December 27, 2015

Review: Rogue

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

As others have said, this book is definitely better than the first in the series, Talon. The reason it's better: More dragons, more worldbuilding and less romance.

There is a lot of backstory here I can't wait to find out. How does Talon, the dragon organization, think it can conquer the human world? What are the hidden links between Talon and the Order of St. George, supposedly their greatest, oldest enemy? Who is the Elder Wyrm, and how does he play into this? Finally: What the hell does that cliff-hanging epilogue mean?

This book is written with four first-person points of view, a conceit that sometimes doesn't work. It's a good thing the chapter headings specify who is speaking, because the characters' voices are not as distinct as they could be. That said, the characters are well treated throughout the book. There are four POV characters altogether. Garret is the Perfect Soldier of St. George who commits the unforgivable sin of falling in love with a dragon and questioning the organization that raised him, and untimately his entire worldview and life. Dante is the twin brother of our nominal protagonist, the loyal lickspittle of Talon who would do anything to advance his plans for himself and the organization, including betraying his sister. Cobalt, AKA Riley, is the rogue who is stealing young dragons away from Talon, and we get a good backgrounding on him--his character is deepened and expanded throughout this book. But our protagonist is Ember Hill, the impulsive, reckless hatchling everyone else's emotional arcs revolve around.

This is due in no small part to the dreaded love triangle. This is becoming such a cliche in young adult books nowadays I'm somewhat disappointed Julie Kagawa is resorting to it in this series. However, in this book, as opposed to the first, the romance is much better balanced with the overall storyline. The suspense is ratcheted up and the stakes are higher. Kagawa writes some gripping action scenes, and Ember is not a damsel (or dragonell) in distress, thank goodness. She fights in both her human and dragon forms (and those dragon-on-dragon fights are damned good--hurrah).

I'll definitely check out the third book in the series. There's a lot of threads to tie up here, and I hope Kagawa can stick the landing.

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Review: Chimera

Chimera Chimera by Mira Grant
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Parasitology series, and it is by far the best. The plot is tighter and better paced, the characters are more fleshed out (particularly the protagonist), and the author is grappling with several important themes. What makes someone sapient? What makes someone a person? Now that the genetically engineered tapeworms have found a way to take over their hosts, what will be done with them? Are they property...or are they people?

Sal Mitchell, the tapeworm in a human suit and our narrator, is a far better character here than in the previous two installments. Her passiveness and ambivalence irritated me in the first books, but now that I've read the story as a whole, I can see how she's changed. She's not a karate-kicking badass in this book, but she takes charge and stands up for herself and her species. She engineers an escape from her human captors; she calms a huge group of "sleepwalkers" (worms and hosts that have not fully integrated, similar to zombies) with her chimera pheromones; and she leads the rescue effort in the final showdown. The Sal in the first book couldn't have done any of this.

(In fact, the character I'm more irritated with in this book, and in the series as a whole, is Sal's human boyfriend, Nathan Kim. He is a stagnant character, verging on cardboard. He takes the news that his girlfriend isn't human, but is instead a tapeworm buried in a human brain, with an equanimity that simply isn't believable. Certainly he could have been written to come around eventually, but there should have been some conflict shown over the whole idea.)

This is a solid, entertaining book, from one of my favorite authors. It's not as outstanding as some others I've read this year, but it's good.

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December 12, 2015

Review: Planetfall

Planetfall Planetfall by Emma Newman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

ARGGHH! This book.

This book is as close to the mental illness that used to be called "split personality" (I believe the current term is "disassociative identity disorder") that I've ever read. It knows it wants to be a science fiction mystery, but it doesn't know whether it wants to be reasonably hard SF or dissolve into mystical bullshit.

Which, unfortunately, it does at the end, squandering whatever goodwill it's managed to build up.

