Thursday, February 22, 2024

Trailer Park Trickster

David R Slayton
Completed 2/19/2024, Reviewed 2/19/2024
4 stars

I am loving this Adam Binder series.  This book continues the rural fantasy adventures of Adam Binder, a gay warlock from Oklahoma who is trying to save his family from an evil Druid.  It is a well-written, suspenseful tale that is grounded in issues like poverty, drug addiction, abuse, and homophobia, despite the whimsical title.  There are good elves, bad elves, and even Death makes an appearance.  I read this book in a day and a half, thanks to the long President’s Day weekend.  Looking at the number of reads on Goodreads, this has nearly five thousand ratings.  While respectable for a small novel, I really believe this should have a much wider audience.  I think it’s that good.  

WARNING:  Spoilers for the first novel to follow.

Adam speeds back to Guthrie, Oklahoma when he finds out that his Aunt Sue has died.  When he arrives, he finds that his cousin Noreen and her daughter Jodi have moved into Sue’s trailer.  The trailer suddenly explodes and Adam saves Noreen and Jodi is missing.  While saving his cousin, he sees an apparition of the evil Druid who seems to be murdering his way through the Binder family.  Adam’s mother and brother show up, more accepting of his mage status after saving Denver.  Together they try to unravel the mystery of who the Druid is and who the next victim will be.  

In the meantime, Adam’s new boyfriend, Vic, also travels to Guthrie, but with Argent, the Queen Elf of Swords.  They get sidetracked by an attack from the Sea Elves.  They try to infiltrate their domain, the Sea Upon the Land, only to find that their mission is to wipe out humanity because of the mishandling of the environment.  When Vic finally gets to Guthrie, he finds out some family secrets that cause him to question his ability to trust Adam, something he needs if he is going to continue pursuing this relationship.  Besides, as a newly appointed Reaper, he needs to understand more about the Other Side than Adam has told him so far.

Adam’s maturation process is at the forefront of this novel.  He has reached some sense of reconciliation with his mother and brother.  He must rely on and nurture those relationships to succeed in this quest to destroy the Druid.  He must also become much more trusting of the bond between himself and Vic.  He still is afraid to give himself totally to the relationship.  He must learn that he’s lovable, worthwhile, and unique in a good way.  

While Vic was only seen through Adam’s eyes in the first book, we actually get Vic’s perspective in this one.  We see him struggle with his bisexuality and the recent death of his own father from cancer.  His family dynamic is very different from Adam’s, but he still has his own self-doubts and frustrations from the people around him.  Some of it is a little humorous as he tries to understand the Argent the Elf Queen and the Other Side.  On top of this, he’s trying to figure out what it means to be a Reaper.  

The magic system in this book continues to be interesting and detailed.  The nice thing about it is that Adam is not that powerful, so it doesn’t require a whole lot of explanation.  It doesn’t get so complicated to lose the suspension of disbelief.  The Other Side, that is, the land of the Fae, on the other hand, gets more complex with the introduction of the Sea Elves.  But it’s pretty straight-forward and believable, while at the same time still awesome and awe-striking.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It is so entertaining and engrossing that I am glad there’s one more book in the series.  I love Adam and Vic and their character arcs.  I want to see them survive the crazy things thrown at them and then make it as a couple.  Perhaps I am a hopeless romantic, but I can’t wait until the next book to see them succeed, assuming they do.  I would be heartbroken if they didn’t.  Regardless of the outcome, I can’t wait to read the next book, which will hopefully be next week.  


Sunday, February 18, 2024

Paradigm Lost: Jamari Shaman

R Roderick Rowe
Completed 2/18/2024, Reviewed 2/18/2024
3 stars

I liked this book a little better than the first book in this trilogy, Paradigm Lost: Jamari and the Manhood Rites.  This book was not an erotic novel, and I understand that Rowe has toned down the erotica in the first book in a subsequent edition.  Sexuality is still at the forefront of this book, but it is much more tied to the spirituality of the tribe.  That made it more interesting.  However, I felt like the book still suffered from the same basic issues as the first, mainly, it feels more like a documentary than a novel.  There isn’t much tension or conflict until the last fifty pages or so.  Interestingly enough, I found myself pretty moved by the ending.  I guess I had become attached to the main characters more than I thought I did.  

