February 23, 2024

Review: Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point

Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point by Steven Levitsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I only read non-fiction sporadically, but I think this is an important read for any American (and anyone in other countries who want a cautionary example about maintaining democracy). The authors drill down into the reasons democracies falter and authoritarian movements take hold, and highlight the peculiar and unique elements of the American system, constitution and people that make the titular "tyranny of the minority" possible.

I want to highlight one paragraph that sums things up:

American democracy can only survive with a Republican Party that is capable of winning national majorities--one that can compete for votes in the cities and among younger and nonwhite citizens. Only when Republicans can legitimately win national elections again will their leaders' fears of multiracial democracy subside. Only then can we expect the party to abandon violent extremism and play by democratic rules, win or lose. For those things to happen, the Republicans must become a truly multiethnic party. Our institutions have weakened the GOP's incentive to change course in this way. And that's a serious problem. As long as the Republican Party can hold on to power without broadening beyond its radicalized core white Christian base, it will remain prone to the kind of extremism that imperils our democracy today.

I remain pessimistic, given the current Trump-hijacked state of the Republican Party, that this will happen any time soon. But this book lays out a solid roadmap for the country's future, if the GOP can bring themselves to pay attention to it.

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February 20, 2024

Review: What Feasts at Night

What Feasts at Night What Feasts at Night by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second novella in the Sworn Soldier series, following the adventures of Alex Easton, a retired soldier of the fictional country of Gallacia in the late 19th century. The previous book, What Moves the Dead, was one of the best books I read a couple of years ago, a takeoff of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." This story features the return of Alex Easton, their traveling companion Angus and the fungal expert/Angus's girlfriend Eugenia Potter, and introduces some delightful new characters, including the grumpy Widow Botezatu and her grandson Bors.

This story is a little longer than the previous one, and veers more towards the supernatural instead of the previous story's SF bent. In this case, the monster is the "moroi," a ghost that comes in the night, sits on your chest, and sucks your breath. The moroi killed the caretaker of Alex's Gallacian lodgehouse, Codrin, and threatens Alex and their friends. Alex throws down against the moroi at the climax, in an extended dream sequence that also weaves in the primary theme of the story: Alex's PTSD (here called "soldier's heart") and how they deal with it.

This backstory of Alex's war experiences was mentioned in the first book, but really brought to the fore here. The characters and their relationships also are more of a driver in this book than the plot. Since we're visiting Alex's home country for the first time, the author provides plenty of vivid descriptions throughout:

Autumn was nearly spent, which meant that many of the trees had lost their leaves. You might think that would mean that the woods had opened up, but if you think that, you have likely never been to Gallacia. Serrated ranks of pine lined the road, with the bare branches of oaks thrusting out between them like arthritic fingers. The sky was the color of a lead slug and seemed barely higher than the trees themselves. Combined with the wagon ruts that left a ridge down the center of the road, I had the unpleasant feeling that I was riding straight down a giant throat.

Alex Easton's droll, relatable voice definitely carries the reader along in this book, along with a wry, matter-of-fact sense of humor that had me laughing out loud at several points:

it probably helped that Miss Potter did not demand English cooking and ate heartily of all the Widow's dishes, passing praise via Angus or myself. The quality of our food improved markedly. It hadn't been bad before, but it had been fairly monotonous. Now we only had paprika sausage for every third meal. (We stole that from the Hungarians, bask when we tried to fight them and they beat us sensless. This is how Gallacia acquired most of its cuisine. The Widow made excellent paprika sausage, but one's bowels do require a few hours to recover now and again.)

We find out a good deal more about Gallacia and its culture along the way. I don't think this book is quite as good, or as frightening, as What Moves the Dead (that book was enough to give anyone nightmares and look askance at mushrooms for a good long while). But the characters are appealing enough to make up for it.

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February 15, 2024

Review: Exordia

Exordia Exordia by Seth Dickinson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I gave this book fifty pages before I gave up on it. It's supposed to be a multiverse-crossing, alien invasion story that also discusses philosophical concepts like free will and souls being the products of a physical brain's weaving together stories. This might have been interesting if the two main characters (a Kurdish refugee and an eight-headed snake-woman) weren't such unlikable monsters--I can stomach monsters in my books to an extent, but not these two. When I realized I didn't care in the least if the main characters murdered each other, that was it. I just received a brand-new novella by T. Kingfisher, and that sounds a helluva lot better than this.

