December 9, 2018

Review: Mage Against the Machine

Mage Against the Machine Mage Against the Machine by Shaun Barger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is trying to be too many things at once, and not succeeding particularly well at any of them.

If this was being pitched to Hollywood (and it may have been--certainly the last quarter of the story, which is a madcap running battle, reads as something just waiting to be CGI'd into a third act) it would take up exactly five words (as noted in the synopsis): Harry Potter versus the Terminator. Magic versus science, mages versus battle robots. Some people could do a lot with this idea. Shaun Barger, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be one of them.

The first thing wrong is the characterization: one of our two protagonists, Nikolai Strauss, is, to be frank, a whiny-ass, bad-tempered, entitled prick. Yes, his mother magically beat him to toughen him up, and his father did nothing to stop it. This kind of forced family dysfunction, with the dead mother being the bad person, is a maddening, unnecessary cliche. Nik is only twenty years old and an overpowered danger to himself and others throughout, and he needed to be sat down and given a great deal of therapy before the story even started. The one saving grace, character-wise, is the other protagonist (the two alternate POV chapters), Jemma Burton. Jemma's storyline is the SF one; her post-apocalyptic society has virtual reality, wetware mods in people's brains, artificial intelligence, robots (here called Synths), and a fertility plague that has doomed the human race, and is just more interesting. In fact, Jemma should have been the protagonist throughout.

The second thing is the worldbuilding, which is almost as clunky as the characterization. The SF world is, again, superior. The mages have a history that reads very Erich von Daniken "Chariots of the Gods" to me, and I wouldn't be surprised if their "discs," which power their pocket dimensions, turn out to be alien artifacts. (If I even pick up the second book, which right now I'm not going to do.) Of course, the mages' meddling is what brought on the humans' nuclear apocalypse in the first place, and they sealed themselves away from humankind because they're Too Powerful To Mix, instead of owning up to what they did and trying to fix it. (Naturally, if they had, the artificial intelligences would likely never have arisen, at least in the form postulated here, and we wouldn't have a story.)

(But hey, if I can suggest a more interesting story in just two sentences...well, your book is just not up to snuff.)

The pacing is also off, as the book (with the partial exception of the Jemma chapters) doesn't really get going until Nik and Jemma meet up. After that it's a frantic over-the-top race to the ending. Which, by the way, is another problem, because the ending is written from the POV of one of the AI Overminds, Armitage, whose head we have never been in until now. This is simply a poor choice, as Armitage is referring to stuff the reader knows nothing about, and as a result the book sputters to a sudden, confusing halt.

The whole thing badly needs tightening up and another draft. The bones of what could be a good story are here, and it's sad and frustrating that the author apparently can't do anything with it.

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December 6, 2018

Review: Head On

Head On Head On by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to Lock In, a book I gave four stars to a few years back. This book is just as good, I think, in a different way: the plot and action is much tighter, and this is far more of a near-future police (or FBI) procedural than the first book was. That only makes sense: the world has been established (there is a rather clever prologue disguised as an online article, explaining the Hadens and their sport, Hilketa, that serves as a massive infodump without feeling like one) and now Scalzi gets to (pardon the pun) play in it.

(Also, this book's cover is fun. I didn't think much of it at first--a bland stick figure with an apparently decapitated head? But that's exactly what happens, and is what sets the plot in motion.)

The contrast between the first book and this one is that there's a lot more social commentary in Lock In. There are a few issues raised here, issues of ableism and marginalization, but they're not explored in the depth of the previous book. I wish Scalzi had been able to do that, but the minutiae of solving the case didn't leave as much room for side trips. Other readers' mileage may vary, of course, and in any case the two books complement each other very well. The characters, especially Leslie Vann (who emerges as a cranky but brilliant crime-solving asshole), and the narrator Chris Shane's friend Tony, are given more of a spotlight. (In fact, some of the most enjoyable scenes were the ones involving Chris's flatmates, and the ones showing Haden society.)
Chris has settled into the role of earnest, dogged rookie FBI agent very well, and has a droll sense of humor that keeps the narration crackling.

