Wednesday, April 28, 2021


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Rogue Protocol

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 23, 2021


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Artificial Condition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 19, 2021

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

JRR Tolkien
Completed 4/18/2021, Reviewed 4/19/2021
4 stars

When I decided to undertake Tolkien’s Beowulf, I was excited.  It’s advertised as a prose translation of the original Old English text.  I thought it would be an easily readable book.  Ha! this was no such thing.  This form of the prose is very antiquated.  The word choices are complex as is the sentence structure.  It was reminiscent of the Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo, another work based on an ancient text.  I found that book difficult to read as well.  But Beowulf was far more complex.  There were many times I could not follow what was going because the sentences were so complicated.  However, my experience of the book was saved by an additional text that was included called the Sellic Spell, which was Tolkien’s attempt at what might have been an old folk tale that would have predated the Beowulf legend.

The main part of Beowulf is the story of his killing of the ogre Grendel and his ogress mother.  It then proceeds to the dragon part of the tale.  The story is followed by a massive commentary of the translation based on Tolkien’s lectures at Oxford.  Next comes the Sellic Spell.  The final version is given in full, followed by differences from his original text.  Next is a surprising inclusion, an Old English translation of the Sellic Spell.  That’s not something that’s readable, but you know that Tolkien had a blast translating it.  The book concludes with two poems or “lays” of Beowulf written in typical Tolkien style.

I have to say I gave the Beowulf part of this book my best shot, but I was exhausted from trying to read and understand it.  When I came to the commentary, I skimmed through most of it, only deeply reading bits here and there that caught my eye.  As you would expect, the commentary is quite academic and not easy reading in itself.  It’s really something that should be studied.  Despite my intense joy in reading the twelve volume History of Middle Earth series, which was also very academic, this was much tougher, probably because I’m not as familiar with the Beowulf saga as I could be.  However, the parts of the commentary I did read closely were very interesting.

On the other hand I really enjoyed Sellic Spell.  It was written in much more typical Tolkien folksy style, which is what I think he does best.  The word choices and the sentence structure are much more modern and much easier reading.  The lays were also fun, being typical Tolkien poetry with some alliteration found throughout them.  

I struggled with giving this book a rating.  My first thought was to give it three stars, but that doesn’t do justice to the grandness of the commentaries, the marvel of the Spell, and the joy of the lays.  I just wish the prose Beowulf was in a less abstruse form.  So I settled on four stars out of five.  As always, these academic books are not for everyone.  In this case, it wasn’t even really for me.  And I even think it’s not necessarily for every lover of Beowulf.  However, it made me think that I need to read the Seamus Heaney verse translation, which I believe is the classic and beloved version.  


Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Made Things

Adrian Tchaikovsky
Completed 4/14/2021, Reviewed 4/14/2021
4 stars

This is my first story by Adrian Tchaikovsky.  It’s a fantasy novella which blends magic, thievery, and homunculi into a fast paced tale with a few twists and turns.  What’s nice about novellas is that they get to the meat of the story pretty quickly.  At just under two hundred pages, I didn’t feel like any word was wasted.  The prose is marvelous and yet is very tight.  And the world-building is surprisingly robust.  I have two full-sized novels of Tchaikovsky’s in my TBR pile and now I’m looking forward to getting to them based on how much I enjoyed this book.

The story follows Coppelia, a seventeen-year-old street performer, thief, and wielder of some magic.  She has befriended several small puppet-like human-like beings, aka mannikins or homunculi, made out of various materials like wood, paper, metal, and fabric.  They were created by a mage but escaped and came to have a working relationship with Coppelia.  She does puppet shows while the homunculi pick the pockets of the audience.  She is a gifted puppet-maker and creates new homunculi using her wood carving and magic skills (though I never quite got how this was accomplished).  

Coppelia catches the attention of one of the crime lords vying for dominance in the city.  He enlists her to help him and a large team of thieves break into the city mages’ palace where a golem has been seen in a workshop strewn with valuable metals and gems.  This adventure ends tragically, but opens Coppelia up to a secret that can bring down the existing political structure of the city.

The characterization is pretty good.  Coppelia is somewhat shy and not too brash for a petty thief.  She mostly keeps to herself and her miniature friends.  She’s always trying to stay out of the way of a few vicious policeman, known as Broadcaps.  Two of the homunculi, Tef and Arc, are interesting.  One is made of wood and the other of metal.  They are the closest to Coppelia and try to save her in the aftermath of the failed palace robbery attempts.  They have distinct personalities, as do the other more minor mannikins.  I was surprised at how well they were all depicted.  It was a little tough to remember they were only about six inches tall when their personalities were so grand.

What really makes this book shine is the narration.  You can almost hear it being read to you.  The prose is lush without being arrogant.  The world-building of the city Lorentz and its magic, mages, trinkets, and other sights and smells is tremendous.  I felt very immersed in it despite the book being as short as it was.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It has made me more open to reading other books by the author.  I was nervous about them because the two I have are very long.  But now I’m less afraid of tackling them if the prose is as wonderful as this book’s is.  It makes me wonder why I waited so long to read this prolific multi-genre author.  

