January 17, 2019

First Impressions: Star Trek: Discovery, Season 2 Ep 1, "Brother"

(I'll try to keep this as vague as possible, to avoid too many spoilers.)

  • This show is as gorgeous as ever. The special effects are feature-film worthy, even in the madcap (and probably nausea-inducing, for some people) section to land on the asteroid. 
  • We're obviously setting up for a season-long arc here. There's the Enterprise! (Although it's conveniently damaged and knocked off-line in the first fifteen minutes.) And Captain Christopher Pike! (No Number One yet. [Edit: Yes, there is a Number One, per i09. Sorry, I missed that.]) And Spock, going AWOL! And flashbacks to Michael Burnham's childhood, with a petulant-looking child Spock. And Sarek, a little more palatable and a little less shitty this time around, so far at least. And a galaxy-spanning mystery, apparently tied in to Spock's nightmares.
  • We get names for the bridge crew! Hurrah! They appear to be gelling, and the obnoxious (white) guy gets hoist on his own petard and wiped out by a rock. Nobody seems to miss him very much.
  • Sylvia Tilly remains utterly delightful, and Saru has a laugh-out-loud scene when his threat ganglia extrude.
  • There's a rather abrupt jump-cut at the end, when Burnham goes aboard the Enterprise, into Spock's quarters, and taps into his personal log. (And how could she do that, for that matter? Wouldn't officers have security encryption on their logs?) I suppose they had to do this for the final reveal about Spock, but I thought it was rushed and clumsy. Although they don't seem to want to show very much of the Enterprise, probably to avoid as much wrath from TOS fans as possible.
  • There were several good character interactions in this episode, particularly between Tilly and Stamets. (Does anyone think he's really going to leave the Discovery? Come on.)
  • With Captain Pike now at the helm, (even if he does say it's more of a "joint custody" situation between him and Saru), the show is trying to distance itself from last season's Lorca nastiness (even though I thought Jason Isaacs was one of the best things about the first season), and back to more classical Starfleet ideals. And, as Pike said, "have a little fun" along the way. 
This first episode is definitely lighter in tone, even with their Priority One threat. Hopefully they can maintain a good balance. We'll see. I'll give this one a B to start off with, and we'll go on from there. See you next Thursday!

January 15, 2019

Review: Like Never and Always

Like Never and Always Like Never and Always by Ann Aguirre
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ann Aguirre is one of my favorite authors. I have her Sirantha Jax series (space opera), her Razorland series (post-apocalyptic young adult), and her Corine Solomon series (urban fantasy). This is a standalone, I think, and it's one of the best books she's ever written.

It's also hard to describe without spoilers, because the central MacGuffin, the event that tips it from a contemporary YA into a fantasy one, is in and of itself a massive spoiler. (Yes, I know other reviews, and even the book's own jacket copy, have let this slip. I'm not going to join in.) Some people might balk at referring to this as a fantasy, because other than the MacGuffin, it is set firmly in our day. I suppose one could call it "magical realism," of the I Will Believe One Impossible Thing Before Breakfast sort. The One Thing is granted at the beginning of the story, the story goes on from there, and no actual explanation is provided, although a couple of theories are floated. In the end, the One Thing, in a sense, doesn't really matter, because the story isn't about that. It's about friendship; and one best friend living and the other friend dying; and survivors' guilt; and whether we really know the ones we love; and the secrets we hide, even from the people closest to us.

It's also a beautiful, emotional story, with stellar characterization (and a rather adult take on sex, for an ostensibly young-adult novel). There are a couple of thriller-ish plot twists, but the story's focus isn't on that. The focus is on the journey these characters take after the MacGuffin has turned their lives inside out. This is a wonderful book, and dammit, it should be up for awards.

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January 12, 2019

Review: A Blade So Black

A Blade So Black A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is an updated version of Alice in Wonderland, with a rather interesting worldbuilding conceit and an African-American protagonist. I'm glad it exists, because young black women need representation too, and let's face it, Lewis Carroll's original version was pretty squicky in places. But this book didn't knock my socks off, and there are a couple of reasons why.