In this book, the older members of the tribe realize that Jamari has the talents to be a shaman.  Jamari himself isn’t aware of how advanced he is, until he is told.  Jamari worries that the others of his age group who are training to become full men and citizens of their tribe will treat him differently.  However, that fear is unsubstantiated as most things proceed as normal.  Jamari and the others of the Young Men’s Hall are now mentoring newer young men who are ready for adulthood.  As he and his peers excel in their studies, they are awarded new ranks in the militia.  Jamari, while being a shaman in training, becomes the chaplain.  Things go well for a while until he is sent with a squad to the coast to manufacture salt from the ocean, negotiate a treaty with the coastal tribe, and look for illegal fishing practices along the way.  

What I liked best about this book was the introduction of more spirituality into the story, which you expect as the main character finds out he is not just a shaman, but has talents greater than the current Knight Shaman.  I can’t remember if this is from a review I read or one of the book’s descriptions, but it’s like a mix of Native American and Celtic spirituality sprinkled with a little Gnosticism.  It makes for very interesting directions in the plot.  I particularly liked how one of the other shaman’s references quotes from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.  It is some beautiful theology, which I’ve been exposed to by reading Elaine Pagels, which I bet Rowe himself also read.  

What I didn’t care for was that most of the book is the day-to-day activities of the tribe.  That’s the part that reads like non-fiction.  While many may find it interesting, I would have liked to have seen more fiction in it.  By that I mean some tension and conflict to move the plot along.  It makes for great world building, as it did in the first book.  I just need some more tension to keep me interested in the story.  I think another reason is that this tribe is a utopian society.  And in that environment, the people are all happy and work toward the common good.  Most utopian novels turn out to be dystopian.  This one isn’t.  And that’s what makes it dry in many places.

Now, there is some conflict, like one of the young men Jamari mentors is probably exclusively heterosexual.  This poses the question of how to work him in as a productive member of the tribe.  It’s a neat reversal of how society normally works.  However, it continues to pop up through the story and doesn’t get resolved until the end.   There’s also an exciting scene with a cougar and the realization that Jamari has more than one spirit animal, and for that matter, more than just an ordinary shaman.

The ending of the book is really good.  That’s where there is tension and conflict, and even tragedy, which I did not see coming.  The tragedy was done with much grace and sensitivity.  It drew a tear to my eye.  That’s where I realized I was more caught up in the characters than I thought.

I give the book three stars out of five.  I have the third book, which I’ll read in a few weeks.  The author has many other short books out which include side stories this post-apocalyptic utopia.  There are also a few books to where Rowe has moved all the erotica.  I’m not sure I’ll read any of those, except for one book I got at the sci fi convention which tells the account of how the tribe got started.  I’ll read that one after I finish this trilogy.  


Sunday, February 11, 2024

White Trash Warlock

David R Slayton
Completed 2/10/2024, Reviewed 2/10/2024
4 stars

I thought this book would be a light-hearted urban fantasy farce based on the title.  After the last book I read, I needed one.  But this turned out to be a very serious drama, featuring the struggles of a gay mage who grew up very poor in rural Oklahoma and goes to Denver to help his estranged brother out of a supernatural nightmare.  Despite being so serious, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It has action, suspense, and most of all, heart.  And it has a very interesting magic system along with the usual inhabitants of fantasy:  elves, leprechauns, gnomes, and reapers.

Adam Binder is a young gay man living with his great aunt, who is also a mage, in her trailer in Oklahoma.  He’s been searching for his father who he believes was a bad mage and disappeared when he was around ten.  The only clues he has are bad magical items that pop up from time to time.  Out of the blue, he gets a text from his brother Bobby, who is a doctor in Denver, to call him.  He tells Adam that something is wrong with his wife and only he can help.  So he makes the trek to Denver to find that she is being possessed by a gigantic evil force that floats over Denver like a huge black cloud.  Seeing this is beyond his powers, he reluctantly asks the elven Guardians for help battle this terrible menace.