(And I've now changed my mind regarding Chris's gender. This is a notable plot point, as the author works hard never to say whether Chris is male or female, and it certainly doesn't matter to the story. Which is a deft commentary about gender all on its own, of course. But there's a scene where Chris's mother is shown trimming her hair--yes, I've now decided Chris is female--and the narration avoids any mention of shaving as well, which you'd think would be done at the same time.)

Altogether, this is a solid and quite enjoyable book. Maybe next time, if there is a third book, and given the plot developments in this one, we'll be able to have a bit more commentary on the social aspects of this world.

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December 3, 2018

Review: Iron and Magic

Iron and Magic Iron and Magic by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book surprised me. It's a spin-off of the Kate Daniels urban fantasy series, and features as its protagonists Hugh d'Ambray, one of the foremost bad guys from those books. To make Hugh the star of this book, and make him sympathetic enough to find readers (he's definitely not a classical hero; he's more of an anti-hero here, and his assholish side still exists) takes writers of some skill. The Andrews husband-and-wife writing team pulls this off, and gives us a lean, mean, fast-moving machine of story to boot.

(As a matter of fact, I liked this story better than the final book in the Kate Daniels series, Magic Triumphs. That book felt a bit bloated and overstuffed when I was reading it--which, in fairness, it could hardly escape being, since it was winding up the series--and now it seems even more so compared to this.)

The characterizations are first-rate, especially Hugh's and Elara Harper, the woman he enters into a marriage of convenience with to provide a home for his soldiers, the Iron Dogs. We find out a lot about Hugh's past, and how he was abused and manipulated by Roland (AKA the wizard Nimrod, the Big Bad of the Kate Daniels universe) for decades. He undergoes a nice character arc in this book, punishing himself for and coming to terms with his past, and makes a final break with Roland at the end. This isn't to say he is transformed into a Good Guy. Far from it. Hugh d'Ambray is a complex character with many shades of gray. But at the end of this book he stands on his own, and the choices he makes going forward will be his, for good or bad.

Elara Harper, the witch/White Lady/something else ancient and powerful and a bit Lovecraftian, is just as well drawn, if more mysterious. Presumably we will find out more about her in subsequent books. Regardless, she is a fine match for Hugh, taking none of his or anyone else's shit. Their relationship changes from hate to not-quite-love but moving in that direction, and their dialogue and banter is funny, snarky, and delicious. The POVs in this book are split between Hugh and Elara, and the division of scenes is excellent and well-balanced, moving the story along and revealing plot and character quite nicely.

The worldbuilding casts an interesting new light on this universe, in that this setting is more on the magic side of the magic/tech struggle. A slowly eroding modern civilization with monsters, and what it takes to stand against them. In this case, it takes Hugh d'Ambray, Preceptor of the Iron Dogs, and I can't wait for his further adventures.

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November 25, 2018

Review: Contagion

Contagion Contagion by Erin Bowman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was okay, if more than a little derivative. It reads as a mashup of Alien and The Walking Dead, with a side dish of Nasty Uncaring Corporation thrown in. The reason I'm not rating it any higher is because the worldbuilding is fairly shallow, and so are the characters. If the pilot Nova and the intern Thea are supposed to be our protagonists, then the author really needs to get into their heads, and she did not do so. There were several other POVs, and all of them were unnecessary and threw off the flow of the story. The author did write some good action scenes, but in the end, even though this book ends on a cliffhanger, I don't care enough about the characters to pick up the next book.

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November 19, 2018

Review: Temper

Temper Temper by Nicky Drayden
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I don't often run up against a book I can't finish, but this was one of them. I tried, I really did. But when I hit page 75 and realized I still didn't care what happened to these people, I decided to give it up. The viewpoint character, Auben, was a royal ass (although as the bearer of six vices and only one virtue, he was supposed to be), and his supposedly "good" brother, Kasim, wasn't much better. I didn't even care when (view spoiler)

Bah. I have an entire stack of books more interesting than this. Onward.

