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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October 21, 2018

Review: Magic Triumphs

Magic Triumphs Magic Triumphs by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kate Daniels is one of the longest running urban fantasy series around, and Magic Triumphs is the final book in Kate Daniels' and Curran Lennart's story. Needless to say, the authors throw in everything but the kitchen sink in this book, and then turn around and add that too in the explosive climax. This book is not especially fat, but feels overstuffed because so much is going on. Not only is Kate dealing with being a mother and having a child who is a shapeshifter and also a magic wielder (her son Conlan is adorable, but he is way too powerful; I hope the temptation is not succumbed to to give him a book of his own, because said story would have no suspense), but she is heading towards the final showdown with her father Roland, also known as Nimrod of Babylonian myth. On top of all this, a new monster--a god--is thrown into the mix, who wants to exterminate most of humanity and enslave the rest. To counter this new threat, Kate will have to ally with her hated and loved father, with the expectation that Roland will betray her in the end, and she will likely have to kill herself to stop him.

None of this will make any sense if you haven't read the previous books. I've read six of the previous nine, enough to kinda-sorta follow what's going on, but just be aware that the author provides no backstory or explanations, and precious little even in the way of descriptions--too much is happening, and the breakneck pace hardly allows the reader to take a deep breath. I wish this book had been longer, to allow for a few pauses and introspective moments. As it is, most of the characterizations feel rushed, as there are too many characters for much individual development. I'm sure since this is the final book, the authors didn't think this was necessary, and after all Kate has changed a great deal from the first book to this. Still, a little breathing room could have given some focus on the secondary characters, in particular Julie and Erra (although those two do get this book's epilogue, which is a simultaneous closure and springboard to other possible stories).

Nevertheless, this is a fine ending to the series. Kate and Curran get their happily-ever-after, and nearly all of the myriad other characters are accounted for. Since urban fantasy has bottomed out from what it once was, we probably won't get a series like this again. Whatever my minor reservations, this is a very good way to go out.

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October 16, 2018

Review: After Atlas

After Atlas After Atlas by Emma Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Planetfall series. I've now read all three, and with the way I disliked (extremely) the ending of the first, Planetfall, I'm happy to say this and the third book in the sequence, Before Mars, don't have much to do with the first other than existing in the same timeline. (Although if the series keeps going the disparate plots will inevitably mesh. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.) This book is more of a straightfoward mystery and police procedural (at least for the first three-quarters of the narrative) with a pointed commentary on a horrifying dystopian future where democratic governments have fallen, swallowed up by corporations whose only motivation is profit.

Our protagonist this time around is Carlos Moreno, an investigator for the former UK's Ministry of Justice. He is pulled into a suspected murder investigation, after the death of one Alejandro Casales, the leader of an American religious cult called the Circle. Carlos and Casales have considerable history, as Carlos spent eight years of his life in the Circle and his father is still a member. But he has no choice about taking the case, as he is in indentured servitude (read: contracted slavery) to the MoJ. His investigation pulls him deep into his own past, both of his relationship with Casales and the Circle, as well as the history of the Atlas expedition, the ship that left Earth forty years before. All this comes together in a smart, well-executed thriller with a shocking ending.

Each of the Planetfall books have been mysteries to one degree or another. This is more on the police procedural side, and Newman excels at it. She lays out her clues fairly and doesn't cheat the audience, and the procedural itself, in this cyberpunk future with (almost) everyone sporting implanted digital assistants and ubiquitous cameras recording the entire human population's every move, is fascinating. But there are also other ominous themes at work: the loss of privacy, the death of democracy, and the self-destructive bent of a society that would allow both to happen.

(view spoiler)

Carlos Moreno is a well-written character with depth, a dogged investigator who overcomes his personal demons in the end. Emma Newman has done a very good job of resurrecting my interest in the series, after the disastrous (in my opinion) ending of the first novel. Now I'm invested, and am looking forward to further books in the series.

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October 12, 2018

Review: Only Human

Only Human Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Themis Files. I really liked the first two; Sleeping Giants set up a fascinating concept, and Waking Gods carried through with slam-bang giant robot vs. giant robot action.

Only Human does neither of those things. The story kind of drizzles to a halt, with none of the action and worldbuilding of the previous two books. I think a large part of this is because the series' most interesting character, Kara Resnik, is dead, and her daughter Eva just isn't....up to snuff as a protagonist, let's say. She spends a lot of time after her forcible return to Earth whining and crying to get back to the aliens' planet and fighting (both with words and with robots) with her father. (And she doesn't even get to go back in the end. Rose Franklin brokers the truce between the fighting human factions, and sends the remaining robots back to the aliens' planet because the human race isn't mature enough to play with alien toys, and Eva doesn't insist on returning as well? That's kind of a letdown, and points out that the characterization in this book is simply lacking.)

Another not-so-good aspect to this volume is the heavy-handed social commentary. Now, every book ever written has a political viewpoint of some kind, especially in the SFF realm. Science fiction and fantasy writers use their imaginary worlds to comment on the human world they are living in. In this case, Earth after the alien-robot invasion is pretty much America after 9/11, on steroids. To put it bluntly, the entire human race has lost their effing minds, and has taken out their fear and trauma over being attacked on the people who least deserve it and have nothing to do with it: humans with certain percentages of alien DNA. I think there are some very valuable things to say along this line, and I commend the author for developing these parallels to the current state of American society. I just wish he had been a little more subtle about it.