The characters of Adam and Bobby, along with their mother, are very complex characters.  Turns out that Adam’s dad was very abusive.  Bobby, who is ten years older than Adam, was his protector, but Adam felt betrayed by him when he locked Adam up in an insane asylum for hearing voices.  The voices, of course, were the beginnings of Adam’s magical ability.  Their mother, a Bible-thumper, cosigned the documents to lock up the teenager.  After escaping at the age of eighteen, Adam escaped and left his mother and brother behind.  Now Adam is trying his best to learn magic skills while dealing with being gay in rural country, Bobby is a doctor who goes by Robert and lives with his wife in the ‘burbs, and their chain smoking, God fearing mother is staying with Robert to take care of his mysteriously ailing wife.  Needless to say, all the interactions of the family are difficult and tense.  

Adam’s one source of joy is Vic, a cop whose life he saved by slicing a piece of his soul and stitching it in the fatally shot cop.  Now they are connected in a mysterious way, and Adam finds that his attraction to Vic is reciprocated.  However, he doesn’t know how to deal with someone who actually likes him, second guessing that it is their magical connection that is causing Vic’s feelings.  

There are two elves who play key roles in this story, Argent, Queen of the Elves, and her brother Silver, who is a Prince.  They are also pretty complex characters who go from being stand-offish and otherworldly to pragmatic and friendly.  There are other aspects to their relationship with Adam, but revealing that would be a spoiler.

I was so impressed by these characters that I was able to empathize with all of them.  I also thought the worldbuilding was just terrific.  And if you know Denver, you will get some of the unnamed references, like the May clock tower, Casa Bonita, and the amusement park (although I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be Elitch’s or Lakeside).  On top of the corporeal setting was a magical realm which Adam traversed with the Elves.  The realm was not always welcoming of humans and Adam gets imprisoned there for a while.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It was so much more amazing than I thought it would be.  The only thing that was lacking a little was the writing.  It felt very plain, as many books with a good amount of action often are.  But I could overlook this because the plot, the characters, and the world all came together in a fascinating and engrossing way.  This book was not as widely read as it should have been, but it did get a 2021 nomination for Sci Fi/Fantasy novel in the Colorado Book Awards.  I can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy.


Sunday, February 4, 2024

The Gate to Women’s Country

Sherri S Tepper
Completed 2/4/2024, Reviewed 2/4/2024
2 stars

I did not like this book.  I found it extremely irritating.  It could be classed as ecofeminism, but I found it to be the most hateful book I’ve ever read.  It does create empathy for the main character, but none for hardly anyone else.  Almost every other character is unlikable, from the manipulating women to the violent men.  It creates a worst-case dystopian future of gender separatism and suspicion.  It almost felt like she was trying to one up “The Handmaid’s Tale” and failed.  I have read quite a bit of feminist science fiction and often find it to be worthwhile and rewarding no matter how uncomfortable it makes me feel as a man.  This book only succeeds in turning off the reader.

The story begins with Stavia finding out her son has decided to turn his back on Women’s Country and stay with the all-male warriors who live outside the city.  It then jumps back in time to Stavia’s youth, where we learn more about the society in which she is being raised.  Women get to stay in Women’s Country, getting educated, learning science, skills, and arts.  Boys at the age of five are turned out, to be raised by the male warriors who protect the city.  At the age of fifteen, they must choose whether to stay with the men outside or rejoin the women inside.  The men who return also get education and help with the women’s society.  Twice a year, the warriors come into town at Carnival and have sex with the women in a party-like, socially condoned celebrations.  This is how new children are born.  Then the cycle begins again for the boy children while the girl children get encultured.

Around the time Stavia is twelve, the warriors outside the city believe that the women hold some kind of secret weapon and should be overthrown.  Women of course should not have weapons.  They should only be making more warriors.  So they send two young men to woo Stavia and her sister Myra and manipulate them romantically to get the secrets out of them.  Stavia and Myra are daughters of a Councilwoman for the city, so the warriors believe her daughters would know any secrets the mother has.  This leads to all sorts of trouble for Myra.  However, Stavia is a pretty clear-thinking girl, but she does make some bad decisions.  Her suitor-spy doesn’t try to have sex with her, but he does manipulate her into smuggling books out of the city, which is forbidden by ordinances.  This only whets the appetite of the warriors for more information.  The plot then follows the troubled relationship between Stavia and the young spy.

