Monday, September 28, 2020


Gregory Benford
Completed 9/28/2020, Reviewed 9/28/2020
2 stars

I did not enjoy this book.  It’s classified as hard science fiction, and yes, it’s very hard.  The author goes into excruciating detail about tachyons, hypothetical faster-than-light particles, used to communicate across time.  The book is generally about the scientists from the future attempting to send messages to scientists from the past to get them to do something to avoid an ecological collapse.  But what I felt this book was really about was scientists and their lives inside and outside the lab.  According to this book, it’s not usually pleasant.   There’s in-fighting, jealousy, power struggles, and many problems at home.  Despite this book being published in 1980, it felt more like a book out of the golden age of science fiction, with its racism, sexism, and homophobia.  These are relatively mild except for the depictions of women which are so 1950’s.  This book won the Nebula, British SF, and Campbell Awards.  It was not nominated for a Hugo.

The plot follows two timelines.  The first is 1998 where several scientists at Cambridge are sending signals in the form of Morse Code via tachyons to the second timeline, 1962 (18 years to and from the book’s publication date).  In 1998, there is an algae bloom rapidly spreading in the ocean due to certain long chain molecule pesticides and the destruction of the rain forests.  The message they are sending to 1962 contains details of the pesticides and warnings about what their effects will be on the future.  They are also trying to get funding to maintain their experiments at a time when scientific funding is hard to come by as it is being diverted to fight the ecological disaster.  In 1962, one scientist and his grad student at UC La Jolla discover these messages as interference in their own experiments, but their department head doesn’t believe in it.  The two continue gathering and studying the messages despite being warned to abandon the task and focus on eliminating the noise from their original experiment. 

I liked the basic gist of the plot.  It’s well-conceived and not badly executed.  I actually found the writing to be quite good.  I may not have enjoyed the content, but I thought it was written well.  What I didn’t care for were the subplots, particularly those revolving around the relationships of the scientist, almost all of whom were white men, and their wives, girlfriends, or sexual partners.   The wives of the British scientists were good, long-suffering housewives.  The live-in girlfriend of the American scientist came across as somewhat liberated considering they weren’t married but she was also a Barry Goldwater supporter.  There were a few women scientists, one in 1962 and one in 1998, but only the latter was featured enough to know something about her, that she was bisexual with stereotypical butch tendencies.  The worst subplot followed the despicable Ian Peterson, the government guy directly responsible for deciding the funding for the 1998 project.  He believed every woman was fair game, including the wives of the scientists he was working with. 

That brings me to characterization.  This was interesting because even though there was a lot of background given for Peterson and the main scientists, I didn’t feel like I got to know any of them.  Renfrow and Bernstein were tortured and for that matter, kind of whiny.  Bernstein has perhaps the fullest background, complete with Jewish mother and goy girlfriend conflicts.  I didn’t empathize with either one, although in the beginning, I came close with Bernstein.  I’ve already described Peterson and the women characters, all basically very cardboard. 

The racism is one incident, but it’s there and pretty offensive.  One of the main characters sees a black man hanging around people (presumably all white) waiting for a bus in the rain and the character assumes, in this case rightly so, that he’s a pickpocket.  Granted, there were probably extremely few black people in academic circles in La Jolla in 1962, but there are also none in 1998 in England or California.  The homophobia was quite stereotypical as well.  Besides the butch bisexual women, one of the characters makes reference to how all waiters are gay.  Well, at least the author didn’t comment on limp wrists and swishing behinds.  Still, ugh.

I give this book two stars out of five.  Just because the writing is decent and the science is detailed doesn’t make a book good.  I need to have engaging characters.  I need to find the subplots interesting.  I’d rather have no references at all to blacks and LGBTQ characters than offensive ones.  That way, I could have pretended that the author was writing in the 40’s or 50’s.  I can’t believe this book beat others like The Snow Queen and Shadow of theTorturer for two of the aforementioned awards.  After reading this book, I’m not likely to read anything else by Benford. 

Friday, September 25, 2020

A Spectral Hue

Craig Laurance Gidney
Completed 9/22/2020, Reviewed 9/22/2020
5 stars

When I began this book, I was a bit disoriented.  I loved Gidney’s Sea, Swallow Me and was fully expecting to love this one.  Expectations ran high.  To my dismay, it started a little slowly.  The book is told from multiple points of view and it took me quite a few chapters to really get what was going on.  Then the plot started to sink in and I got it.  I got the layers of meaning, the smart prose, and the colorful characters.  It all wove together into a terrific, non-traditional ghost story, using artistic obsession as its medium.  This book was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in 2019. 

There’s a museum in the tiny town of Shimmer, Maryland that features quilts, paintings, and assorted other forms of art by people who were not trained artists.  The quilts were made by a young slave woman, the paintings by a drifter with a skin condition, bottle art by someone living off the grid of the 1950s, etc.  All the art pieces have a common color in them, a purplish-pinkish hue.  The people who created the art were all obsessed with their work and this color.  People who see the art are affected in different ways.  Some see nothing but amateurish drivel.  Some see the beginnings of a modern art movement.  A select few see a magic and become obsessed artists themselves and it all points to something in the marsh that surrounds the town.

