Thursday, April 30, 2020


Elizabeth Bear
Completed 4/27/2020, Reviewed 4/27/2020
3 stars

This book is a good example of terrific world-building with a convoluted plot.  Bear created a fantastic new world called New Amazonia where women run everything and men are divided into studs, for breeding, or gentles, for serving.  She also evolved Earth into New Earth, a post-apocalyptic world where humans created an AI called the Governors which then culled most of population because they did not possess the correct behaviors or made the right choices.  Most of the people of the Northern Hemisphere were eliminated.  New Amazonia is one of the planets people fled to before the second culling.  Despite this awesome setting, Bear created a story of espionage and double-crossing that was very hard to follow.  So, I didn’t really enjoy that part.  Nonetheless, this book was nominated for several awards, including the Gaylactic Spectrum Award.

The story is about Vincent, a diplomat and spy, and Michelangelo, his bodyguard, who is basically also a spy.  They have been lovers for forty years, though they have not seen each other for the past seventeen.  Their new mission reunites them.  They are sent to New Amazonia to bring them under the influence of the Coalition, which are planets in league with New Earth and its Governors.  Their cover is that they are there to recover some art.  On New Amazonia, they have to deal with differing sects, assassination attempts, the fiercely independent controlling government, and general political intrigue. 

The characterization wasn’t too bad.  Vincent and Michelangelo aren’t too badly developed, though at times, I couldn’t tell the two apart by their dialogue or interactions.  One nice thing about them is that this is not a romance; it’s simply about two characters who have been in love for forty years. 

The women on New Amazonia all kind of bled together, except for Lesa Pretoria, a high ranking official with whom the two men stay with for most of their time on the planet.  It took me most of the book to get the others straight in my head.  I really didn’t feel too much for any of the characters.  It’s not that they were cardboard.  It’s just that the dialogue didn’t give you much feel for the emotions of any of them.  They were all either rather stoic, or simply one-dimensional.  I’m not exactly sure which.

One thing I liked about the characters is that they were mostly non-white, as most of the survivors of the Earth’s first culling were from the southern hemisphere.  I also liked that Vincent and Michelangelo were at least sixty years old, but still considered middle-aged and had the physicality of middle-aged men. 

There were some great details to the world building.  There were the wardrobes, the outfits that the two lead men wore.  They were like AI clothes, with temperature control, sun screening, self-healing and body function monitoring, and could render you invisible.  Also interesting were the women’s pets/companions, the Khir, which were sort of a highly intelligent dog type creature.  Though what they really are is a bit of a mystery and is part of a big reveal in the end.

So those were things I liked.  What I didn’t like was the main plot and the dialogue.  Both were very convoluted.  The plot, I never really got all the politics and double-crossing.  I was able to follow the basic idea and had to let go the things that didn’t make sense.  It did more or less come together in the end, but I felt like I definitely missed a lot of the intrigue.   I think part of it had to do with the dialogue.  There was not much direct dialogue.  Everyone spoke subtly and in riddles.  It was further complicated by the long prose which often interrupted each speaker’s thought.  In one extreme example, one character begins speaking.  Then there were three paragraphs of prosy internal thoughts.  Then finally, the end of the what that character was saying.  It was very difficult to follow. 

I give this book three stars out of five:  four stars for the world-building, two stars for the plot and dialogue.  I have been hit or miss with this author, more miss than hit.  I don’t think I’ll be reading much more of her.  The only reason I have read as much as I have is because she has been nominated for many LGBTQ+ awards, though I don’t believe she has ever won one. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Dark Water’s Embrace

Stephen Leigh
Completed 4/24/2020, Reviewed 4/24/2020
5 stars

This was a really terrific novel.  It was really well written.  It delivered quite an emotional punch and I could barely put it down.  It’s rather complex, with multiple story lines played out simultaneously and changing voices.  But I had no trouble following it.  It follows the descendants of nine stranded space explorers on a distant planet called Mictlan.  One of the descendants is a hermaphrodite and their mere presence throws the colony into disarray.  At the same time, it tells the story of the beginning of the end of the indigenous population two thousand years prior to human’s arrival.  It won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 1999.

The story begins with the discovery of a bog person, that is, the well-preserved remains of an indigenous sentient being on Mictlan, called a Miccail.  Anais is a doctor and is doing a forensic study on the remains.  She finds that the Miccail is a hermaphrodite, and seems to have been ritually killed.  Anais herself is a hermaphrodite, but identifies as female.  She feels that fate is slapping her in the face, bringing her this being at a time when she questions her own identity.  Rumors fly quickly throughout the small colony, and the big one is about Anais’ physiology as well as her sexuality.   You see all emphasis in the colony is on reproduction.  All women are expected to bear lots of children.  But there’s something about the planet, as well as the lack of genetic diversity, that causes miscarriages, high infant mortality, and deformities.  So the mere fact that Anais is basically celibate and possibly lesbian brings the angry focus of the colony onto her.  Their punishment for members of the colony who bring disruption is shunning, basically exile.