Assuming someone would like this story, there are technical problems with the book.  The first half of the book is very dull.  I thought the exploration of this society would be better than it was.  Instead, it was so slow in parts, I think I lost brain cells.  There is also a juxtaposition of a play about Iphigenia’s ghost returning to talk to Achilles and some some surviving woman from the battle of Troy.  Through most of the book, its inclusion does not make sense, other than talking about the futility of war.  It just makes for jarring interruptions in the story.  The prose is okay, but not good enough to really enliven the world building.  

One thing that really turned me off was the little aside that homosexuality was successfully bred out of the culture.  This aberration was found to be a hormone imbalance that could be eradicated through breeding manipulation.  My only thought at this point was “Fuck you, Miss Tepper!  You can take your homophobic nonsense and shove it where the sun don’t shine!”  I tried to recover my senses after reading that passage but never forgave Tepper.  Even when she has the characters captured by an inbred, Fundamentalist Mormon-like enclave, I still kept one foot out of letting myself enjoy the suspense of how they were going to escape.  And this was the one part of the book that actually had some decent pacing and excitement.

I liked one review I read that said this book was “gender essentialist, heterosexist, cissexist garbage.”  Yes, it is all that, and every page reinforces it.  Even the revelation of the big secret at the end couldn’t bring me to fully engage with the book.  If you’re looking to read a book that stays relevant to the oppression women feel today, read “The Handmaid’s Tale.”  Don’t read this.  I give it two stars out of five solely because I thought Stavia was a good character and actually two of the men within the city, Joshua and Corrig, were relatable and empathetic.  Without these three being written as they were, I would have given this book one star. 


Saturday, January 27, 2024

Paradigm Lost: Jamari and the Manhood Rites

R Roderick Rowe
Completed 1/27/2024, Reviewed 1/27/2024
3 stars

Gay Science Fiction Erotica is a narrow subgenre in which I’ve delved a bit.  What I look for in such a book is the same as in any book: plot, prose, world building, and characterization.  I also like to see the explicit sexual scenes flow naturally within the story.  Back in the 80’s, there were some incredible writers of gay erotica that wrote for explicit gay men’s magazines which were later compiled and published because they were recognized as great writing.  That’s my background coming into this book.  It had some of the qualities of a good, even great, erotic novel.  However, it came across more like a documentary.  

The book began strongly, with the main character, Jamari, coming to the decision that it is his time to begin the Manhood Rites.  In this not-to-distant world, a tribe of people have established a utopian society in which young adults decide for themselves when to begin the rites and the community affirms that decision after the process.  It prevents immature people from attaining full adulthood and participation in the community before they are ready, and mature youths to attain it sooner.  This utopia also keeps men and women separate, where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuality is used for procreation only.  

Jamari’s training begins by getting an insider’s view of what keeps the tribe going.  He visits the power plant, the farmlands, and lots of other trades.  He learns more about the history of the great ‘quake that threw the U.S. into chaos, the subsequent wars in that region (the great Northwest), and the establishment of the tribe.  He is also trained in the way of sex, both for pleasure and for procreation.  He has a mentor, Shane, who is a few years older.  Shane is his guide through much of this exploration, both industrial and sexual.

I think like many queer readers of science fiction and fantasy, I liked the reversal of the sexual norms.  It gives us a feel of what it would be like to not have to fear being ourselves.  But it still acknowledges the need for straight sex to provide for future generations.  Rowe does some interesting things with this, though, namely, during Jamari’s training for his first breeding.  Women are given all the power in the situation.  They decide whether they just want to be impregnated, or if they want to experience pleasure in it.  They are trained more than men in self-defense to prevent being taken advantage of sexually or raped.  In the male-male sex scenes, it’s all about giving your partner pleasure and mutuality.  Sex in general is not taboo, but merely an expression of one’s self or a means to an end.