Monday, April 12, 2021

Destiny Doll

Clifford D Simak
Completed 4/12/2021, Reviewed 4/12/2021
2 stars

This is probably the first time I didn’t really care for something written by Simak.  I found it to be really strange and hard to follow.  The basic premise was okay.  It’s about an odd assortment of people traveling to a planet that locks them in a tractor beam, lands them, and then seals their spaceship shut so they’re forced to stay on the planet forever.  There were robots and weird aliens, as in most of his works.  But I found the prose to be rambling and too esoteric, and the characters not all together likeable.  It made for a less than enjoyable read.

Captain Mike Ross is hired by Sara Foster to travel to a distant planet in search of a being which has been communicating with the blind George Smith.  They are accompanied by a man known as Friar Tuck who wears a friar’s robes and helps George get around.  They are shocked when they get to the planet and are pulled in and forced to land.  When they leave the ship, they are told they must get everything out of it and go into a parallel world to escape the planetary tremors which are going to follow.  When they leave the ship, it gets sealed, as are all the other ships which have landed on this planet.  They are sent a desert world where they meet an alien they name Hoot who bonds with Mike.  They make it back to the main world and begin a quest to find the elusive Mr. Knight and his robot, Roscoe.  Along the way they find, killer trees, centaurs, and a wooden doll which seems to help people meet their destinies.  

The characterization isn’t all that bad.  It’s just that the narrator, Mike, is not a nice person.  He does a lot of mocking and yelling at people.  He’s not likeable at all, which I think is a big reason it’s tough to read this book.  He does a lot of describing of the planet on their journey, but I didn’t connect with any of it because I couldn’t really connect with Mike.  Sara seems like a nice person.  She’s wealthy, compassionate, and insightful, but she’s also a big game hunter (a theme which appears in Mastodonia as well).  So that’s an element that’s a little off-putting to her character.  But her positive attributes do make it through Mike’s rather arrogant narration.  The other two characters, George and Tuck are just pathetic through Mike’s eyes.  He never really gets to know them, so neither do we.

The one character I really liked was Hoot, the alien.  He was an enigma.  We don’t really know what he is, but he has many powers that are helpful to our band of four.  I like Simak’s aliens in general.  The are always non-traditional and non-humanoid.  Hoot had a cylinder like body with lots of feet and tentacles coming out of one end.  He spoke a broken English that was endearing.  He alone was able to get through Mike’s tough and reactionary shell and talk sense to him.

There are also hobby-horse-like mechanical things that our group calls hobbies.  The hobbies insist that they are not robots and we never really learn their nature.  One hobby named Paint becomes part of our crew and helps them at various parts of their journey.

I thought the prose was very hard to follow.  It often felt like Mike was rambling, which implies that Simak was going off on long diatribes to do his world-building.  It mostly felt like “tell me” instead of “show me”.  It gave the book a ‘50s pulp novel feel with the author getting paid by the word.  I found this disappointing.

I give this book two stars out of five.  There is a wide variety of reviews on this book, some where the reviewer says this is their favorite Simak book and others like me who were just lost and/or disappointed in the execution.  This was a short book, but I only was able to get through about fifty pages a day, much slower than I usually read.  I’d say if you want to read some Simak, start with any number of others, like Way Station, Shakespeare’s Planet, or A Choice of Gods.  Leave this one for a time when you find the book cheap at used book store.


Thursday, April 8, 2021


Octavia Butler
Completed 4/8/2021, Reviewed 4/8/2021
5 stars

This was one powerful book.  It drops you in a terrible situation and doesn’t let up until the end.  I found myself equally drawn to and devastated by it.  It’s about a contemporary black woman who goes back in time to slavery days at the whim of the white, slave-owning man who is her several times great-grandfather.  Imagine being a modern person going back to being a slave in the early 1800s.  It’s tough for the character and tough to read.  This book is considered one of Butler’s best.  I’ve liked many of her books, including Wild Seed, Fledgling, and Imago, and gave five stars to the Parable books:  Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.  But I’d have to say that this one left me the most emotionally wrecked. 

The story begins in 1976.  Dana Franklin, newly married to her husband Kevin, feels dizzy and blacks out.  She comes to at a river where a small white boy named Rufus Weylin is drowning.  She saves him, resuscitates him, and comes under the wrath of his parents.  She travels back to the present when his father aims a gun at her.  In the present, she was only gone a few seconds.  A little later, she travels back to the past again when Rufus, a few years older, lights the curtains on fire.  She comes to understand that seems to go back in time whenever Rufus’ life is in danger.  She stays in the past for varying lengths of time, though it’s only minutes or hours in the present, hiding out as one of the Weylin family’s slaves.  Each time she goes back, it’s more difficult on her and more dangerous to her life.  She comes to realize that her time travel has to do with making sure that Rufus stays alive so that he can father the daughter that will become her great-great-grandmother.

