Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

Susanna Clarke
Completed 8/29/2021, Reviewed 8/29/2021
4 stars

This is a glorious collection of short stories, mostly from the world of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  It is comprised of eight stories of the Fae and magic, mostly with women either wielding the magic, or are somehow involved with it.  The stories are relatively short, compared to the massive JS&MN, though one is full of footnotes like its predecessor.  I really enjoyed them, reveling in Clarke’s amazing prose.  My only complaint is that there really isn’t anything new here, except that it features women.  This book is intended for those who want more of JS&MN, or for those who want a taste of Clarke’s writing before diving into the that massive tome.  But it’s still very enjoyable.  The book was nominated for the Mythopoeic Award in 2007.

All eight stories are wonderful but I’ll point out a few I really liked:

Mrs. Mabb – a play on Queen Mab of the Fae.  A young woman named Venetia is about to be betrothed to Mr. Fox.  A letter comes requesting her help a sick woman.  Against everyone’s urging, she goes.  Three months later, the sick woman has died and Venetia returns to find that Mr. Fox was invited to a card game with Mrs. Mabb and has never returned.  She then tries to find out what happened to him and to win him back.

Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower – Mr. Simonelli is a man with no prospects of marriage or inheritance.  He takes a job as a cleric at small parish in a small town called Allhope.  On the way, he stops at a house where he helps a woman deliver a baby, as he has some training in medicine.  The woman dies in childbirth but the baby survives.  He comes to find that the father is a faerie who calls him cousin, insisting they are related.  Simonelli goes to Allhope where he finds that a young woman has disappeared.  He continues to meet with the Fae until he discovers his nefarious plans.

Tom Brightwood or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby – David is a Jewish doctor.  Tom is a Fae prince.  Tom has many children and grandchildren who are quite unruly.  Tom accompanies David to Lincoln to see a patient who may be dying.  On the way, they come across a town with access across the river by ferry.  Before they leave the town, they must pay a toll.  Tom resents this and they meet with the man who owns the ferry.  Turns out the man and his wife are childless and they beg Tom and David to fund the building of a bridge to help with commerce.

All the stories are beautifully written.  Even if you don’t have experience with Clarke’s JS&MN universe, you will easily fall into it.  The stories together give you most of the tactics of the Fae in England around the beginning of the 19th century.  One even features Jonathan Strange and another features the Raven King.  But as I said above, the stories all ring familiar because the Fae’s tactics are all very reminiscent of JS&MN.  

Another thing I was disappointed in was that all but one of the stories features a male main character.  Yes, the women feature largely in the stories, but only one, which features Mary, Queen of Scots, has a woman as the main character.  I guess it keeps with the feel of the 19th century English experience where women are rarely in the forefront.  And the women do feature heavily.  Still, I felt a little cheated considering the introduction (by a fictitious professor) indicates that this features women and magic the way JS&MN does not.  

Despite these issues, I give the book four stars out of five.  It is just so pleasing to read these stories because of the prose and the content.  I think I would have probably enjoyed it more if I read it soon after its predecessor, as I was wishing that gigantic tome wouldn’t end.  This is like eight little desserts after the main course.  Or conversely, like eight appetizers if you hadn’t read it JS&MN yet.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

It Devours

Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Completed 8/28/2021, Reviewed 8/28/2021
3 stars

This is the second book in the Welcome to Night Vale trilogy.  It’s not quite as good as the first book.  It’s still amusing and full of the crazy inhabitants of Night Vale, but it just doesn’t have the same spark as the first.  It has a tighter plot with less asides, but it’s all those asides that made the first one so special.  This one features a giant centipede and the church that worships it.  It felt like a ‘50s B-movie with a contemporary sensibility with a twist ending that isn’t all that amazing.  

The story follows Nilanjana, a recent newcomer to Night Vale.  She’s only been there about four years, but of course, time is weird in Night Vale.  She’s a scientist working for the extremely handsome Carlos, whose husband Cecil is the DJ for the local radio station.  While working on a pesticide’s effects on bacteria, the ground starts to get hot, shake, and a local man’s house and yard plummet into a giant hole in the ground.  Carlos thinks it’s related to the house that’s not there, which seems to be a portal to another dimension.  He assigns Nilanjana to investigate.  She uncovers a strange link between the giant holes and the cultish church known as the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God.  While investigating, she falls for one of their most esteemed members, Darryl.  Is there a link?  Can she trust Darryl to help her?  Is there really a giant centipede that’s devouring the town?  Can she get any work done at all with crazy Pamela from the city or the black helicopters always following her?