In parallel with this story is the tale of the Miccail hermaphrodite, known as KaiSa (Kai being their name and Sa indicating that they are the third gender).  The KaiSa is a member of a holy community which facilitates reproduction of the Miccail.  However, the leaders of one of the provinces of Mictlan are quickly invading its neighbors, with the aim to take over the world.  They have a special distaste for the Sa and believe they are interfering with reproduction, not facilitating it.  KaiSa’s mission is to try to broker peace with the invaders.

The story is complex; the book has a neat form that makes following it very easy.  All chapters told in first person are labeled “Voice” plus the name of the character speaking.  All chapters told in third person are labeled “Context” plus the name of the character whose action is being described.  All chapters about KaiSa are labeled “Interlude: KaiSa”.  Lastly, there are chapters labeled “Journal Entry: Gabriela Rusack” which are, well, journal entries of one of the original nine colonists who was shunned by the colony for being lesbian.  Together these chapters weave the dramatic tale of the fate of Anais, the colony and the Miccail.

The characterization is tremendous.  By changing the first-person perspective to tell the narrative linearly, we get a deep understanding of what makes many of the characters tick.  There is only one character I would call one-dimensional, that is Dominic, an elder who is violently pressing for Anais’ shunning.  But the four main characters, Anais, Elio, Maire, and KaiSa are all very well developed. 

The world building is also tremendous.  The Miccail society is expertly fleshed out by the KaiSa narrative.  We learn of their world, their religion, their sexuality, and their struggles.  It’s a very complete picture of an alien society.  And the author uses ke/ker as pronounces for the third gender which was very easy to follow.  Of course, this book is over twenty years old, so it is before the current use of xe/xer, or the use of third person plural pronouns.  The structure of the colony, known as the Rock, is also well developed.  It does help with both worlds that the author provides a brief glossary of terms at the beginning of the book. 

I give this book five stars out of five.  It really packed an emotional punch for me.  The sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia make it extremely uncomfortable, and more importantly, horrifying.  I identified deeply with Anais, Elio, and Maire, again, by virtue of the quality of the characterization.  There is a sequel which I may have to pick up simply because I so loved the characters and the world that Leigh created.  I believe this book and its sequel are out of print, but they are available in e-format. 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Flesh and Gold

Phyllis Gotlieb
Completed 4/22/2020, Reviewed 4/22/2020
2 stars

This was a confusing jumble of aliens and subplots.  It’s kind of a murder mystery, kind of a noir, kind of a space opera.  I had higher expectations of this book as it is written by a woman considered to be the Grande Dame of Canadian Science Fiction.  On top of that Ursula LeGuin was a first reader and wrote a high praise blurb for it.  But I spent most of this book trying to figure out who was who, particularly, who was really an undercover agent.  I thought the writing was passable and the world building insufficient for the number of alien races presented.  All in all, a disappointing read.

The plot surrounds the intrigue of cloning slave races and the smuggling of them to different worlds.  The story begins with Skerow, an alien described by earthlings, “Solthree” natives, as a streamlined baby allosaurus.  She is a judge who is put on a case in the last minute.  After she delivers her verdict guilty, she is nearly murdered, and nearly murders her attacker.  In the meantime, she comes across a creature, sort of an amphibian-Solthree hybrid named Kobai in a tank outside a shop.  Kobai screams at Skerow that she’s going to take revenge on Nohl for capturing her and selling her.  Moved by compassion, Skerow vows to find out who this Nohl is, bring him to justice, and free the slave. 

Then the plot gets really confusing.  An undercover agent named Jacaranda is in a brothel owned a prostitution/gladiator/gambling mogul named Zamos.  The brothel has acquired Kobai.  Jacaranda is assigned to seduce Kobai in the tank where she’s being held, for public entertainment purposes.  However, they release a killer sea creature and Jacaranda is killed.  There’s another undercover agent named Ned Gattes who knew, maybe was partners with, Jacaranda.  He’s assigned to get to the bottom of the murder, I think.  Well, he’s posing as a gladiator, for entertainment purposes.  There’s another guy, Lebedev, who might also be an undercover agent, working as a dealer at one of Zamos’ casinos.  I think everyone is trying to bring Zamos down and/or get to the bottom of the cloning of races for slavery.  So yeah, I’m not really sure exactly what went on.  Most of what I was able to figure out was that nearly everyone is involved in uncovering this slavery ring and trying to not get killed in the process.

Besides the confusing plot, I thought the world building was not sufficient to help me differentiate all the races involved.  There are a lot of characters from primarily three or four different worlds.  It became more confusing to me when there was travel between worlds.  I was confused by who was what type of alien, where they were, and what their home planet was.  In terms of the worlds, what I got out of it the most was that they had differing levels of oxygen, requiring some races to take oxygen tablets.  I felt that if this was a movie or a TV series, it might work better, because there would be more visuals to help you identify the different alien races.