As I noted above, there are a number of characters through whom the story is told.  Xavier is a grad student who comes to Shimmer to study the quilts.  He first saw one of the quilts, made by Hazel the young slave girl, at a party and became obsessed with them.  Linc is a young gay former crystal meth addict who was kicked out of his home.  He drifts into Shimmer and becomes a janitor at the museum.  Iris was a psychic since childhood, seeing spectres and auras.  She lives in Shimmer, her ex-partner having passed away about a year before.  All these people come to experience the obsession with the art in one way or another.  There is another voice, that of the spectre itself, only known as Fuchsia, who seems to be the source of the obsession.

The character development is quite good for such a short novel.  It’s only 177 pages, but we get a lot of personality out of the characters.  In addition to the characters noted above, we also find out a lot about Hazel through the narration by Fuschia, learning how she deals with being a slave and how she comes to make the quilts. 

The book also deals with race, sexuality, and slavery.  Most of the main characters are black and gay or lesbian.  It’s not pronounced, but racism and homophobia are part of some of the characters’ experiences.  The characterization is subtly written with passing references to things like physical features and gaydar.  More dramatic is the story of Hazel’s enslavement, though she has “kind” owners who don’t whip their slaves at the drop of a hat or cut off fingers or limbs.  They “only” box their ears, sell their children, and beat them when the master’s drunk. 

I give this book five stars out of five.  I really empathized with the characters, feeling their growing compulsion to create.  I especially felt this with Iris and Linc’s stories, although I wish got more of Linc.  His story enthralled me the most, finding it an intense ride.  I loved Gidney’s descriptions of the creation of the art by the different main and secondary characters.  And I love Gidney’s writing.  His prose is spare, but he creates vivid images of the people and their art.   I think you have to read this book slowly because you don’t want to miss any of the words.  It took me about as long to read this book as the it did the last one which was a hundred pages longer.  The beginning is a slow burn, but then I didn’t want it to end.  I just wanted to savor the experiences of the creation of art and the passion of the people. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Lesson

Cadwell Turnbull
Completed 9/20/2020, Reviewed 9/20/2020
4 stars

I found this book by a recommendation of an author I follow on Twitter.  I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it.  It’s a first novel by an African-American native of the US Virgin Islands.  His previous works were short fiction pieces, a few of which have been included in anthologies, including Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019.   It has strong prose without being pretentious.  It has a fairly large cast of characters, much like a disaster movie of the ‘70s – well not that many, but the plot follows quite a few characters to tell the story.  It’s short, but packs a big punch with the horrors of colonialism and slavery as themes.  It wasn’t nominated for anything, but received a lot of good press, and I expect to see very good things coming from this author in the future.  I think he’s one to follow.

The story takes place on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.  In the very near future, an alien craft comes to earth and hovers above the island.  The aliens say they’ve come in peace, wanting to give us new cures for diseases and new technologies in return for peaceful cohabitation.  However, when someone crosses an alien, it quickly and mercilessly kills that person.  This causes misunderstanding and heightens tensions resulting in more violence.  Mera is the Ynaa ambassador to Earth.  She has been around a long time, posing as a slave and after emancipation, as a healer.  Now that the full contingent of Ynaa have arrived, she acts as an intermediary with the people of St. Thomas.  She hires Derrick, a local young man, as her secretary.  With the rise of violence and misunderstanding, Derrick is believed to be a traitor by the locals.  The story follows his childhood friend and one-time girlfriend Patrice and the members of both of their families from the few weeks before the Ynaa arrival to five years later.  It also gives us vignettes of Mera’s previous time on Earth in the 17-, 18-, and 1900s. 

The characterization is pretty good considering the number of characters and the shortness of the book (barely 290 pages).  I felt I could empathize with most of the characters, particularly Derrick, Patrice and her father Jackson.  Jackson is a teacher who retires after the arrival of the Ynaa.  He and his wife Aubrey split and Aubrey falls in love with the local veterinarian Alice.  While Aubrey has moved on with her life, Jackson struggles to find meaning and direction in his.  Mera the alien ambassador is a bit wooden, but it works in that she’s trying to maintain emotional distance from humans, and also because there’s a sort of wooden way she and the other aliens walk and move.  The aliens wear a mask of human features, but can generally be picked out of a crowd by the way they walk. 

The story is really gripping.  It starts with a brief introduction of the major characters in their lives right before the invasion, then jumps to five years later when tensions are high and humans have been murdered after attacking the aliens.  Even with the bouncing timeline to give Mera’s background on Earth for the past couple hundred years, the author maintains a brisk pace and the tensions increase. 