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February 13, 2024

Review: The Tainted Cup

The Tainted Cup The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Robert Jackson Bennett is pretty much an insta-buy for me, and this book ups his considerable game. This is a fascinating world set against a well-constructed puzzle box of a mystery that reveals some unpleasant cracks in this world's Empire, and a conspiracy that leads all the way to the Empire's equivalent of our 1%, the tremendously wealthy and influential clan Hazas.

Our protagonist is Dinios Kol, an "engraver" who has been genetically engineered to have a perfect memory and total recall, working as an apprentice investigator to Anagosa Dolabra. The first chapter opens with him being called to an estate where a man has been killed, by the novel method of a plant erupting from his body and literally eating him up. This is our introduction to this world, with its extensive genetic engineering:

Which wasn't to say it was not opulent. Miniature mai-trees had been altered to grow down from the ceiling, acting as chandeliers--something I'd never seen before--their fruits full to bursting with the glowing little mai-worms, which cast a flickering blue light about us. I wondered if even the air was expensive in here, then saw it was: a massive kirpis mushroom had been built into the corner of every main room--a tall, black fungus built to suck in air, clean it, and exhale it out at a cooler temperature.

This is made possible through the industry of "reagents" and "suffusions," substances grown and built to be ingested and change DNA in specific ways. This takes up tremendous amounts of land in the inner Rings of this Empire, but this entire process is based on the blood and bodies of the "leviathans," the monstrous kaiju of this world who emerge from the seas every year in the "wet season" and rampage through the Empire--or at least they did, until the massive seawalls were built to keep them out.

This backstory and worldbuilding could have taken up literal chapters, but it is doled out in the precise fractions we need to serve the story. I am in awe of the author's economy in doing this, and at the same time making this complex and fascinating world understandable. As a reader I never felt lost, never had any WTF or head-scratching moments. Our focus is on the unfolding murder mystery and the gradual, inexorable raising of stakes, until the final confrontation when Ana reveals all--which takes place as another leviathan is coming ashore and triggering mass panic. This juxtaposition of the investigator Dolabra revealing who committed the murders and why, and the leviathan drawing ever closer, creates some almost unbearable suspense in the final chapters.

Ana and Din are also well-drawn characters. Obviously they're based on Holmes and Watson, but Ana is a good deal more ruthless and predatory than Sherlock: she has incredible investigative abilities and also comes across as somewhere on the autism spectrum, since she wears blindfolds in public to avoid too much stimulation and is inclined to hide away in her house or room to stay away from people. Din, on the other hand, with his reading and writing difficulties, is meant to be dyslexic, I think. But his determination to pass his exams to become an Iudex apprentice, and his willingness to bend the rules to do so, marks him as the exact sort of assistant Ana needs.

The mystery involves the Hazas clan and its hubris and greed, and the unthinking consequences it doles out to people considered beneath it in its pursuit of what it wants. This includes the province of Oypat, destroyed years ago by an experimental, fast-growing reagent called "dappleglass" that got away from the Engineers of Oypat, threatening to eat the entire province and its inhabitants, until Oypat had to be burned to the ground and locked away. The echoes of this crime and those who enabled it, and the revenge plot formulated by the survivors, is the focus of this story. There was apparently a neutralizing reagent created for dappleglass, but bureaucratic inertia (later discovered to be deliberate) doomed the entire province:

"And....what did the Preservation Boards do regarding Oypat?"

"They moved quickly. Or....they tried to. But the cantons that would have to grow the reagents for the cure...Well, they brought many concerns. They protested how creating these new reagents could lead to environmental issues with all their other reagents and agriculture. They demanded tests and studies, wanting to ensure that there was no commingling or mutagenic possibilities."

"I see," said Ana softly. "Then what happened?"

"The process simply took too long. The dappleglass reached a critical point. It had devoured too much land. Too long a border for it to ever be properly neutralized. Like a tumor infecting the bone, or the tissue of the heart, it was too late. So we evacuated the canton, and then....then we applied a phalm oil burn."

This book touches on current fears of genetic engineering run amuck and what might happen if it gets out of control, and the greed of anyone who thinks themselves better than others just because they are rich. It's a complex, absorbing story with a fascinating, horrifying world I would love to revisit again and again.

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February 5, 2024

Review: The Tusks of Extinction

The Tusks of Extinction The Tusks of Extinction by Ray Nayler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This slender novella (112 pages) is full of ideas. Cloning mammoths (also woolly rhinos and other Ice Age animals); trying to re-create an extinct ecosystem in Siberia; mapping and downloading a person's consciousness and memories and uploading the record to an organic brain; widespread use of drones as pack animals/little spy machines; and even a mechanical device that straps to a sender's and receiver's temples that is basically a artificial telepathic/thought projector.