Needless to say, I didn’t like this book.  I’m giving it two stars out of five because at least there was a lot of good intent, it was just poorly executed.  This is the first book in a trilogy, and I have really no desire to read the rest of the books, or anything else by this author.  Someone would have to really talk up one of her books before I tried another one.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Destroying Angel

Richard Paul Russo
Completed 4/20/2020, Reviewed 4/20/2020
3 stars

This is a cyberpunk murder mystery set in the near future.  It takes place in a decrepit San Francisco about mid-21st century.  The best thing about this book was that there wasn’t a lot of jargon and the number of characters wasn’t astronomical, like the last cyberpunk book I read.  The worst part of the book was that it had no tension, no development of or insight into the character of the killer.  The main narrative follows the ex-cop named Tanner who is tracking down a lead into the identity of the killer.  A secondary narrative follows a street punk named Sookie who for some reason begins to follow Tanner.  We get nothing on the killer until the very end.  I was bored by the lack of tension and action, but still impressed that what was there was written pretty well.  This book was nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke Award back in ’93. 

Bodies are found at the bottom of bodies of water in the San Francisco area with shackles grafted to their wrists and chained together in pairs.  Wings are tattooed on the inside of their nostrils.  This modus operandi is identical to several murders from about two and a half years before.  It looks like the serial killer who was responsible for the first set of murders is back in action.  Tanner, the ex-cop who is now a smuggler, decides to help the police force by investigating the only lead he had with the original murders, a note sent by a crime lord named Rattan claiming to know the identity of the murderer.  Tanner spends most of the book trying to find Rattan.

Sookie sees the extraction of the first bodies from the bay in the new series of murders.  She also sees Tanner watching the scene.  Later, she runs into Tanner while he is in the Tenderloin searching for Rattan.  The Tenderloin is the most dangerous part of future San Francisco.  She begins to follow him around.  During one of her excursions, she ends up in something called the Core, where she actually meets some strange entity who might be the killer, though nothing really comes of it.  In the meantime, she helps Tanner out of a tight situation or two and warns him of the danger of looking for Rattan.

I found it interesting that the characters of Tanner and Sookie were pretty well developed.  We get a lot of back story on Tanner, mainly his loves and the tragedies in his life.  We know what drives him.  Sookie on the other hand, has no back story.  We don’t know her motivation.  But we learn a lot about her by following her around as she follows Tanner.  I kind of liked both Tanner and Sookie.  I felt like I got into their heads pretty well.

I give this book three stars out of five.  Overall, the book is highly readable.  It is very well written.  Unlike many science fiction murder mysteries I’ve read, it’s pretty straight forward.  But it falls flat in that there is very little action and no interaction with the killer.  We are so focused on Tanner looking for Rattan that we almost forget about the killer.  We only find out about him in a big reveal at the end. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Callahan Touch

Spider Robinson
Completed 4/18/2020, Reviewed 4/18/2020
4 stars

This book is about a bar where strange and magical and science fiction-y things happen.  It’s a new bar, Mary’s Place, which evolved out of the remains of Callahan’s, a bar that was at the center of the first five books of the series.  It’s a place where the regulars are like family.  Having been sober for twenty-eight years now, it brings up memories of the sort of place I was always looking for in a bar, but never found in reality, a place where you could go on a bender for a week with no repercussions.  The reality is never as pleasant as the fiction, and of course the only magic that ever happened to me was that I made it home alive every night.  Aside from the grim realities of addictive drinking, this fantasy was very enjoyable, once I got the form of the book down.  It’s really just a setting for long short stories about random strange happenings, comradery, music, and lots of bad puns. There’s no real plot, and when I accepted that, the book opened up into a pretty fun romp.

The setting is the opening night of Mary’s Place.  Only the old regulars from Callahan’s are invited, but of course, other people show up.  First, a new guy appears who it eventually turns out had magical parents.  Then, another man comes in who wants to kill himself because he believes he created the AIDS virus.  He feels responsible for the death of millions, as well as his lover.  It becomes the job of the owner Jake and several of the regulars to talk him down.  Then, a being from Irish legend, a cluricaune, shows up and absorbs all the alcohol in the house.  A cluricaune is mischievous fairy with a tremendous love of drinking that haunts pubs and wine cellars, sort of like a drunk leprechaun.  Then (I know I’m using “then” a lot), after a few days of continuously being open and constant drinking by the patrons, more people show up and music spontaneously erupts.  Jake the owner eventually takes the stage and brings down the house.  A random person enters the bar with a bass guitar and begins playing and singing harmony with him.  Jake falls for her and tries to get to know her, but she has her own issues.  Amidst all this, Jake’s Macintosh randomly turns on, even though it’s not plugged in, as if it were haunted, and gives advice to Jake and the patrons.

It is like a collection of short stories or novelettes within a common setting.  In past novels, the original bar was visited by aliens and other strange creatures.  It was destroyed by a small nuclear bomb used to kill hostile invaders.  Mary’s Place is the successor and continues to have strange things happen.  There is no real overarching plot.  It is just a series of events.  Once I realized there was no plot, I was able to take the book at face value.  It does come across as a sounding board for the author’s inclusive point of view, with gay, lesbian, and African-American characters.  But he makes it enjoyable and interesting. 

I read this out of order because it had a gay character in it, the man who believes he unleashed HIV upon the populace when he was experimenting with a malaria cure using green monkey blood.  There are also lesbian regulars at the bar.  I included it in the LGBTQ resource list on Worlds Without End, and wanted to verify that it belongs on the list.  It was only nominated for one award, the Aurora, a Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy award.  It is highly entertaining, a fun read, and at times, very heartfelt.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s got a warm casualness to it.  It does not come across as preachy despite the plethora of author’s opinions that come through.  It’s really well written with nice prose and believable dialogue.  The characters that are featured are nicely developed, and Jake the owner is particularly well-fleshed-out.  Many of the regulars had been featured in previous books in the series, but you don’t have to have read them to get a feel for them.  This book is quite stand-alone, as it brings you up to date without too much exposition.  It’s an easy and enjoyable read. 