The metaphor for colonialism is pretty obvious, sort of the way District 9 was an obvious metaphor for apartheid.  But it works well, particularly as the author goes back to a slave revolt during the Dutch occupation of the island in the 1700s.  It also calls to question the morality of working with the occupiers in the character of Derrick who is Mera’s secretary.  He took the job because it was high paying and because he was infatuated with this first contact.  But is he the traitor that everyone says he is.  Even his grandmother kicks him out of the house for getting too close to Mera.  He’s sort of like the tax collectors of Roman-occupied Israel in Jesus’ time. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I think it’s a terrific first contact novel with a different setting in a culture we have too little exposure to, considering it’s part of the United States.  I think the book is well written and pretty imaginative.  In the acknowledgments, Turnbull says that he was a kid with lots of strange ideas.  After reading this book, I’m hoping he gets to write down more of his strange ideas. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay


Michael Chabon
Completed 9/19/2020, Reviewed 9/20/2020
4 stars 

I didn’t think I’d like this book because I disliked his Hugo and Nebula winning The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.  What I disliked about that book was the prose.  It was overwrought and pretentious.  I had similar feelings with this book.  I found the prose often interfered with the story telling and dialogue, going off on tangents to provide color or context to a thought or scenario.  It still felt pretentious, but not quite as overwrought.  I thought the story was much more interesting and I was able to retain the thought or statement that was interrupted by the prose.  In high school, I went through a phase of reading a lot of Jewish-American literature as introduced by my senior year English teacher.  I loved Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth especially.  This book was right up my alley of this genre.  Speaking of genres this book was nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2001 and won the Pulitzer for 2000.  It’s not science fiction or fantasy.  It’s more meta, being about comic books, sort of in the same vein that Big Bang Theory is about people who love science fiction and fanasy.

The story is about Josef Kavalier, a Czech Jew whose parents send him to America to earn money to get them out of their Nazi-occupied homeland.  After a harrowing escape, he comes to live with his aunt and cousin, Sammy Klayman, in Brooklyn.  Sam discovers that Joe is a talented artist and convinces him to collaborate in creating comic books, a new craze that’s sweeping the country.  They get a job writing a comic book at the novelties company Sam works at, after convincing the owners how lucrative it would be to get into the comic book business rather than just advertising in it.  The comic is a hit and they launch their new careers.  Then life happens:  Joe struggles to raise enough money to get his family out of Prague, he falls in love, Sam struggles with figuring out his sexuality, and the US enters World War II. 

The plot is quite massive.  It covers a span of twenty years with only one leap of years.  It goes back and forth in time to give background on Joe and Sam’s childhoods.  Joe was an apprentice escape artist and magician.  Sam had a distant father who was a vaudeville and/or side-show strongman.  When Joe comes in the US, he and Sam become instant friends.  Together they navigate the world of the late 1930s.  The story continues into the 1940s when Joe joins the navy and is stationed in Antarctica and Sammy gets married to a woman.  Then it leaps to the mid-1950s, with Joe having disappeared and Sam living a suburban lifestyle with a diminishing career.

The characterization is impressive.  I really liked the main characters, Joe and Sam.  I thought they were very well fleshed out.  Joe struggles with his guilt over leaving his family behind in Prague and not becoming instantly rich enough to get them out quickly.  He seems to love his new life, but never feels like he is home.  He falls in love with an artist he meets comically when he breaks into a friend of a friend’s drawing studio.  Rosa is one of the few female characters in the book.  She’s the only major one, besides Sam’s mother who only plays a prominent role at the beginning of the book.  Sam gets a lot of development as the brains behind the duo and as a closeted gay man trying to navigate pre-Stonewall era New York.

I give this book four stars out of five.  I was actually dreading reading this book because of my previous experience with Chabon and his haughty prose.  But I actually was able to get over it within about a hundred pages and found myself only slightly annoyed with it as the book went on.  I don’t know if I would have given it the Pulitzer, but I haven’t read any of the other nominees.  It’s a long book with a sprawling story; it’s over six hundred pages long.  I was captivated by the story:  does Joe get his family out of Prague, does Sam get a guy, do they win fame and fortune from their comic, does anyone live happily ever after.  I wasn’t emotionally devastated by the book, though I had empathy for the characters, perhaps because they were emotionally disengaged a lot of the time, as was stereotypical for men, particularly in the ‘30s and ‘40s.  I would have to say, though, I would give Chabon another chance and read more of his oeuvre, even though it’s not in the science fiction/fantasy genre, or even meta. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Courts of Chaos

Roger Zelazny
Completed 9/13/2020, Reviewed 9/13/2020
4 stars

This was a rousing conclusion to the Corwin Cycle of the Chronicles of Amber.  It had action, adventure, magical beings, and a dramatic ultimate scene.  The prose was a little more flowery, but still pretty tight.  All the characters were well established and acted in keeping with who they are.  My only complaint was that the pacing was a little uneven in the middle.  There’s a long set of scenes where Corwin has to journey from Amber to the Courts of Chaos.  He meets many magical beings, but in between these scenes, the descriptions of the lands Corwin was going through as well as his state of being got a little dry.  Otherwise, I really enjoyed this book and found the ending to be quite exhilarating. 

