Monday, May 31, 2021

A Heritage of Stars

Clifford D Simak
Completed 5/31/2021, Reviewed 5/31/2021
3 stars

Another decent book by Simak.  Like many of his others, the tale is pastoral, with almost all the action taking place in the overgrown wilderness of a thousand years in the future after the great Collapse.  It is sort of a dystopian novel where humans have destroyed all the technology and reverted to mostly nomadic and tribal living.  The one holdout is the University of Minnesota, now more of a monastery, but still a place where learning is revered.  Even though this book was written in the seventies, it feels older, more like the golden age of science fiction.  There’s a lot of exposition and philosophy rather than action, and the plot gets a little clunky at times, but I still enjoyed it.

Living at the U of M is a young man named Thomas Cushing.  After his parents and grandfather died, he roamed the wilds until he came upon the university.  He was allowed in as a grower of potatoes, but also learned to read and write.  While there he became obsessed with the history of the Collapse and the subsequent destruction of technology.  Robots were destroyed and their heads stacked in pyramids by many of the remaining tribes.  Books about technology were destroyed.  But Cushing found a particular book of the history of the Collapse that enthralled him, and some notes in it made a reference to the Place of Going to the Stars.  Cushing decides to leave the university to look for the Place.  The rest of the book is journey to find it.

I found the book to be a little Wizard of Oz-ish.  Cushing goes on a journey and collects a ragtag group of followers along the way.  There’s Meg, the “witch” who is a sensitive, that is, sensing things externally and mentally.  There’s Rollo the last remaining robot who keeps his parts lubricated with bear fat.  Rounding out the group are a man who can speak with plants and a woman who can see into the great void of the universe.  Together they encounter difficulties as they look for the Place of Going.  The characterization isn’t great, but I did like Meg, who starts out with bravado but is ultimately unsure of her mental gifts.  Rollo was also rather fun, as most of Simak’s robot characters are.  He’s not a super being, but rather a quirky companion with more humanity than most humans.  

The prose is wonderful.  Simak displays his gift of the sylvan setting as he does in some of his best stories.  The world building is simple, as it is a devolution of civilization, with broken down homes, agrarian communities, and hostile raiders.  It represents the downfall of humanity.  And that is ultimately the main philosophical question of the book.  When this current civilization falls apart, for whatever reason, will humanity rise again or wither into nothing?  Simak also makes great points about trying to reason with people who have turned their back on logic and modern thinking, relying on outdated myths that do nothing but keep people ignorant.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s not as good as some of his other works, like my favorite, Way Station, but it was enjoyable.  It has a cozy feeling to it, like you’re in a cabin in the woods with a roaring fire, a rocking chair, and a comfy quilt.  I find this with most of Simak’s books, even the average ones.  He just has gift with his writing about forests and farms that I’ve never come across with any other writer.  

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Midnight Bargain

CL Polk
Completed 5/26/2021, Reviewed 5/26/2021
3 stars

I was a little disappointed in this book.  It’s good, but didn’t knock my socks off like Witchmark and the other books of the Kingston Cycle.  It’s a regency romance with magic, a fairly common trope, but this one more or less hits you over the head with its message about women fighting the suppression of their magical abilities by men.  It was a pleasant read that didn’t really take off until the end, which unraveled at a frantic pace.  This book was nominated for a Nebula, but would not be my pick.

The story follows Beatrice Clayton, a young woman who has come to the city with her family for the bargaining season, that is, when all the young women of marrying age make their rounds at parties and other social gatherings to find a husband.  The trouble is, Beatrice doesn’t want to marry because it means that she must forgo her magic, since the fetus of a sorceress is usually possessed by a spirit before it gets its soul, creating an abomination.  The result is that the baby and the woman are burned at the stake.  To prevent this, women must wear silver necklaces, not unlike slave yokes, to cancel out their talents and protecting the baby.  

