Friday, July 30, 2021

Who Fears Death

Nnedi Okorafor
Completed 7/30/2021, Reviewed 7/30/2021
5 stars

Wow!  This is an intense book.  It’s about a prophesy of a savior of an ethnic cleansing and the girl who seems to be its fulfullment.  It has sorcerers and juju and magical beings in a post-apocalyptic Saharan Africa.  It’s also about weaponized rape and female genital mutilation.  It’s not for the light-hearted.  If you read it, it will leave an indelible mark on your soul.  Just reflecting on it to write this review leaves me all shaky inside.  This book was nominated for a slew of awards, winning the World Fantasy Award in 2011. 

The story is about Onyesonwu, an Ewu, that is, a child of rape.  Her mother is of a race that is being enslaved and wiped out by another race.  Her biological father is powerful sorcerer.  Onye and her mother live several years in the desert before settling in town.  Like all towns, Onye is shunned.  Ewu are considered born of evil and therefore evil.  Around the age of nine, she mysteriously turns into a sparrow and flies around, changing back into a human high up in a tree.  That’s when her mother is sure that she is destined to be a sorceress.  On her eleventh birthday, Onye allows herself to be circumcised with three other girls in a coming-of-age ritual because she believes it will make her more acceptable to the townspeople.  She meets a boy, another Ewu named Mwita who has some magical abilities as well.  She tries to convince him to introduce her to his sorcerer mentor Aro.  Aro shuns Onye because she is female.  Eventually, her persistence wins and Aro takes her on as an apprentice.  When she accidently slips into the spirit realm, she discovers someone is trying to murder her.  Thus begins her quest to confront this evil and fulfill the prophesy to free her people from a religiously sanctioned genocide.

Yeah, heavy stuff.  The circumstances of Onye’s birth and circumcision all happen pretty quickly at the beginning of the book.  Her mother’s rape, the general weaponized rape, enslavement, and genocide make her pretty rageful.  And the treatment of women within her own culture also leaves her full of anger.  Of course, all this interferes with her ability to control her magic.  She must learn to quieten her emotions if she is going to successfully fight the evils and rewrite the holy book that allows all this horror to continue.  Despite carrying this personal and cultural anger, it’s easy to empathize with her.  I mean, wouldn’t you be angry too if this was the cultural norm?

The book is written in first person so it has the feeling of immediacy, making it all too real.  In fact, the author acknowledges a story on NPR about weaponized rape in the Sudan that was the germ for this story.  The world building is really good, but a little weird.  In this post-apocalyptic world, there are some remnants of our present, like hand-held computers and scooters.  The apocalypse happened because the people apparently abused the world for technology.  But rather than it all going away, there are still some things left that people use.  And yet there is also magic in this world.  It makes for an odd, but engrossing setting.  The prose is really good.  It’s not flowery, but rather pretty forceful. 

I did have a problem with the pacing in the middle of the book, on the journey from Onye’s hometown with Mwita, her three friends, and one of her friend’s betrothed.  The journey had a lot of character development, insights, and action, but it seemed to move slowly compared to the beginning of the book.  It was good that it was a little less heavy than the beginning, but I kept feeling like I wanted it to move on.  Things kept on happening to Onye and her companions that at times felt unnecessary, as if maybe fifty pages could have been edited out.

Despite how the middle seemed to lag, I had to give this book five stars out of five.  Even as I sit here in my comfortable apartment writing this review, my eyes keep tearing up from the horrors of Onye’s world, knowing that this type of brutality happens today.  This is how powerful science fiction and fantasy can be, throwing the realities of our world into our face in the guise of futuristic and fantastical narrative.  It’s made me angry, sad, and very uncomfortable.  Not many books have done this for me.  This is the first Okorafor book I’ve read since the Binti trilogy, and I must say she is an awesome writer of meaningful, powerful stories.


Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Devolution:

A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre
Max Brooks
Completed 7/26/2021, Reviewed 7/27/2021
4 stars

Another terrific horror story by Max Brooks, author of World War Z.  This one is about a group of people being terrorized by a band of Sasquatches.  It had me gripped from beginning to end and jumping at every random sound in my apartment.  It’s presented as a combination of journal entries from one of the people under attack, interviews with her brother and a ranger from the recovery efforts, and excerpts from relevant Sasquatch research and speculation books.  It’s very effectively told and stunningly scary.  I was totally prepared to be disappointed considering WWZ was so good.  I thought Brooks couldn’t match that success, but he did, with flying colors.

The story begins with a couple moving into Greenloop, a small uber-eco-friendly community near Mount Rainier.  The model is a new form of planned community, deep in the woods, relying on the internet for telecommuting and ordering groceries and other necessities which are delivered via drone and electric vehicles. Power is solar, active and passive.  Then Mount Rainier erupts, and the people of Greenloop are cut off from the internet and the only road out.  Slowly, the animals begin to disappear.  They see shapes in the woods and hear growling and shrieking noises.  They don’t want to believe, but soon become convinced that they are being surrounded by Sasquatches.  This turns into an all-out war for survival as they are attacked by large group of the Sasquatches.

The author of the journal is Katie.  She’s an obsessive compulsive who is journaling as an exercise assigned by her therapist.  Besides being OCD, she’s timid, definitely not an Alpha person.  In fact, she’s pretty neurotic.  Her husband Dan is a lazy dreamer, a creator, not a doer.  Their marriage seems on the rocks.  Katie is taken with charismatic founder of Greenloop and his near perfect wife.  The other inhabitants range from an earthy glass-blowing survivor of some eastern European atrocities to pretentious nature loving vegans.  Basically, the whole community consists of people who want to get back to nature, but don’t really know how.  

At first, I didn’t really like any of the characters, which I think is the point.  But as the attacks escalate, people either grow or don’t.  Katie and Dan, who are initially annoying, really step up to the challenge.  And the growth is well developed.  It’s not instantaneous.  Moster, the eastern European artist, is a pretty cool character.  My only complaint with her is that she’s supposed to be short and heavy, but does a lot of running when the violence escalates, which I had a hard time believing.  I also had some trouble with some of the other characters who were hard-core pretentious nature lovers.  They were rather one-dimensional through most of the book.  Katie, Dan, and Moster are the stars of the book and they are the best developed and most realistic.

I liked the interspersing of the narrative with the interviews and book excerpts.  Brooks really did his homework on Bigfoot and made arguments for their existence and their behavior in this story.  I was fascinated by the Gigantopithecus theory.  My only disappointment with the research was that Brooks mentions the famous Patterson film but not the debunking of it.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  Even though it scared the pants off me and I couldn’t put it down the second day (despite my e-reader running out of battery power and reading about three hours of it on my phone), I took off a star because of the wooden lesser characters.  I thought the prose was good, the dialogue was mostly realistic, and the pacing was excellent.   I highly recommend this book if you want a good scare and to be afraid the next time you go into the woods.  

Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

Becky Chambers
Completed 7/25/2021, Reviewed 7/25/2021
5 stars

This is the final book in the Wayfarer Series which won the Hugo for Best Series after the third one was published.  It’s another character study that’s small on plot, but high in payback.  This time, I totally loved it.  It’s a self-contained story as all the others are, but takes place in the same universe.  It’s basically about three beings from different planets who are stuck in what’s effectively a space truck stop owned by a woman and her child.  They talk, eat, argue, respond to an emergency, and get to know a little more about themselves and each other.  It sounds simple, but it’s a wonderful story about understanding and acceptance.

The story begins with Ouloo and her child Tupo who own a hotel on Gora, a barren planet that is used as a stopping point for traveling between wormholes.  Ouloo and Tupo are Laru, furry quadrupeds who also walk on their hind legs.  Tupo is young and has yet to pick xer gender.  That day, three ships arrive, each with one inhabitant, to stay at the hotel.  Speaker is an Akarak, a birdlike creature with genetically deformed legs.  Her sister says in orbit because she doesn’t like mixing with others.  There’s Roveg, a Quelin, a bug-like creature with many legs.  Lastly, there’s Pei, an Aeulon, a being that speaks through color, and is the love of a human character from the first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.  Shortly after they all arrive, there’s a big disaster in the sky, kind of like in the film “Gravity”, where a large group of satellites crash into each other and plummet to the ground.  This brings down communications between the ground and what remains in orbit, as well as between the domes that house the hotels.  So they are effectively cut off from everything for a few days.  During that time, Ouloo tries to be the perfect host, tending to everyone’s needs until the crisis is over.