Warning:  Spoilers from the previous books follow!

The book picks up with Corwin back in Amber with his father Oberon back under the guise of Ganelon.  Oberon gives orders for all his children on what to do while he tries to repair the Pattern that Brand has corrupted.  The Pattern is the design from which all realities and shadows emanate.  Oberon offers Corwin the throne of Amber, but he refuses, realizing he doesn’t really want it anymore.  So Oberon sends him off to the Courts of Chaos to do battle using the Jewel of Judgement once Oberon is done with it in his quest to repair the Pattern.  Oberon believes whether he succeeds or fails with the Pattern, the task will kill him.  Corwin begins his journey, eventually receiving the Jewel from a red raven his father created.  Thinking his father failed, he realizes he must try to create a new pattern and return the universe to normalcy.

One of my favorite parts of this book was Corwin coming across the magical beings.  In one scene, he meets a cave of leprechauns who are about to eat his horse.  In another, he makes a staff from the talking tree named Ygg, an allusion to the Yggdrasil, the tree of life, of Norse Mythology.  Then he meets and accompanied by a talking raven named Hugi, an allusion to Huginn, one of the ravens of Odin, also of Norse Mythology.  I’ve always liked how Zelazny borrowed from different religions for his books, like Greek Mythology in This Immortal and Hindu and Buddhism in Lord of Light. 

I also liked the dramatic ending of the book.  I won’t give it away, of course, but I thought Zelazny’s descriptions were very vivid for the fantastical events that took place.  The action was tightly written as well. 

Overall, this series was quite a thrill ride.  There’s definitely a change in tone as the series progresses.  The first two books, Nine Princes in Amber and The Guns of Avalon, are very typical Zelazny.  The Sign of the Unicorn, however, is the book that feels different, becoming more philosophical in nature, and a little slower paced.  The Hand of Oberon continues this philosophical tone but picks up with the action and the tightness of the prose, continuing and culminating in this final book.  My understanding is that the second half of the Chronicles, the Merlin Cycle, again has a different tone and feel, it being published after a seven-year gap, between 1985 and 1991.

I give this book four stars out of five.  The book is a worthy conclusion to an amazingly complex and imaginative work.  I’m glad I finally read it.  I think I’m going to save the Merlin Cycle for next year, giving myself a break and a chance to be open to the differences in its tone and style compared to these books. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Hand of Oberon

Roger Zelazny
Completed 9/10/2020, Reviewed 9/11/2020
4 stars

The fourth book of the Chronicles of Amber was better than Sign of the Unicorn, the third.  It combined the action of the first two with the introspectiveness of the third.  It’s prosy but fast-paced.  A lot happens in this book, and the intrigue is fairly intense.  Many of things we learned in book three are corrected as more of Corwin’s brothers and sisters finally begin to talk to him.  And the intrigue surrounds the possible apocalyptic end of Amber.  I really liked this book and am looking forward to the conclusion of the Corwin Cycle of the series. 

Warning:  Spoilers from the previous books follow!

In the last book, Corwin, Random, and Ganelon find the primal Pattern on which all of Amber and the Shadows are derived.  They discover that it has been damaged and this is what has created the Black Road that allows the creatures of Chaos to come through.  The damage has been caused by spilt blood.  They conclude that it was the blood of Martin, Random’s son, because they find a tarot card with Martin’s picture on it with a dagger through it.  They also realize by the style of the card that it was Brand’s card.  Random and Ganelon go searching for Martin to see if he’s still alive and Corwin tries to find out how to mend the Pattern.  He goes back to the dungeon where he was once held captive, finds the design drawn on the dungeon wall and used by the sorcerer Dworkin to teleport.  Corwin goes through the design and finds Dworkin who is in a moment of lucidity.  He presses Dworkin to explain how to fix the Pattern.  It requires the Jewel of Judgement.  Corwin goes after the Jewel, hoping to get it before Brand who seems bent on destroying Amber and recreating it so he can rule reality. 

This book is definitely intense and very complex.  I’m grateful there was a detailed summary on Wikipedia to refresh my memory on some of the details.  The book’s strength is its prose, which is still very tight, even with all the exposition.  And despite being the fourth book in the Cycle, there’s still more character development of the secondary characters.  We finally begin to get a better feel of Julian and Fiona as they explain their roles in the intrigue surrounding Brand and Eric’s battle for the throne of Amber.  There’s also a big exposition by Martin who gives us the backstory on how he grew up away from the family and then stabbed by Brand. 