It's a lot. This book, while absorbing, feels overstuffed. I don't say this often, but this story and ideas could have benefitted from expansion to a full length novel, to give the plot and characters some time to breathe. The ideas are certainly fascinating enough to support a book.

The main theme of the story is the author's anger over the exploitation of the natural world, in this case the future extinction of elephants in the wild due to the ivory trade. There's no year given in the story, but it has to be several decades from now, perhaps as much as a century. One of the main characters, the elephant biologist Damira Khismatullina, is killed trying to defend her elephants; a year previously she had left a copy of her memories at the Mind Bank. Fifty years after her death, as cloned mammoths are struggling to survive in their Siberian preserve and wild elephants are extinct, she is resurrected and downloaded into a mammoth's body to serve as their matriarch and teach them to survive.

There are two other main characters: Svyatoslav, a young boy participating in the killing of the mammoths with a group of poachers; and Vladimir, the husband of a "great white hunter" who has paid out an ungodly sum to hunt a male mammoth. This was deemed necessary by the preserve's director to support Moscow's "return on investment" (!) so the preserve and cloning of future inhabitants can continue. But Damira has other ideas about the whole thing, and when the poachers and hunters start shooting her mammoths, she leads them on a bloody revenge spree that ends up killing nearly all of the hunters.

That's what I mean when I say this should have been a book. There's so much here, and by necessity we're focused on the tale of the mammoths in their preserve and those hunting them. There is no room for any wider look at this future world, the technology, politics, progression of climate change, etc. Even the characters, while fleshed out as much as the 112 pages allow, could have benefited from a longer story. The author's debut novel, The Mountain in the Sea, was a fascinating look at the discovery of intelligent octopuses and their culture, and this could have been equally interesting, delving into the culture of the mammoths and the ramifications of a former human leading them.

That's not to say this book isn't worth reading, although the climax is a little rushed, and the ending is abrupt. But the future the author lays out here, and the ideas and concepts explored, are more than interesting enough to carry it.

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February 3, 2024

Review: The Reformatory

The Reformatory The Reformatory by Tananarive Due
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was difficult to read--but it is so, so good. It's the first time I've picked up a Tananarive Due novel, but it won't be the last.

This is the story of Robert Stephens Jr., a twelve-year-old African American boy in the fictional Florida town of Gracetown in 1950, who defends his sister Gloria against a white boy making unwanted advances and as a result is sent to the Gracetown School for Boys, the titular Reformatory. The book goes into the horrors Robert suffers there and the background of the Reformatory is gradually revealed. There Robert sees the ghosts, or "haints," of boys who died thirty years ago as a result of a fire set by the sociopathic superintendent, Fenton Haddock. The horrors continue throughout the book: the dehumanization and persecution of African Americans in the Jim Crow South is accurately and fully depicted here, and the horrors inflicted on Robbie and the other boys by white people far outweigh the supernatural horrors.

There are two storylines in this book: Robbie's ordeal at the Reformatory, and the parallel efforts of his sister Gloria to get him out. Gloria and Robbie's mother died before the story starts, and their union-organizing father was falsely accused of the rape of a white woman and had to flee to Chicago. Gloria is left to try to rescue her brother on her own, but she is aided by many other people: her godmother Miz Lottie and Lottie's adopted sons; Marian Hamilton, a volunteer at the Reformatory who meets Robbie and his doomed friend, Redbone, while volunteering to teach the Negro band at the school; John Dorsey, the lawyer based on the author's own father, a Civil Rights-era lawyer, and others. All these characters are fully drawn, complex people. Even the "haint," Blue, who manipulates Robbie into freeing the ghosts of the boys who died thirty years ago and luring Haddock to his death, has depth and nuance despite his alien, undead way of thinking. The pacing is expert and the final chapters, tracing Robbie's escape, his pursuit by Haddock and the Reformatory's dogs, and his final confrontation with Haddock, are almost unbearable in their tension and suspense.

Apparently the Reformatory is based on the real-life Dozier School for Boys, where another Robert Stephens, the author's relative, was killed in the 1930's. Due has taken her family history and spun it into an at times incredibly hard to read but important novel. This book provides a stark lesson that as a country we haven't left Jim Crow as far behind us as we like to think. The scene where Gloria and Miz Lottie are pulled over by the sheriff, the questioning they have to endure and the suspicion immediately cast upon them by the white deputies for merely being black women driving a car, could be played out in any number of similar traffic stops today.