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November 18, 2018

Review: Tomorrow Factory: Collected Fiction

Tomorrow Factory: Collected Fiction Tomorrow Factory: Collected Fiction by Rich Larson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't read that many short story collections, but I will freely admit the terrific cover art on this book is what first made me pick it up at the library. Then, upon viewing the author's photo, and seeing this
kidyoung man with enough published stories to put out a collection (and apparently many more besides that)...I thought, well, I'll take a chance on it.

I'm very glad I did.

I don't know if you could call Rich Larson a once-in-a-generation talent, but he's damned good. This is evident from the very first story in this collection, "All That Robot Shit," which flips the tale of Robinson Crusoe on its ear. In this version, the castaway, or the Man, is washed up on an island with a thriving culture of sentient robots that have developed their own religion...and their own punishment for blasphemers who claim humans made them.

(In a small, sneaky detail, the kind that doesn't dawn on the reader until the story is finished, the Man is referred to as "it" throughout, and the robots are given gender. It's just one of the ways Larson subverts the usual tropes.)

Other standouts in this collection include "Extraction Request," which marries primeval Alien-inspired horror with the SF conceit of a predatory fungus, to bleak, memorable effect; "The Ghost Ship Anastasia," one of the longer stories, about a crew sent to check out a mining bioship that has ceased transmitting (this one has callbacks to both Alien and Lovecraft); "Your Own Way Back," about a grandfather who uploads himself to a chip in an attempt to cheat death, and ends up being carried around in his grandson's head for a while, until he realizes he can't impose the burden of his quasi-existence on his daughter's struggling family any longer; "Circuits," probably my favorite story here, the post-apocalyptic tale of a sentient train riding its lonely track, long after the abandonment of the planet and the death of humans; and "Innumerable Glimmering Lights," the showstopping closing story, about a intelligent aquatic species--maybe an octopus, maybe a squid--drilling through the roof of their ice-covered ocean world, and triggering a clash between science and faith.

The only reason I gave this book four stars instead of five is because the author is obviously a fan of cyberpunk, and I'm not, particularly. Uploading a human mind and consciousness, according to everything I've read, is about as scientifically possible as faster-than-light and time travel...which is to say, not at all. Still, it's an accepted trope nowadays, and of course it's not so much the basic idea as what the writer does with it. On that basis, Rich Larson is an outstanding young writer, and definitely one to keep an eye on.

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November 13, 2018

Review: Foundryside

Foundryside Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of Robert Jackson Bennett's Divine Cities trilogy, so needless to say I preordered this book as soon as I heard of it. My faith was definitely rewarded.

Bennett's strengths are characterization and worldbuilding, and these are my two absolute must-haves in a great read. This book passes that test with flying colors. The magic system of "scriving," using a special, complex language to change the nature of reality itself, is well-thought-out and comes with a double-edged sword, which is made apparent as the book progresses. I know some people have compared this to computer programming, and I can see that. For me, it's fantasy with an undercurrent of physics and quantum mechanics, and a bit of artificial intelligence thrown in--since the "scriving" awakens the objects it is used upon, and our protagonist, Sancia Grado, can communicate with scrived objects.

There are a few different points of view, but we're mainly in Sancia's head, an ex-slave turned petty thief who is looking for one last chance to make the big money. This is a well-worn cliche, of course, but Bennett takes it and turns it inside out. Her "final job" is the MacGuffin that starts the ball rolling, but there is so much more here than a heist gone wrong. There are themes of colonialism and classism, and Bennett returns to ideas he also explored in the Divine Cities--power and the use and misuse thereof, and a past that is not dead but is roaring to life to bite the present in the ass. It's all wrapped up in an intricate, fast-moving plot with an explosive climax and an epilogue that sets the stage for the next book. Even so, this book is fairly self-contained; the epilogue isn't really a cliffhanger. But I can hardly wait for the next volume.