One thing I missed until I read the Wikipedia article is that Zelazny makes a cameo appearance in the book.  Corwin comes upon a guard smoking a pipe and writing a book.  As the guard describes the book, it sounds a lot like a general description of the Amber books.  I had gotten that part, but missed that the guard’s name was Roger.  I guess I was reading too fast.  In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious. 

I don’t have much else to add, as is common for me when I read a series, especially one as long as this one.  I’ll just say that I give this book four stars out of five and that I look forward to reading the last book today.  Then I think I’ll take a long break before I read the Merlin Cycle, which is the last five books of the series. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Sign of the Unicorn

Roger Zelazny
Completed 9/9/2020, Reviewed 9/9/2020
3 stars

The third book of Amber has less action than the first two.  It’s set up as a murder mystery.  It has a lot of explanations, conversations, and meetings.  I found it much slower paced and tougher to get into.  There’s a lot of tell me versus show me going on, and while it is written well, it didn’t have the excitement of the first two books.  The Amber universe is pretty much built, so there is not as much wonder.  The writing also did not seem as tight, a lot wordier in the expositions and ruminations.  I felt like Zelazny was much more introspective in this book, even being (comically) self-referential in one scene.

Warning:  Spoilers from the previous books follow!

With Eric dead from wounds acquired in the battle with the creatures of Chaos, Corwin has become the regent of Amber.  Life is still not easy for him, as he has found the body of his brother Caine, and feels that he is being set up for the murder.  He confides in Random, who gives us the back story of how he was living in a Shadow called Texorami when he received a cry for help from brother Brand.  Random went to save Brand, but was stopped by a dragon-like creature and spined human-like creatures.  Random escapes from them and hides with Flora and Corwin, as we had seen in the first book.  One of this type of spined creature is the same type that killed Caine.  Corwin gathers the remaining siblings and tries to rescue Brand, only to have him stabbed by someone as soon as they bring him back.  The siblings try to figure out who plotted Caine’s death and stabbed Brand, and possibly who killed their father Oberon.  

Although there is a lot of exposition in this book, it does provide some additional characterization.  Through it, we learn a lot more about Random and Brand.  We also get insight into Gerard during an altercation with Corwin and as he cares for the stabbed Brand.  We get a little more exposure to the sisters, but still not much.  I also felt like we lost Ganelon, Corwin’s sidekick.  He only has a few scenes, the largest of which is as a device to get Corwin to explain the complex line of succession of the siblings to the throne of Amber. 

In terms of wonder, there is one item that receives a lot of attention, the Jewel of Judgement.  It was worn by King Oberon, as well as by Eric when he claimed the throne.  Now Corwin has it.  Among its many powers is the control over the weather.  But sister Fiona warns Corwin that not all the powers are known and some are deadly.  It seems to be powered by the life force of the wearer, making people and things around him to appear to slow down.  It is said that when people turn to stone, the wearer is near death. 

I was a little disappointed with this book, perhaps because I’m reading the Corwin cycle consecutively and this book has a much different flavor than the first two books.  There are more dreams, visions, and traveling between Shadows.  I had trouble discerning these from reality several times.  And I had to read the last few pages twice to understand the setup for the next book.  Because of this as well as because of all the exposition, I give this book three stars out of five.  I’m hoping in the next book, the action picks up, now that this book has filled a lot of the knowledge gaps from the previous books.

Friday, September 11, 2020

The Guns of Avalon

Roger Zelazny
Completed 9/8/2020, Reviewed 9/8/2020
4 stars

The second book of Amber is almost as good as the first.  It has a little more exposition than I like, but overall, it delivered.  The writing is still tight, even during the exposition, and the imagination going into this universe is still impressive.  Corwin, the protagonist, is still believable as an average person despite being immortal, with relatable emotions and reactions.  He acquires a sidekick in this book and we meet a few more brothers.  The sisters don’t make a reappearance, but there are a few more women introduced.  I’m really enjoying the series so far and am glad I’m giving it a go.

Warning:  Spoilers from the previous book follow!

The book begins with Corwin sitting in the deepest dungeon and blinded by order of his brother Eric.  He spends four years, only getting out, cleaned up, and made presentable for Eric’s annual anniversary of his ascension to the throne of Amber.  During his fourth year, his eyes complete their regeneration and he tries to devise a plan of escape.  This plan accelerates when he’s visited by the great wizard of his father’s reign who is also imprisoned.  Through the wizard, he transports to a distant lighthouse where he receives hospitality and care from the attendant.  After rehabilitating for a while, he sails off for Avalon, one of the Shadows.  There he meets his brother Benedict and devises a plan to import guns from our Shadow using jewelers’ rouge since gunpowder doesn’t ignite in Amber. 

I really liked how this story continued.  It doesn’t start out happy and it doesn’t end happy.  It’s all rather dark.  The darkness is exacerbated by a menace growing in Amber and in many of the Shadows.  This Chaos was brought about by a curse Corwin placed on his brother Eric at the end of the first book.  So besides dealing with trying to gain the throne of Amber, he also has to deal with the monsters that are coming out of Chaos. 