The book is once again told in alternating perspectives of the different characters, although all in third person.  It was much easier to follow than it was in Record of a Spaceborn Few, which took a bit for me to get used to.  As we are introduced to the characters as they all show up on Gora, everything is relatively pleasant.  Tupo is just delightful as the pre-teen who wants to help Ouloo but always seems to get into trouble.  Roveg, Pei, and Speaker all seem like pleasant enough beings, but all are hiding something they don’t want to share, and normally wouldn’t have at the hotel.  However, with the satellite disaster that strands them there, they of course end up getting on each other’s nerves and revealing things that they would normally not have shared.  

The process is great for character development as we get involved with each being’s life drama.  I was really impressed with each of the characters, feeling empathy for each one.  The drama that develops as time goes on felt very realistic, not soapy.  The whole scenario is of course a metaphor for people of different backgrounds dealing with their own versions of xenophobia and prejudices.  But it’s done in a way that keeps the science fiction alive and not being terribly heavy handed.

That thought segues into how awesome the world building is.  Rather than have human problems, each of the beings has problems based on their own worlds.  Chambers created four distinct races of beings and loaded them with unique and interesting characteristics.  Yes, they are all very different looking, but their worlds are unique as well.  I was simply astounded by how much she was able to pack in about each character and their worlds in such a short novel (just over three hundred pages).  The prose is also wonderful, easy reading with believable dialogue.  

The ending is truly tremendous.  I’m not going to give it away of course, but I’ll say that it left me in tears as all the beings go back to their separate lives after the disaster is cleaned up, each having been impacted by the others.  Even the least likable of the three has her moment at the end.  As with the others, it was moving and powerful.

I give this book five stars out of five.  It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, as there isn’t much action.  Normally, I even like a little action to keep the book going.  But this book didn’t need it.  The beings’ different interactions were interesting and gripping in their own ways.  And this book doesn’t really bring any overall conclusion to the series, as the books are stand-alone.  It’s simply a lovely way to end it.  Chambers has a non-series book out as well as the beginning of a new series.  I’m looking forward to getting around to them sometime soon.


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Only Good Indians

Stephen Graham Jones
Completed 7/21/2021, Reviewed 7/21/2021
4 stars

I don’t read much horror anymore, maybe one or two a year.  I picked this one because it was nominated for several awards this year and has won one, the Stoker award.  The author is Native American, and writes horror books featuring Native American characters, culture and tradition.  The book is also a sort of urban fantasy in that it takes place today and has magical, horrible things happen.  In this case, four Native American men are being pursued by an Elk Head Woman seeking revenge for a terrible incident which happened ten years prior.  It’s different, creepy, and gory.  I really enjoyed it, finishing it pretty quickly because I didn’t want to put it down.

The story surrounds four men who in their late teens/early twenties went hunting for elk on the lands designated only for elders to hunt.  A heard of elk appear in the midst of a snowstorm.  They begin shooting willy-nilly, killing about nine.  When they check their spoils, one of them, Lewis, finds a young doe which should be dead but is still alive.  He shoots it again and again to make sure it’s finally dead.  As he’s prepping its body, he finds the doe was pregnant out of season.  He takes the fetus, buries it, and makes a promise to use all the mother’s meat.  Fast forward ten years, and one by one, a strange Elk-headed woman begins stalking the four of them, their friends, and families.

The Elk-headed woman is not part of some Native American folklore, just an invention of the author.  Some of the action takes place on the Blackfeet reservation, some off.  It gives us different glimpses into their lives: staying on the reservation, trying to escape, marrying a woman from a different nation, marrying a white woman, as well as the more well-known themes like alcoholism.  It also features a sweat lodge with two of the main characters and a fourteen-year-old boy being initiated into his first one.