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November 10, 2018

Review: Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger

Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger by Soraya Chemaly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In many ways, this is the perfect book for 2018. I finished reading it on the eve of the US midterm elections, and the results of those elections--so many women, particularly women of color, winning their races--makes this book timely and indispensable and you should read it right now.

There are many reasons women in the US and around the world are angry, and Soraya Chemaly enumerates those reasons in exhausting, well-researched detail. I'm sure some readers (particularly those of the male persuasion) may consider this wealth of detail going overboard, but given many societies' general tendency to minimize and dismiss women's concerns, I would say this is necessary. However, the overall thrust of this book is not that women have reason to be good and mad; it is that, as women, we need to own our anger, not repress it, and learn to channel it in constructive ways, in the interests of generating true change.

(Which, again, is why this book is so timely. What is a better path to change than women protesting, marching, voting, urging others to vote, registering new voters and working to battle voter suppression, and running for office?)

Besides her copious data, Chemaly weaves personal anecdotes from her own family, in particular her mother and grandmother, into her story, which makes her book very readable. The final chapter, "A Rage of Your Own," lays out a ten-point plan for channeling and using your anger, and the conclusion sums up the entire book thusly:

Anger is an assertion of rights and worth. It is communication, equality, and knowledge. It is intimacy, acceptance, fearlessness, embodiment, revolt, and reconciliation. Anger is memory and rage. It is rational thought and irrational pain. Anger is freedom, independence, expansiveness, and entitlement. It is justice, passion, clarity, and motivation. Anger is instrumental, thoughtful, complicated, and resolved. In anger, whether you like it or not, there is truth.

There is also a great deal of truth in this book, especially for women. As the author says, "Angry women burn brighter than the sun." This is a damned good and important book, and I'm glad I found it.

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November 3, 2018

Review: Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy

Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy by Melvin Konner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was okay, but I've read better (particularly Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender). The author is at his best when discussing various animal mating strategies, and not so good when trying to apply this to the human species. I think there's an interesting question at the heart of this book: now that modern life is emphasizing technology instead of brute physical strength, which has propelled male dominance over the centuries, how will society and relations between the genders change? That would be an intriguing book, I think, but it isn't this book.

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October 24, 2018

Review: The Electric State

The Electric State The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't think I've ever read a graphic novel like this. It's almost a picture book, with the gorgeous art telling as much of the story as the text. This is a cyberpunk alternate history set in the alt-90's of a decaying America that has splintered into several smaller states: the protagonist is on her way to "Pacifica," for instance. We are plunked abruptly down in the aftermath of a drone war, in the midst of a sort of virtual reality zombie apocalypse. This stems from the "neurocasters," VR helmets with long snouts that most people in the country (at least the people who remain) now wear. The consequences of this are depicted on the very first page: a somber desert landscape, blowing layers of dust over half-buried, decaying skeletons, their bare skulls still adorned with their neurocasters.

Our protagonist is Michelle, a teenager with a congenital neurological condition who can't wear a neurocaster. She is going to the coastal town of Point Linden, accompanied by Skip, a small yellow robot who is actually being remotely controlled (through the neurocaster network) by her younger brother Christopher, who has been separated from Michelle for eight years.

This book's art is incredible: every page finely detailed and worthy of further study. When Michelle and Skip reach Point Linden, the illustrations take a creepy, surreal turn. It becomes obvious that a new world, populated by alien hybrid beings, is being created: mismatched drones welded together into towering new mechanical beings dripping with wires, and followed by their acolytes, groups of neurocaster-wearing humans. As near as I could follow from the story, they are animated by a networked group consciousness, symbolized by the huge red-lighted towers in the backgrounds of many of the pages. Michelle doesn't try to communicate with them--she's only after her brother. She finds him, still wearing his neurocaster, and Michelle, her brother, and the little yellow robot continue on their way to the sea.

The book's ending is abrupt and ambiguous, deliberately so, with no text, only four pages of haunting illustrations. I hope the author continues the story, because I definitely want to know what happened. Still, this is a beautiful and unique graphic novel, and it's one of the best things I've read this year.

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