There are some light points in the book, however, including meeting a kindly woman as well as a mysterious woman who seems to know a lot about Corwin.  There’s also the sidekick that Cowrin acquires, Ganelon, a man he exiled from Avalon when he lived there many years ago.  But time, like space, is fluid between Shadows, and Ganelon exists in this Shadow, a self-made man after Corwin caused him to lose everything. 

Considering there are five books in the Corwin cycle of the Chronicles of Amber, I don’t know how informative these next reviews are going to be.  In this book, the writing style and the characterization are similar to Nine Princes in Amber.  I expect the succeeding reviews are going to be shorter, mostly plot summaries and maybe some highlights of things I liked and didn’t like, if they are different from the preceding books.  This book I give four stars out of five.  Despite the couple of expositional scenes, the book is exciting and action packed.  The world-building continues to be excellent.  And I just really like Corwin. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Nine Princes in Amber

Roger Zelazny
Completed 9/7/2020, Reviewed 9/7/2020
4 stars

I really like Roger Zelazny.  Even when I don’t care for a book of his, I still like the writing and the imagination that went into it.  So it was high time I started the Amber series, his magnum opus.  This is his first book of the series and I wasn’t disappointed.  As I’ve come to expect, it features a main character who is heroic, or maybe a little anti-heroic, who may have great powers but also has an average person sensibility to him.  It also has the beginnings of great world-building.  The edition I have was only about 155 pages, and there are ten books in the series, so I realize that a lot more world-building will go on.  The writing, as always, is tight, and is generally dialogue driven. 

Corwin is a Prince of Amber, one of nine surviving sons and four surviving daughters of the last King of Amber.  The story begins in our world, though.  He wakes up to find himself with in a hospital with amnesia, though he remembers a terrible car wreck.  He’s told he has many broken bones and other internal injuries, but he finds he can walk around.  He forces his way out, with clothes, money, and a gun he’s stolen from the hospital accountant.  He also got from him the name and location of the person who admitted him into the hospital, a sister.  He goes to the house of his sister, Florimel, playing as if he knows who he is and tries to piece together his memory.  Then a brother, Random, shows up, and he gets more memory back.  He realizes he is a Prince, and in opposition to his brother Eric who will be ascending the throne of Amber.  As he remembers more, he realizes he must return to Amber to overthrow Eric.  But the question is how to do that.

Corwin is that every man but with special powers that Zelazny writes so well.  He’s a well-developed character that I empathize with, even though he’s not so squeaky clean.  He’s rather self-absorbed, smokes and drinks too much, and wants control of Amber as much as any other of his conniving brothers.  Yet he’s likeable and relatable.  I really liked the plot device of the amnesia, giving backstory on him without it feeling like exposition.  Random is pretty well-developed as well, I think because Corwin begins his journey to Amber with him.  Florimel on the other hand is rather one-dimensional.  Even though she is Corwin’s first family contact after the hospital, I didn’t feel like she was very real. 

Published in 1970, this book is a typical sausage-fest of the era, focusing on Corwin’s brothers.  They’re the ones who seem to have power.  We only meet two of his sisters, Florimel and another, Deirdre, I think, who had such a small role in this book, I didn’t even remember if that’s her name.  There is another female character, Moire, who is the Queen of the underwater realm.  She has a major role in getting Corwin back to Amber, but has only a short appearance in the book.  It will be interesting to see if any of the sisters or Moire comes back later in the series. 

The world of Amber is pretty imaginative.  Amber is the real world, while the Earth we know is just a shadow, one of many.  Corwin and his brothers and sisters can travel between Amber and the Shadow worlds.  In fact, several of the siblings are on our plane of Earth, where the story begins, a few like Eric are in Amber, but the whereabouts of the others is unknown.  They are able to communicate with each other through decks of Tarot-like cards with pictures of the siblings as the major Arcana (I think I’m using that term right in this context).  And the Shadow worlds Zelazny creates are great.  I particularly liked the travel sequence through some of these worlds with Corwin and Random as they try to get to Amber via a Mercedes. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I really enjoyed it, despite wincing over the female characters.  I’m going to jump right into the next book.  The books in this series are short, as are many of Zelazny’s works, so I don’t feel like I need time away from the world he built, but rather, I need to read more to get more of it. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Fated Sky

Mary Robinette Kowal
Completed 9/3/2020, Reviewed 9/4/2020
4 stars

This is the first sequel to The Calculating Stars in The Lady Astronaut series.  It takes place several years after the events of the first book.  It took me a little while to get into it, but after about fifty pages, I was gripped.  It’s still in the alternative history of an international space program, this time in the early ‘60s, after the eastern seaboard of the US has been nearly wiped out by an asteroid collision.  The climate is changing, a base has been built on the Moon and the race is on to colonize Mars.  And it is told from the point of view of Elma, known worldwide as the Lady Astronaut.  I liked this book about as much as its predecessor.  I thought it was a little melodramatic after the opening sequence, but the trip to Mars was really well done, fraught with peril, and suspenseful.