This is the story of Renata Ghali, the geneticist and engineer of the first offworld colony (the planet isn't even given a name), who's hiding a terrible secret. Twenty-two years ago, the colonists aboard Atlas reached their destination. (The star system isn't named, nor if the Atlas is a generation ship, although there are a few hints that this might be the case. Ren does say they could return to Earth if they threw all their time and effort into it, but if they did so, everyone they knew would be dead.) They were led by a charismatic prophet named Lee Suh-Mi, who apparently talked these thousand people into following her to this planet to solve a galactic mystery: did humans originate on Earth, or this planet, and is some being there calling them home? After ingesting the seed of a mysterious plant on Earth, a plant which is not related genetically to any Earth species, Suh claims this is the case.

But something happened during the colonists' first trip to the surface, called Planetfall, spoken with capitalization and a hushed, reverential whisper. Something terrible, something that Ren and the colony's de facto leader, Cillian Mackenzie, have hidden for twenty-two years. Mack has gone even further and turned Planetfall into a religious ceremony, once a year at the base of the planet's alien city (called "God's city") where Suh is still supposed to be communing.

But as is usually the case with these things, the secret inevitably comes out.

This book frustrates me immensely, because there's so much right about it. The characterization, for instance, is sparkling. Ren has a case of OCD/hoarding and is subject to panic attacks, and the author is unflinching in her depiction of it. (Although as the story unfolds and the reader understands just what she has done and kept hidden for all those years, it's not surprising.) The pacing is very good, the plot is a wonderful puzzle piece that fits together with a sure hand, the suspense is skillfully mounted--and I wish I could tear out the last few pages, because the ending undoes everything that has gone before. I literally sat up as I got to the last page and said, "What the hell?"

I mean, Ren climbs to the top of God's city, leaves her body and ascends to the same place the city's makers apparently went (a higher plane of some sort) all those millions of years ago? Leaving behind the mess she made, and abandoning the people she screwed?

ARRGGH, indeed. I don't know what the author was thinking. Unfortunately, this ending was built into the book from the beginning, so I can't say the author wasn't playing fair. But it doesn't sit well with me.

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December 10, 2015

Review: The Mechanical

The Mechanical The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My definition of science fiction is "what if." What might happen in the future, as well as what could have happened in the past. The official term for the latter is "alternate history," and there are some very good books along these lines. It takes quite a bit of careful thought and detailed worldbuilding; mapping out exactly what happened from the point of divergence, and extrapolating the consequences of this divergence. Not only from the nuts-and-bolts point of view--the divergence itself--but more importantly, its effects on people. It's damned hard to do well.

This book does it very, very well.

It creates a world where Isaac Newton's alchemy not only works, but in fact can be harnessed to produce artificial clockwork beings called Clakkers. This produces a historical upheaval where the Dutch and their relentless, nearly unstoppable army of Clakkers (I mean, the Terminators have nothing on these things) conquers the world. The Clakkers are kept in servitude by the irresistible compulsions and pain of their geasa, the alchemical orders placed on them by their masters. When your body will ignore your mind and obey your masters no matter what, no matter that the intelligence inside the Clakker is screaming over what it is being forced to do...Tregillis describes this horror through two of the three viewpoint characters, and it is harrowing indeed. (We start out with just the Clakkers subject to this slavery, but the stakes are upped about halfway through the book, when a way is found to subject humans to the process as well, turning one of the viewpoint characters into a ruthless assassin.)

The worldbuilding in this book (first of a series) is superb. Thankfully, the information is not dropped as clunky infodumps; it unfolds naturally along with the story, just enough for the reader to mostly understand what is going on at any given time. The focus is on the characters, particularly Jax, a servant Clakker who is purely by accident given his Free Will. The main conflict is between the factions working to free the Clakkers and the factions trying their damndest not only to hold on to them, but expand their capabilities. There are layers upon layers here, of spies, counterspies, doublecrossing, backstabbings, and rather a lot of killing (as well as a bit of squicky brain surgery); it's not as dark and bloody as some books I've read recently, but it's there.

