Sunday, May 9, 2021

Black Sun

Rebecca Roanhorse
Completed 5/9/2021, Reviewed 5/9/2021
5 stars

I know it seems like I’ve been giving out five stars more than one would think would be possible, but I feel like I’ve been coming across some really terrific books that I just don’t want to put down at the end of the day.  This one is the tremendous first book in a new epic fantasy trilogy called “Beneath Earth and Sky”.  It is set in a pseudo-pre-Columbian world with all the richness you’d expect to find in a pseudo-European fantasy.  It has magic, gods, mermaids, and court intrigue, all with South American flavor.  The book was written by a Native American woman who has already won the Hugo and Nebula for shorter fiction, and is now nominated for her second of each of these in the novel category.  I loved this book, and can’t wait for the next installment to be published.

The plot is about the preparation for the ceremony of the Convergence, when the winter solstice sun is eclipsed by the moon.  Nara, the Sun Priest, is preparing the priestly court for the Convergence with fasting and isolation.  But there’s an attempt on her life followed closely by the death of the Matron of one of the four ruling houses.  This disrupts the preparation and causes dissension amongst the major priests.  For Nara is a modernist, trying to maintain and enhance peace among all the houses.  The traditionalists think she should show more force in trying to maintain adherence of the houses to the law.  A second plot follows Serapio, a young man who was blinded by his mother to make him a vessel of the Crow god.  As its avatar, Serapio could fulfill the prophesy to destroy the priests and regain autonomy for the “religious” Crow House.  This plotline goes back and forth in time with Serapio growing up under tutors and coming into his godhood and with his three-week journey from his home to Tova, the capital where the priests are.  The prophesy states that there he will kill the Sun Priest and free the Crow people.  

Yes, the plots are rather substantial, but Roanhorse does an excellent job of telling the story and keeping it all organized and readable.  Through these two main characters, she builds a rich and creative world.  It comes across as very complete society, as rich as Lois McMasters Bujold’s Chalion series, for instance.  It doesn’t fall into the standard tropes of a primitive South American society, either Incan or Mayan. 

The characters are amazing.  I deeply empathized with both Nara and Serapio even though their destinies pit them against each other.  Nara is a progressive amongst a ruling body of traditionalists.  She wants to make up for past horrors perpetrated by the ruling priests, specifically, what is known as the Night of Knives, which slaughtered many of the Crow House.  She has many enemies within the priesthood as well as from the Crow cult whose prophesy Serapio fulfills.  Nara is a good person in a bad situation.  Serapio is also very genuine, but knows what he must do as avatar.  It causes him conflict.  We feel much sympathy for him as he is thrust into his role by his mother when she brutally forces him to stare at a solar eclipse when he is eleven, sews his eyes shut, and carves an image of the Crow into his chest.  Blinded and ignored by his father, he is tutored by abusive teachers to help him grow into the avatar and accept his destiny.

There’s another great character worth mentioning, Xiala, a bisexual woman and ship captain.  After a night of drunken debauchery that she can’t remember, she’s saved from prison to command the ship to bring Serapio to Tova to fulfill his destiny.  She doesn’t know his mission, but is promised great pay if she can get him there in time.  But she has a secret, she is a Teek, who others believe is only half human, the other half fish.  And she must command a crew of superstitious sailors, which requires great leadership.  But she is flawed, and perhaps more human than most of her crew.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  I could not find anything wrong with it.  The prose was perfect, the characters interesting and relatable, the world-building phenomenal.  Even the ending was terrific for the first book of a trilogy.  This was one of the books that I just did not want to put down and regularly fell asleep reading because I didn’t want to stop.  And I wish I didn’t have to wait for the next book to come out.  Fortunately, I have her last double award nominee to tide me over, which is supposed to be terrific as well.  


Tuesday, May 4, 2021

This Is How You Lose the Time War

Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Completed 5/4/2021, Reviewed 5/4/2021
2 stars

I found this one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read.  The prose is sumptuous but so distracting I couldn’t follow the razor thin plot, the voices are nearly indistinguishable, and the love affair is unbelievable.  It’s only a novella, about two hundred pages, but it took me about three days to read.  You can’t read it quickly because you might miss something amidst all the flowery word choices.  It’s an epistolary story, with letters being written between two people.  I somehow was expecting a better book considering the high average ratings it has on different review websites, including Worlds Without End.  And somehow, it won both the Hugo and Nebula for Novella.  I just didn’t really get it, no matter how many times I read the summary description of the story.

So, from what I gather from the summary and what I read, there are two factions that are warring each other by traveling back in time to made and unmake changes to alter the future.  Each faction has a premier operative, known to us and each other as Red and Blue.  Blue seems to be the one trying to change the future and Red seems to be going back to try to set it straight.  The two begin leaving messages for each other in fruit, on feathers, and on other strange media, first taunting each other, then slowly falling in love.  But if their superiors find out, it would mean death as traitors.

