Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Changeling

Victor LaValle
Completed 12/27/2022, Reviewed 12/27/2022
4 stars

I don’t read much horror these days unless it falls under the guise of fantasy, which it sometimes does.  This book was such a horror/fantasy and it was terrific.  It was nominated for a slew of awards in both horror and fantasy, winning the 2018 Locus Award for Horror, August Derleth (British Fantasy) Award, and World Fantasy Award.  It’s about changelings, children that are stolen from their parents by faeries or other mythical creatures and replaced by something that looks like the child but isn’t.  In the modern world, a mother claiming this would be diagnosed as having severe post-partum depression or the child diagnosed with some behavioral problem.  And that’s what we find in this modern changeling tale until the mythical is found to be factual.  

Apollo Kagwa is a rare books collector in New York.  He was raised by his mother, a Ugandan immigrant to the U.S., when his father disappeared when Apollo was four.  He marries Emma and they have a son, Brian.  Apollo takes care of Brian while Emma recovers from childbirth.  However, she appears to be suffering from post-partum depression and the relationship between the couple is strained.  Then she commits the unspeakable and disappears.  When a stranger approaches Apollo with information that both Emma and Brian are alive, he jumps at the chance to find them.  This leads him to strange encounters with an island of angry women and children, secrets in a cemetery, and the only forest in New York City.  

I was really impressed by the prose, perfect for a horror novel, just the right combination of description and dialogue.  Nothing too flowery, just enough to get you in the mind of the main character as well as paint colorful and realistic boroughs of New York City.  Reading the book was difficult at times, knowing what a changeling is and being able to see what’s coming.  I often had to put the book down and chill.  

The tale is told from Apollo’s point of view, though the narration is third person.  Apollo is a complex character, longing for the father who disappeared, having strange nightmares, becoming the father he never had, and grieving like only a father can over the death of his child.  It was easy to empathize with him as he went through the wide spectrum of emotions.  Patrice, his friend who is also a collector of rare books, was also interesting as a secondary character.  A war veteran and computer whiz, he provides good support through the story.  And when you find out who the bad guy is, he makes your skin crawl.  

I thought it was interesting that the main characters are black and middle-class, a scenario I haven’t come across much in genre fiction.  I think that’s why I like authors such as N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Craig Laurance Gidney.  Their stories that take place in contemporary settings have good representations of black people with average lives, but of course in extraordinary situations.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a real page turner until you have to walk away from the intensity.  The ending is something else too, coming out of Scandinavian folklore.  I don’t know if the author always writes genre novels, but I’d definitely read him again. 


Friday, December 30, 2022

Black Water Sister

Zen Cho
Completed 12/24/2022, Reviewed 12/24/2022
4 stars

I really liked this book.  I basically finished it in a day.  It’s easy to read, with effortless prose and believable dialogue. The plot is interesting, utilizing the rather common trope of the old being destroyed to make way for the new, but with the involvement of an angry Chinese god in Malaysia to make it fresh and interesting.  I had previously read Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, which I thought was okay, even though it had been nominated for several awards including the Lambda Literary Award.  This book, a full-length novel this time, didn’t get a Lammy nod, but felt like a much better product with a Lesbian main character.  It did get a 2022 World Fantasy Award nomination, however, and I stumbled across it because it is the February read for the in-person Science Fiction Book Club.  

The book opens with Jess and her parents moving back to Malaysia after living in the U.S. for nineteen years.  Jess has just graduated from Harvard but doesn’t have a job yet.  With the move, her relationship with her partner is transitioning to a long-distance one.  Strange things have begun to happen to her.  She hears voices which she thought were hers, but comes to realize it’s of her grandmother who’s been deceased for about a year.  Her grandmother is angry that a massive condo development is going to raze a temple to several gods, including to Black Water Sister.  She charges Jess with trying to stop this.  However, there is more to this than what grandmother tells, with the past clashing with the present in more ways than one.  In addition, Jess is not out to her parents, nor her extended family, and this burden adds extra pressure.  

Jess is a delightful twenty-something who is torn between her sexual and cultural identities.  She draws the reader’s empathy easily and all her decisions, good and bad, strike at your heart.  The grandmother is also a great character.  She gruff and opinionated and more than a little underhanded.  Jess’ parents, as well as her extended family, come across as more than stereotypical Asian parents, but still evoke the frustration one gets from their suffocating parenting style.  I felt like I was immersed in their family dynamics and could feel the frustration Jess felt.  

The world building is quite good, describing modern Penang while evoking the past through the encounters with the Chinese gods.  I could feel the stifling heat and smell the smells of Penang.  You also get just enough of an exposure to a few gods to be able to stay in the story without feeling overwhelmed, but still feeling immersed in the religion of the region.

I give this book four stars out of five.  I enjoyed it thoroughly even though the trope has been done so often in science fiction and fantasy.  Cho makes it feel fresh and immediate, mostly through the interaction of Jess and her grandmother.  There is some rough violence in the book which may have a triggering effect on some readers, so be forewarned.  But overall, it’s a really good book that has put Cho back on my radar as an author to watch for.  


Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Soldier of the Mist

Gene Wolfe
Completed 12/23/2022, Reviewed 12/23/2022
3 stars

This is one of those books that people seem to love or hate.  Interestingly, I found myself somewhere in the middle.  I liked the conceit, a “barbarian” soldier in ancient Greece with short term memory loss searching the countryside for healing by the Great Mother.  Besides the memory loss, he can see and interact with gods and demigods.  What I didn’t like was that Wolfe doesn’t use any of the names of the places and gods that we are familiar with.  I don’t know if it was part of the conceit of memory loss, or if it was a style choice, but it made it difficult to follow.  Still, I enjoyed a lot of it though I was also often confused.  This book was nominated for the 1987 Nebula and World Fantasy Awards.  I read it because the third book in the series won the WFA and so is part of my personal challenge to read all the WFA winners.

The plot is crazy.  I guess this book could kind of be called a travelogue because the main character Latro journeys from place to place in a quest to get his memory back.  He writes in a journal so that he can remember what has happened.  He basically has amnesia and cannot retain new memories.  He discovers that this affliction is from the Great Mother for some unknown transgression.  Latro must atone for this transgression to be healed.  The problem is he doesn’t know what he did in the first place.  Along the way, he meets people who befriend and help look after him, as well as people who enslave him, passing him around from owner to owner.

My main problem with this book was that it felt like it meandered.  Latro goes from place to place, more or less at the whim of the gods and the luck (or really the lack of luck) of the draw.  I often felt like I had lost the momentum of the book because we took another detour on the journey.  There is also a lack of continuity because the story is the journal.  It is only as accurate as Latro was in remembering the events of the day.  And it becomes clear that he didn’t write in the journal every day.  This is the epitome of the unreliable narrator.  I have to say Wolfe is a master of this style, but I didn’t quite care for it in this form.  

My other problem with the book was that none of the gods, goddesses, or cities are named.  I put a few things together, which I later confirmed in Wikipedia, like the city of Thought was Athens, Rope was Sparta, and one of the gods was Hades.  But I was lost with everyone and everywhere else.  What this book did make me want to do was read Stephen Fry’s retelling of the Greek Myths and Hero stories.  

Despite these big hurdles, I guess I overcame them because I liked the story, I empathized with Latro and several of his companions, and I enjoyed the prose.  I think Wolfe was an underrated Sci Fi/Fantasy writer.  I really enjoyed his New Sun series, which began with Shadow of the Torturer and his standalone book The Fifth Head of Cerberus.  I’m intrigued by the rest of the Latro series to see if I can follow the next two books any better.  

I guess my pros and cons for this book were tied, so I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s my lowest rating for a Wolfe novel so far.  But three stars means good in my rating system.  And in this case it means that were some good things about it which were balanced by the difficulty of the reading of it.  It definitely takes some effort to read this book.  It’s not light by any means.  I read less than twenty pages an hour, well below my normal reading speed.  So be prepared to put some work into this book if you decide to read it.  


Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The Cloud Roads

Martha Wells
Completed 12/17/2022, Reviewed 12/17/2022
2 stars

This is the first entry in the very popular Raksura series.  After scanning various review sites like Worlds Without End, people really liked it.  I found it tedious and tough to read.  I found the world building to be terrific, but I just couldn’t get into the characters or the plot.  It takes place on a planet with many different races of people, some are groundlings, some are skylings.  And it’s complete with wild flora and fauna.  The imagination that went into creating this world was staggering, reminiscent of the movie “Avatar” in its differences from Earth.  It just never grabbed me as a reader.

Moon is a Raksura, a changeling skyling whose family was murdered by the evil race called the Fell.  He has been hiding among the groundlings living in groundling form, as he doesn’t know any others of his race.  When the current community he lives with discovers he can change into a skyling, they assume he’s a Fell and try to kill him.  He is saved last minute by another Raksura who takes him back to his colony to live with them and be a consort to one of the sister queens.  But what awaits there is nasty politics and war with the Fell.

I never connected with Moon.  The book begins with the recounting of how he is nearly killed by the Cordans, the groundling community he lives with.  I felt no empathy for him despite the dire predicament he was in.   As more Raksura characters are introduced, I found no connection with them either.  The one character I kind of liked was one of the Cordans, Selis.  She was cantankerous and not really likeable until she shows up later in the book.  There we get more background and motivation for her.  I also kind of liked Chime, one of the Raksura.  He was a mentor who was transitioning into a warrior.  He was kind and patient with Moon even when many Raksura were openly hostile toward him for being a “solitary”.  

I didn’t care for the writing.  It never really flowed for me.  Despite Moon being a thirty-five-year-old male, I spent half the book feeling like he was a teenage female.  Something didn’t jive for me, even when he was shirtless in a scene and his chest hair is described.  Upon reflection, there was something juvenile about the whole book, having a YA feel versus adult.  Comparing this book to her Murderbot Diaries series, the writing in the latter is much more mature, culminating in the excellent novel, Network Effect.