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Kingdom of Gods

NK Jemisin
Completed 4/17/2020, Reviewed 4/17/2020
5 stars

This is the third book in Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.  It follows Sieh, one of the godlings from the first two books, about one hundred years after the second book.  I found this installment just as awesome as the other two.  The only negative I have for it is that it is a tad too long.  Overall, the pacing was really good, but during the third part (out of four), I thought it lost some steam.  It does pick up in a powerful ending, however.  Based on this series and her award-winning Broken Earth trilogy, I’d say Jemisin has become one of my favorite authors.  I’m really looking forward to her Dreamblood duology.

Sieh, the oldest of the godlings, is now free from slavery by the Arameri family.  He is the god of children, mostly appearing as a ten-year-old himself.  He is also the trickster.  Despite his disdain for the Arameris, he still sometimes goes to their palace atop the World Tree, known as Sky.  One day, he happens upon two children, Shahar and Deka.  Over the course of several years, they become friends.  One year, they decide to cement their friendship with a blood oath.  They slit their hands and grasp them together.  Something terribly explosive happens, putting all three in comas.  Shahar and Deka do wake up with some wounds, but Sieh wakes up a mortal.  Shahar it turns out is the heir to the Arameri throne.  As punishment, Deka is sent away to scrivener’s school to learn magic, far from his loving sister, which is her punishment.  Sieh, suddenly an adolescent, stays in Sky, where he tries to figure out how to become a god again and stop the aging process. 

In the meantime, people in the court are showing up dead.  Their bodies are found with masks on.  It is unclear how the masks entered Sky, and who got these people to put them on.  Foul play from one of the kingdoms is assumed, as the Arameri family have many enemies.

This book has a lot more substance than these two plot lines.  Eventually, the three main gods come into play, as well as some of the lesser godlings.  Deka eventually comes back as a powerful scrivener to support his sister.  The murder mystery blows up into a nefarious plot to overthrow the Arameri that involves the three friends and many other characters.  It becomes complicated, but not convoluted.  I found the plot and subplots pretty easy to follow. 

I really loved Sieh.  He’s pretty morally ambiguous, protecting children, but at the same time, willing to kill someone he thinks is human trash, or worthy of death.  He’s the narrator in first person.  Given his loves, hates, and prejudices, he may not be so reliable a narrator.  Still, we really delve deep into his psyche, learning what drives him to think and act as he does.  Besides being friends with Shahar and Deka, he falls in love with them, complicating their relationships and the story as a whole.  Sieh is one messy godling who’s turned into a messy mortal.     

I really loved Jemisin’s writing in this as well as the whole series.  I thought her prose was great and the dialogue was always realistic.  I thought the characterization was great as well.  None of the characters were cardboard cutouts.  Even the godlings who have only limited scenes are realistic.  This may be because we were introduced to most of them in the previous books. 

I give this book five out of five stars.  I think it’s a terrific ending to the series.  I was deeply emotionally invested in the main character throughout the book, even during the slow part.  Initially, I wondered why the third book had to be so long, but most of it was really necessary.  She covers a lot of territory as Sieh grows from adolescent to old man, while only ten or so years pass for everyone else.  So the book is about growing up.  And it is also about loneliness as Sieh struggles with his love for Shahar and Deka.  I’m still amazed that these are the first three books Jemisin wrote.  I think they were all awesome, but this one grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go until the amazing apocalyptic end.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Martian Chronicles

Ray Bradbury
Completed 4/13/2020, Reviewed 4/13/2020
5 stars

I first read this book in high school.  I think it was my second adult science fiction novel, after “2001: A Space Odyssey”.  I couldn’t believe how good it was.  It fit into the paranoid apocalyptic vision I had of the world, that is, leaving Earth for Mars because of the possibility of atomic war.  I read it again about fifteen or so years ago.  I had a better appreciation for science fiction at that point, but still hadn’t read any other Bradbury.  Again, I found it a brilliant collection of short stories, creating a depressing vision of the future.  Now, I’ve read it again, this time as an ancillary book for book club, sort of an ad hoc selection of a few people online looking to read something while our original April selection is postponed until the pandemic is over.  For a third time, I loved it.  I have read some Bradbury since, mostly short stories.  I love his short stories.  I think that’s where Bradbury really excels.  And to have a collection of short stories woven into a pseudo-novel is Bradbury at his best.

The book recounts America’s attempts at colonizing and settling Mars.  One could call to mind the discovery and settling of the New World while reading this.  There are multiple attempts before people survive on the Mars, the indigenous Martians are wiped out by a virus, and then it is settled like the Old West.  All this is done under the shadow of atomic war.  It should be noted that this book was first published in 1950.  So we had just come out of World War II and were entering the Cold War.  There is definitely a ‘50s feel to the novel.  In that way, it’s pretty dated, particularly with his treatment of women.  They are all housewives or sex objects.  The towns that spring up all have a “Leave It to Beaver” feel to them.  In terms of race, the only African-American characters are in the story where all the black people leave to go to Mars.  It is chock full of racist epithets used by the racist white people in the story.  This story was censored from the latest edition because of the language.

