Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Gideon the Ninth

Tamsyn Muir
Completed 3/30/2021, Reviewed 3/30/2021
1 star

What a disappointment!  I really thought I’d like this queer necromancers in space murder mystery, but was disappointed on all counts of that description.  Yes, the main characters were queer, there were an abundance of necromancers, it took place in another solar system, and there’s a lot of killing.  But the world building and prose were weak, there are way too many characters (over twenty), and a protracted, forty page showdown in the end.  I was bored through most of it and ended up skimming much of it.  I can’t believe this book was nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award, and won the Locus First Novel Award.  This is the first book in a long time that I seriously wanted to abandon.

Gideon grew up on the world called the Ninth House.  She was an orphan who grew up antagonistically with the only other child on the planet, the Reverend Daughter Harrowhawk.  Finally, at the age of eighteen, Gideon has a plan to leave the planet, but Harrow tricks her into staying.  Harrow convinces her to become her cavalier in answer to the Emperor’s call to each of the Houses for a necromancer and cavalier to come and contend for the role of Lyctor.  A lyctor is a necromancer who becomes a personal aide to the Emperor.  So, they go and are immediately thrown into a game of finding keys and unlocking the secret of becoming Lyctor.  However, the contestants start dying, and the game turns into one of survival instead.  

The world building starts out interestingly with the action taking place in the Ninth House.  It’s a world of a strange death cult, including something locked away that’s so horrible that no one has a key for it.  There are no children here, but there are a lot of nuns and priests of this cult.  When the action moves to the planet with the game, things begin to fall apart.  We meet all the other House necromancers and cavaliers, but we don’t get much info about their worlds, only that they seem to universally hate the Ninths.  The action takes place in a massive building with lots of floors and doors.  There were so many rooms explored that I never felt like I really knew where I was.  And it was strange because it felt like it was a confused blend of fantasy and science fiction.  I was constantly shocked by the presence of modern technology considering people walked around in robes and cloaks and there were animated skeleton servants all over the place.  

The characterization was pretty weak.  Gideon and Harrow are snarky and sarcastic and hate each other, but that’s really all we get.  The moments of true feelings are few and far between.  Then there are the fourteen other necromancers and cavaliers, a few of whom brought siblings along.  The author tried really hard to give them all distinct personalities but only succeeded with a few.  I kinda liked Dulcinea, a necromancer who is in the last stages of some terrible illness.  She was warm to Gideon and came close to bringing real feelings out of the snarkiness.  There was a list of the characters at the end of the book, which I tried to read, but only skimmed because, well, I was quite over the book at that point.

The pacing is really slow.  It’s kind of like a standard teen horror flick.  At first, you’re interested in the premise, but eventually, you just want to see who’s going to die next, and everything in between is just tedious.

One thing I never got was how the game of becoming the Lyctor was actually supposed to be played.  There was something about finding keys to doors which took you to scary rooms.  It seemed like whoever had the most keys was the winner.  But of course, that game was supplanted by whoever doesn’t get killed becomes the winner.  

I’ve only awarded a single star out of five a few times before.  What started out as interesting ended up boring.  I eventually stopped caring about the murders.  Most of the characters became a blur.  When the murderer is finally revealed, I was surprised, but I didn’t really care.  And then there was that forty page sword and magic fight that made my eyes roll back inside my head.  Occasionally, I thought to myself it was interesting in its Lovecraftian weirdness, but it just went on and on and on.  I’m sorry that I bought the next book in the trilogy without reading this one first.  It was a deal of the day and couldn’t pass up a bargain.  I may read it just to see if the author got any better at constructing a book.

Saturday, March 27, 2021


Seanan McGuire
Completed 3/27/2021, Reviewed 3/27/2021
4 stars

It took me about seven years to read another book by this author.  In 2014, I read Feed, which McGuire wrote under the pen name Mira Grant.  I loved it.  I read that one for book club, and would have read one under her own name last year if the pandemic hadn’t sidelined the group.  (It will be the fourth book we read after we all reconvene in person).  I got his one on sale.  It was nominated for the Hugo and won the 2020 Locus Fantasy Award.  I loved this one too.  It’s a smart take on alchemy, mental powers, and time set in the modern world.  I don’t know what took me so long in reading something else by her, but I have to say, McGuire is batting 1000 for me.