The world building isn’t quite as good as in the first book.  It assumes you read it and know all about the diner waitress with tree branches growing out of her, Josh the shapeshifter, Jackie the perpetual nineteen-year-old who is now twenty-five, the not so covert surveillance of all citizens, and the invisible pie.  But it doesn’t really build that much besides that.  There’s the portal to another dimension through the house that isn’t there, but that doesn’t get much discussion until the info dump near the end, and then it’s kind of a slog.  The church is well thought out though, right down to hokey hymns and the intense pastor.  

The character development is good.  The authors really excel at personal details.  Nilanjana is quite well done, particularly in her conflict between what constitutes real science in Night Vale and the outside world.  It makes her pretty sympathetic as she tries to navigate the weirdness of the town.  Darryl is also well done, with his naivete and his fondness for Nilanjana.  We also get to know Carlos better, another non-native who has bought into the weirdness of the town much more thoroughly than Nilanjana.

I give this book three out of five stars.  The novelty of the first book had worn off by about the middle of this book.  It’s a fun read, but not as fun as the first.  And the big info dump of the other dimension at the end seemed a bit forced.  I’ll still be reading the third book in the trilogy after a little break.  It’s the back story to a ghost from the first book and spans several centuries, so it may have a little more oomph.  We’ll see.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021


Jo Walton
Completed 8/24/2021, Reviewed 8/24/2021
4 stars

This book is a tough one to review.  The first half of the book is an interesting but dry account of a strange Dominican priest in the late 1400s.  Then the second half plays on the trope of “Groundhog Day”.  But to say much more gives away the genius that is Jo Walton.  I didn’t think I’d rate this book this high as I was reading on it, but reflecting on it, I have to say this book is smart, well thought-out, and well-executed.  It’s just getting through the first half that’s difficult.  This book was nominated for a 2020 Mythopoeic Award (the winner has not yet been announced as of this writing).

Girolamo lives in a monastery in Florence.  He sees and casts out demons.  He sees the future.  His sermons are powerful, drawing the multitudes to his Masses.  He has sway over kings, and gets in trouble with Popes.  He’s almost too good to be true.   But Girolamo is not who he thinks he is.  And once he discovers this, he tries to reconcile the fact over and over through the replays of his life.

The character of Girolamo is based on an actual person from the 1400s.  He supposedly did all the things Walton writes about; it is documented in histories and art.  And that’s what the first half of this book is, the recounting of the last six years of his life.  There isn’t much fantasy in it, except for ability to see demons. It just reads like a historical novel.  I have to admit, it was a bit of a slog, not knowing where the book was going, not getting much of the fantastical, and feeling like I was getting a history lesson.  Then you get to the end of his life, you turn the page, and the whole story turns upside down. 
The writing of this book really good.  Despite my disparaging comments about the first half, I will say that the character development is excellent.  I just didn’t find anyone that interesting.  There are some Medicis and Borgias and a plethora of other historical figures, none of whom I felt any connection to.  Then during the second half, it all comes together and I found myself empathizing with Girolamo, Pico, Isabella, and several others.

Last night, I actually emailed a friend that the book was not one of Walton’s best.  But here, I’m retracting that.  It really is quite astonishing how she put the alternative into alternative history.  You just have to get through the first half of the book for it to pick up, and when it does, it’s amazing.  I give this book four stars out of five.  I’d say the first half of the book is three stars and the second half is five stars, so four stars is the average.  Walton continues to be one of my favorite authors.  I’ve probably awarded her more five-star ratings than any other author I’ve read, including Among Others, Farthing, and Tooth and Claw.  I still have another book of hers on my immediate TBR list and will hopefully get through her complete works in the next few years.  

