Monday, July 22, 2019

God’s War

Kameron Hurley
Completed 7/21/2019, Reviewed 7/22/2019
4 stars

I was really surprised by this book.  It had just the right amount of plot progression, character development, and action to make it a fast-paced, exciting read.  It’s about a planet with an Islam-like religion.  This is a big difference from your run of the mill science fiction or fantasy where you have a very European-like world with a Pagan-like pantheon, or even something that resembles Christianity.  Two nations with some differences in their interpretation of their holy text are at war for so long, no one remembers the cause.  It makes for some terrific world building and characters.  I really enjoyed this book and was able to read it in two days while recovering from a slight back injury.  It was nominated for a slew of awards, including the Nebula and the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards.

I’ve described the setting.  Now for the plot.  Nyx used to be a sister of the Bel Dames, a group of women who hunt down and assassinate deserters from the war in one of the previously referenced countries.  Now she’s a bounty hunter, taking any job she can get.  Of course, she has enemies, including some of the Bel Dames, and Raine, a bounty hunter under whom she originally worked.  Out of the blue, she’s called for a job by the Queen.  Her task is to recover a missing alien who holds the secret to a possible end of the war.  But the job is not easy, between her enemies, the scorching desert, and the mutated insects. 

Yes, I said mutated insects and they are controlled by magicians.  Nyx has a team put together, including her own wizard Rhys, but he’s not very good and he’s a deserter from the other side to boot.  Rhys can sometimes control these insects, making wasps or giant cockroaches swarm.  There are also giant carnivorous centipedes and beetles that squirt acid.  There are some that are tame, like lightning bugs which power lamps, other insects that run cars, and yet others that are used in the healing arts.  It’s not really discussed how these insects came to be, but they round out this harsh and unique world that Nyx and Rhys inhabit. 

The characters are pretty well drawn.  Nyx, being the main character, is the most fleshed out.  In her country, women run just about everything, since all the men go to war when they’re young and most don’t make it out alive.  Even in her land, Nyx stands out as a rough and tumble, self-made, bisexual woman.  She was also a boxer, a sport for women in this female dominated society.  The rest of the team is also well drawn.  The only cardboard characters are the villains, but they are deliciously evil.  Rhys provides an interesting juxtaposition to Nyx, being much more religiously conservative, as his whole nation is compared to Nyx's.

This book is the first in a series, though it comes to satisfying conclusion.  I don’t know if I’ll get around to reading the rest of the series any time soon, but I would be open to it.  I give this book four out of five stars.  The world building is pretty unique and the plot moves along at a good pace.  I would recommend this book to someone who is looking for something a little different from the usual science fiction/fantasy adventure.  Sure, the whole assassin or bounty hunter thing has been done before, but not in quite this pseudo-Middle East setting.

Saturday, July 20, 2019


Annalee Newitz
Completed 7/20/2019, Reviewed 7/20/2019
3 stars

This book was nominated for three awards, including the Nebula, and won the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror.  It’s received rave reviews.  My expectations of the book were fairly high.  It began well, but quickly became a fairly average chase through the world of biotech hacking.  It has robots, an antihero, and everyone is both a little good and a little bad.  It didn’t become a slog to read.  It just wasn’t that exciting. 

Jack Chen is a female pirate in the pharma world.  She reverse-engineers medication, makes her own from the formulas, and sells them cheap to the poor.  Sort of a Robin Hood pharmacist.   One of the drugs she has recreated makes people love their work so that they are more productive.  The side effect is that it causes people to become addicted to it.  They become obsessed with their work, often killing themselves from lack of food, drink, and sleep, and sometimes taking other people down with them.  Jack feels guilty, but also angry that the side effects were never published by the manufacturer.  She decides to figure out an anti-addiction drug to cure people of their highly addicted state.  Because of the deaths, the government is stepping in to try to capture Jack.  They send Eliasz, a man, and Paladin, a gender neutral robot, to track her down.  Most of the book is about the two trying to track Jack down while she tries to elude them on her way to finding the cure and giving the manufacturer its just reward for making such a terrible drug.

The plot sounds really exciting from the summary.  I think the problem was the writing.  It didn’t take me to any action nor provide me with any suspense.  Even the subplots did not draw me in.  One of the biggest disappointments was that Eliasz falls in love with his robot sidekick, but is afraid of his feelings because “he’s not a faggot”.  Jack’s history as a subversive, anti-patent activist is kind of interesting.  In her past, we find out she’s bisexual, falling in love with other activists as they work against big pharma.  But even her story is kind of lackluster.  Again, I think it’s the prose.  It simply didn’t grab me.

There’s another interesting subplot which isn’t explained very well.  This is the near future, and it appears that global warming has made the arctic habitable.  A lot of the action takes place in the far northern Canadian city of Yellowknife.  We also find out that there are levees and pumps to keep the water out of midtown Manhattan.  But there’s no emphasis on any of these.  Lastly, Jack travels around the northwest passage in a submarine.  That in itself should be intriguing, but she ditches it early on to travel by land as she tries to elude her would-be captors.