The form of the books is like a journal, or well, chronicle.  The stories are headed by dates.  It takes us from 1999 to 2026.  (In a more recent edition, the dates were advanced to be “in the future” again)  There are short stories and these are connected with very short entries of a page or less.  Sometimes there’s one, sometimes two of these really brief passages.  It’s a really clever way to create an overarching narrative for short stories that are only mildly connected.

I can’t say I really liked many of the characters.  They are mostly good examples of colonization mindset that settled the New World.  The characters are unsettling at best (hmm, I guess pun intended).  There’s one story, “--And the Moon Be Still as Bright”, concerning the fourth expedition, where most of the men on the spaceship are raucous idiots, shooting up the abandoned Martian cities, abandoned due to the unintentional genocide.  There’s one character, Spender, an archeologist who has respect for the remains of the Martian culture, who goes nuts because of his conflict with his idiot crewmates.  He’s somewhat likeable, despite how he acts out.  There are also some characters in later stories that are almost likeable, but they are pretty sad people.  It makes the whole novel a particularly sad, emotional affair. 

I give this book five stars out of five.  I felt really emotional while reading it, feeling everything from anger to frustration to despair.  It’s probably not a great book to read if you are feeling down from being in isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, which we are in as of this writing.  But I do think it’s pretty brilliant, especially for its time.  One could probably argue that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series is better, but I would argue it’s a whole different beast, written when we know more about Mars, and lots more about sending lots of people into space.  Despite feeling pretty down at the end of the book, I’m pretty happy to have read it a third time, something I probably won’t do with Robinson’s books.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020


Deborah Christian
Completed 4/12/2020, Reviewed 4/12/2020
3 stars

A very convoluted, complex, action cyberpunk thriller.  Not exactly my cup of tea.  I read this book because it is on my LGBTQ+ list on Worlds Without End, and I am trying to read all the books I put on that list to verify if I should keep it on.  The main character is a bisexual assassin who has the ability to see a myriad of timelines emanating from the present.  The premise is great, but the author has so many subplots to support the ending that it was too complicated for me.  And I’m not one for cyberpunk.  I like it as a film genre, but as a book genre, I tend to get lost very quickly.

The basic plot is that Reva, the assassin, meets up with Lish, a smuggler.  The two become friends, something that is quite rare for Reva because she is typically a loner.  On a previous assignment, Reva blew up a boat to get her target.  There is only one survivor, the desert-world alien body guard known as Yavobo.  He vows revenge upon the culprit for not allowing him to fulfill his oath to his employer.  He finds out it’s Reva and the hunt begins.  In the meantime, Reva does not want to jump timelines anymore because it might nullify her relationship with Lish.  She doesn’t want to accidently jump into a timeline where she and Lish are not friends, because she doesn’t know how to get back to the mainline.  But as the powerful Yavobo pursues completion of his blood oath, Reba just may have to make a jump to save herself and Lish, just as they come to very close to being more than friends.

There are several other subplots in this story.  Lish double-crosses another smuggler to get his valuable shipment, the way she’s been double-crossed before.  However, this smuggler has close ties with a major crime lord who puts a hit out on Lish.  In the meantime, Reva and Lish are infiltrated by a security spy trying to bring down Lish, and now that he knows the identity of Reva, bring her down as well.

This book is mostly an action-thriller novel.  There’s very little character development.  I felt that all the characters were pretty cardboard.  Despite the friendship between Reva and Lish, we really don’t get to know much about their inner workings, other than that Reva is a cold loner who usually doesn’t get close to people.  We also get a little of her childhood as she discovers her gift for timeline jumping.  But that’s about it.  I never really felt connected to either.  I did like Yavobo the alien.  I think it was because he was so single minded.  He added a straight-forwardness to the convoluted world.  I also liked Vask, the infiltrator.  For some reason, I felt like he got to have emotions as he comes to like and care for Lish and Reva despite his mission to bring them down.

The world-building is really great, I have to admit.  The world that this takes place on is a mostly aquatic world with water-breathers.  All the trade with the merchants and smugglers has to do with the water-breathers.  There’s also a subplot to smuggle whale-like creatures from another planet into this world.  However, the creatures will starve from not being able to process nutrients from the indigenous food from their new home, unless they get a vital enzyme imported and administered.  That was interesting and ties in to Lish’s smuggling adventures. 

The part I didn’t like was that there was a ton of jargon which I didn’t really get.  I had a vague understanding from the context, but I felt like I was missing an awful lot of the intrigue going on because I didn’t get the lingo.  This happens a lot with me and cyberpunk novels.  There’s also a lot of secondary characters in this book, too many for me.  Between the lingo and plethora of characters, I had a hard time keeping track of everything. 