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

The Rosewater Insurrection

Tade Thompson
Completed 8/18/2021, Reviewed 8/18/2021
2 stars

I really liked Rosewater, but I read it almost two years ago and didn’t remember much of it.  I was looking forward to this second book in the Wormwood trilogy because what I did remember liking was the interesting plot, the great prose, and the Afro-futurist setting.  Unfortunately, this book felt like one big mess.  It was told from mostly four character’s points of view, with a sprinkling of chapters from other characters POV.  There were multiple plot lines with multiple voices that all sounded pretty similar and it left me confused and uninterested.  By the time I got to the end, I didn’t care what was going on.  This book has gotten a lot of love from the different book review sites I keep up with, so I know my opinion won’t be popular.  So take this review with a grain of salt if you’re one of the lovers.

Alyssa is a white Nigerian living in Rosewater who wakes up one day not knowing anything about her past, including her husband and child.  She leaves home only to be tracked by Aminat, the lover of the Kaaro, the main character from the first book.  Aminat works for the same agency S45, which believes Alyssa is the key to the survival of the human race amidst the alien invasion.  However, interfering with Aminat is the political dealings of the mayor of Rosewater, Jack Jacques, who is trying to declare Rosewater a city-state, independent of Nigeria. 

There were too many main characters in this book for me to get any sense of good character development.  There’s Alyssa, Aminat, Jack Jacques, and Anthony, the alien/human hybrid that is the avatar of Wormwood.  There was also Kaaro, Eric, Hannah, Lora and a few other secondary characters.  Out of all these, the only character I really liked and followed well was Lora the AI assistant of the mayor.  She had no real sense of humor and took everything literally. 

I found the world building to be decent but also confusing.  Having read the first book two years ago, I didn’t remember much about Rosewater or the domed Wormwood.  Getting recaps helped, but the ganglia and the spikes kinda lost me.  I understood there was a symbiotic relationship between the city and the dome, but I couldn’t picture the details.  The prose was also decent in this book, but as I said, everyone’s voice sounded the same. 

One chapter I liked was from the point of view of Will, a famous author drafted by the mayor to document the war for independence.  Will’s narrative was a lot of exposition and info dumping about the history of the development of Rosewater, but it helped me remember things I had forgotten from the first book.

I give this book two stars out of five.  I felt like it’s form and style were too complex, at least for me.  My understanding is that the form of the third book is again different, so I’m hoping I like it better.  I’ll read a few other books to give myself a break, then attempt the third.

Monday, August 16, 2021

The Last Emperox

John Scalzi
Completed 8/14/2021, Reviewed 8/14/2021
4 stars

This was a very satisfying ending to the Interdependency trilogy.  It’s a very exciting space opera, which for me is quite a compliment.  It follows the same basic format, with most of the chapters being of the voice of the three main characters, Cardenia, Marce, and Kiva.  The book has a lot more long explanations of what’s happening, but I found it reasonable and informative.  Some people might find it to be too much exposition, but it’s Scalzi, so even the exposition is filled with tongue-in-cheek dark humor.  I’ve become quite a fan of his over the years, and look forward to the other books I have of his in my TBR pile.  

The format is pretty much the same as in the previous two books, The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire.  Cardenia, the emperox, is trying to save humanity from the collapsing interdependency, the massive hyperspace links between the worlds and space stations that humanity lives upon.  The problem is that only one of these worlds, known as End, can support human life without outside and artificial support.  The nobles believe in the collapse now that it has actually begun, but rather than saving humanity, they want to save themselves by getting to End and leaving the rest of humanity to die out.  Cardenia is focused on saving all humanity.  For this, she becomes the target of another assassination and coup plan.  Her constant nemesis, Nadashe is once again behind it all, but it looks like this time, she wants to claim the throne for herself.  Marce, who is now Cardenia’s lover, is trying to help her with the physics, and Kiva works with her to outsmart Nadashe.  In typical space opera style, nothing works out easily and the last third of the book is filled with crazy twists and turns.

The character development is all pretty solid at this point.  I was pretty invested in the heroic trio and was loving how much I hated Nadashe.  The world building is also pretty well set by this point too.  What really got me about the book was how well Scalzi was able to concoct yet another coup and assassination attempt.  At one point, I did think, “Hmmm, just another coup”, but I really enjoyed the plotting by the bad guys.  