As far as plot goes, there’s hardly any.  It’s a time travel story but there is no description of how it’s accomplished and there are no clear jumps to the past.  The story just starts referencing a past “braid”.  There are references to past historical figures like Genghis Kahn and Julius Caesar.  There are situations where people are killed or not killed, or perhaps have something change in their lives which will change the future.  And then there’s the love affair.  Red and Blue fall in love with each other, somehow, through their very bizarre communication methods.  How they figure out what the methods are was beyond me.  The affair leads to a dramatic conclusion, but even that is littered with such overdone prose that it was hard to figure out what was going on.

Yes, the overdone prose.  It was so distracting, but it was beautiful.  It didn’t seem pretentious, just really well-done, but overdone.  Particularly, at the end, it was several pages of glorious prose that didn’t go anywhere.  I liked reading it, but I couldn’t read it quickly, lest I miss where some plot actually happened.  

I thought the characterization was pretty non-existent.  It felt like there was no difference between Red and Blue.  Even the third person narration in between the letters sounded the same as Red and Blue.  There wasn’t much description of either character, physically or emotionally.  And their only growth was that they fell in love through their letters to each other.

I give this book two stars out of five, instead of one star, because of the prose.  But I disliked everything else.  It was actually hard to believe that two writers wrote this book, as it all seemed to be identical in style.  I’ve read some Max Gladstone before, Full Fathom Five, and found it good but not great.  I have not read El-Mohtar before, but her forte seems to be poetry, which is evident in this book.  I’m not sold on either one yet, but I’d be willing to give them another chance.  


Monday, May 3, 2021

Exit Strategy

Martha Wells
Completed 5/1/2021, Reviewed 5/3/2021
4 stars

The fourth novella in the Murderbot Diaries was just as good as the last one, Rogue Protocol.  It was a little more interesting because it circles back to some of the characters from the first book, All Systems Red, which I read quite a while ago.  It was nice to come back to these characters and get some decent characterization even though it’s been so long.  The prose is still terrific.  These books all could have made one really good 700-page novel, but I’m glad they were broken up into novellas.  Because the science is relatively hard and the writing filled with technical jargon, I think it would have been an exhausting read.  As individual stories, these have been just right.

This story follows Murderbot after it gets incriminating evidence against the dastardly mega-mining corporation GrayCris.  It has discovered that Dr. Mensah has been kidnapped by GrayCris which is demanding a ransom for her release.  Murderbot tracks down a trio of Mensah’s associates, revealing itself to them cautiously, as it still does not have full memory of the tragedy it instigated that started this whole cycle in motion.  They all reunite and scheme to get Mensah free and GrayCris indicted.  

The character development of Murderbot comes to a sort of conclusion in this book.  It (we are never told if Murderbot has a gender, although in the second book, ART offered to give it physical sexual characteristics) reluctantly admits that it has enhanced its human side and now has feelings.  Remember that Murderbot originally eschews human contact and would rather spend its time watching soaps.  But here it recognizes its feelings for Dr. Mensah, its original owner and dare-say, friend, in the pursuit of her escape.  We only get a little development of Mensah and the other characters, but they slip right back into the intrigue.  I was impressed that the secondary characters were so believable and easy to accept into the story.

The prose and the dialogue are still quite good despite being filled with technical jargon.  The only time I had problems with it was in the first book.  I got into the swing of the jargon in the second book and have kept up with it pretty decently.  It can be exhausting at times but it flows naturally and is quite readable.  And despite Murderbot’s growing awareness of its own feelings, it still maintained the snarkiness that has made it endearing throughout the cycle.  

I don’t have much more to say that I haven’t already said in the previous books’ reviews.  So I’ll just say that I give this book four stars out of five and this four novella cycle four stars as well, even though I didn’t care for the first book quite as much.  I think it’s a good thing to read these books in relatively quick succession to keep up the excitement of Murderbot’s journey.  I really look forward to the novel next, which has been nominated for the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Locus so far.  


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Soulstar

CL Polk
Completed 4/27/2021, Reviewed 4/28/2021
5 stars

This was a fantastic end to a really great series.  It dealt with the freeing of the witch slaves and the attempt to transform a monarchy into a democracy.  It was a lot of politics, but I thought it was evenly spread throughout the book and mixed well with all the subplots.  The most interesting subplot was the re-establishment of the relationship between the main character with her non-binary spouse who had been enslaved for witchcraft for twenty years.  The book covered a lot of issues, but succeeded in making it entertaining, riveting, and a satisfying conclusion to the series.

As with all series, the plot summary of this one has spoilers of the previous books, so be forewarned.