This book was really well done.  I liked the way we were introduced to the characters and experienced them as the Elk-head woman takes different forms and begins stalking each one.  It was a great characterization device, giving each character’s history and current lives while mixing it with the story of the elk hunt and the Elk-head woman’s stalking.  It never felt like boring exposition.  It gave me empathy for each of the men.  We also get to know the daughter of one of them, Denorah, a young teen basketball prodigy who is also a target of the terror.  She does not know the history of the Elk hunt, but she realizes some kind of whacked out demon is after her.

The creepy factor was also really good.  The whole first half of the book keeps you guessing whether this is real or in the minds of the men.  By the time it clears up that question, you’re hooked.  Also adding to the creepy factor is that about halfway through the book, the point of view of the narration becomes second person.  It wasn’t as difficult as some second person narratives I read.  What makes it creepy is that the “you” in the story is the Elk head woman.

My only issue with the book was that sometimes the sentences were fragments, dependent on the sentence before it.  I realize that this is a style choice, but it came off as disjointed in these places.  It took me a while to get this cadence down, but I did.  And for some reason, it made sense the faster I read, which I did during the exciting climax.

I give this book four stars out of five.  I thought it was excellently done except for the sentence fragments.  I also found the story to be like several vignettes since it follows the different characters serially, which made it difficult to feel as emotionally involved as when I would award five stars.  Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a different kind of quirky horror, this is the book for you.  


Sunday, July 18, 2021

Midnight Robber

Nalo Hopkinson
Completed 7/17/2021, Reviewed 7/18/2021
5 stars

It’s been way too long since I read a book by Hopkinson.  I decided to read a few of hers this year because she was named a Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master.  It’s an award given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the SFWA.  This is the third book of hers I’ve read now and it’s terrific.  The other two I read, The Salt Roads and Brown Girl in the Ring were also outstanding.  With outstanding prose written in pidgin English and tackling issues like incest and sexual abuse, she crafted an amazing novel.  It’s based on Caribbean folklore and traditions and it’s set on a planet in the future.  And she pulls it off spectacularly.  This book was nominated for multiple awards including the Hugo and Nebula about twenty years ago.  

Tan-Tan is a young girl who lives on the planet Toussaint, inhabited by Caribbean descent peoples.  When her father the mayor accidently kills her mother’s lover, he exiles himself to another dimension that is filled with people who have been exiled from Toussaint.  And he takes Tan-Tan with him.  He loves her dearly; they had been practically inseparable since she was an infant.  Once in the other dimension of New Half-Way Tree they are met by an indigenous sentient creature called a douen who takes them to the nearest human village.  On the way, Chichibud shows them how to survive, particularly against the dangerous indigenous non-sentient creatures.  Once around other humans, instead of their lives settling down, they get worse.  Dealing with physical and emotional trauma, she splits into three parts of herself:  Good Tan-Tan, Bad Tan-Tan, and the Robber Queen.  They are not exactly distinct personalities, but they help her cope with the trauma.  

Tan-Tan is a beautifully constructed character, we meet her at age eight or nine, and follow her up to her sixteenth birthday.  Her favorite role playing is as the Robber Queen, a female version she created of the Midnight Robber which is a Carnival character where people pretend to hold up others and sing to them until the listeners leave or toss coins to them.  So when she actually splits into the three parts, it’s only natural that one of them would be the Robber Queen.  Tan-Tan was a child of privilege, but once she goes into exile with her father, she has to learn how to live on wits and skill alone.  When she runs away to live with the douen, she learns about understanding other cultures.  And the one thing that gets engrained in her is that when you take one life, you must give back two.  This leads to her life as the Robber Queen, helping people get out of bad situations.  And it is only through this part of her that she learns to accept the truth about what happened to her.

The prose is beautiful, albeit a little hard to read.  It is mostly in pidgin English which takes some getting used to, not unlike Brown Girl in the Ring.  At first I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to follow because it not only uses a Caribbean dialect, but also has a pretty strange sentence structure.  The most difficult to get used to was the use of he or she for him/his or her.  But once I got it, the book went pretty smoothly.  