The story is about James Reed, an evil alchemist who creates twins trying to imbue them with something called the Doctrine of Ethos.  It’s basically a power that gives you control over the universe.  Through these “children” of his, he plans to take control for himself.  Roger and Dodger are his latest twins.  They grow up on different coasts of the U.S. but are connected through something like telepathy.  They’re paths criss-cross, intentionally and unintentionally.  Eventually, they find out the truth about themselves and must find a way to stop Reed before he claims the power of the Doctrine and destroys them in the process.

The evil villains in this book, Reed and Leigh, are kind of the moustache-twisting, cackling laugh kind of villains.  They are stereotypical single-minded megalomaniacs who will stop at nothing to attain their goals.  Reed is the lead alchemist.  He was created by a female alchemist in the mid-19th century from dead body parts, and imbued with life, sort of a la Frankenstein.  Leigh, created in the same way by another alchemist, is simultaneously his co-conspirator and rival.  She is not quite his assistant, but does a lot of his dirty work, like murdering when necessary.  Both are deliciously evil, which makes up for their lack of emotional depth.

Roger and Dodger are the main characters.  They are the best characterized in the book.  Their relationship is complex, beginning when they’re seven when Dodger starts helping Roger with his math homework by appearing as a voice in his head.  They’re not sure of why they can communicate at that point, they just do.  But their relationship is tenuous for several reasons, including pressure from Reed and Leigh who silently watch over their progress.  So they are sometimes connected, sometimes not, often to their detriment.  When they meet in grad school, they are both fairly broken individuals, though Dodger more so.  She’s an intensely introverted math genius while Roger is a more adjusted master wordsmith.  But they find they complete each other and resume their psychic connection.  Another character, Erin, is another creation of Reed and Leigh, who is sent to watch over Roger and Dodger.  She’s also pretty well constructed, both vicious and introspective, landing somewhere between her creators and the twins.  

When I started this book, I didn’t think I would like it.  It had a very weird form, with the ending appearing multiple times throughout the book.  I found it distracting and didn’t get it until I was almost finished reading.  Then it became clear what was going on.  In hindsight, I have to say it was pretty smartly done.  There were also times through the first half of the book that I thought that the development of Roger and Dodger and their relationship went on too long.  Also in hindsight, I thought it was well done, because more is revealed the farther in the book you get.  It all works together, you just have to stick with it long enough for all the twists and turns to appear.

I give this book four stars out of five.  I found it quite gripping, and I was pretty investied in the twins.  I thought the pacing was a little uneven, but as I said, you’ll understand the first half better as you go through the second half.  I think this book was pretty craftily written.  The prose is good and keeps the tension of the story pretty high.  I’d recommend this book as a good suspenseful modern fantasy. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Alix E Harrow
Completed 3/25/2021, Reviewed 3/25/2021
5 stars

This knocked my socks off.  I absolutely loved this story.  It’s about portals into other worlds, secret societies, prejudice, and a teenager, though it’s not YA.  It’s also book within a book.  The prose is gorgeous but not overbearing.  I was gripped until the end and got teary eyed when the main character did.  I’ve been working from home and there wasn’t a lot to do in the past two days, so I got to read this book in, yes, two days, and I’m really thankful because I simply did not want to put it down.  This book was nominated for a ton of awards last year, though it didn’t win any, but I easily would have chosen this over the book that did win the Hugo.

The book begins in 1901 when January is a young girl whose father is a field archeologist.  Her mother died tragically when she was an infant.  She stays with a guardian, Mr. Locke, in his mansion.  As his ward, she wants for nothing but her father who is always somewhere around the world on a project.  One day she finds a door out in the woods, goes through it, and finds she is in another world.  Locke tells her to put away such childish fancies and continues his rearing of her as a refined young lady.  Then she discovers a book called “The Ten Thousand Doors” that tells of magical Doors and begins to put two and two together.  It soon puts her on a collision course with Locke who seems to be trying to keep the secret of the Doors and the truth about her family from her.  Eventually she runs away to search for her father, but is followed by evil men who belong to a secret society whose aim is to destroy all the Doors.