Unfortunately, I found Jamari’s training in the functioning of the tribe to be rather dry.  It was more like a social studies lesson than a fictional account of a working society in a post-apocalyptic future.  Jamari was all, “Golly gee” and “That’s awesome.”  Okay, not exactly those words, but books where there is a lot of description and resultant wonder get tedious after a while.  Even the sex scenes in the midst of this exposition were not that inspiring.  The best parts of the book are the beginning and the end.  They hold the most drama.  The middle, not so much.  

This was too bad, because I thought the writing was pretty good.  The world building really is quite phenomenal.  Rowe put tons of thought into how he wanted this society to operate, based on mistakes and lessons from the past.  He brings in current events that formed our national psyche and rebels against the resulting malaise.  It’s very smart and very inventive, even though I didn’t necessarily agree with all of it.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  I liked the characters.  Jamari and Shane are well developed.  I liked the writing.  I liked the world building.  I just didn’t like the lack of movement in the plot.  This book is the first of a trilogy.  I don’t have the other two books, but I have a standalone about the genesis of the tribe, which I’ll read soon.  Will I read the rest of the trilogy?  I might.  I’d like to see how Jamari transitions into adulthood, and if the story becomes more plot driven.


Sunday, January 21, 2024

The Last Graduate

Naomi Novik
Completed 1/21/2024, Reviewed 1/21/2024
3 stars

Like its predecessor, A Deadly Education, I didn’t care much for this book.  I felt like the first three-quarters of the book were a slog.  I didn’t warm up to it until about the last seventy or so pages.  Then I did care about the plot and the characters and the finale.  This, again like its predecessor, was a book club read.  Nonetheless, I still want to read the last book to see how it ends.  I’m hoping it does get picked as a book club read in a few months.  Novik is a good writer, creating different styles for the different series she writes.  This series is written very differently from her fairy tale books, which were different from her Temeraire series, so I’m told.  I loved the fairy tale books, look forward to the Temeraire books, but this series leaves me rather cold.

The book begins with Galadriel, or El, as a senior at the Scholomance.  She has allies now as well as very tempered relationship with Orion.  Like in the first book, she goes through the first semester trying to study spells, languages, and other magical disciplines while fighting off the monsters that seep into the school.  Strangely, this time, they appear to be focusing on her more than the other students.  So the first half of the book is her trying to fight off the monsters.  The second semester is a class-free semester where the seniors are expected to prepare for the great purge known as graduation.  They are to hone their mal killing and protection spells to survive the ceremony and go through a portal to return home.  El decides that, because of her power to cast large, very powerful spells, it is her duty to save all the seniors.  But then she realizes that’s not enough and must save future students from the graduation purge as well.

I was really bored by the first half of the book.  I thought I’d enjoy it more considering I warmed up to the first book by the end.  However, it just felt like a rehash of the first book.  The only difference is that El is not as mean to other people.  She doesn’t say a lot of what she normally would have in previous years.  This made it easier to empathize with her this time around.  At the turn of the semester, the practice sessions to prepare for graduation were rather tedious as well.  It didn’t get good until she starts to figure out she has to do something to end the death of so many students once and for all.  Then it feels like there’s some skin in the game.

I was actually disappointed that this had very little buildup of her relationship with Orion.  I think I would have enjoyed a teen romance spread over the book a little more evenly.  It does become intense in the last 70 pages, but for me that was too little too late.  My reaction was “Finally!”  I guess I wanted to see her more vulnerable, to see someone breaking through her hard shell.  She doesn’t break character, but she does let loose.  So when we finally got to it, I will admit it was very well done.  

There was one element of the story that did not seem to add anything for me, except extra pages.  That was her familiar, a mouse.  The students get familiars.  El’s takes a long time to bond with her but eventually does.  Except for the occasional biting of her ear to warn her of things, I didn’t see a real reason for bringing the familiars into the story.