Not much else to say about this book, because it would be filled with spoilers.  It concludes the series in very much the same style as the first two books, though maybe a little heavier on the exposition.  But as I said, I enjoyed the descriptions and the snark that Scalzi is so famous for.  I give this book and the series as a whole four stars out of five.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Welcome to Night Vale

Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Completed 8/12/2021, Reviewed 8/12/2021
4 stars

This was one strange book.  Surreal.  Kafkaesque.  And wildly entertaining.  It’s based on a podcast about a desert town with very strange residents and happenings.  I’ve never listened to it. This book was recommended by a friend (thanks Will!).  There are two more books in the trilogy which I picked up cheap.  It was nominated for a British Fantasy Award in the Horror category, though it’s only mildly horror in that there’s at least one ghost.  It’s going to be hard to talk about this book because it is so weird, but I’ll give a go.

Night Vale is a town in the desert southwest.  There are all sorts of strange beings, like the faceless woman, angels named Erika, lights in the sky above Arby’s, Lovecraftian monster librarians, microphones in every home, not-so-secret police, and government agents on surveillance of basically everybody.  One resident, Jackie, has been nineteen for a very long time, perhaps decades.  She runs a pawn shop where she gives everyone eleven dollars for what they pawn.  One day, a man in a tan suit with a deer skin suitcase comes in and gives her a slip of paper with the words “King City” on it.  She can’t remember the name of the man, nor what he looks like.  The slip of paper is always returns to her hand no matter what she does with it.  She becomes obsessed with finding the tan suit man and slowly, her life unravels.

Another resident, Diane, has a son named Josh who is a shapeshifter.  He can turn into anything.  Diane starts to see Josh’s father around town after fifteen years away.  She tries to confront him, but he always runs away.  In the meantime, one of her coworkers, Eric, has disappeared and he seems to be linked with the tan suit man.  Diane becomes obsessed with finding Eric and her son’s father who seems to be linked to King City.  Soon she is on a collision course with the gruff Jackie, their only resolution being working together to find King City.

The plot, the crazy details of Night Vale, and the prose are what make this book so good.  I found myself driven to reading this just to see how every detail was going to be described, like the crow that’s maybe a dog but is really a crow that’s a dog.  Or the diner waitress with branches growing out of her.  Or Josh, who one day has tentacles, the next day wings.  It’s just wacky.  I didn’t find it necessarily ha-ha funny, but it’s very amusing and entertaining.  And the novelty of the weirdness lasts the whole book.  I didn’t become tired of it because I always wanted to see what came next.  Suffice it to say, the world-building is pretty phenomenal.

There’s actually decent characterization as well.  Diane is a struggling single mom who tries, not always successfully, to connect with her son.  When she begins seeing her son’s father around town, always doing different jobs, her life slowly unravels.  It doesn’t help that she’s also obsessed with the disappearance of Eric at work, who no one else in the office seems to remember.  And Jackie is also well developed.  Perpetually nineteen, she struggles with having her childhood friends growing old around her.  She has a wonderfully uncomfortable meeting with her mom in a house she can’t remember growing up in, not even remembering that the silverware drawer is really the hot milk drawer.

The relationship between the Jackie and Diane develops complexly, with both being irritated at each other for getting in each other’s way with their similar obsessions.  But very slowly and deliberately, they come together to try to find a way to the mysterious King City.

It will be interesting to see how the world of Night Vale holds up in subsequent books.  The novelty may wear off as time goes on.  However, I think the fact that this podcast has been going on for a long time means that the authors have continued to come up with a lot of creative ideas, so I’m hoping the next two books are just as good.  I give this one four stars out of five.  

Sunday, August 8, 2021

The Consuming Fire

John Scalzi
Completed 8/8/2021, Reviewed 8/8/2021
4 stars

I was surprised I enjoyed this second in the Interdependency trilogy.  It had a lot more exposition and was more space opera-ish than The Collapsing Empire, two things that usually bother me.  It had a lot of court intrigue which at first, I found off-putting, but I was quickly sucked into it and actually enjoyed it.  The exposition I actually didn’t mind because Scalzi recounted his world building with it, and since it’s been three years since I read Empire, it was quite welcome.  I did find it a little less impressive than the first book, as is often the case in the second book of a trilogy, but overall, I’d say Scalzi hit another home run with this installment.