January is awesome.  She’s a reddish-brown skinned girl who questions everything, even when she’s wearing the mask of civility Locke tries to keep on her.  She’s smart, witty, and she has an uncanny ability to make things happen when she writes them down.  She doesn’t understand the power, and uses is sparingly to avoid attracting attention.  Her best friend growing up was a lower-class Italian boy named Samuel.  After a while, they grow apart, but they later have interactions which demonstrate he has feelings for her, and vice-versa.  Several times, he tries to rescue her from dire situations.

Another great character is Jane, an African woman who January’s father sends to be her maid/nurse/assistant.  His real aim is to have Jane keep an eye on January and make sure she’s safe.  He clearly doesn’t trust Locke.  Jane is great support and protection for January and follows her when she runs away.

And the love story of Yule and Ade in the book within the book is just breathtaking.  I just loved the characters and their adventure trying to find each other.

Overall, I’d say the characterization is pretty great.  Even Locke is more multi-dimensional than a normal villain.  You want to hate him, but he does many things to make you doubt that feeling.  There are a couple of terrible villains who are somewhat one dimensional, like the red haired main and the vampire, but they’re more than simply stock characters and add to the terror that follows January on her quest to find her father.

I’ve read quite a few books within books.  Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.  Here it was stupendous.  Both the story of January and the story of Yule and Ade were interesting, endearing, and exciting.  I didn’t mind at all that it took a few chapters of January and few chapters of the inner book to get the plot really going because I had already come to love the three of them.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  Yes, I loved it that much.  I got emotionally attached to all the major characters, feeling their struggles, fears, frustrations, and loves.  The book was exciting, heartfelt, witty, and meaningful.  The pace felt just right, not too fast, not too slow, except for some of the chase scenes which went pretty quickly.  The revelations about the Doors and January’s coming into her own powers were awesome.  Yes, I know I’ve used that word a few times already, but I can’t say enough about how great I think this book is.  


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The City in the Middle of the Night

Charlie Jane Anders
Completed 3/23/2021, Reviewed 3/23/2021
4 stars

This book was kind of a mixed bag.  It felt YA because two of the main characters are in school, but it’s definitely not YA.  It was very depressing.  There was always a sense of sadness, despair, frustration, or anxiety throughout.  The relationships are same-sex, yet there’s no sexual content.  At the same time, the author has created a very interesting world with unusual aliens and an imaginative plot.  By the end, I was deeply invested in the story and the characters and felt it was well worth the effort to read.  I thought it was much more creative than the author’s last book, All the Birds in the Sky.  This one didn’t win any awards, but it was nominated for several, including the Hugo.

The action takes place on a planet called January which is tidally locked to its sun, that is, one side always faces its sun.  January has been colonized by people from Earth along the twilight part of the planet, between the burning daylight side and the freezing night side.  The story follows Sophie as she takes the rap for a friend’s theft, is exiled to the dark side of the planet, and is befriended by an indigenous sentient being, called a crocodile.  She’s given a glimpse of their city in the middle of the night side telepathically.  She returns to her own city, only to escape with her friend, Bianca, after a failed student uprising.  They leave with a caravan of smugglers to the only other city on the planet.  There Bianca schemes to take revenge on her home while Sophie continues to feel the call of the crocodiles.  

The character development is really good.  Sophie experiences PTSD from her arrest and exile.  Bianca, who comes from privilege and suffers from guilt for not admitting that she stole the money and for losing her best friend.  There is another major character, Mouth, a woman from a now extinct nomadic tribe who runs with the smugglers.  She lives with the weight of being the last of her people.  There are lots of other minor characters who are also pretty well-developed.  Each one felt fleshed out and multi-dimensional.  

The relationships are interesting.  Both relationships, Sophie and Bianca, and Mouth and Alyssa appear to be queer relationships, but there is no sexual content, not even a romantic kiss.  Sophie and Bianca are dorm roommates and Mouth and Alyssa are called bedmates, all in a hetero-normative society that eschews same-sex relationships.  So I spent a lot effort on trying to figure out just what their relationships were.  They more or less become clear in the end, but it’s still not exactly obvious.

The prose is decent.  It’s not too flowery and there is a lot of dialogue.  The story is told in alternating chapters of first-person narration by Sophie and third-person narration following Mouth.  It worked really well as Sophie and Mouth move in and out of each other’s lives. 