I give this book three stars out of five.  It was okay, but I think the author could have used a lot better feedback to get the story pumped up more.  It’s a shame because there were so many good ideas in here.  It just wasn’t executed well.  I think it won the Lammy for its representation of Jack as bisexual, and for the genderless, borderline transgender, portrayal of Paladin.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Rule 34

Charles Stross
Completed 7/17/2019, Reviewed 7/17/2019
4 stars

This is a sort of sequel to Halting State, a book I read several years ago for book club and didn’t enjoy.  What annoyed me most about that book was that it was written in second person present and had an awful lot of gamer jargon in it, most of which I didn’t understand.  This book is similar to Halting State in that it’s also written in second person and has a lot of computer and cop jargon, much of which went over my head.  But upon rereading my review of Halting State, I found I liked this book for many of the same reasons I hated that book.  Whereas I slogged through the first book, here I ate it up, finding it a quick exciting read.  And it was nominated for a Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2012 for positive LGBTQ content in genre fiction, as well as for a slew of other science fiction awards.

The story begins with Liz Kavanaugh in Edinburgh, Scotland, one of the cops from the first book, working in Rule 34 Squad, monitoring the internet for people engaged in illegal activities.  She gets assigned to a suspicious death and soon finds that it is just one of several suspicious deaths that all happened around the same time.  In the meantime, Anwar Hussein, recently out of prison, happens upon a job as an honorary emissary for a new Asian republic that has declared independence from Kyrgyzstan.  But the job doesn’t appear to be what one would think a consulate employee would do.  Coincidently, Liz collared Anwar in the fake ID scam that landed him in jail.  Lastly, there’s John Christie, aka the Toymaker, who, also coincidently, was going to do business with the first murder victim, which puts him on Liz’s radar.  But are there really coincidences, and do all these things add up to some more nefarious internet scheme?

So yes, the book is written in second person present.  Unlike the first book, I found it easy to keep my head in the characters.  The point of view changes with each chapter, but for some reason, I kept the characters clearly delineated.  The jargon was also pretty overwhelming, but I was able to stick with it and got the gist of what was going on.  Lastly, the use of Scottish words like “nae” and “ken” was a bit confusing, but I was able to handle that as well.  Somehow, I hit the tipping point of understanding this book whereas I didn’t in its predecessor. 

At its core, this book is a police procedural.  It’s gritty and complex.  It’s set in the near future.  Despite the self-driving cars and the internet glasses with terrific download speeds, you get the feel that this could be happening today. 

For me it was the characters that made this book.  I really like the hapless Anwar.  Everything was always going wrong for him.  Yet he was likeable in his schlemiel-ness.  He’s a closeted gay man who’s married to a woman and has two children.  He does programming on the side for his brother-in-law for a sketchy dating site.  And he simply has a propensity towards making bad choices.  What’s not to like?

I give this book four stars out of five.  I read it voraciously, even though it was difficult reading.  I don’t know if it was actually written better than the first book, or if I was just in a better mindset for multi-character second person perspective.  It just struck me as a much better book even though I still had to work hard at keeping up with the jargon.  I think maybe too the characters voices were better than in the first book.  And lastly, I might have had a better perspective myself going into this book because I saw the author at Westercon a few years ago and he was a hysterical panelist. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The War of the Ring

JRR Tolkien
Completed 7/14/2019, Reviewed 7/14/2019
4 stars

It’s been over a year and a half since I last read a book in the History of Middle Earth (HoME) series.  So it was time to pick up the next in the series, the eighth.  “The War of the Ring” is also the third in the subseries of the History of the Lord of the Rings.  This book was a tougher start than most of the other books in this series that I’ve read.  I had a lot of trouble getting back into the swing of the purpose and format of the book.  It was probably because this book begins with the conclusion of the battle of Helm’s Deep and it had been so long since I had read the beginning of it.  Nonetheless, I eventually got into the rhythm of the book and settled down into a week and half of heavy but informative and interesting reading.

This book takes us through the second half of The Two Towers and the first half of TheReturn of the King.  It follows Frodo and Sam from their meet up with Gollum and goes through their confrontation with Shelob.  Shelob was initially Ungoliant, the ultimate evil spider from the The Silmarillion and other HoME books.  Instead Tolkien chose to make the spider one of Ungoliant’s children.  As always, this book is filled with origin texts and manuscripts, so we get a lot of the development of the characters, the plots, the dialog, and the world-building.