I give this book three stars out of five, a rating I think I give often to cyberpunk novels.  They just don’t do anything for me.  I recognize that the world-building is great, and the premise is great, but I think the execution suffers.  I do think this would make a good movie.  In fact, it is written with lots, like almost 150, very short chapters, a lot like the quick takes of fast paced action films.  I also think I’m going to take this book off the WWEnd LGBTQ+ list because the bisexual content is so small.  However, I won’t be making an update to the list probably until next year, so if you decide to read this book for the LGBTQ+ challenge, it will still be there this year.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Bending the Landscape: Fantasy

Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel, eds.
Completed 4/9/2020, Reviewed 4/9/2020
5 stars

This is the first of three volumes of short stories with gay and lesbian characters and or themes.  The other two are for Science Fiction and for Horror.  I read Bending the Landscape: Horror several years ago and really liked it.  This one, however, was tremendous.  Not all the stories are perfect.  In fact, a couple are duds.  But overall, this anthology hits the mark almost every time.  Some stories are traditional European-like fantasies with magic and wizards.  Others are urban fantasies, some are ghost stories, and the rest are non-traditional in some way or another.  I can’t put it any better than the quote on the back of the book: BTL:F “demonstrates that gender and orientation can be used to create spectacularly imaginative plots and rich works of fantasy”.  This book won a World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology and a Lambda Literary Award for Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror, both for 1998.

There are twenty-two stories in this anthology, nineteen of which I liked, loved, or went ecstatic over.  Here’s just a few that were notable:

Frost Painting – an art critic goes to North Dakota to find her artist lover who seems to have joined an artists’ community, or perhaps a cult.  When she finds her, the artist claims that aliens or something have come down and are directing them to paint landscapes.  Not landscapes on canvas, mind you, but painting on the landscapes, creating amazing, gargantuan images in nature.  Of course, the critic doesn’t really buy into this. 

Gary, In the Shadows – this one is a real gut-wrencher.  Sean is a college student who meets and falls in love with a young hustler named Gary. Gary falls in love with Sean, but continues to hustle.  After the two of them stop a gay bashing incident, Gary disappears.  Sean continues to feel his presence for years after.

Water Snakes – two tween cousins staying at grandma’s for the summer wonder about the two old women living together across the street.   Jeff thinks they’re witches.  Peggy doesn’t know what to think.  Jeff becomes obsessed with them and one night convinces Peggy to sneak over to their house and spy on them.  What they see terrifies Jeff, but Peggy gets it. 

The Sound of Angels – two women who have been partners for many years have a device that lets them experience each other’s feelings.  One is dying.  She sends her partner on a ferry to Orcas Island to intercept a pod of Orcas which whom she has had a connection since she was young.  The dying woman can once again commune with the Orcas, the other feels the pain of her lover dying.

Beside the Well – Lo Yi is the second wife to an abusive slob with an equally abusive mother.  The mother pays homage to the dead First Wife seemingly in honor of her.  Lo Yi resents this, but then communes with the spirit and finds out the truth of her death.

The Home Town Boy – a successful gay sociology professor is called back to his home town by the sheriff who was his primary bully growing up.  Of course, the town itself was no place to grow up gay.  Now, it seems that the townsfolk are eating at a diner and becoming immortal.  The diner was owned by a Native American woman who was on the short end of a lot of discrimination herself.  Now she’s dead, and the sheriff enlists the professor to get to the bottom of this phenomenon.

I give this anthology five stars out of five, even though a few stories were only two or three stars.  I give it a five because overall, the stories tugged at my heartstrings or got me in the gut at some level.  It isn’t often I have such a strong emotional response to a collection or anthology, but this book was something special.  The prose was consistently top-notch.  Interestingly enough, the traditional fantasy stories seemed to be the weakest ones. 

Now I’m waiting anxiously for the science fiction volume to arrive. 

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Carhullan Army

Sarah Hall
Completed 4/6/2020, Reviewed 4/6/2020
4 stars

This is one of the best dystopian novels I’ve read in a long time.  I thought it was very well written and nicely paced.  It’s about a woman who trades life in the oppressive near-future northern England for an almost equally dystopian women’s commune somewhat hidden in the hills.  I don’t remember how many chapters there are but it’s divided into four basic parts:  the escape, the arrival, life in the commune, and the end.  Each part seemed like just the right length to keep the novel moving without going too fast or too slow.  I liked that the commune she runs to isn’t the utopian ideal as in several of the books I’ve read, especially the older ones.  It’s just as dark and gritty as the place she escaped from.  This book was nominated for the several awards, including the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for positive depictions of LGBTQ+ characters or themes in science fiction and fantasy and won a British award for literature by an author under the age of 35.

The story begins with the main character, known only as Sister, leaving her husband.  They lived in a something like a boarding house in a town in northern England, a country deep in an undescribed crisis, at war, and under the control of something called the Authority.  No one has money, everyone has horrible jobs that support the war effort and the faltered economy, and child birth is controlled by the insertion of a device in all women and only removed if they win a national lottery.  Sister has been dreaming of going to Carhullan most of her life, a women’s commune that gained some local press years ago.  Of course, it was seen by men as everything from a communist cult to a lesbian coven.  She decides to escape to Carhullan after her relationship with her husband collapses and she loses her tolerance for the rule of the Authority.