Elma has just come back from the Moon base after three months.  The ship bringing them home lands about 270 miles off target.  They are boarded by “Earth Firsters” who hold them hostage.  Elma and Helen convince them to let everyone else go and keep Elma to be their spokesperson, giving their demands to the press.  Eventually, the Firsters are subdued and everyone returns home.   Because of her publicity with handling the Firsters, and because after all, she is the Lady Astronaut, she is asked to join first team going to Mars.  She struggles with the idea of being away from her husband Nathaniel for three years, and postponing starting a family.  She acquiesces, but then finds out her coming on kicked a friend of hers off the mission.  This causes tension between her and the crew.  In addition, the mission is being led by Stetson Parker, the sexist pig from the first novel.  She goes with them to Mars anyway.  It being an international crew, the members are from several countries, including a white South African who doesn’t want to be on the same ship as two African-American astronauts and is not so keen on the Arab medic either.  There being three ships going together on the mission, the solution is to have a whites-only ship.  Needless to say, the issues of race and gender play a prominent role in the success or failure of the mission.

Elma is simply a terrific character.  She’s very human, with disabling anxiety and doubts about leaving her husband and missing out on raising a family.  She narrates the story in first person so we feel first-hand her stresses and conflicts.  While she’s very progressive, she doesn’t get that she unwittingly can be condescending to the Leonard and Florence, the African-Americans on the crew.  In a great scene, Leonard says to her “Don’t tell me what my experience is,” which really wakes her up.  She still battles with Stetson Parker, but he does have an actual character arc in this novel.  He’s not as much of a jerk as he was in the first book, but he’s still sexist.  In fact, all the characters on Elma’s ship have good arcs.  The only character who doesn’t is the South African who is simply a bad guy.  But he does serve a purpose to exacerbate the very real tension between the races in the crew.

I was also impressed that there was a gay relationship in the crew.  It was expected that there might be hookups in the crew on such a long journey, but the thought never crosses Elma’s mind until much later in the story.  There’s also a transgender character which I completely missed until I read the Kowal’s notes at the end.  But it did make sense when I sat back and reflected on it.

The only part that I thought was a little melodramatic was when Elma was debating going to Mars versus having a family.  I thought it was a little soapy.  In general, I thought the writing was very tight, but this part didn’t feel the same.  But it brings up an important issue that women face in life.  It’s a tougher choice here because it’s still the ‘60s in the story and there isn’t day care, and well, being en route to Mars without her husband for three years isn’t a day job. 

I give this book four out of five stars.  It was very nearly five stars.  I know the trope of the flight to Mars has been done many times in the past, but putting it in the context of the racially, sexually, and homophobically turbulent ‘60s gave it a unique spin, as is having a main character with mental health issues.  This is another series I’ll probably keep reading.  I believe it’s the first duology in a planned pair of duologies featuring Elma.  The third book is out and the fourth is forthcoming.  I’m really looking forward to them.

Friday, September 4, 2020


CL Polk
Completed 9/2/2020, Reviewed 9/2/2020
5 stars

This one really gripped me.  I could not put it down.  I read most of it in one day, finally putting it down when I was getting a headache from being so tired and reading for so long.  It’s a fantasy with a mystery set in an alternative Victorian-like era.  Cars have just been introduced.  There are telephones, cameras, and gadgets that run on electricity-like “aether.”  There are mages, rich and powerful people who wield magic, and witches, poor and middle-class people who wield magic.  Mages remain hidden from the public and witches are persecuted.  And there are magical people from another dimension.  This book won the World Fantasy Award in 2019, and was nominated for a bunch of other awards, including the Lambda Literary Award.

Miles is a doctor and war hero who works in a veterans’ hospital.  He joined the army to get away from family of mages so he could pursue medicine.  The other reason he left was because his sister was a Stormsinger.  That requires his life to be bound to hers so she could draw on his magical power to perform her duties keeping terrible weather from the land.  As her Secondary, he would never be free to be a healer.  One day, a man named Tristan brings a dying man to the hospital.  The dying man says he’s been poisoned.  He knows Miles and his real name and the fact that he is magical.  Before he dies, he transfers all his power to Miles.  Tristan teams up with Miles to try to find out who killed the man, but the body disappears and there seems to be a cover-up.  In the meantime, Miles spends his time treating men from the front who claim that they have someone inside them who is trying to kill people.  All of this comes together into a mystery that’s far bigger than Miles ever imagined.

There’s a lot going on, but the author handles it really well, explaining everything through the investigations of Tristan and Miles.  There’s no exposition to slow the pace down.  The plot unravels at a good clip and never gets as complicated as my summary.  I thought the writing was well done, consisting mostly of action and realistic dialogue.  This isn’t a prosy book.  It’s fun, and tense, and kept me quickly turning the pages. 