Also, the ending is not terribly plausible. (view spoiler) It felt like the author wrote himself into a corner, and this is his not very good way of trying to wriggle out of it.

There's a lot to like about this series, especially in the first two books. I just wish the author had taken a deep breath and followed through on the ending. That would have made for a more unsettling, but more interesting book.

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October 10, 2018

Review: Inferno

Inferno Inferno by Julie Kagawa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The final volume of the Talon Saga is utterly dependent on your having read the previous four books. There's no attempt at a recap or a prologue bringing the reader up to speed--Kagawa dives right in, and it's either sink or swim. That said, this book ties up all the loose threads and brings the storyline home, in a spectacular and satisfying fashion.

This series did get better as it went along. The first book, Talon, relied a little too heavily on the starcrossed, Romeo-and-Juliet style teen romance. Admittedly, the fact of a dragon slayer's falling in love with the dragon he was sent to kill kickstarted the entire plot, but I could have done with a little less angst and a little more worldbuilding. Thankfully, this problem subsided in subsequent books (although we missed a chance for a polyamorous triad with the introduction of Riley, the protagonist Ember Hill's "fated dragon mate." That would have been....interesting, but in the end she chose her "soldier boy," Garret), and the plot focused on the threat the dragon organization, Talon, posed to the entire world. The final battle here gives us the death of the Elder Wyrm, the destruction of the hideous dragon-clone army, and Ember's ascension to the head and CEO of Talon. (The organization itself has to remain, as dragons are not ready to come out of the shadows. However, Ember is not going to be the murderous, sociopathic CEO her mother was.)

(This final battle, however, does illustrate one persistent sticking point in my suspension of disbelief--the existence of eighty- and one-hundred-foot dragons has never been revealed to humans? Satellites are a thing, and so is cell-phone video and Google Maps.)

All the characters here are well-drawn, and the entire series is expertly paced. If you like YA, as I do, I think you will enjoy this.

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Review: Exit Strategy

Exit Strategy Exit Strategy by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the final novella in the four-volume sequence of the Murderbot Diaries. The first volume, All Systems Red, won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novella, and those awards are well deserved. This novella wraps up the initial storyline (there is a full-length novel coming in 2020) and it is every bit as good as the first.

As always, Murderbot is a delight. In this book, it is crankier, snarkier and funnier than ever, wrestling with unwelcome emotions and finding it cannot run away from its--gasp--human friends, friends it never wanted to make but somehow ended up with anyway. This story comes full circle, bringing us back to characters from the first novella, particularly Dr. Mensah, Murderbot's initial "owner." (Along the way, we discover just why these "diaries" exist--there is a movement afoot in this universe to grant legal personhood to "constructs and high-level bots," and they want to publish Murderbot's story to bolster their case.) There are several laugh-out-loud moments, and the action scenes are tense and thrilling. It's just a very good story all the way around, and I'm down for more Murderbot as long as Martha Wells wants to write it.

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October 9, 2018

Review: Medusa Uploaded

Medusa Uploaded Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book straddles, in some ways successfully and others not, several different sub-genres in the wide field of science fiction and space opera. It's a generation ship saga, set aboard the enormous Olympia, a ship several miles long and wide, holding over two hundred thousand people and spinning to create its own pseudo-gravity. It's a slice of cyberpunk, complete with a complex virtual reality and uploaded VR "ghosts" of deceased people (who end up not being what they seem). It's a first contact story, as the "Graveyard" towards which the Olympia is headed apparently holds thousands of self-aware alien ships. But mostly, it's the tale of a bitter and deadly class struggle, with the protagonist, the lower-class "worm" and Servant Oichi Angelis, out to take her revenge upon the ruling Executive clans who sabotaged and blew up the Olympia's sister ship, the Titania, with Oichi's parents on board.

There's a few more layers to the plot than that, but there's enough cold-blooded murder and sociopathic mayhem throughout to make me wonder if the author based this book on one of the periodic historical revolutions that sweep humanity. Oichi herself is an uneasy, not very likable protagonist, who freely admits to being a serial killer without regrets. She ends up powering a revolution that frees the Olympia from the tyranny of the Executive clans, but it's very much an end-justifies-the-means sort of thing, with plenty of bloodshed. Meanwhile, the mystery of the Olympia's origin (and the people on board her) is partly revealed, as well as why they're going to the Graveyard and what they expect to find there.

As you can see, there's a lot going on here, and not all of it meshes successfully. I don't think the author has made up her mind what she wants this book to be, and the rather fragmented and jumpy writing style reflects that. There's a lot to like about the world, particularly the pairing of selected people on board Olympia with the Medusa AI units (which are self-aware, Lovecraftian, tentacled space suits) and the relationships developed. Hopefully in future installments, Emily Devenport picks one thing or the other, settles down, and writes a more straightforward narrative.

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