Once there, life’s not everything she built it up to be.  In fact, it has its own dysfunctional leader, complete with a militia and punishments.  Despite her let down, she eventually blends in and is happy.  But soon things change and once again, Sister is faced with a decision to leave or to fight for what she believes in.

I really liked the development of the plot.  As noted above, it seemed to be just the right pace to provide details of Sister’s life before, at her arrival, during, and at the end of Carhullan, and still keep the story moving.  Life in Carhullan is unfolded evenly throughout.  It doesn’t get weighed down in the middle with a bunch of anecdotal passages.  And of course, there’s a lesbian relationship in the story.  It’s not the crux of the story, but adds dimension to the main character. 

The book is told in first person by Sister.  Her character is well developed.  So is Jackie, the leader and one of the cofounders of Carhullan.  She’s unstable, but not a cardboard caricature of dysfunction, which is pretty refreshing.  We also get to know one of the militia members, Megan.  Though only fourteen years old, she adds depth to the militia, rather than being just a group of warmongers. 

What I like the most about this book was the Carhullan wasn’t a utopia.  A few years ago, I felt like I went through a spate of books with women’s utopias.  Several were older books, and of course it took the appearance of men to save them from some issue.  This dystopian society was much more credible.  Life was tough, but everyone was willing to give it their best shot.

I give this book four stars out of five.  The only thing I didn’t like about the book was that there was no humor in it.  It’s very dark.  But the darkness gives it an immediacy that kept me reading to the end. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Broken Kingdoms

NK Jemisin
Completed 4/5/2020, Reviewed 4/5/2020
4 stars

This is the second book in Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.  In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the action took place in the palace atop the exceedingly tall World Tree.  This book takes place in the shadow of the tree.  It follows a blind commoner who can see magic and interacts with godlings.  I liked this book a little better than the first.  I think it’s better written and delves more deeply into the religion and mythology of this world.  It’s also a murder mystery.  The first book was nominated for a ton of awards.  This one wasn’t, but it should have been.

The blind commoner is Oree.  She’s an artist living in the Shadow of the World Tree.  She meets a mysterious man who is dead in the marsh, but he mysteriously resurrects.  Against her better judgement, she brings him home and cares for him.  He doesn’t speak but does her no harm.  She calls him Shiny because sometimes he shines with magic, which she can see.  One day, while selling her paintings at the city market, she finds a dead godling in an alley.  Her ex-lover Madding, also a godling takes the body away.  However, the next day, the Order, a sort of police force that maintains the law and morality, comes to question Oree.  They sense her innate magical sight and try to take her away.  Shiny comes to rescue, killing three of the Order, but not the captain.  Shiny and Oree escape, but live on the run.  More dead godlings are found.  Soon the two of them are not just trying to hide from the Order, but also trying to find out who is murdering the godlings. 

Two of the main gods, known as The Three, put out a moratorium on finding who is committing the murders.  While Oree is a prime suspect, so is Shiny, Madding and several other godlings.  Their investigations bring them face to face with dangerous cults who don’t worship the Skyfather.  Soon the real question becomes whether or not gods, godlings, demons, and humans should interact at all.

The book is told in first person by Oree.  Despite being blind, she sees a lot because of all her interactions with godlings, demons, and their magic.  Of course her other senses are accentuated as well.  Through her, we learn a lot about the pantheon and life under the world tree.  I think she is better crafted and developed than Yeine, the main character from the first novel.  She seemes much more real.  However, like Yeine, she spends a lot of her time angry, particularly at the injustices of the Order and the madness of the cults, but it wasn’t quite as overwhelming as Yeine’s constant anger.  It was a lot more natural and flowed with the unfolding of events in the book.

The other characters are pretty well crafted as well.  Shiny is great, as he lurks about, gets attacked by the Order, and kicked around by godlings, always resurrecting when someone goes too far.  I really liked Madding too.  He’s Oree’s ex, but she still goes to him for support.  He’s a pretty kind, compassionate godling, even though he makes his fortune in the black market selling godling blood to humans for a taste of their magic and strength.  The “evil” characters are morally ambiguous in the beginning, and only one turns very evil at the end.  It was actually nice to have this ambiguity instead of straight-out badness, adding a bit of realism to the characters.

The writing is really tremendous with equal doses of prose and dialogue.  Even when we get info dumps, it doesn’t feel forced.  It fits right into the plot at that time.  The world-building is simply marvelous, adding a whole new dimension to this place we were introduced to in the first book. 

I give this book a very strong four stars out of five.  This trilogy is imaginative and interesting.  Jemisin is incredibly creative.  This being only her second novel, it just floors me.  I should get to the final book in this series in about a week or two.  It’s a long one, so it might be a few weeks before you see a review of it, but I’m really looking forward to see how she concludes it.  The nice thing about the books so far, is that they are stand-alone stories with the world-building advancing, not unlike Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods series.  The books don’t end in cliffhangers, which I really like. 

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Falling to Earth

Elizabeth Brownrigg
Completed 4/1/2020, Reviewed 4/1/2020
4 stars

This was a really tough review to write, not because it’s a bad book.  On the contrary, this is an interesting and entertaining little fantasy.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  The writing is pretty good for a first novel.  It was tough because it’s such a short book.  To describe the plot gives away a lot, that is, it can be a big spoiler.  So I’ll do the best I can.  The author hasn’t written much since this book, which is too bad.  I felt that the imagination that went into this was great.  It was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in 1999, but it is currently out of print, as far as I’ve found.