Beatrice wants to be a full-fledged mage, but is obligated to marry to provide her indebted family with a dowry to return them to solvency.  Then she meets Ianthe Lavan and his sister Ysbeth.  Ysbeth too wants to be a mage and never marry.  The two young women join forces with a grimoire that explains how to be a mage without the help of the men’s magic society.  Ianthe helps as well, and as you might guess, he and Beatrice fall in love.  So she must decide what it will be, marriage and the yoke, or magic with the societal scandal and the ruin of her family.

The characters are all really well-developed and interesting.  Beatrice, Ysbeth, and Ianthe are the main characters.  Their interactions and dialogue are realistic.  I empathized with all three.  There is a fourth character, Harriet, Beatrice’s fifteen-year-old sister.  She is well-done as well, but her character is really annoying, as a fifteen-year-old might well be.  She is aghast at Beatrice’s behavior, for if the family goes into financial ruin, she would have no hope whatsoever of having her own bargaining season.  And of course, this being a regency England-styled world, a woman’s most important job is catching a man.  A lot of her dialogue is simply cringeworthy, not because it’s bad writing, but because it’s so accurate to the world Polk builds.  But this awareness did not make me like Harriet any better.

The secondary characters are rather cardboard: the long-suffering mother of Beatrice who wears the yoke, the single-minded father, the ruthless Lavan matriarch who wants her son to marry higher, and the myriad of suitors, some kindly and some foul.  The one other character I did like was the lesser spirit of luck whom Beatrice conjures to help her through the season.  It’s playfully devious and very likeable.  I enjoyed its obsession with throwing hexes to help Beatrice.  It kind of reminded me a little of Grr from the “Invader Zim” cartoon from about fifteen years back.  It’s a little naïve, fun, and dangerous.

The world building was quite good, borrowing from regency England and throwing in magic.  It’s done consistently and believably.  I had no trouble buying into it.  My trouble was that the first two-thirds of the book is unremarkable, from Beatrice and Ysbeth’s desire to break the mold cast for women in society to her relationship with Ianthe.  It all felt like it had been done before and more interestingly.  

I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s a pleasant read, but just doesn’t compare to the excitement of Polk’s Kingston Cycle.  I look forward to future books by Polk.  I think she’s a very good writer and has some excellent ideas.  I think I’m just tired of the regency thing.  

Friday, May 21, 2021

The City We Became

NK Jemisin
Completed 5/20/2021, Reviewed 5/21/2021
4 stars

Every series I’ve read so far by Jemisin is very different, that is, they have very different types of fantasy.  This book is urban-weird, Lovecraftian, while turning the tables on HPL’s racist writing.  It takes place in our present, in New York City and there is a creature from another dimension that is trying to destroy the city before it can be born into a life of its own.  Yes, very strange.  It confronts racism, homophobia, and xenophobia in general in most interesting ways.  I really liked this book, and believe it deserves its nominations for the Hugo, the Nebula, and assorted others for this year.  It’s the first of a trilogy called the Great Cities trilogy and I really look forward to seeing where she takes it.

The story begins with a young grad student coming into NYC for school.  He barely has gotten off the train when he realizes he can’t remember who he is or where he is going.  But he comes to the awareness that he embodies the borough of Manhattan.  At the same time, individuals in the other boroughs also come to understand that they are also avatars.  Brooklyn is a black former rapper, now city councilperson.  Bronx is a Lenape art curator for the Borough’s arts complex.  Queens is an Indian immigrant mathematician.  Staten Island is a xenophobic daughter of an Irish cop who still lives with her parents.  Their task is to come together to find the avatar for the whole city to help him complete the city’s birthing into a living thing before the creature from another dimension destroys the city and everyone in it.

The plot is actually much more complex than this summary, but it gives the general sense of what’s going on.  Much of the book is given over to character discovery and development.  The chapters cover each avatar’s coming to understand what has happened to the city, their own transformation into an avatar, and their fight against the temptations of the interdimensional creature.  I was very impressed at how Jemisin created such distinct characters:  the five borough avatars, the avatars from Sao Paulo and Hong Kong, and the creature, known as the Woman in White.  None of the characters ran together, which is impressive for me as I usually have a tough time keeping them separate when there are a lot of major ones.  Manny and Bronca are the most interesting.  Both are queer.  Manny is multi-racial and Bronca is American Indian.  They are on the good side but have dark undertones.  The Woman in White is wonderfully slick and evil as she tempts each of the avatars to come over to her side.