The world-building is also phenomenal, both Toussaint and New Half-Way Tree.  Hopkinson doesn’t do long descriptions of the worlds, but rather integrates it into the story.  So after a while, you realize you know all about the worlds without having to endure heavy exposition.  As for the aliens, the douen were fascinating, particularly the breakdown of the males and females.  That’s something I won’t go into detail about because it would be too much of a spoiler.  Suffice it to say, it was surprising and interesting.

I give this book five stars out of five.  Hopkinson creates a fantastic, non-white-based culture that is a joy to discover.  And integrating gut-wrenching issues as if it were non-genre fiction, while keeping within the genre was masterful.  I loved Tan-Tan and empathized with her deeply.  I felt like I inhabited her psyche, particularly bad Tan-Tan which was full of negativity that many of us hear in our own heads.    I’m going to read one to three more books by Hopkinson (for the Hopkinson reading challenge on Worlds Without End).  She’s not a prolific novelist, but what she puts out is just marvelous.  


Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Freedom’s Landing

Anne McCaffrey
Completed 7/13/2021, Reviewed 7/14/2021
2 stars

I’ve read many Pern novels as well as The Crystal Singer (all before I started writing reviews, so no links).  I really like McCaffrey, even though some of those early Pern novels didn’t have the best writing.  So when this came up as a possible selection for my book club, I was gung ho about reading it and voted for it.  Well, this was one of the most boring books I’ve read this year.  It’s one of her later novels (1995) and the prose and dialogue is very good.  The story just wasn’t all that interesting.  It took me about half the book to be interested in the main character and more than that to be interested in plot.  It took me a full week to get through this novel of a little over three hundred pages, which is slow for me.  This book is the first of a four-part series, and I have no desire to read the rest.

The plot is fairly simple.  Aliens called the Catteni have invaded Earth and taken many Terrans as slaves.  Kris is a Terran slave on a colony planet who has escaped with a flying craft and is hiding in an unpopulated wooded area.  A chased craft crash lands near her and she goes to find a hurt Catteni.  She helps him, but when he suggests he might rape her, which apparently happens to a lot of female slaves, she knocks him out and tries to sneak back to the city with him.  However, they are captured along with many other slaves from Earth as well as from other planets, put aboard a spaceship, drugged, and sent to colonize a new planet.  Apparently, it’s the modus operandi of the Catteni to send slaves to find out if a new planet is inhabitable based on whether they survive or die.  There she ends up befriending the Catteni whose name is Zainal and along with several hundred other slaves begin the process of trying to survive this new planet.  The rest of the novel is about exploring the area where they landed, discovering the planet’s mysteries, and discovering the truth about the Catteni’s reign of terror throughout the galaxy.

Right from the beginning, I found myself not interested in Kris’ plight.  There was nothing to make her interesting.  The story is told in third person, mostly from Kris’ point of view, but it’s narrated action.  We don’t get to know her for a very long time.  Stuff just happens to her.  And the whole finding Zainal, knocking him out, getting captured and sent to the new planet all happens very quickly.  Next thing we know, we’re on Botany (the name the slave colonists give it) and everyone is pitching in to form a little society.  It was about halfway through the book when I realized I liked Kris.  She’s a tough, self-sufficient woman, though she starts to fall in love with Zainal.  Yes, it does become something of a romance novel.

Zainal was also likable after quite a while.  He’s in the same plight as everyone else, sent to Botany because he killed another Catteni.  He works hard to be part of the team, offering as much of his knowledge of the Catteni and their colonization as is useful.  He speaks the languages of the other alien slaves and helps them communicate with the Terrans who mostly only speak English.  After a while, almost everyone comes to appreciate Zainal, recognizing his work in helping them survive.  There’s only one jerk who doesn’t warm up to Zainal as well as harasses the women for whom they build a stock to punish him in.  

As far as interest in the plot, I had a very difficult time keeping focused on all the exploration of the planet.  It turns out the planet is a food source for an unknown alien race.  The food cultivation and collection are fully automated.  When the Catteni look at new planets to colonize, they look for heat signatures of humanoids so they thought it was uninhabited.  The good news is that our bunch of slaves have an easy food source.  The bad news is the flying robotic caretakers view them as food and try to round them up and process them.  So the slaves have to figure out how to dismantle the caretakers.  Fortunately, they have a diverse collection of people with former occupations including engineers who can tackle problems like these.  In fact, they seem to have just about every occupation necessary for establishing civilization.  It’s very convenient.