The story follows Robin Thorpe, who appeared in the previous two books, Witchmark and Stormsong.  She’s a nurse who is secretly a witch who can call to and speak with the dead.  She’s heavily involved with the resistance movement, trying to push the monarchy to free the witches who’ve been held as slaves making aether out of the souls of the dead and to get the government to represent all the people, not just the wealthy land and business owners.  She’s tapped by Grace, the Chancellor and main character from the last book, to help her work from within the government.  Robin accepts, but then declines when she’s asked to become the leader of the resistance when its leader is assassinated.  When the witches are freed from the asylums, she finds her long lost love Zelind, who has been enslaved for two decades.  Zelind is non-binary and uses the pronouns khe and kher.  But their road to normalcy is difficult as khe tries to readjust which includes loving someone who’s become a self-sufficient uber-involved political leader.

There’s a lot going on in this book.  There’s a lot of politics, but I thought it was done better than in the last book, mostly because of the introduction of Zelind as the main character’s spouse earlier in the book.  It mixed the personal with the political in a much better told story.  I thought it was also nice that it was an existing relationship rather than a new one, filled with struggle and heartbreak as Zelind and Robin feel each other out after twenty years apart.  I thought it was very realistically done, without the traps of a mushy, saccharine reunion.  I really liked Zelind and could empathize with the struggles khe was going through.

I also really liked Robin.  She was just a rather abrasive secondary character in the first two books, but as the narrator of this book, really developed into a well fleshed-out main character.  I was tied up in the heartbreak with her relationship as well as with the struggles with the democracy movement, including her own conflict over being a public person versus a behind-the-scenes organizer.  

In some ways, the book was difficult to read.  There is so much adversity thrown at Robin and the democracy movement that I felt like I wouldn’t be able to bear one more thing.  But her convictions saw her through her despair.  She didn’t always feel like a powerful person, but she overcomes so much with the help of Zelind, Grace, Miles, and Tristan, as well as her clan members, the newly freed witches and the ghosts with whom she can communicate.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  I was completely emotionally involved with it from the beginning.  I was prepared for the different narrator this time, so I was able to connect with Robin without being resentful about losing Grace as narrator.  I also felt extremely satisfied with the ending and simultaneously so sad that the series ended.  Like the first book, I didn’t want to put this one down, and finished it in two days.  I am so looking forward to her next book which has been nominated for a Nebula.


Sunday, April 25, 2021

Rogue Protocol

Martha Wells
Completed 4/25/2021, Reviewed 4/25/2021
4 stars

This is the third novella in the Murderbot Diaries series.  This book was not quite as good as the previous one, Artificial Condition.  It seemed like it was a bit of a retread of the last one.  What stood out though was Miki, another bot, who is a bit naïve and calls humans friends.  It adds something new to a plot that we’ve come to expect in this series.  Still, I really liked it, finding it fast and engrossing, despite feeling like I’ve been through it before.

In this book, Murderbot decides to go to a planet that failed to be Terraformed by the big corporation that was involved with its horrific past.  So once again, it must find a way onto a ship to get it there. This time, it hides on the ship trying not be discovered.  On the ship, it meets Miki, a petbot as Murderbot calls it.  Murderbot is able to befriend it and convince it that it’s been put on the ship as additional security but no one must know it’s aboard.  That plan falls apart when the ship arrives and the people and enhanced humans investigating the planet are attacked by military bots and Murderbot kicks into rescue mode.  Now they all must try to survive and find a way off this apparently booby-trapped planet.

While Murderbot is still interesting and still surprising itself with its drive to save humans that aren’t its clients, Miki steals the show.  As mentioned above, it’s naïve and loyal to the humans it works with.  It’s like a pet that’s never been abused or a child that’s never been taught to be wary of strangers.  Everyone is a potential friend, and Murderbot convinces Miki to be its friend.  But through this friendship, Miki’s character develops in surprising ways.  All the human characters in this book are just secondary to Miki and his relationship with Murderbot.

What I didn’t like about the book is that it felt a little formulaic after the previous book.  The details were different, but the basic premise is the same.  Fortunately, it’s the details that keep the book very readable, fast-paced, and engrossing.

Despite my complaint, I give the book four stars out of five.  If I awarded half stars, I’d give it 3.5 because it’s a little less than the last, but better than the first.  But I’m really enjoying this series.  I like the characterization, particularly of Miki, the dense, technical prose, and the action.  I’m going to read book four after another book, just to have a bit of a break.