We also spend time with the rest of the Fellowship, in Rohan and Gondor and along the way in between.  We are introduced to Faramir, who initially is not Boromir’s brother.  But as Tolkien writes the text, it just appears that he is Boromir’s brother and he becomes an important part of the plot.    Eowyn shows up from the Rohan parts of the story.  Initially, a romance was supposed to blossom between her and Aragorn, as there is still almost no mention of the existence of Arwen.  She was also supposed to die in the original drafts, but Tolkien changed his mind, as he did so much during the development of the book.  A lot of time is also spent on the palantirs.  It took a while for Tolkien to figure out just what these seeing stones did and didn’t do. 

Christopher Tolkien spends a lot of time on the geography and chronology that his father struggled with during the writing of LOTR.  Some of that got quite boring, particularly the dates.  But it showed me how much effort his father took in getting the internal world-building right.  This is most evident in the depiction of the phases of the moon.  With the breakup of the Fellowship, it was important that when references to moon were made that they were internally consistent based on how many days away they were from each other.  The geography changes also got a little tedious.  The names of the locations changed a lot, just as they did in the development of the First Age in the early books of the HoME series.  And their positions on the map changed quite often.  I can see how Tolkien was so concerned with the minutiae of his world that every detail be just right.  It makes one wonder how Tolkien ever got anything published, let alone this epic tale of fifteen hundred pages.  It also makes one realize why he never published “The Silmarillion” in his lifetime.  He included so much detail in his original world that he could not get it just right. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  Once again, I followed the book along with most of the discussions by The Tolkien Professor, Corey Olsen, and it really helped me understand and appreciate the book more than I think I would have just reading it alone.  And once again, I only recommend this book for the die-hard fan who is interested in a detailed behind the scenes look into the world of Middle Earth.  I’m still really enjoying it and look forward to the conclusion of the Lord of the Rings subseries in the HoME series.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Saturn Run

John Sandford and Ctein
Completed 7/4/2019, Reviewed 7/5/2019
3 stars

I was worried about reading this book club selection because it sounded like space opera.  It turns out it wasn’t exactly space opera.  It was more like a spaceship captain’s log with character development.  The narrator is third person omniscient, and the perspectives are from a multitude of characters.  But it generally had a dry reporting style, even during the few exciting scenes.  I didn’t dislike the book, and in the end, I finally felt immersed in the world and the people.  But it was slow going through most of it.

The story begins with the discovery of an object approaching Saturn and slowing down.  Natural objects don’t slow down, so it must be an alien spacecraft.  Further analysis reveals it has stopped in one of the gaps in Saturn’s rings.  The object leaves shortly afterwards using antimatter propulsion.  It’s discovered that some alien artifact remains in the ring gap.  The US decides to build a spaceship to travel to this location and meet the aliens, or whatever is there.  They try to keep it under wraps, but everyone else also sees the antimatter trail.  China decides to retrofit a Mars colony ship for a journey to Saturn, and the race is on.  The tale is about the Americans’ journey there and their confrontation with China when they arrive. 

As I stated earlier, the book reads like a captain’s log, or a combination with an engineer’s entries.  There’s lots of hard science, and there’s a fair amount of character development.  There are a lot of characters and the author does a pretty good job of developing them in between the hard science.  What’s really missing is action.  It begins with some excitement, but the rest of the first half or so reflects the drudgery of a long space mission.  That’s where the hard science comes in.  The authors spend a lot of time explaining the physics of the different aspects of space flight and life in space.  If you are not scientifically oriented, this could be a slog.  Even I found it slow-going.  But it was still readable.  I simply felt like nothing was happening for the majority of the book.

Finally towards the end, when we reach Saturn, things begin to happen.  But even here, the book was rather slow paced.  And again, the journalistic style of the writing was a little dry.  This book is touted as a science fiction thriller, and thrillers are what Sanford is known for, but it’s not really much of a thrill ride.  It feels simply like someone is reporting the events to the reader.  Interestingly enough, there is a reporter and a cameraperson in the American crew, though the story is not their reporting.

The characters were pretty good.  There are some stand-outs, like Becca Johansson, the brilliant engineer with a forceful personality that she developed so people would take her seriously.  Sandy Darlington is the cameraperson, who on the surface appears to be a slacker surfer dude waiting to inherit his family’s massive fortune, but hides a secret that gives him much more substance than he incites.  The book has a good female/male balance where there are almost no issues of sexism, although there is a pool to guess when Sandy, known for his sexual appetite, beds the reporter he works with.  Once the ships get to Saturn, we are introduced to some Chinese characters as well.  At first, I was concerned that introducing so many new characters at the end of the book would be overwhelming.  But it turned out that only a few of them took the forefront and their names were different enough to easily differentiate between them. 

I give the book three stars out of five.  I think I could have given it four stars if there was a little more going on throughout the book, rather than keeping it all for the end.  Perhaps my expectation for a book by an author known for his thrillers (Sanford) tainted my enjoyment of it.  Overall, I’m glad I read it and would recommend it to people who aren’t afraid of a little, ok, a lot, of science.