First, the good. This version of Wonderland is based on a fascinating premise--it is humanity's collective unconscious, its dreams and nightmares, made flesh. The inhabitants literally depend on humans for their continued existence. Some of those inhabitants are spawned by and feed upon humanity's fears, and these Nightmares can, after a certain point, cross the barrier between Wonderland and our world. When that happens, only certain humans, called Dreamwalkers, can kill them permanently. Dreamwalkers like Alice.

Now, the not so good. Obviously this world owes a lot to Carroll's original, but it owes even more to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Alice is called a "black Buffy" by her best friend, Courtney, which is a rather startling bit of meta commentary.) In so doing, it reveals what I think has become a tiresome trope of teenage slayer-dom: the running conflict with a parent or guardian who doesn't know what the Slayer/Dreamwalker/whatever is doing. Alice's mother obviously loves her daughter, but the only glimpses we get of her are her fighting with Alice/grounding Alice/trying to rein Alice in, which gets repetitive and shallow after a while. Look, parents aren't dumb, and even Buffy's mother had to learn the truth eventually. (Not to mention the fact that between school, work and patrolling, Buffy and her descendants are awake pretty much 24/7, and their superpowers should be living without sleep rather than kickass superstrength.) In this case, with Alice being African-American, I think an opportunity was wasted. I would rather Alice's mother be let in on her secret, and the prime conflict, in addition to the Nightmares, instead be the unfortunate and sick reality of this nation: that of Walking, Working and Living While Black. I think this would have made for a better book.

Secondly, Alice herself is not a strong character, particularly in the first half of the story. Frankly, she whines, cries and reacts rather than acts, and it's only in the latter half of the book, when she steps up and begins taking charge, that she starts to get interesting. One could argue that this character arc is precisely what's supposed to happen, and maybe so, but it is not very well written. Throughout much of the book, Courtney, Addison Hatta and others are better written than the supposed protagonist, which is a problem. Alice's characterization does improve as the book goes along, but I would rather have an entire book with a well-realized main character, instead of half a book.

So this is just a so-so recommendation. As I said, I'm very glad this book has been published. I just wish it was better than it is.

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January 6, 2019

Meet the New Year/Boss, Same as the Old

It's going to be a tough year.

Full of lies, broken promises, and people getting shafted.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel, hopefully.

And I really hope Mitch McConnell gets his royal comeuppance at the hands of Nancy Smash.

It's going to be a long two years (please Deity, only two), but we can do it. Let's buckle down and get to work.

January 5, 2019

Review: Embers of War

Embers of War Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd never heard of this author before, but when I saw a review mentioning "space opera with multiple first-person viewpoints," I decided that sounded right up my alley. I thought enough of this book to pre-order the sequel after I finished, so thank you, whoever steered me in this direction.

This is a treatise not so much on the horrors of war, which we've seen to the point of becoming a cliche, as to the fragility of peace and the never-ending struggle to hold it together. It also explores the burden of guilt, the difficulty of making atonement for one's actions, and if such atonement is ever really attainable. It does this through two characters: the artificially intelligent ex-warship Trouble Dog, who resigned her commission after participating in a massacre (this particular iteration of AI involves "brains in a jar" cloned from the stem cells of dead soldiers, so they think of themselves as male or female), and her captain, Sally Konstanz. Trouble Dog has already made those terrible decisions--by blindly choosing to follow orders--and Sal Konstanz makes them over the course of this book, albeit rather more deliberately.

There's a lot more involved, of course, including a widely settled galaxy with ancient aliens (shades of Andre Norton's Forerunners, one of my favorite SF tropes), planets carved into art objects, and technology beyond anything humans have, which has been asleep for millennia and is now starting to wake up. It's quite a stew, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. And Trouble Dog will both win your heart and kick your butt. Here's to the next book.

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January 1, 2019

Review: Search Image

Search Image Search Image by Julie E. Czerneda
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the first Web Shifter book in fifteen years, and as such it has to bring the reader up to speed. The slow, languid pace of the beginning chapters is the main reason I didn't rate it higher. Once the story gets going, it's engaging, but it takes a loooonnnnnnngggg time to get there.