Needless to say, the world-building was phenomenal.  The magic system was well thought out, as well as the prejudice against witches.  I was really impressed as more and more is revealed.  Particularly interesting was the sub-mystery of what was happening to all the souls of the people.  It turns out that none were going to “Solace” after death and the people from the other dimension, the Amarinthians (sp?), thought the people of this dimension had died out.

The characters were marvelous.  I really liked Miles as he tried to hide his magical abilities at the risk of being called a witch.  If he were, he’d be swept off to an asylum, never to live free again.  He also has to try to hide from his family, who thinks he died in the war.  Then he meets Tristan who is the most beautiful man he’s ever seen.  He tries not to be vulnerable, but falls in love with Tristan as they try to uncover the mysteries of the dead man and the veterans.  Tristan was a wonderful character as well.  He’s magical as well and offers to teach Miles how to hone some of his skills.  Particularly fun is how the two men are interrupted every time they are about to kiss.  Miles’ sister Grace also comes on the scene.  She can’t believe her brother is alive and tries to spend as much time with him as possible.  But then she has ulterior motives, which makes her a suspect in the mystery of the dead man. 

For a first novel, I thought this book was terrific.  Polk’s characters and world-building are superb.  I don’t always like mysteries, often getting lost or bored or both.  I’m definitely going to read the next book in the series.  And yes, while the story wraps up nicely, it leaves some things hanging for the next one.  I give this book five stars out of five because I couldn’t put it down, and am now having a hard time thinking about waiting a little bit before I read the next one.  I have so many other books to read, but I’ll probably get to the sequel, well, soon.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020


Helen Sandler, ed.
Completed 8/31/2020, Reviewed 8/31/2020
3 stars

With this book, I’ve completed my quest of reading all the Lambda Literary Award winners for Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror to present, except for the first two which were mysteries, when that genre was included in the mix.  Subtitled “The Diva Book of the Dead and Undead”, this anthology of short lesbian horror fiction was an uneven mix.  Some of the stories were tremendous, others felt pretentious.  Some were gripping, others tedious.  Some were well written, others not so much.  In general, the stories got better as the book progressed.  There was a progression to the stories which the editor notes in the introduction.  It begins with women thinking about lost or dead people, then moves onto stories about actual death and dead people, and culminates in stories about ghosts.  This book won the Lammy in 2004. 

The following is a list of stories which I found particularly moving, frightening, and/or very well written.  Rated individually, I’d give these stories four or five stars.

The Glowing by Elizabeth Woodcraft.  A story about a woman dying of cancer.  She asks one of her caretaker friends to gently make love to her, as it will be the last time she will ever be able to.  It was a sweet story, very gentle.

What She Left Behind by Cara Bruce.  A woman has an extensive collection of snuff films.  She also worked in the business.  When she was younger, a woman volunteered for a snuff film, asking her to make sure her daughter gets the resulting very large paycheck.  Years later, the dead woman’s daughter comes back asking to watch the film.  A very disturbing story but extremely well written.

Daddy’s Girls by Ellen Galford.  Two daughters of lesbian families bicker at school, which becomes an excuse for the families to meet.  A lively discussion follows where the narrator’s mothers reveal that the father may have been the ghost of a famous historical man.  A silly but sweet story.

Owl-blasted by Julie Travis.  A gay man and his woman friend get lost in the side streets of London and come upon an old pub.  He convinces her to go in.  There they come upon a talking infant and a man who beats a woman for talking to them.  The man threatens the gay man.  They leave, but then the gay man disappears and his friend goes looking for him, only to find the supernatural truth of the pub and its denizens.

Your Ghost by Kim Watson.  A woman whose partner recently left her meets a ghost in her new house, a lesbian whose partner was killed during the WWII raids of London.

The Passing Guest by VG Lee.  A woman goes into a church, hears noises in a locked room, rushes out, tells her partner who is not emotionally abusive, but not kind.  They go back, the sextant lets them in, and they find nothing.  She goes back alone and of course sees them again.

Touch Pain by Cecilia Tan.  A woman named Mary sees ghosts associated with painful situations.  She starts dating a woman named Lizette who has night terrors.    When Mary figures out her gift, she comes to understand the horrible memories that plague Lizette, and figures out what she must do.  This was by far the most moving piece in the whole book.  I had to pause for a while and shake this one off.  Well written and profound.

Deep Night by Teana D Johnson.  Marie, a black woman and her daughter Evangeline have vivid dreams of the suffering of black women from the past.  The grandmother, Mama Luella, tries to explain this to Evangeline but Marie wants nothing to do with this supernatural stuff.  Marie tries to block it from herself and her daughter to a tragic end. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  If the first quarter or so of the stories were cut, this would have been a four-star book.  But those six or seven stories put quite the damper on the book as whole.  It was such a relief to get to the really good ones.