The fantasy part is more like horror in the HP Lovecraft sense.  But Jemisin turns it on its head by having the Woman in White bring the energy of white supremist groups and xenophobes to the evil side, rather than the good side.  Granted, the whole reverse-HPL theme is becoming a common trope, but Jemisin does it really well.  I found the whole world building to be tremendous, even if it is the existing world of NYC.  Having been a frequenter of the city, it seems that much more prescient.  In her afterword, Jemisin says that this is her homage to the city.  She has lived there since 2007, and her sense of the different aspects of it is right on target.  Even if you don’t know anything about NYC except what you know from movies, you will get a deep sense of it and its five boroughs.  

The only problem I had with the book was that there were long monologues and dialogues about the essence of the city, its politics, culture, and history.  I thought they slowed down the story and got a little too heady.  The book isn’t fast paced, but there is a tempo the Jemisin creates that drops from quick to sluggish.  It does pick up towards the end, which is quite exciting.  I know I complain about this in a lot of books.  I think it is a trap that many authors fall into trying to get messages across and characters well-developed.  I think Jemisin falls into that here.

Overall, the book is pretty exciting.  It is so different from anything else I’ve read that I was able to plod through the slow parts just because I couldn’t see how Jemisin was going to bring this to a conclusion.  But she does, and it’s pretty satisfying, even though it leaves a lot open for the next two books.  I give this book four stars out of five.  I very nearly gave it five stars because it came pretty close to knocking my socks off.  

Monday, May 17, 2021


Susanna Clarke
Completed 5/16/2021, Reviewed 5/17/2021
5 stars

I think this book is another love it or hate it book by Clarke.  I loved it, just as I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  I was shocked when I found out that some people hated Strange, but this time, I have prepared myself for that inevitability.  This book is a beautifully written tale of a man trapped in a parallel world suffering from Stockholm syndrome.  He has come to love his plight, creating his own mythology and rituals at the hands of a captor who is searching for the Great and Secret Knowledge of the ancients.  This book is slim compared to the massive tome of “Strange” and not a footnote in sight, but it is just as equally effective.  I was transported to the strange world of Piranesi and enrapt by a story reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s “Room”.  This book has been nominated for the Hugo and Nebula among others.  If I were voting, it would be a serious contender for either.

The story begins with Piranesi describing life in the “House”, a massive series of halls and vestibules lined with statues and beset by an ocean whose tides climb the staircases and fill the lower levels.  The ocean also provides Piranesi with seafood and seaweed.  Rain provides him with fresh water.  He takes care of thirteen skeletons which lie about the house, giving the dead offerings of prayers and food.  After a while, we find out this is an Other, a person who meets Piranesi twice a week, providing him with additional food and supplies.  The nature of Other is at first obscure, but clearly seems to have some dominance over Piranesi.  He says they are working on learning the Great and Secret Knowledge and Piranesi is key to helping discover this by reporting back everything he knows about the House.  This is all Piranesi knows until one day a third, then a fourth person appears, rocking his understanding of his world, not unlike Plato’s Cave.  

The book is very effectively told in first person in the form of Piranesi’s journal entries.  The beginning is a little difficult to understand, as the narration describes this strange house but then comes together when you realize that it is Piranesi’s whole world.  When we meet the Other, we immediately get the sense he has kept Piranesi there for a long while and he has come to accept and even love his plight and his captor.  The House is Piranesi’s reality, even his god.  Anything that contradicts this is just absurd.  

Piranesi is an easy character to love and empathize with.  He is an innocent, naïve and eager to please the Other.  Right from the get go, you guess that something is not right with the Other, who appears in handsome suits while our narrator lives in old clothes.  But Piranesi is so brainwashed into thinking that the House is the world and he and Other are the only two humans who inhabit it, anything else is absurd.  Piranesi loves and worships the House and knows every inch of its hundreds of halls and vestibules.  