The biggest downfall for me about the book was that it was so damned depressing.  With Sophie’s severe PTSD from her arrest and exile, and Mouth’s loss of her entire tribe, it pretty much affects the whole tone of the book.  I was bummed until the very unexpected ending.  But it worked.  Even though at times I felt like I was plodding through it, I never felt like they should just get over it.  In fact, it made me empathize with Sophie and Mouth.

I give the book four stars out of five.  I was thinking three stars until last fifty pages, which really wowed me.  The end leaves you hanging a bit, but there’s no sequel planned.  It’s not a cliffhanger, it just doesn’t wrap up neatly.  I liked that.  Even though “Birds” won the Nebula for 2017, I liked this book better. 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Across a Billion Years

Robert Silverberg
Completed 3/21/2021, Reviewed 3/21/2021
3 stars

This book was a shame.  Published in 1969, it had an interesting story, but really dropped the ball on sexism and racism, so much so that it was cringeworthy at times.  I think Silverberg’s intent was to show growth of the main character, but it was never fully realized.  Granted I’m writing this over fifty years after it’s original release, and I always try to put myself in the mind frame of the time in which it was written, but we knew better in ’69.  And it’s too bad, because the basic premise of the book, archeologists finding an ancient civilization that colonized a huge slew of the galaxy, was entertaining.

Tom Rice is a member of an archeological expedition to a distant planet containing the remains of a colony of an alien race called The High Ones.  The High Ones colonized part of the galaxy about a billion years ago.  This seemed to me a normal dig, finding the same artifacts as on other planets, until Tom discovers a globe which projects scenes of The High Ones’ culture.  One in particular is a video of them planting a robot on a distant asteroid.  The team decides to try to find the asteroid and dig up this robot to try to locate The High Ones themselves.

The form of the novel is epistolary, that is, it’s written as a series of letters to Tom’s twin sister Lorie.  She’s a telepath, bedridden due to a paralysis from birth, but part of the TP network that allows for faster than light communications through the galaxy.  Being fraternal twins, they don’t look exactly alike, and Tom doesn’t have the gift of telepathy.  So he documents his voyage on communications cubes, like a diary, to give to Lorie when he returns home.  I don’t think it was as successful as other epistolary novels I’ve read.  It could have been narrated in first person, although it sort of comes into play at the end.  But it wasn’t a distracting form.

The characterization was best with Tom.  He’s bigoted against androids and other aliens and sexist, very much a white male of the sixties, even though this book takes place in the 24th century.  He tries to grow, but doesn’t until the surprising ending, which of course, I can’t give away.  The most deplorable part is when Jan, his love interest, is sexually assaulted by another member of the team.  Tom’s response is, well, women can take care of themselves.  Jan fights off the attack which confirms Tom’s belief system.  Later Jan gives him the business for not coming to her rescue.  Of course, Tom doesn’t get it.  This scene left a bad taste in my mouth and I think it would for most readers.  Most of the other characters are rather one-dimensional, not quite stock characters, but pretty close. 

I felt the writing wasn’t up to par for Silverberg either.  I think the problem lays in the epistolary form.  He’s writing as a 22-year-old white male.  Usually, Silverberg’s prose is much better and tends to be much more philosophical.  One review by a person I know actually called this juvenile fiction, as in YA.  That’s how uncharacteristic this was of Silverberg.  I’ve read several books by him know, and even when I don’t care for the book, I still find the writing and the philosophy quite powerful. 

All these negative comments are what brings the rating of this book down to three stars out of five.  I would have given it four based on the general plot because it has a really good second half and ending.  If you can get through the offensiveness of Tom’s character, there’s a strong story here with surprising and redemptive finish. 

The Werewolf Principle

Clifford D Simak
Completed 3/21/2021, Reviewed 3/21/2021
4 stars

I really like Simak’s writing style.  It’s philosophical and pastoral, even when there’s a lot of futuristic visions of flying cars and robots, like in this book.  The title is a little misleading.  There are no horror movie werewolves in this book.  It’s based on the android that’s created to study alien life.  It’s human based, but very plastic.  It can transform into the shape of the alien race it discovers, live among them, study them, and return to its ship to download the data and return to human form.  It’s an interesting premise that leads to the question of what it means to be human.  I really enjoyed the book although some of the interactions between characters were a little hokey at times and there was an awful lot of exposition.  