The Flow is continuing to collapse, but there are people in high places who either don’t believe it or want to use it for political gain.  Cardenia, the Emperox, has announced that she has had visions, like the first Emperox did, making the need to deal with the collapse a religious issue as much as socio-political issue.  There are rumors that she is going to declare martial law and basically destroy the power and fortunes of the various ruling houses.  One house in particular begins devising a coup, after unsuccessfully trying to assassinate Cardenia in the previous book.  In the meantime, Marce, the scientist who told the Cardenia about the Flow’s collapse, finds a fellow scientist who has discovered that Flow might be actually try to rebuild itself in a process she calls evanescence.  Of course, it will take a long time for this to happen, requiring the Cardenia do something to protect her people in the meantime from the collapsing Flow and the political chaos that also seems imminent.  

Yeah, I had a tough time coming up with a plot summary, as you can probably tell from the previous paragraph.  It’s because the book is almost all political intrigue, something I have a tough time wrapping my head around.  There are so many threads to it that it’s very easy to get confused by.  There are a lot of characters and I initially had a tough time keeping them straight in my head.  Fortunately, after about a third of the way through the book, I was gripped by the intrigue and was able to follow it better.  It helped that a few of the characters I couldn’t keep track of got knocked off in the course of the book. 

What also helped me was that the main characters in this book are the same as in Empire.  Cardenia, Marce, and Kiva.  Kiva now manages the accounts of the house that tried to assassinate Cardenia, and she uncovers a whole lot of corruption, information that the Emperox can use to her advantage.  Kiva is still brash and over the top and she’s literally sleeping with the enemy’s lawyer.  Once again, she’s fun and adds a lot of humor to the book.

The book is told mostly from four third-person points of view this time, those of the three main characters and a fourth, omniscient narrator.  That’s where most of the exposition comes in.  It goes through a lot of history of the empire and background of secondary characters.  As I said above, I didn’t mind it because it filled in a lot of memory gaps.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It wasn’t quite as good as its predecessor, but it’s not simply a three-star book either.  It’s an intense political space opera that takes a while to become fun to read.  But I assure you, it does become fun and the end has quite a zinger.  Being this is a trilogy, there’s one more book to go, so there are still some plot points hanging.  I will read it, probably after a different book just to cleanse my palate a bit.  

Friday, August 6, 2021

The Once and Future Witches

Alix E Harrow
Completed 8/6/2021, Reviewed 8/6/2021
4 stars

This is a beautiful book.  It takes a look at women’s rights through the eyes of three sisters trying to give a boost to the suffrage movement by introducing witchcraft.   It deals with not only the right to vote, but their treatment.  It also includes black, lesbian, and trans women in the mix.  I was astonished at how much Harrow was able to tackle in this novel.  Granted, there were a lot of characters and I lost track of many, but their stories stuck with me.  This book has been nominated for a couple of awards this year as of this writing, though not as many as its predecessor, The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

The time is 1893.  Three estranged sisters come to be in New Salem.  They each have some magic that they learned as nursery rhymes and children’s tale from their late grandmother.  One of them accidently makes a tower appear in the middle of town causing uproar amongst its inhabitants and a cry of witchcraft.  Witchcraft was supposedly stamped out by a St. George of Hyll, but now seems to be alive and well.  This apparition draws the three sisters together.  They are of different temperaments and butt heads.  However, they begin to come together as the witch hunting craze intensifies and they find that their and many other women’s lives are now in danger.