At the same time, the concept behind the Clakkers is inventive and wonderfully detailed, and beautiful at times. There's a sentient Clakker ocean liner (maybe to take the place of the Titanic, since that never seems to have existed in this history), and a sentient airship. Said airship speaks in poetry, and its brief life--it is freed by Jax during his escape from New Amsterdam, only to be shot down twenty-four hours later--is poignant and memorable. These and other details the author uses to bring Clakker society and culture to life made me relax into the narrative, confident that this story is in the hands of someone who knows what he's doing and where he's going.

And what a marvelous and fantastic story it is. This is one of the best books I've read this year, and I can't wait to get my hands on the sequel.

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December 6, 2015

Review: A Borrowed Man

A Borrowed Man A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hadn't read Gene Wolfe before now, and while people more familiar with his backlist would probably suggest better places to start, this one is pretty damn good. Strictly from a craft point of view, the first pages let me know I was in the hands of a master: the simple but not simplistic prose, the smooth unveiling of backstory and worldbuilding without infodumps, the careful and subtle ratcheting up of tension which would occasionally explode in shocking bursts, only to fall back and start climbing up again. It's a quick read, but it's not a light one.

On the surface, this is a science fiction murder mystery, but it's so much more than that. There are layers upon layers to this story, and I think it would only benefit from rereads. Ernest A. Smithe is the titular "borrowed man," the "reclone" of a dead author imprinted with said author's memories. As a "library resource," he is owned by the library, basically a living piece of property without rights. Indeed one of the running themes of the story is his meditation on what he believes will eventually be his fate: when old library books are no longer in fashion and no one checks them out anymore, they are discarded. Only in his case, he will be burned. One of the (many) twists in the book's final chapter is the realization that Smithe has been manipulating events to escape this.

But the gradually unfolding history of this future Earth is also fascinating in its own right: Wolfe describes a world presumably after the coming upheavals of climate change, where the population has been reduced to one billion (by what method is never stated, which is a creepy background note), and humanity realizes it will probably never reach the neighboring planets, much less the stars. Smithe calls it "full humanity's retirement," and although discussion of that is a side point and takes up less than a page, it's still reverbating in my head. The entire book is like this: every so often in the narrative, Wolfe jumps out and gobsmacks you with a pure science-fictional idea. Another instance is when Smithe is riding on a bus and another man (full human) takes his seat, and after Smithe asks him to move and he doesn't, the reclone proceeds to beat the snot out of the full human, kicking him in the head several times for good measure. It's a shocking burst of violence that shows the danger lurking behind the reclone's bland, mild-mannered surface; this is an alien being here, and Wolfe doesn't let us forget it.

The murder mystery, while adequate and a suitable driver of the plot, takes second place to the background, ideas and worldbuilding. This book sneaks up on you, takes hold, and doesn't let go. I don't know if Gene Wolfe is the "it" author he used to be, but if there's any justice, this should be up for some awards.

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December 1, 2015

Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was recommended to me by the commentariat at a site where I hang out a lot, File 770. They've recommended some good books to me in the past, so I thought I'd give this one a try. Unfortunately, it didn't work out.

This book is a sort of mishmash of several genres--fantasy and steampunk mainly, with very British and/or Dickensian overtones (the time period is 1880s London). I think the writer is one to watch; her prose is simple and straightforward, her characters have some depth (and I would pay money for my very own clockwork octopus, named Katsu in the story, with "random" gears which seemed to me quite close to actual intelligence), and the backstory and setup is rather good. Unfortunately the payoff doesn't live up to that setup, and the ending simply fizzles out. Also, the "Watchmaker" of the title, with his psychic power of living more or less in the future rather than the present, is clunky and in the end unbelievable.

Ultimately, I left the book with a general "meh" feeling. Your mileage may vary, of course, but this book did not excite me.

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