The process of Piranesi’s coming to understand that there is another world outside of the House is very exciting.  Other warns him that if he has contact with the new person, who Piranesi dubs “16”, it will drive him insane.  This process of understanding comes in the form of Piranesi discovering that his journals actually contain information about the outside world.  He doesn’t understand these older journal entries, but slowly comes to understand that something is amiss, particularly with Other.  Reading through the journal with Piranesi is like the unraveling of a thrilling mystery which we quickly get but he does not.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  I found it riveting.  I tore through the last one hundred and fifty pages in a matter of hours, keeping myself awake long enough to finish it, and waking up a few hours later to pound out this review.  I was caught up in Piranesi’s realization that a world exists outside the house.  I loved the intense and inevitable end and was devastated by it.  Clarke has written another astounding novel that bears little resemblance to its predecessor.  It’s short, only two hundred and fifty pages, but effective and riveting.  I’m sure there will be some detractors, but I loved it and think it’s worthy of all the nominations it’s racking up.  

Friday, May 14, 2021

Network Effect

Martha Wells
Completed 5/14/2021, Reviewed 5/14/2021
4 stars

At last, the Murderbot Novel.  My expectations were pretty high.  I think I was hoping for a five-star reaction to it, but ended up feeling the same way as I did about the previous four novellas.  I liked it a lot.  The beginning of the book felt like the beginning of one of the novellas.  Then towards the middle, it actually slowed down a bit, more so than any of the novellas did.  Then it got intense at the end.  All in all, a really good book.  It’s been nominated for several awards including the Nebula and the Hugo.  It might just win one of those, as Murderbot seems to have a huge fan base.  I haven’t read all the books for either award yet, so the jury is still out for me.

In this book, Murderbot is asked to accompany an archeological expedition for the organization that Dr. Mensah was head of.  Her daughter Amena is part of the crew.  On the way there, they are attacked by another ship and boarded by strange, grey faced humans.  Some of the crew escapes, but Murderbot and Amena don’t.  They are taken aboard the invading ship which turns out to be ART from Artificial Condition.  Its AI seems to have been taken over by something else.  Murderbot’s mission turns into saving ART from the greys and finding its original crew, protecting Amena, and finding his own crew.

One of the best things about this series is that Murderbot is an excellent character.  It continues to grow over the course of the series, including in this book.  It doesn’t admit to having feelings, but it definitely does, once you weed through all the sarcasm and anti-social behavior.  I was impressed that its first-person narration still seemed fresh and fun, while advancing Murderbot’s character development.  I think I giggled a lot more at Murderbot’s quips in this book than in the novellas.  Not quite sure why because the dry humor was the same.  

As with all the other novellas, the other characters are well-developed.  In this book Amena is the most prominent secondary character.  She’s a teenager who gets in some trouble at the beginning of the book with Murderbot getting her out of it.  So she thinks it hates her.  It makes her interesting and provides her with a good character arc.

I did feel the pacing really slowed down in the middle of the book though.  I wasn’t driven to read it quickly as I was the riveting opening and ending.  It sort of felt like Wells was forcing it to be novel length rather than novella length.  Or maybe I was just so used to the books being fast-paced throughout that the middle felt like it dragged a bit.

I give this book a solid four stars out of five.  It’s very exciting and entertaining with the same hard science feel.  I just wished it would have grabbed me more emotionally.  That’s what’s missing from giving this book a five-star rating.  Wells has recently signed a contract for more novellas so there are more stories coming.  The sixth book, another novella, is already out there.  It will be interesting to see where she goes with new stories, and with Murderbot’s development into a person.  

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Black Sun

Rebecca Roanhorse
Completed 5/9/2021, Reviewed 5/9/2021
5 stars

I know it seems like I’ve been giving out five stars more than one would think would be possible, but I feel like I’ve been coming across some really terrific books that I just don’t want to put down at the end of the day.  This one is the tremendous first book in a new epic fantasy trilogy called “Beneath Earth and Sky”.  It is set in a pseudo-pre-Columbian world with all the richness you’d expect to find in a pseudo-European fantasy.  It has magic, gods, mermaids, and court intrigue, all with South American flavor.  The book was written by a Native American woman who has already won the Hugo and Nebula for shorter fiction, and is now nominated for her second of each of these in the novel category.  I loved this book, and can’t wait for the next installment to be published.