This is a horror novel, yes, but it is also a thoroughly American novel, to our shame. Hopefully by casting some light on these terrible things of our past (and present), the author can nudge America, and particularly the white population of America, to acknowledge a past that is still not past, a past we must come to terms with. We owe it to the memory of the real-life Robert Stephens to try.

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January 29, 2024

Review: All the Hidden Paths

All the Hidden Paths All the Hidden Paths by Foz Meadows
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This second book in the Tithenai Chronicles takes a slightly different tack than the first, concentrating more on the romance and court politics than the magical elements. Once more, the protagonist Velasin is in danger, threatened because of his marriage to a Tithena nobleman, Caethari.

There is a lot of character work in this story, because Vel and Cae, despite being thrown together in a political marriage that neither of them wanted, find themselves falling in love. Velasin in particular, coming from a country where same-sex relationships/marriages are frowned upon and gay people are discriminated against, has to do a lot of growing to adjust to this new situation and his expanding feelings for Caethari. Throw in an assassin after the two of them and a separate person sent by the king of Ralia (Vel's former country) to break up his marriage, and he has a lot to deal with.

But Vel is clever and politically savvy, and he is able to navigate the treacherous waters at the Tithenai Court and secure a place for himself and his husband. He also has to deal with his own feelings and the completely new situation he finds himself in: a secure relationship in a place accepting of gay people, where he can be open with his love for Cae. Caethari, on the other hand, has to cope with the trauma Velasin experienced in the previous book, as well as his own countrymen not accepting his marriage and working against it. Layer a murder mystery on top of all this and we have an intriguing and complicated stew with many different plot threads to deal with.

The author does all this with aplomb. They also have a deft hand with character work (page 364, when Velasin realizes how he feels about Caethari):

Everything around me slowed and blurred, as if I were an insect incased in tree-sap. My heart wrenched erratically against my ribs, for all the world like a leashed dog straining to greet a friend, and I realized, in a bright and sudden unfurling of truth, that I loved him. Oh, I thought stupidly. The realization washed through me with all the sweet shivering shock of brandy drunk on an empty stomach. I stared at my husband, at the desperate worry in his face, and felt my blood beating within me like wings. I'd thought myself in love before, but in that moment, the strength of my feelings for Cae cast every prior romance in the retroactive light of infatuation. I had yearned for love, had hoped for, cherished and feared it in nearly equal measure, but all of that paled before my sudden certainty that, if my heart was a ship, Caethari had become its harbor.

There's some lovely writing in this book, and a strong sense of pace and balance. The romance does not crowd out the political shenanigans and vice versa. The main characters have depth and nuance, and while I would love an entire book about Vel's servant/best friend Markel, he does make a good showing here. I don't know if this is the final book in the series, but if so, it wraps things up very nicely.

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January 22, 2024

Review: Iron Flame

Iron Flame Iron Flame by Rebecca Yarros
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As far as I can tell, the first book of the Empyrean series, Fourth Wing, started the whole "romantasy" craze (in fact, Goodreads invented a whole new "romantasy" category for the Goodreads Choice Awards last year, which Fourth Wing of course won). This book is the second in the series--of a projected five books, according to what I've read--and it is a honking doorstopper of a volume at over 600 pages.

This is the story of Navarre and their dragon riders, and their war with both gryphon riders and evil mages who drain magic from the land (and people, killing them). This war was first fought over 600 years ago, and afterwards Navarre retreated behind its borders, sealing them with magic to protect both its people and its dragons. They also set up a brutal war college, Basgiath, to train (and weed out) potential dragon riders to continue the fight. The protagonist, the general's daugter Violet Sorrengail, is sent against her will to Basgiath and becomes a rider, in the process falling in love with the ruthless wingleader Xaden Riorsen and discovering the truth behind the war.

To be honest, I didn't like this book as well as the first. There are good things about it--the action scenes are suspenseful and well written as usual, and I appreciated the deepening of the worldbuilding and history, and the central mystery of exactly what happened during the first war with the evil "venin" centuries ago. The dragons, especially Violet's two, grumpy Tairn and moody adolescent Andarna, are well drawn. However, this story began to drag. The series is much better when it focuses on the world of Navarre and the war plot, and the romance between Xaden and Violet just drags it down. I mean, Yarros writes explicit sex scenes tolerably well, but I don't need more than one or two to get the point across, you know? And their ongoing trust/relationship drama (she doesn't trust him because he won't reveal his secrets etc) got tiresome after a while.