Andrew Blake was discovered cryogenically frozen in space for 200 years and returned to Earth.  He has no memory of who he is, or his past.  In fact, he picked the name himself.   He has the face of a 30-year-old, but his body is pristine.  He has blackouts for hours and wakes up somewhere else.  Blake has three consciousnesses in his brain.  His, which is called Changer; Thinker, which is a biological computer alien; and Questor, which is a wolf like alien.  At first, he doesn’t realize this, but then it all comes crashing back.  Instead of changing back permanently to human form, he retains the ability to change into the aliens he’s studied.  Also, his mind never deleted the consciousnesses that he attained.  So, the experiment that created him has failed.  He runs, afraid of being held forever as a specimen to study and trying to figure out what to do now that he realizes he is not fully human.  

Blake is a really good character.  He struggles with his android-alien composite self, conversing and sometimes arguing with his three consciousnesses.  Some of the other characters are a little one-dimensional: the Senator who supports genetic manipulation to create humans that can survive on other planets, the Senator who thinks this is an abomination, and the attractive Elaine who helps him escape.  They are used to explain the science behind the Werewolf Principle, the experiment which created Blake. 

There’s one set of characters that I really found fun, the “brownies”.  They’re little mink-weasel-like aliens that have decided to live on Earth because they love the Nature.  Rarely seen, they take an interest in Blake and “keep an eye on him”, helping him out in tough situations.  They are the first to recognize that he has three consciousnesses in his head.  They’re a little Disney-esque, but offer some humor in this very heady novel.  And they provide a way for Simak to talk about Nature and eschew the modern technology of flying cars and hovering, robot driven houses.  

What makes this a heady novel is that Blake struggles with the idea of being human.  He was initially a genetically manipulated human, and now is a composite with two alien races.  So can Earth be home?  Can he relate to the other humans?  Can he fall in love?  Will his consciousnesses fuse into one, transforming into another being entirely?  These are all questions he ponders over the course of the novel.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s exciting and philosophical, like many of the better science fiction novels of the golden era.  Like many of Simak’s novels, it’s short, and a relatively easy read.  It doesn’t cover any new ground, as the question of what it means to be human has been done many times.  But this novel gives it a little twist that’s sufficiently thought provoking.  

Saturday, March 20, 2021

The Water Dancer

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Completed 3/20/2021, Reviewed 3/20/2021
4 stars

I’ve been on a run of strange, beautiful novels lately, and this one is right up there with them.  It’s about slavery in pre-Civil War Virginia and the Underground Railroad mixed with magical realism.  It tells the tale of one’s man journey into discovering himself and his past so that he can affect the lives of the slaves around him.  The author is known for his non-fiction, and to be honest, it reads like good non-fiction with magical realism woven into it.  At times, I felt like the plot meandered without much direction until the magical realism really kicked in.  But the reading experience was simply marvelous.  

Hiram Walker grew up a slave on a plantation in Virginia.  He has an amazing memory, remembering everything he witnesses or has told to him, except for one thing.  He doesn’t remember his mother.  She was sold off the plantation when he was eight or nine and he has suppressed these memories because of the pain of her leaving.  One day he tries to escape with the woman he loves, but is betrayed by a freed slave.  However, he is rescued in a curious fashion and becomes part of the Underground Railroad.  He is chosen for this task because has the gift of Conducting.  When he experiences a memory or tells its story, a path or bridge across water is created that lets him travel across distances.  The Underground uses Conductors to help free slaves still in captivity.

This is another one of those books where the prose is so wonderful, you want to read every word.  So it took me a while to get through this book.  I couldn’t read it very quickly.  My one complaint with the book though is that sometimes, the description and the action flowed into each other so seamlessly that I missed things and had to go back and reread.  And I completely missed the first time Hiram experienced the Conducting when he was drowning in the Goose River.  It might have been that he didn’t understand it, so it wasn’t explained very well, or I didn’t understand it so I didn’t comprehend it very well.  I finally got it later in the book when he was consciously experiencing the Conducting.

The characterization was great.  Hiram was a stoic, all-observing narrator.  The characters around him were passionate, but he was very guarded.  For a while, the only emotion we really get out of him is anger, justifiably so.  But he stays pretty stoic through most of the book.  Thena, the woman who raised him after his mother was sold, and Sophia, the woman he loves, are very passionate, very relatable characters.  