The three sisters nicely fit into the three archetypes of maiden, mother, and crone.  Bella, representing the crone, is a librarian.  Agnes is the mother.  She’s pregnant and supports herself working in a garment factory.  Juniper, the maiden, is brash, wild, and very strong willed.  She’s the one who wants to bring witchcraft into the suffrage movement.  In the beginning, they fight amongst each other, accusing each other of who betrayed and abandoned whom by leaving the family.  Their mother died after Juniper was born and their father was very violent tempered.  So there’s a lot to fight about.  The character development is very strong, but I didn’t find myself really caring about them until I very far into the book.  I haven’t quite figured out why.  They are written well and very independent.  The one clue might be that all three make a lot of bad choices.  I got a little frustrated that they couldn’t see that their decisions might be bad ones, even though time and again, they get in terrible situations.  

Fortunately, there are some supporting characters that bring some evenness to their lives.  I particularly liked Cleo, the African-American witch who Bella falls for.  She was strong and represented the oppressed black community on the outskirts of New Salem, particularly the women’s voices.  I also liked August, a man with some magical ability who falls for Agnes despite the scandal that would cause.  He was a little too good to be true, but added some positivity to Agnes’ hard life.  

I thought the evil wannabe Mayor was very well done.  You just loathe him right from the start, and the feeling only grows as the story progresses.  He’s the embodiment of a power-hungry, woman-hating man that revels in oppression of the downtrodden.  

The prose is really lovely, but I thought that the pacing was too slow.  The pacing plus my lack of empathy for the main characters made me occasionally lose focus.  When I regained it, I realized I didn’t really miss too much.

I realize I have brought out points that might deter you from reading the book, but there are also so many good things about it.  The way Harrow weaves so many issues into the story is quite awesome.  It’s not just voting rights, but treatment of workers, race, homophobia, poverty all wrapped up in a tale about witchcraft two hundred years after the Inquisition.  I give the book four stars out of five because of this.  Not simply because of issues, but how it’s all woven together.  And the end did leave me breathless.  I just wish I identified with the main characters better.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

All You Need is Kill

Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Completed 7/31/2021, Reviewed 7/31/2021
4 stars

This book wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I recognize this is a really well thought-out, well-constructed novel.  It’s military SF, which is not always my favorite subgenre.  I read it because it was the August selection for my book club.  It’s a very creative application of the “Groundhog Day” trope.  It was nominated for a Japanese SF award, converted into a manga, and adapted into the movie “Edge of Tomorrow”.  

There is a war on the Earth against a bizarre alien technology called Mimics that looks like bloated frogs and seems hell bent on destroying all humans.  Keiji is a recent recruit.  He goes into a battle and gets killed.  He wakes up to find himself alive and reliving yesterday.  He thinks he’s had a déjà vu dream, but then he dies in battle and wakes up yesterday again.  Soon he realizes he is in some kind of time loop.  On his 158th iteration, he interacts with Rita, known as Full Metal Bitch, and suddenly he finds that with her, he may be able to break out of the loop.  

The best thing about this book is that Keiji is a very ordinary guy called to extraordinary things, that is, help save the world from the Mimics.  At first, he’s horrified by the loop, but then realizes he can use the loop to train himself to become good at fighting the Mimics.  His character is well-developed as he immerses himself in this task.  Rita is also well-developed.  She was also very ordinary before getting her nickname.  My only problem is that we learn about her through a big info dump in the middle of the book.  The book begins in first-person narration by Keiji, then jumps to third person info dump on Rita, then goes back to first person Keiji.  It’s a little jarring, but it was effective.  

I was pleasantly surprised by the prose.  Considering this became a manga, I wasn’t too sure what to expect from the writing, but I enjoyed it.  It had just the right amount of good description, action, and snappy dialogue.  Even the info dump on Rita was very well written.  The world building was terrific, though this included another third person info dump, this time on the origin of the aliens.  I kind of felt that maybe it wasn’t necessary.  The way the book was written, it seemed like we shouldn’t have known that much about the aliens, because the humans didn’t know that much about the aliens.  It was like the perspective was jumping around between omniscient and non-omniscient, making it feel rather incongruous. 

This is a very short book, around 175 pages.  Like a novella, if I go into too much detail, it spoils all the interesting revelations.  So I’ll end here saying that I give this book four stars out of five.  Even though it wasn’t the type of book I normally read, it’s extremely well-done, and I’d recommend it if military SF is your bag.  It actually makes me want to see how they adapted it into a movie, even though it stars Tom Cruise.  Not an actor I particularly like.