Also, in this book Violet begins to feel a little....over the top. Part of that may be because the series is written from her first-person point of view. But after a while, it seems like she is the only one who can come up with the near-miraculous solutions to solve their problems, even though she is a second-year cadet and is surrounded by all sort of military people and strategists who would presumably have ideas of their own. Also, the book's climax--where Violet realizes her second dragon Andarna is the "seventh" breed of dragon that can restart Basgiath's wardstone and save the day, and she herself is some special super-strong Chosen One Andarna has been waiting for--had me rolling my eyes a bit. "Chosen one" tropes are also getting tiresome.

All this made this 600-page doorstop a bit of a slog, despite the fast, almost frantic pacing. I think future books would do better to be about half its length, or many readers (including this one) might drop out.

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January 16, 2024

Review: Generation Ship

Generation Ship Generation Ship by Michael Mammay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I ended up liking this book, but my approval is a bit...tepid. That's because despite its being nominally "science fiction," it is rather light on the science. Especially with the setting of a 250-year-old generation ship, which is a dicey proposition at best, and there is precious little info given as to how this ship actually works. The author is far more concerned with shipboard politics, factions and revolutions. This overriding theme runs through the first three-quarters of the book, and the sudden turn in the last chapters to a tale of first contact is somewhat disconcerting. Not that the aliens found on the planet aren't interesting, but it feels like we should have spent a lot more time with them instead of all the political machinations.

The characters are also not delved into in any great depth. For example, one of several viewpoint characters, scientist Sheila Jackson, is written as if she is somewhere on the autism spectrum, but that's not explored in any detail. That aspect of her personality would be important to the plot, and it feels strange that it's not addressed. The characters are also not differentiated enough to make a lasting impression and became hard to tell apart after a while, even with chapter headings stating which character is taking center stage for the chapter.

Bottom line: this book was pleasant enough for what it is, but it is also eminently forgettable. I really like my generation ship space operas to have better characters and science.

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January 6, 2024

Review: After World

After World After World by Debbie Urbanski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is one weird book. I'd almost classify it as a literary writer's idea of what a dystopian science fiction future should look like, except the writer's bio says she's published SF stories before (in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, no less). It's definitely experimental: it has almost no plot and a non-linear narrative, and more than one page is taken up with seemingly random dribbles and drabs. (See: page 317, where the artificial intelligence that has named itself Ennis, and who the reader gradually realizes is the book's narrator, says "I erase Sen's source documents from the DHAP servers, as they are no longer necessary to her or to me--" and then proceeds to list all of said files, for the next two pages.)

It's also a depressing book, as Ennis the "storyworker" is chronicling the last days of Sen Anon, the last human alive on earth after a deliberately induced sterilization virus that causes the extinction of humans and the collapse of civilization. It takes place at the end of this century, when climate change is wreaking havoc, species are going extinct at the rate of a dozen per day, and the only solution, according to the artificial intelligence behind Jenninet, is for humans to take themselves out of the ecosystem. Most of the 12 billion people alive are digitally mapped and uploaded to the virtual reality known as the titular "After World," and following Sen's death from starvation, the Digital Human Archive Project is completed and Afterworld is begun.

Only thing is, as the reader gradually realizes, this "solution" is forced on the human race as the ultimate genocide. We never find out who engineered the sterilization virus, but the uncomfortable implication is that it is the artificial intelligences running Afterworld. This huge issue is never explored and barely mentioned, as the author's focus is on how people (primarily Sen and her two mothers) are reacting to the end of the world, as well as the gradual awakening to sentience of the storyworker Ennis, who falls into a somewhat creepy love/obsession with Sen. The book hops, skips and jumps around in time and place, as it talks about humanity dying and uploading, and also discusses previous speculative fiction works dealing with this same subject and how they did not at all predict what actually happened. This is all extremely meta, even navel-gazing (at one point there is a reference to a presumably real-life article written by the book's author, under her real name).

If you don't like experimental fiction, you won't like this. I barely finished it, and indeed read the last half in a train-wreck state of mind, shaking my head at what I was encountering. The book I started after finishing this is a plain old-fashioned space opera with an actual plot and story, something I badly needed following this book.

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