The book raised several questions for me, most particularly was why Coates used the terms Tasked and Quality to describe slaves and masters.  I thought it was amusing that at the end of my e-copy of the book, there are discussion questions and that’s the first one.  I also didn’t realize until part of the way through that the Underground meant the Underground Railroad.  It also took me a while to realize that the appearance of a character named Harriet was Harriet Tubman.  But I thought it was brilliant that the gift of transporting was called Conducting.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  I think part of the reason was I that I was emotionally guarded while reading the book, probably because Hiram was as well.  Like him, I didn’t let myself feel really attached to what was going on.  So there was no emotional element to my appreciation of the book, which is what pushes books from four to five stars for me.  But it is a tremendous book, with the magical realism interwoven into the historical fiction in a very creative way.  I have one of his non-fiction books, which I look forward to reading later this year.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Mexican Gothic

Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Completed 3/16/2021, Reviewed 3/17/2021
4 stars

This was a really good, twisted variation on the haunted house trope.  It’s Gothic horror set in Mexico on land owned by a British family that used to employ the locals to work under terrible conditions in their silver mine.  It’s smart, sassy, and weird with themes of racism, colonialism, and eugenics.  My only complaint with it is that it has very little Mexican culture in it.  I thought it would have had more based on the title.  But I really enjoyed it, keeping me pretty creeped out through the most of it.  It’s just been nominated for a Nebula Award and was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, both for 2020.

Noemi is a sassy, headstrong young woman from Mexico City in the 1950s.  Her father receives a strange letter from her cousin Catalina who has just been married to an Englishman named Virgil Doyle and lives in an isolated town far from the city.  Her father sends her to check up on Catalina.  She goes, finding a Gothic mansion on the outskirts of a small village on property that was once a thriving silver mine.  There we find many tropes of the haunted house story, the sickly elderly patriarch, the handsome but scary Virgil, his controlling aunt Florence, and his sympathetic cousin Francis.  Catalina has been confined to her quarters, diagnosed with tuberculosis by the family doctor, and having visions of ghosts coming after her.   The longer she stays, the more she finds out about the ghosts, the family with whom she butts heads, and the strange power of the house.  

The plot is very character driven, particularly in the beginning.  We learn that Noemi is very strong-willed, clashing often with her father, and inevitably in the very Victorian British family that Catalina married into.  Noemi is a great character and the progression of her from doubter to believer is smoothly done.  Florence, Virgil, and the Doyle patriarch are all very classic Gothic horror characters.  They are well crafted and could have come out of The Turn of the Screw.  What makes them stand out is the bizarre way the house is haunted.  No spoilers here, but I thought it was really believable.  

The prose is gorgeous and the dialogue very believable.  It is very much like the last book of hers I read, Gods of Jade and Shadow, with beautiful writing and a strong female protagonist.  The only aspect of the book that bothered me was that there weren’t many Mexican cultural references.  I would have like to have seen more about the clash of cultures between the local population and the English landowners.  Basically it’s a Victorian story located in Mexico.  Sure, there are a lot of references to eugenics, racism, and sexism, but I would have liked more things specific to Mexico.  Even the village near the Doyle’s mansion could have been any village in a European horror story.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It really is a terrific horror story with sprinklings of Lovecraftian weirdness.  The reveal of the weirdness is like WTF, but made sense in its own internal logic.  Some reviews I’ve seen have found it hard to buy but, having seen this once (and only once) before, I needed little suspension of disbelief.  Moreno-Garcia can write a terrific, tight story and I think I’ll keep reading her in the future.

Friday, March 12, 2021

The Blade Between

Sam J Miller
Completed 3/12/2021, Reviewed 3/12/2021
5 stars

What a strange and wonderful novel.  It’s an odd ghost story about gentrification and hate and ultimately about love.  It’s a strange juxtaposition, but it really worked for me.  I think what I liked most about this book was that the main character was deeply flawed, yet I still felt I could identify with him.  Perhaps was because he was gay and an addict and angry. Perhaps it was because of his strained relationship with his father.  The last book I read Miller, Blackfish City, won the Campbell Award in 2019 and was nominated for a few others.  I didn’t really care for that book, but this one felt leaps and bounds better.