The story is told in first person by Dana.  She’s a phenomenal character, but all of the other characters are also well done.  The slave-owning Weylins are terrible, but they’re still people and Butler gives them some humanity despite their extreme racism and sexism.  Rufus is not very likeable as he grows from ignorant child to mean adult, but he’s very developed, and the cognitive dissonance he experiences is very well done.  Alice, who is Dana’s several times great-grandmother, is also phenomenal as the freeborn black woman who ends up a slave because of Rufus’ insane desire for her.

The story is so very hard to read as there are rapes, severe beatings, and slave sales that destroy families.  And yet, it’s not as graphic or as terrible as some deeper south treatment.  This part of the story takes place in Maryland which is not as bad as some places the slaves could be sold to.  Dana is lucky though.  Because she has made Rufus to understand that she comes from the future to keep him alive, he treats her more or less with kid gloves.  Still, she becomes enraged at the injustices she sees around her. 

I give this book five stars out of five because of the emotional impact it had on me.  As difficult as it is to read, I had a hard time putting it down.  But I also had a hard time picking it back up again because I didn’t want to face the reality of the past.  I’m so glad I finished it though.  It’s a powerful book.  It’s well crafted in just about every aspect:  plot, characters, and form.  If someone asked me to pick an Octavia Butler book to start with, I’d say this is the one.  I’ve now read every novel by her and I think this is her best.

Monday, April 5, 2021


Clifford D Simak
Completed 4/5/2021, Reviewed 4/5/2021
3 stars

This was a decent book.  It was short, as many of Simak’s books are, but it could have been longer.  It follows a man who stumbles across time travel via an alien in rural Wisconsin.  It has two of Simak’s major recurring themes, the clash of the rural vs the urban and the benevolent alien.  The prose is wonderful, as it is in many of the books of his I’ve read.  The plot is decent, but this is where I felt it suffered because of the length.  The end feels rushed.  But I enjoyed it overall, as I do all his rural setting stories.

Asa is a paleontologist at a small university.  He takes a sabbatical and purchases a farm in the town he grew up in in rural Wisconsin.  There’s a sinkhole that he believes has extraterrestrial origin.  Rila is a businesswoman who was on a dig with him quite a few years before.  They had an affair but went their separate ways.  She pops in out of the blue to visit him and their romance is rekindled.  He confides with her about the dig, as well as the strange occurrences of a cat-like being roaming around, and the fact that his dog has been coming home with fresh dinosaur bones.  One night, he goes out to chase away an animal that’s making noise outside and walks into the prehistoric past.  They put together that the cat-like alien has created a gateway to the past.  Rila, always the businesswoman, convinces Asa to sell the privilege to go into the past to a Safari company.  Then lawyers, locals, and the government get involved and soon the whole enterprise spins out of control.

I really liked the plot.  It has a Jurassic Park feel to it, though it was written over a decade earlier.  Send people into prehistoric eras for safaris…what can go wrong?  The nightmare is not so much a rampage of dinosaurs as much as it is about corporate and government interference, the rural vs urban motif.  

I liked the characterization as well.  Ara as the narrator is the most well developed.  He’s a sort of average Joe, not a brilliant professor or famed archeologist.  He’s just a guy who likes studying the past and gets by working for a small university.  I also like Hiram, the slow-witted local man who apparently can talk to dogs, birds, the alien, and mastodons.  He’s quite a colorful character who everyone in town knows but only some people, like Asa, take kindness on.  I was expecting Rila to be a bitchy, pushy broad who coerces Asa into something he doesn’t want to do, but found her to be likeable as well.  She calls herself bitchy and pushy, but really, she just has good business acumen.  

What’s disturbing, though, is that they immediately go the safari route.  Their rationale is that the African safari trade has dwindled (gee, I wonder why) and think that this would be an excellent outlet for the poor, frustrated big game hunter.  Of course, they’d charge a fortune for the rights to go through the time portal.  I was surprised that Simak never questions the morality of this choice.  Nor does he bring up the anything like paradoxes or the butterfly effect, where doing something to the past would change the future.  It’s only brought up with respect to interaction with humans in the past, not prehistoric animals.  This would be the big failing in the book.  

Despite the moral dilemma and the paradox problems, I still give the book three stars out of five.  I found it an enjoyable read.  It’s paced well until the end where things happen a little too quickly.  I thought the chaos that ensues from all the interference could have been a little longer and little better written.  Instead, it’s kind of journalistic in its style rather than part of the overall storytelling style.  But in general, reading a Simak novel is almost always a warm experience, sort of a sit by the fire with your pipe and loafers feeling.  I’ve come to really enjoy his books, even when it’s only one of his lesser works.  Whenever I find a Simak book in a used book pile, I’ll always pick one up, and in lieu of a fire, pipe, and loafers, I’ll curl up with my quilt, sweatpants, and diet coke.