If you're a Czerneda fan, that doesn't matter. Esen-alit-Quar is one of the author's most beloved characters, and for good reason. She's one of the most alien protagonists I've ever read, but her personality flows off the page: loyal, naive, curious, stubborn, determined, whimsical, and bubbling with alien humor. In many ways this is a book written for Esen fans and not necessarily an attempt to expand the readership. Which is fine, but just be aware that if you haven't read the three preceding books, this story won't mean nearly as much. (Also, don't skip over the Main Character/Ephemeral Species appendices at the back! They're delightful.)

Having said that, the final chapters serve both as a fine ending to this book's storyline and setting up further books in the series. From the hints we're getting, I suspect the next book will be a lot darker. There's a mystery to solve, and more to learn about this universe and characters. Bring it on, please.

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Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone

Kingdom of Needle and Bone Kingdom of Needle and Bone by Mira Grant
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I suspect this will prove to be a marmite of a book: people will love it or hate it. I definitely don't hate it, but I'm not quite sure I love it either.

This is not the fault of the author. This book is typical Mira Grant--well researched, thought out, and written. The POV here is omniscient, an unusual choice for this kind of book (previous Grant books have been first- or tight third-person narratives), but the reason why becomes apparent at the end. What's also apparent from the get-go is the author's dislike (to put it mildly) of the anti-vaxx crowd, and the reader soon realizes this is a thought experiment of what could happen if they get their way.

To go along with this, there are a lot of medical ethics conundrums in this book. In particular, the bodily autonomy argument as used by anti-vaxxers (co-opted from the anti-choice movement) is one I've never thought of before. (Is this argument a thing in the real world?) This becomes the central theme of the book, and is what leads our protagonist--more of an anti-hero, in this case--to do what she does. This is made clear in the creepy, abrupt ending, which reverses everything the reader has previously comprehended about Dr. Isabelle Gauley and her story. The ending is not pleasant, but it has stuck in my mind for days.

I think this story is crying out for a full novel. I hope the response to this novella is such that Mira Grant decides to write it.

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December 30, 2018

Review: This Cruel Design

This Cruel Design This Cruel Design by Emily Suvada
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There aren't many authors who can level up the second book in a trilogy and make it better than the first. Emily Suvada is one of them. This second book in the Mortal Coil series has smoothed out the bumps from the first: strengthening the characterizations, de-emphasizing the romance (it's still there, but there simply isn't time to dwell on it for very long), deepening the worldbuilding (I appreciate that the author has a degree in mathematics and has worked as a data scientist; this makes her world feel that much more grounded), upping the stakes and keeping the breakneck pacing. There are twists galore in this book, but they fit into the context of the series as a whole. (In fact, that's the only quibble I have--this book won't make sense if you haven't read the first, as it takes up the story only days later.)

I particularly enjoyed the characterizations. All the characters are given fascinating shades of gray, and even those who might be classified as villains have believable backstories and motivations. That doesn't make what they're doing right, which is also addressed, and the protagonist struggles with her situation and what she needs to do to protect others. No one's hands are clean in this. This book is naturally doing double duty in setting up the story for the final volume, and the last chapter ends with a twist guaranteed to set the reader's teeth on edge for the next book.

As far as I'm concerned, this is one of the best YA series out there, and you're missing out if you don't read it.

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December 29, 2018

Review: Hullmetal Girls

Hullmetal Girls Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was originally going to give this three stars, but the more I thought about it the more I realized a particular aspect of the worldbuilding really bugged me. And since the thing that bothered me is integral to the entire novel, I couldn't justify saying I liked it anymore.

There are good things about this book, especially the character of Aisha. Honestly, I think the book would have been better had it been told from her POV alone, cutting out Key Tanaka entirely. Aisha was the more interesting character, had the most development and the deeper journey. None of this applies to Key Tanaka, and it seems to me her character would have worked best viewed from the outside, rather than alternating first-person POV chapters. (Specifically, the one chapter written from the POV of her earlier persona, the Archangel, felt shallow and rushed and unnecessary. If the author didn't have the time or space to fully explore what that previous personality experienced and meant to the overall story, it would have been best to leave it out.)