The story follows Ronan Szepessy, a forty-something gay photographer living in New York City who goes back to his homophobic hometown to visit his ailing father.  When he arrives, he is astounded by the gentrification occurring.  He meets up with his first love, Dom, and Dom’s wife Attalah.  Ronan and Dom’s old romance flares up again and Ronan and Attalah create a scheme to try to put a stop to the gentrification.  Somewhere in the process, Ronan conjures the spirits of the town’s whale-industry past which amp up the hate and violence to horrific levels.  And Ronan seems to be the only one who can put a stop to it.

The stars of this book are the prose and the characterization.  The prose is not flowery, but the word choices and descriptions are simple, yet remarkable.  Miller paints the characters and the setting so clearly and with great feeling that I felt I knew the town.  Perhaps it is because I come from a failing town, though its gentrification was not as successful as in this story.  It was simply a pleasure to read this book.  

The characterization was tremendous.  Everyone felt completely real.  There were no cardboard, one-dimensional characters.  Even Ronan’s childhood bully was realistic, albeit a little stereotypical.  I really loved the character of Ronan and was able to feel everything that was happening to him.  It’s the first time in a long time that I felt such empathy for a main character.  Again, I think it was because he was flawed, realistic.  And his hatred for the town and his past mirrored much of the hatred that I held onto for a long time.  I really liked Dom and Attalah as well.  Jark, the gay billionaire running for mayor who was spearheading the gentrification of the city, was also a great character.  I couldn’t totally hate him because he was as multidimensional as the main characters.  

The ghost story aspect was what made this book rather odd.  It’s not a traditional ghost story.  It involves the spirits of the people who had lived there in the past and the spirits of the whales who were slaughtered and processed.  It’s not exactly a haunting that occurs, but a manifestation that Ronan brings about through his use of a false online presence to find dirt on the rich hipsters of the town.  This presence, Tom Minniq, wreaks havoc on the town under the guise of the scheme that Ronan and Attalah conjure in their fight against the gentrification.  The second half of the book, where all the hate and violence become manifest, is riveting.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  I was totally moved by the main character, horrified by the turn of events, and near tears at the ending.  I was bummed out that this book has gotten mixed reviews on Goodreads.  Not many people feel the same way I do, but I think that this is one of the best books I’ve read in a while.  I found myself reading it quickly without skimming, reading every word, and relishing in the way the sentences were constructed and flowed together.  I definitely will continue keeping an eye out for Miller’s books.  He’s a current author I definitely want to follow and see great things come to.  

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

A Memory Called Empire

Arkady Martine
Completed 3/9/2021, Reviewed 3/9/2021
3 stars

I should have liked this book better than I did.  It had many ingredients that I look for in a SF novel: great prose, terrific world building, and great character development.  Unfortunately, it fell into several subgenres I don’t always enjoy:  space opera, court intrigue, and murder mystery.  I have liked such books in the past, and I thought I’d like this one, but nothing about it gripped me.  I spent about 450 pages not really caring what would happen next.  It won the Hugo Award in 2020 and was nominated for several others.  If I was voting, even having not read the other nominees, this book would not have been in my top three.  

The story is about Mahit, the new ambassador from Lesl, a space station around several mining worlds on the outskirts of the Empire of Teixcalaan that is in danger of being annexed.  She is replacing the last ambassador Yskandr who died prematurely.  She has an implant of Yskandr’s memory/personality after he had been in that position for five years, though he lived another fifteen.  When she comes to Teixcalaan, she discovers Yskandr was probably murdered.  The reality of his death causes his personality to collapse, creating a malfunction in the implant.  Now without his guidance, Mahit must traverse the politics of an empire on the brink of a coup while trying to protect her own home world. 

The coolest thing about the book is the memory/personality implant, known as an imago.  It acts like a second consciousness in the implanted person, carrying with it all the information necessary to continue the job.  Almost everyone on Lisl has an imago and it is guarded as a state secret.  Mahit’s imago of Yskandr malfunctions pretty early on in the book, which bummed me out because I liked the interaction of the two.  She then spends the rest of the book longing for that missing piece. 