Here’s my attempt at the plot summary.  Phoebe is the guardian angel to Alice, a lesbian technical writer who is not out at work.  She asks Alice to write stories for her.  At first Alice refuses, but then becomes intrigued as Phoebe starts telling the stories.  As time goes on, the stories unfold, and Alice and Phoebe begin learning from each other.  Alice learns to fly and Phoebe learns about her senses.  But does Phoebe really want to be human?

The real surprise of the book is the stories Phoebe tells.  At first, they seem extraneous, but as the book progresses, so do the stories.  It’s kind of like reading a novel and several short stories simultaneously.  They all tie together in a sort of meta fashion towards the end.  It wasn’t exactly surprising, as I kind of guessed it, but the way it comes together is pretty smart.  The short stories are about an African-American drag queen, a poor, white, racist family, and a woman who makes story boxes about her life and the lives of her friends.  Each one is like a little gem set in the larger context of the story of Phoebe and Alice.

Phoebe and Alice are wonderful characters.  There’s a lot of character development despite the length of the book.  Alice is particularly interesting as she is closeted at work, but has an active life in the lesbian community outside of work.  However, the conflict of this double life is clear as she reflects on her last relationship.  Phoebe is interesting as she slowly becomes less ephemeral and more substantial.  Also of note is Blanche, the racist woman, as she develops a casual relationship with an African-American man, and Jo-Jo the drag queen who started life wanting to be a nun.

The ending is a little esoteric.  Initially, I thought it ended too abruptly.  It took me some time to absorb what actually happened, and then I was able to appreciate it.  Of course, I can’t go into it, but it if you read this book, I highly recommend that you take the last ten pages slowly, then sit with it for a few hours afterwards. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I think it’s an underappreciated little gem.  It’s written well with decent prose and realistic dialogue.  It’s not been widely read, and doesn’t have much love on Goodreads, and I think that’s a shame.  If you can find a copy of this book, it’s well worth your time.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

NK Jemisin
Completed 3/31/2020, Reviewed 3/31/2020
4 stars

This is my fourth sojourn into the mind of NK Jemisin, the first three being the Broken Earth trilogy.  What strikes me the most about her work is her imagination.  Even though the basic plot of this book has been done before and since, that of the outsider who finds themselves suddenly heir to a throne, it’s the rest of the book that I find fascinating: the world-building, the characters, the religion.  Just like Broken Earth, it’s familiar, yet very different from anything I’ve read before.  This book was nominated for many awards back in 2011, though it only won the Locus First Novel Award. 

Yeine is a leader in her own kingdom when she is summoned to the city called Sky.  There she finds out she has been named heir to the throne over all the kingdoms.  This is fraught with danger, though, as there are already two other named heirs, against whom she must play a dangerous political game to survive.  Once at Sky, she meets her other distant relatives and most importantly the gods and godlings who also play political games of their own. 

The plot is actually very difficult to describe in much more detail than I gave above.  In a way, there really isn’t that much plot.  The book is mostly about relationships, with her two devious cousins who are the other heirs to the throne, and with the gods and godlings who make up the pantheon of this world.  These gods are condemned to human form as the result of the Gods’ War some two thousand years earlier.  They have powers, but are not as omniscient as you would think.  One of the main gods known as the Three, Nahadoth, has a major role in Yeine’s time at Sky.  He is a god of darkness and shadow.  He is a seducer and destroyer.  He is an antithesis to Itempas, a god of light, and victor of the Gods’ War.  The third of the Three is Enefa who created the material world and is a god of the grey.  She is dead, but has a cult of followers who are considered blasphemers. 

Nahadoth has the largest role of all the gods in Yeine’s experience at Sky, despite being an untrustworthy ally.  He is also perhaps the most interesting character in the book, full of contradictions and surprises.  I really liked him.  He is dark, devious, sensual, and powerful.  But he also has a soft spot which becomes evident in his relationship with Yeine.  I also like one of the godlings, Sieh, who has the human form of a child, which makes for a very complicated relationship for Yeine.  He’s very mature, but at the same time, plays the role of a ten-year-old in most situations.  When he reveals his affection for Yeine, it is both interesting and a bit repellant.  Yeine herself is a complicated character, full of anger towards her grandfather who sits on the throne.  She blames him for the death of her mother, and hates him for putting her in a no-win situation as the third heir to his throne. 

The world building, as you can tell from the pantheon alone, is quite complex.  There is an interview with the author in the Kindle version I have, and she says that her ideas for a book begin with images, like Sky, a city built high atop a narrow column, and Nahadoth, the god who is made of darkness and shadow.  You can basically tell this when reading the story, as the images are very strange and detailed. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s incredibly imaginative, even though the plot is a basic trope of speculative fiction.  It’s more about alliance building and enemy making.  I plan on reading the rest of the trilogy, as I got the three books of this Inheritance Trilogy, as well as Jemisin’s Dreamblood Duology from the Kindle Deals of the Day.