All of this could have been fixed, though, with another draft and better editing. The thing that really bugged me, and ultimately turned me off to the book, cannot.

That's the entire concept of the Scela.

We're talking here about humans transformed into human/AI/metal hybrids. Cyborgs. A human body cut apart and rebuilt, with a second spine, extra supports driven into the flesh and fused to the bones (because the original skeleton sure as heck can't support the stress of being a Scela), and the body sawn apart and lengthened one to two feet beyond its original height. (Both Aisha and Key repeatedly say they're now seven feet tall, and that's even before they strap into their full cyborg exorigs.) It's described like this. [Content warning for body horror.]

When the surgeons come in, when the steady hands start the work of my unmaking, I let that hope curdle inside my chest, let it distance me from the sight of my body being flayed and broken and reshaped. My flesh peels back. My bones are sawed and spaced and lengthened. Endoscopes burrow through me, paving metal highways along my skeleton, weaving matrices of nanofibers through my muscles, sewing new circuitry into my nerves. Ports blossom from my skin, promising a place in my anatomy for the metal rig that will make me nigh unstoppable. The surgeons work with careful precision, all too aware of what they're crafting, leaning over me with something like holy reverence in their eyes.

Another brief description:

And that just reminds me of all the other metal laced through my biology, of the exorig clamped onto my spine, of the way a wicked ridge now rises out of my split, shaved skull--

And I'm thinking (not then, but later): Oh hell no, this absolutely cannot work. These people may be living aboard spaceships, but they still have freaking germs, and the Scela, with their open, metal-laced wounds, would all die of massive bacterial infections before they even learned how to operate their exorigs.

(Yeah, I'm sure all this futuristic stuff is coated with antibacterial solutions. The thing is, though, that bacteria evolve. They spawn a new generation every 20 minutes, sometimes. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is an ongoing problem in our world, and for the life of me I can't figure out why the author didn't take this into consideration or even mention it.)

Needless to say, this thoroughly wrecked my suspension of disbelief. If you can get past that, more power to you. Like I said, there are good things about this book. But this threw me completely out of the story, and I was never really able to get back into it.

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December 28, 2018

Review: Sanctuary

Sanctuary Sanctuary by Caryn Lix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There was a moment right at the beginning of this book when I had to stop and think whether or not I wanted to go on, when the protagonist did something that struck me as veering perilously close to Too Stupid To Live territory. Granted, this incident did set the plot in motion, and since we're dealing with teenagers here, the reader must remember that they are (usually) impulsive and rebellious. And in fact the main character did grow on me, making mistakes (including some really big ones) and learning from them. This book did become better as it went along, but just be aware that the first few chapters are a little rough.

If we're summing up this book as a Hollywood pitch, it would have to be: the Xenomorphs from Alien meet the X-Men (or maybe the Young Avengers). The titular setting, the space station/prison Sanctuary, is the destination of last resort for teenage (and younger) metahumans, who started being born after the arrival of alien probes on Earth fifty years previously. Our protagonist and narrator Kenzie Cord is the daughter of parents who live and work on Sanctuary--and in the case of her mother, act as its commanding officer--running the station for their corporate overlords, Omnistellar. The first chapters of this book are deliberate and slow, establishing the characters and setting. Then, after Kenzie is taken hostage by rioting prisoners in Sector Five, the story takes off, with nearly the entire book taking place within a span of around thirty-six hours.

Needless to say, with such a compressed time frame there are a lot of action-heavy set pieces, but there are also genuine moments of character development, especially for Kenzie. She moves from being a semi-brainwashed corporate shill to questioning her entire worldview, and eventually, as secrets from her past come to light, throwing in her lot with the prisoners. There is a bit of romance (but no love triangle, thank heavens), but the main emphasis is on friendship and the family you make, rather than the one you are born into. The concept, in this future, of corporate versus government citizenship also brings in elements of classism and elitism, although these themes aren't explored as deeply as I might have liked. Maybe that will be expanded upon in the sequel.

Regardless, though this is a flawed story (especially in the beginning) it is, in the end, a solid one and worth your time. The author shows promise and hopefully the next book will bring this story home.

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