Friday, April 23, 2021

Stormsong

CL Polk
Completed 4/23/2021, Reviewed 4/23/2021
4 stars

This is the second book in the Kingston Cycle.  The first was Witchmark which I read last September.  While it wasn’t that long ago, I had forgotten many of the details.  Fortunately, this book tells you about what happened in the last one, and does so throughout the story without a lot of into dump.  I found this book a little tougher to get into than the first one.  It didn’t grab me as quickly in the beginning, but nonetheless proved to be quite a page turner after all.  It followed Witchmark’s main character’s sister as she becomes Chancellor finds herself in a convoluted mess of politics.

As with all series, the plot summary of this one has spoilers of the previous book, so be forewarned.

With the evil power grid of the Aeland destroyed, the country must face the consequences.  Winter is coming, people are cold and out of work, and the souls of the dead are roaming the streets.  Grace Hensley is a weather mage and daughter of the former, now imprisoned, Chancellor to the Queen.  In fact, the whole cabinet, powerful mages known as the First Ring, is imprisoned for their crimes from the last book.  A storm has just destroyed the last of the harvest and now a monster storm approaches.  Grace together with the Second Ring of mages hold off as much of the monster storm as they can, but it still drops three feet on the countryside.  For this and her dedication to the throne, the Queen makes her Chancellor.  Now as the voice of the throne, she tries to do her job, protect Aeland from the weather, deal with the Amaranthines who have come from Solace to hold Aeland accountable for its war crimes, and try to overturn the witch oppression laws.  And there’s a murder mystery in the middle of it was well.

There’s a lot of politics in this book.  It put me off in the beginning as the first hundred pages is the setup for it all.  It’s a slow burn and a little dry.  And I was disappointed that Miles, the main character from the first book, wasn’t the main character here.  But Grace proved to be just as appealing.  She was born to succeed her father as Chancellor and it shows.  She has a good, strong head on her shoulders, but doesn’t know exactly who she really is.  This causes her to doubt herself and her decisions.  The book is her journey of self-discovery as she deals with the chaos that is Aeland.  Miles does appear in the book as a secondary character, as does his partner Tristan.  But this is Grace’s story.  And she does get to have a love interest, Avia, a photojournalist who is trying to figure out the connection between the power grid, the invasion of the spirits, the witches, and the Amaranthines.  

I liked this book a lot, but not as much as I loved the first book.  As I noted, the beginning was tough for me.  I also thought the romance between Grace and Avia was not done as well as Miles and Tristan’s in the first book.  It didn’t feel like an integral part of the main story, which was the politics.  There are some pretty awesome scenes though, my favorite being when Avia shows up at the New Year’s Eve ball in a suit rather than a gown and dances with Grace.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  I really liked the last two thirds of it, having a tough time putting the book down for simple things like eating and going to the bathroom.  The ending wraps some things up, but has more of a cliffhanger ending than the first book.  I didn’t mind though because I have the third book and will be reading it very soon instead of waiting eight months.  


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Artificial Condition

Martha Wells
Completed 4/21/2021, Reviewed 4/21/2021
4 stars

This is the second book in the Murderbot Diaries series.  It’s another novella, as was the first one, All Systems Red.  That book I didn’t care for, but this one, I loved.  Like the first, it’s fast, taut, and really well written.  It’s told in first person by Murderbot.  It starts out a little slower than the first and for some reason that engaged me more than the high action opening sequence of the first book.  I guess it gave me time to finally settle in with the main character.  This book won the Hugo for the novella category in 2019.

The book begins with Murderbot sneaking aboard a human-less transport to try to get back to the mining planet where it supposedly murdered a large number of humans in an attempt to figure out why it did it.  Its memory has been wiped, so it’s trying to piece together the past.  Aboard the transport, it is befriended by the ship’s primary AI, ART, much to Murderbot’s consternation.  But it eventually trusts ART and together they come up with a plan to get it to the planet.  It involves getting a security job (it once was a Security Unit) in order to obtain access to the planet.  Murderbot gets a job protecting some former subcontractors trying to get their data back from a shady mining company.  It leads to some pretty great action, as well as back to the site of the original murders it committed.

In the first book, I didn’t care for Murderbot.  It’s rather misanthropic, despite being compelled to protect humans.  It would rather watch soap operas than be around humans to begin with.  But this time I really got into Murderbot’s personality as ART tries to befriend it.  ART brings Murderbot out of his comfort zone a bit, and Murderbot introduces ART to the joys of soaps.  

I was also less perturbed by the jargon the author throws around in her prose than in the first book.  Despite it being two years since I read the first book, I found myself pretty comfortable with the it.  It’s rather hard science fiction writing but it’s very well done.

I really don’t have that much else to say about the book, it being only 158 pages.  If I say to much about the details of the plot or the other characters, I would be giving away spoilers.  Suffice it to say it’s well-paced, well-written, and introspective.  I give this book four stars out of five.  I’m looking forward to reading the next two novellas, culminating in a Hugo and Nebula nominated novel.