The plot is about the preparation for the ceremony of the Convergence, when the winter solstice sun is eclipsed by the moon.  Nara, the Sun Priest, is preparing the priestly court for the Convergence with fasting and isolation.  But there’s an attempt on her life followed closely by the death of the Matron of one of the four ruling houses.  This disrupts the preparation and causes dissension amongst the major priests.  For Nara is a modernist, trying to maintain and enhance peace among all the houses.  The traditionalists think she should show more force in trying to maintain adherence of the houses to the law.  A second plot follows Serapio, a young man who was blinded by his mother to make him a vessel of the Crow god.  As its avatar, Serapio could fulfill the prophesy to destroy the priests and regain autonomy for the “religious” Crow House.  This plotline goes back and forth in time with Serapio growing up under tutors and coming into his godhood and with his three-week journey from his home to Tova, the capital where the priests are.  The prophesy states that there he will kill the Sun Priest and free the Crow people.  

Yes, the plots are rather substantial, but Roanhorse does an excellent job of telling the story and keeping it all organized and readable.  Through these two main characters, she builds a rich and creative world.  It comes across as very complete society, as rich as Lois McMasters Bujold’s Chalion series, for instance.  It doesn’t fall into the standard tropes of a primitive South American society, either Incan or Mayan. 

The characters are amazing.  I deeply empathized with both Nara and Serapio even though their destinies pit them against each other.  Nara is a progressive amongst a ruling body of traditionalists.  She wants to make up for past horrors perpetrated by the ruling priests, specifically, what is known as the Night of Knives, which slaughtered many of the Crow House.  She has many enemies within the priesthood as well as from the Crow cult whose prophesy Serapio fulfills.  Nara is a good person in a bad situation.  Serapio is also very genuine, but knows what he must do as avatar.  It causes him conflict.  We feel much sympathy for him as he is thrust into his role by his mother when she brutally forces him to stare at a solar eclipse when he is eleven, sews his eyes shut, and carves an image of the Crow into his chest.  Blinded and ignored by his father, he is tutored by abusive teachers to help him grow into the avatar and accept his destiny.

There’s another great character worth mentioning, Xiala, a bisexual woman and ship captain.  After a night of drunken debauchery that she can’t remember, she’s saved from prison to command the ship to bring Serapio to Tova to fulfill his destiny.  She doesn’t know his mission, but is promised great pay if she can get him there in time.  But she has a secret, she is a Teek, who others believe is only half human, the other half fish.  And she must command a crew of superstitious sailors, which requires great leadership.  But she is flawed, and perhaps more human than most of her crew.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  I could not find anything wrong with it.  The prose was perfect, the characters interesting and relatable, the world-building phenomenal.  Even the ending was terrific for the first book of a trilogy.  This was one of the books that I just did not want to put down and regularly fell asleep reading because I didn’t want to stop.  And I wish I didn’t have to wait for the next book to come out.  Fortunately, I have her last double award nominee to tide me over, which is supposed to be terrific as well.  

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

This Is How You Lose the Time War

Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Completed 5/4/2021, Reviewed 5/4/2021
2 stars

I found this one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read.  The prose is sumptuous but so distracting I couldn’t follow the razor thin plot, the voices are nearly indistinguishable, and the love affair is unbelievable.  It’s only a novella, about two hundred pages, but it took me about three days to read.  You can’t read it quickly because you might miss something amidst all the flowery word choices.  It’s an epistolary story, with letters being written between two people.  I somehow was expecting a better book considering the high average ratings it has on different review websites, including Worlds Without End.  And somehow, it won both the Hugo and Nebula for Novella.  I just didn’t really get it, no matter how many times I read the summary description of the story.

So, from what I gather from the summary and what I read, there are two factions that are warring each other by traveling back in time to made and unmake changes to alter the future.  Each faction has a premier operative, known to us and each other as Red and Blue.  Blue seems to be the one trying to change the future and Red seems to be going back to try to set it straight.  The two begin leaving messages for each other in fruit, on feathers, and on other strange media, first taunting each other, then slowly falling in love.  But if their superiors find out, it would mean death as traitors.