The world building continues to be terrific.  The Scholomance still blows my mind and the sheer variation of monsters is creatively staggering.  I just wish the majority of the book was more interesting than simply: 1. Go to class 2. Kill monsters.  For that reason, I again give three stars out of five to this book.  It’s well written, the characters develop, and the ending is really good.  Yet it’s still a dull read through the first three hundred or so pages.  That was the disappointing part.  


Monday, January 15, 2024

Queen

JS Fields
Completed 1/14/2024, Reviewed 1/14/2024
4 stars

I have picked up quite a few self-published books by local authors at the Oregon Science Fiction Convention.  This is one of them.  I’ve shied away from this author in the past because she mostly writes space opera, touted as “pew-pew” action (hold your fingers like laser guns and go pew-pew).  But I’ve always enjoyed them on panels at the convention and thought I’d give one of their books a try.  Sure enough, there’s a lot of pew-pew, but after warming up to it, I found myself caught up in the action of the unique, crazy world that Fields created.  There’s giant lightning bug-like creatures, a massive bunny population, and lots of special sand that big business wants to exploit, all on a Dune-like planet.  It’s an all-woman planet where all you need to immigrate to it is a vulva.  However, emigration is not permitted.  Lots to think about, lots of fun, and decent character development as well.  I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

The book begins with Ember on patrol duty outside the colony on the planet Queen.  The planet is tidally locked to its sun, meaning one side always faces it, one side never does.  In her flyer over the habitable zone, she grieves the recent death of her wife Taraniel from cancer.  She is ambushed by the pirates where she finds out that before her death, Taraniel disappeared into the wastelands, met with the pirates, and with them built a spaceship to take Ember and the pirates back to Old Earth.  Taraniel even uploaded her personality to the ship’s AI.  Ember does not handle this revelation well.  

When Ember’s sister Nadia goes looking for her, she comes across a secret conference where she finds out that Queen is going to be sold to the highest bidder for its special sand.  When they are finally rejoined, they use the planet’s beetles who have a strange symbiotic relationship with the invasive bunny population to fight the forces at the conference so that they can return to old Earth.  They initially left the home planet because of its environmental collapse.  Now they want to return based on Taraniel’s belief that after the massive diaspora, Earth has been renewed, mostly from the plant research done on Queen.

It's quite a wild plot with a lot of crazy ingredients, but it works.  From the giant flying beetles with the phosphorescent tails that can be tamed and ridden like flying horses to the bunnies guarding the fungi that exude the pheromones that can help tame the beetles, it’s loads of fun.  But amidst that fun is a lot to think about.  Specifically, Ember and her dealing with the death of her wife.  First, she must deal that Taraniel died alone in the desert, of her own free will.  Then she finds out that she actually survived, lived for a while longer with the pirates when she could have still been living with Ember.  Lastly, she uploaded her memories and voice to the ship’s AI, so now Ember has to deal with hearing her dead wife’s voice again.  It’s a hell of a lot to take in and Ember remains bitter and angry for a while.  Eventually she makes peace with the past and moves on.  She even develops a mild crush on one of the pirates.

While Ember is the main character, I also enjoyed her sister Nadia who tries to keep an eye on her.  So when Ember goes missing, Nadia goes after her without qualms about the rules of the colony.  Asher, the head pirate, is also very likeable, especially with her ability to handle Ember’s reaction to the ship’s AI.  

The world building is phenomenal.  One might think it’s a Dune rip-off, but even the author pokes a little fun at their own use of a desert planet.  The bunnies add a special touch.  One might think it’s simply a case of overrun invasive species, but here they’ve formed a strange relationship with the beetles.  The only thing I thought was a little weak was the prose.  The description of the action was good, but overall, I thought the prose sounded the same way the characters talked.  It was a little disappointing during the less exciting points in the book.  

Still, I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a fun and exciting action-packed adventure.  It’s the first of a series, so it ends on a giant cliffhanger.  I didn’t mind it, because I’m sure I’ll read the next book when it comes out.  It also plays around a little with gender, which of course it would need to being an all-women planet.  But it’s not heavy handed like the gender-based utopian and dystopian novels of ‘70s women authors.  It’s much more organic.  I actually would have liked a little more gender and sexuality discussion in the story, though there are still two more books that might cover it in more depth.