review: Shadow Captain

Shadow Captain Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I gave the first book in this series five stars, and unfortunately this book turned out to be quite a disappointment. This continued the story of Adrana and Arafura Ness, in the far future (extremely far future--millions of years at least, possibly hundreds of millions) of humanity, when all the planets have been smashed to rubble and humans are eking out a not-too-great existence in the remains. There have been boom-and-bust cycles of civilization and technology, thirteen of them, and those who make their homes in the Thirteenth Occupation are surrounded by this forgotten technology, contained in the worldlets called "baubles."

(This book only brought home what an enormous unaddressed hole in the worldbuilding this idea is. How could all the planets in the solar system be broken apart? More importantly, why would anyone destroy the Earth? That question is the giant Oliphaunt, to borrow Tolkien's description, in the room, and so far the author has not answered it.)

This second book picks up the Ness sisters' story, and is told from the point of view of the older sister, Adrana. In looking over my review of the first book, I said that I hoped this would happen. Unfortunately, I need to remember to be careful what I wish for, because Adrana is a bland, staid character compared to the dynamic and obsessed Arafura. The pacing of this book is poor, with a huge chunk of the middle devoted to a pointless wandering around on a worldlet trying to get medical care for an injured crewmember, while more interesting mysteries (namely the origin of the seemingly sentient quoins) fall by the wayside.

Just a disappointment all the way around, sadly. I hope, if there is to be a third book, the author goes back to his more interesting character (Arafura) and really drills down into the worldbuilding. There seems to be a giant overarching mystery being set up here, but this book is so meandering and out-of-focus it has dimmed my enthusiasm for the series quite a bit.

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October 6, 2019

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Alix E. Harrow just won the 2019 Hugo Award for her short story, "A Witch's Guide To Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies." This was the story of a young man in foster care searching for a way out--and finding it, courtesy of a librarian-slash-witch who gave him a Book that let him open a door to the world of his heart.

This idea, that books can take us to other worlds both imagined and real, and words can work both metaphorical and literal magic, is expanded on here. This is the scientific concept of the multiverse, dressed up as a portal fantasy. It's a lovely book, about the power of words, the power of stories, and the power of love.

There are two intertwining threads here, one of the past of 1894, and one of the present of 1911. There are countless other worlds, and the people, animals, music, art and culture that travel between them. There are also those who want to control and ultimately close these Doors, because they believe the Doors are introducing "chaos" into our world and destabilizing the social order...not coincidentally, the social order that lets them stay on top. All these themes come to a head in the person of our protagonist, one January Scaller, who over the course of the book learns exactly who she is and where she came from, and takes the steps that free her and her family from the clutches of those who want to destroy them.

The worldbuilding and characterization (my two absolute must-haves) in this book are top-notch, slowly unfolding in a deliberate pace as January writes down what happened to her after the fact. (There's a specific reason for this--it's not done just to be cutesy--which will be explained by book's end.) The concept of the Doors, the main alternate world of the Written and its Wordworkers, and the antagonists known as the Society, are introduced gradually and naturally in the first half of the book. January also undergoes convincing and dramatic character development over the course of the story, changing from a timid, beaten-down "good girl" to a young woman who comes fully into her power, and who isn't "good" at all. (And just to reassure anyone concerned about her pet, the dog doesn't die.) The final comeuppance of the villain, the man January once thought of as her second father, is a bit horrifying, but it is earned and deserved.

More than that, however, this book is beautifully written. It's worth reading a little slower than you might otherwise do, just to savor the lovely metaphors and turns of phrase. For a writer, or someone hoping to be, it's a marvelous display of craft that's worth some careful study.

Altogether, this book is full-on fantastic. It's one of the best books I've read this year.

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Your Political Interlude: Impeach the Mofo

Trump and Boris Johnson are in a breakneck competition for Worst Person in the Effing World, and I'm not sure who is winning.

Humpty Trumpty sat on the wall.....




Humpty Trumpty had a great fall.....




And all the king's horses and all the king's men.....





(let's pray to every Deity that may have ever existed) Won't put Humpty Trumpty together again.




Bonus: Campfire Karaoke!




And across the pond, Magic for Beginners!



(With apologies to Kelly Link)

September 28, 2019

Review: Dragon Pearl

Dragon Pearl Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Yoon Ha Lee is one of my favorite authors, so when I heard he was writing a middle-grade book, I decided to give it a try. I read and enjoy a lot of YA, and while this is intended for slightly younger readers, I thought it wouldn't matter.

Unfortunately, it did. A lot of this, I know, is because I'm not the target audience. The protagonist of this book is a thirteen-year-old girl, and I'm sure many thirteen-year-olds will love it. For me, this book didn't have the depth, complexity and characterization of Lee's adult novels. Obviously in one sense this is to be expected. Even so, at the end it felt a bit....slight.

Part of this was the worldbuilding: an uneven mashup of Korean myth and science fiction (which is why I tagged it "science fantasy"), where starships, terraforming and jump gates are placed side by side with shapeshifters and ghosts. Again, the target audience won't care about this, but I couldn't quite get past it. On the brighter side, the protagonist Min and her brother Jun are nicely characterized, as are Min's friends aboard the starship Pale Lightning. Unfortunately, the villain was more than a little one-dimensional, which detracted from the story as a whole. And while I was glad Min triumphed in her quest to find her brother and claim the magic terraforming artifact the Dragon Pearl, the whole thing felt just a bit too easy.

Nah, I think we can put this one down to not really being the book for me. Now, the author's Machineries of Empire trilogy....I will fight you over that. This book, not so much.

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September 22, 2019

Review: Children of Ruin

Children of Ruin Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very ambitious hard science fiction novel in what I would term the "classic" mold--full of Big Ideas and oozing Sensawunda. It's a fat book with unfortunately a bit of sag to the middle, and some of the characterizations were a bit lacking. I would say I liked and admired it more than I loved it.

It's the sequel to Children of Time, but I had no difficulty following along with the story. A story, by the way, that stretches for more than ten thousand years, with two storylines, Past and Present, that eventually come together in a rip-roaring finale. This is not blasters, laser burns and blood. Quite the opposite--the last, hardest obstacle to overcome is learning to communicate. As in, learning to communicate with A) an uplifted species of sentient, space-faring octopuses; and B) an alien slime mold that has been infected with the same uplifting virus at the octopuses, and courtesy of taking over a few human brains, has absorbed their personalities and now wants to go on an adventure. Said alien slime mold has to be taught to leave other beings alone and share the adventure rather than absorbing everything it comes across.

The author shines in constructing his far-future cultures and societies, in particular the arachnoid Portiids (which is why I ordered the first book, to find out more about them). The octopus society, while masterfully drawn and as far as I know true to the species, is a little more off-putting due to the simple fact that as set up, the society focuses more on groups and factions (Science faction, War faction) than individuals. It's hard to relate to them, which in no manner takes away from the author's depiction of such an alien way of thinking and communicating. The giant (like a cat with eight legs) sentient spiders, the Portiids, were far more interesting to me. Even the alien slime mold takes on its own character after it settles down and stops sucking up everyone's brains, as shown in the Epilogue where they are a part of five species (including "a wholly unexpected collision between a corvid genome and an alien molecular catalyst"--tell the crow/raven story next, please!) exploring the galaxy.

This book has a slow, deliberate pace, which seems necessary to accommodate its many ideas. It also uses multiple POVs, which is also necessary but which I am less fond of. The spiders (particularly Fabian) were the best characters. The plot does slow down in the middle, which might test some readers' patience, but everything picks up as it comes together in the end. This book didn't quite tip over into love for me, but I can see how many readers would squee over it.

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