As far as plot goes, there’s hardly any.  It’s a time travel story but there is no description of how it’s accomplished and there are no clear jumps to the past.  The story just starts referencing a past “braid”.  There are references to past historical figures like Genghis Kahn and Julius Caesar.  There are situations where people are killed or not killed, or perhaps have something change in their lives which will change the future.  And then there’s the love affair.  Red and Blue fall in love with each other, somehow, through their very bizarre communication methods.  How they figure out what the methods are was beyond me.  The affair leads to a dramatic conclusion, but even that is littered with such overdone prose that it was hard to figure out what was going on.

Yes, the overdone prose.  It was so distracting, but it was beautiful.  It didn’t seem pretentious, just really well-done, but overdone.  Particularly, at the end, it was several pages of glorious prose that didn’t go anywhere.  I liked reading it, but I couldn’t read it quickly, lest I miss where some plot actually happened.  

I thought the characterization was pretty non-existent.  It felt like there was no difference between Red and Blue.  Even the third person narration in between the letters sounded the same as Red and Blue.  There wasn’t much description of either character, physically or emotionally.  And their only growth was that they fell in love through their letters to each other.

I give this book two stars out of five, instead of one star, because of the prose.  But I disliked everything else.  It was actually hard to believe that two writers wrote this book, as it all seemed to be identical in style.  I’ve read some Max Gladstone before, Full Fathom Five, and found it good but not great.  I have not read El-Mohtar before, but her forte seems to be poetry, which is evident in this book.  I’m not sold on either one yet, but I’d be willing to give them another chance.  

Monday, May 3, 2021

Exit Strategy

Martha Wells
Completed 5/1/2021, Reviewed 5/3/2021
4 stars

The fourth novella in the Murderbot Diaries was just as good as the last one, Rogue Protocol.  It was a little more interesting because it circles back to some of the characters from the first book, All Systems Red, which I read quite a while ago.  It was nice to come back to these characters and get some decent characterization even though it’s been so long.  The prose is still terrific.  These books all could have made one really good 700-page novel, but I’m glad they were broken up into novellas.  Because the science is relatively hard and the writing filled with technical jargon, I think it would have been an exhausting read.  As individual stories, these have been just right.

This story follows Murderbot after it gets incriminating evidence against the dastardly mega-mining corporation GrayCris.  It has discovered that Dr. Mensah has been kidnapped by GrayCris which is demanding a ransom for her release.  Murderbot tracks down a trio of Mensah’s associates, revealing itself to them cautiously, as it still does not have full memory of the tragedy it instigated that started this whole cycle in motion.  They all reunite and scheme to get Mensah free and GrayCris indicted.  

The character development of Murderbot comes to a sort of conclusion in this book.  It (we are never told if Murderbot has a gender, although in the second book, ART offered to give it physical sexual characteristics) reluctantly admits that it has enhanced its human side and now has feelings.  Remember that Murderbot originally eschews human contact and would rather spend its time watching soaps.  But here it recognizes its feelings for Dr. Mensah, its original owner and dare-say, friend, in the pursuit of her escape.  We only get a little development of Mensah and the other characters, but they slip right back into the intrigue.  I was impressed that the secondary characters were so believable and easy to accept into the story.

The prose and the dialogue are still quite good despite being filled with technical jargon.  The only time I had problems with it was in the first book.  I got into the swing of the jargon in the second book and have kept up with it pretty decently.  It can be exhausting at times but it flows naturally and is quite readable.  And despite Murderbot’s growing awareness of its own feelings, it still maintained the snarkiness that has made it endearing throughout the cycle.  

I don’t have much more to say that I haven’t already said in the previous books’ reviews.  So I’ll just say that I give this book four stars out of five and this four novella cycle four stars as well, even though I didn’t care for the first book quite as much.  I think it’s a good thing to read these books in relatively quick succession to keep up the excitement of Murderbot’s journey.  I really look forward to the novel next, which has been nominated for the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Locus so far.