One thing that got me was that there were a lot of stereotypes considering this book was written in 1995.  There’s a lot of nationalities stranded on Botany including Irish, Australian, Nordic, and a token African-American guy.  He’s a cook.  They all come too close to being stereotypes of their cultures.  It makes you feel like this book was written in 50s, rather than the 90s.  Some of it got a little uncomfortable for my taste.  The Australians were even sheep farmers for goodness sake.

I give this book two stars out of five.  The struggle for survival wasn’t all that difficult.  To many things worked out for them.  Everyone got along, except for one guy who was appropriately named Dick.  Zainal, while likable, was too nice too quickly.  Kris, while nicely kick-ass, was not quite three-dimensional.  And the exploration of the planet simply bored me.  I’m glad this book was not my introduction to McCaffrey, because I would have been very hesitant to explore her other, better works.


Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The Relentless Moon

Mary Robinette Kowal
Completed 7/5/2021, Reviewed 7/5/2021
4 stars

Kowal cranks out another terrific story in world of Lady Astronaut Universe.  It’s a story that is a sort of follow up to The Calculating Stars and the timeline is parallel to The Fated Sky.  Rather than following Elma York, it follows Nicole Wargin, a pilot who goes to the colony on the Moon after Elma’s ship takes off for Mars.  It’s a really fast-paced novel filled with tension, espionage and personal drama.  I really liked this book and can see how it was popular enough to snag a Hugo nomination for this year, but in terms of writing, I felt it was too similar to the first two books.  Still, it’s a very strong novel and an exciting read.

Nicole is married to Kenneth, the governor of Kansas, which has become the center of the US since the meteor event of the first book.  It’s the home of the IAC, the international space program, and Kansas City has become the capital of the US.  Kenneth is planning to run for president on a platform of expanding the space program.  The current president sides with the Earth First movement, a grass roots organization against the IAC and its funding, which seems to be at the bottom of more and more terrorist activities.  After a spaceship launch to the Moon fails due to an explosion which is secretly believed to be a terrorist event, Nicole is assigned the next flight to investigate if there are any terrorists on the Moon.  That flight nearly crash lands on the Moon, and more and more things go wrong at the station.  It becomes clear that the Earth Firsters have at least one agent on the Moon and are sabotaging the station.  Nicole’s whole mission is to find out who the saboteurs are which becomes a race to keep the station and its inhabitants from being destroyed.

Nicole is another terrific character.  Like Elma, she has her own problems, most significantly, she’s anorexic.  She’s been hiding the condition and been able to contain it mostly with the help of her husband.  However, once in space and with the stress of the investigation, she loses control and eating becomes a struggle.  She’s simultaneously strong and weak, powerful and vulnerable.  In the first two books, Kowal showed that she can create a character like this in Elma, and she successfully does it again in this book.

The other characters are also quite strong and realistic.  I really liked the Lindholms, a black couple who are also on the Moon mission with Nicole.  Eugene is a major in the IAC and Myrtle is a pilot.  They and their interactions as a couple are very believable.  Besides dealing with the stress of the investigation, the must deal with racism, most specifically from the white South Africans on the mission.  Remember, this is an alternate history of 1963, and civil rights are still in their infancy.  

I really liked the mystery of trying to figure out who the Earth First plant is.  At first, I was not really keen on it, and at over five hundred pages, I thought it would drag on terribly.  Fortunately, there was enough action and personal drama that made it very readable.  I was sucked in pretty quickly.  The progression of problems, the solving of them, and Nicole’s constant battle with the anorexia along with a broken arm she sustains made the plot move at good speed.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a well-written mystery with an excellent handling of racial, sexist, and personal issues.  My only real complaint was that it was so alike in tone and form to the first two books that it doesn’t seem like anything new is being covered here.  It’s a marvelous book.  It’s just lacking in originality and punch.  I’d still recommend the trilogy to anyone looking for a good strong read.  My understanding is that there is supposed to be a fourth book in the series, but from what I can see it’s not scheduled to come out until 2022.  Yeah, I’ll probably read it.