The character development was quite good.  I empathized a lot with Mahit, even though her continuous longing for Yskandr’s presence in her mind after the imago malfunction went on way too long.  I also liked her cultural liaison, Three Seagrass, and Three’s friend Twelve Azalea.  I didn’t like that all the people in the Teixcalaan were named in this fashion, a number and an object.  It made the minor characters quite confusing.  But I did like the characters, even though I didn’t really care what was happening to them in the story. 

I thought the prose was really great, but the author did commit my most hated infraction.  She would begin a statement by a character, then insert one to four lines of what the character was thinking or doing, then complete the statement.  It drives me nuts.  It’s one of the reasons I disliked Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union so much.  To me, it breaks the flow of the thought.

I think what I disliked the most about the book was the court politics and political intrigue.  While I liked the universe in general, I found it hard to care about the different factions for and against the government and/or emperor, the suppression of uprisings, and the movement toward annexation of new worlds.  The only think I liked about it was that it provided with Mahit an opportunity to develop as a player in the political game without the help of her imago.  She got to grow emotionally and career-wise without even realizing it.

I give this book three stars out of five.  I think many people would probably enjoy this book (and have, as evidenced by the reviews on Worlds Without End and Goodreads).  It just wasn’t my cup of tea.  I found myself trudging through out of my general obsessiveness of finishing a book.  Sometimes, when I find the beginning and middle of a book hard to get through, I still find the ending exciting because I’ve been set up to enjoy it.  But this time, I didn’t really even care about the ending.  This is the first book of a series, and I’m hoping none of the sequels win an award because I don’t want to have to read any more of it to keep up with the Hugo and Nebula winners. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Bear and the Nightingale

Katherine Arden
Completed 3/2/2021, Reviewed 3/2/2021
4 stars

This was a beautiful book.  It had gorgeous prose and wonderful worldbuilding.  The author studied Russian culture and folklore in college and it is evident in this story about a Russian girl who sees the spirits and pagan gods and the conflict that causes with her stepmother, the family priest, and the townspeople.  My only struggle with the book was that it was a slow burn.  It takes most of the book to get on with the plot, and the gods and spirits are very slowly introduced into the story.  Otherwise, this book is nearly flawless.

The story begins with Pyotr and Marina.  Pyotr is a wealthy landowner in the North of Russia.  They have several children, but Marina wants one more so that child will carry on her legacy of interacting with the world of the spirits.  Marina dies shortly after Vasilisa is born.  The majority of the book is anecdotes from the childhood of Vasilisa, or Vasya, during which she begins to have interactions with the spirits.  Eventually Vasya’s father remarries through an arrangement made by the Grand Prince of Muscovy.  His new wife is considered mad because she sees demons.  This puts her into direct conflict with Vasya.  Also, the family priest dies and the Muscovy Patriarch sends an upstart priest who paints icons and has developed a cult following in Moscow.  He too ends up in direct conflict with Vasya, considering her a witch.  The plot then thickens when the evil twin of the Winter-King tries to claim Vasya so he can be released from the bondage in which the Winter-King has him subdued.

The lush prose is simply marvelous.  It reads like a fairy tale.  But life isn’t easy, as is the case of traditional fairy tales.  Vasya’s stepmother is horrified by the demons.  She wanted to enter the convent but ended up married to Pyotr.  Their marital relations are basically non-consensual and produces a daughter.  And she dotes on her own daughter while reviling Vasya.  The priest also hates Vasya and secretly lusts after the teen.  Of course he blames her for his behavior and wishes she were dead or sent to the convent.  And in general, the role of women is to be married or enter the convent, anything else makes the woman suspect, i.e., a witch.  I suspect the author was going for authenticity with respect to the lives of women in the 1300s in Russia. 

The character development is well done as well.  With the anecdotal quality of the first two thirds of the book, we get a good sense of the family and the priest.  Vasya is easily likeable and her stepmother and the priest are quite the antagonists.  But they are very human and three dimensional.  The horses are also characters.  Vasya can communicate with them and several develop distinct personalities. 

I give this book four out of five stars.  While reading the first two-thirds, I was toying with giving this only three stars because it took so long to form the plot.  But when it did finally get going, I had found myself immersed in the world Arden created and was with the plot one hundred percent.  This book is the first of a trilogy.  It ends cleanly, no cliffhangers.  But it clearly leaves the story open for continuation.  I’m probably going to pick up the next book soon, as I do want to find out what Vasya does next.