I give this book two stars out of five.  This book is a book club read for January and I’m interested in discovering what the rest of the group thought of it.  I may be the unpopular lone voice, but I’ll stick to my guns in my dislike for it.  I’m not going to pursue any more of the books in the series.  


Saturday, December 17, 2022

Tender Morsels

Margo Lanagan
Completed 12/10/2022, Reviewed 12/10/2022
5 stars

Terrific book.  It took me a long time to get through it, almost two weeks for about 500 pages, but it was worth it.  Judging by its cover, I thought it would be fairy tale-ish.  Instead, it was a dark fantasy about a teen who escapes her horrible existence to live in her own private heaven with her two daughters.  It was beautifully written and mostly engrossing.  Around page 400, I thought it meandered for a while before coming up to a thrilling and heart-wrenching conclusion.  This is another in my World Fantasy Award reads, winning for 2009.

Liga is barely a teenager, living with her abusive widowed father.  She conceives his children, but he gives her herbs from the local witch to stop the pregnancies.  After a series of these, she once again conceives, but this time, the father is killed on the way home.  She bears a daughter.  Within a year, she’s attacked by five teen boys leaving her pregnant again.  She’s about to drown her daughter and kill herself as well when a portal opens up and they go through it.  Suddenly she’s in another dimension, similar to where she grew up, but with none of the bad people in it.  She bears a second daughter and she raises them there in peace and happiness.  Of course, such happiness doesn’t last and one daughter finds her way back to the real world, and the mother and other daughter are soon pulled back as well.  There they must face the hardships that real life holds.

Yes, it’s very dark.  Terrible things happen to Liga and when she escapes to her own personal heaven, you feel nothing but relief for her.  She raises her daughters in a loving home with her horrific memories deeply hidden.  The oldest daughter loves nature and the wild animals.  Of course, here, the wild animals are somewhat tame.  The younger daughter is a little wilder, longing for something more than the simple peace they live in.  She does escape when she finds a portal back to the real world.  

The interesting thing about this heaven is that occasionally, it is punctured through and people from the real world find themselves in Liga’s world.  That’s where the bears come in.  The town has a bear festival and young men dress up as bears and run around chasing young women.  Every once in a while, one such bear ends up in Liga’s world as a real bear.  One such bear ends up living with the family in their peaceful existence.  Another bear with less honorable intentions does the same, but Liga can tell the difference and warns her daughters.  

The prose is tremendous, being lush without interfering with the plot.  The world building is wonderful as well, with lots of surprises throughout.  After the traumatic beginning, I wondered if Lanagan could maintain an interesting, engrossing plot.  She was more than able to accomplish this.  

I loved the characters.  I empathized with Liga and her daughters.  None of the supporting characters were cardboard cut-outs of good or bad guys.  While there is more prosy description than dialogue, the internal thoughts of the characters made them lifelike.  The form of the book is interesting.  When the story is concerning women, it is told in third person omniscient.  When the story is from men’s point of view, it is first person voice.  There are only two men, if I remember correctly, that narrate, the good bear and the not so good bear.  But it makes for an interesting juxtaposition in the perspective.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  I was deeply moved by it, particularly Liga, so much so that near the end, I could feel my gut clenching at various points.  And it is hard to not be moved by the horrific beginning unless you’re a stoic.  But that combined with the wonderful prose and the originality of the tale made for quite a terrific read.  Even the lull around page 400 couldn’t deter me from assigning this rating.


Saturday, December 10, 2022

The Chimes

Anna Smaill
Completed 11/27/2022, Reviewed 11/28/2022
2 stars

I didn’t like this book.  I thought the form was confusing, the world building muddled, and the characters not terribly likable.  I had trouble following what was going on for over half the book.  By the time it explained things, I had given up on it.  I finished out of habit; I have a hard time just putting down a book when I’m going to write a review, and more significantly, when I’m doing a challenge.  I read this book because I’m reading all the World Fantasy Award winners and this one won for 2016.  The premise is intriguing: a near future London where music is used to wipe memory and keep people completely in the present.  However, this didn’t become clear until that halfway point of the book, even though I had read the blurb that explains this before starting the book.  And I don’t like being lost for 150 pages.

The story begins with Simon coming to the city after his parents have died.  He carries a bag of items which when he touches them, he can remember things.  This turns out to be a gift, not something everyone can do.  In addition, he can read the memories off other people’s items.  Too old to become an apprentice, he joins a gang that collects palladium from tunnels leading to the Thames.  Lucien, the leader of this little gang is mostly blind, but has a secret.  He knows how to destroy the Chimes which wipe out memory.  Simon joins him in his quest to do this.  In the process, they fall in love.  Of course, this makes the mission more dangerous as they are pursued by the order of monks which compose the music and safeguard the status quo.

I liked what the author tried to do, making a world where music is used to communicate.  The prose is dotted with musical terms and phrases, like presto and lento.  There were some I didn’t know and had to look up.  After a while, I felt this device to be dreary and annoying.  It didn’t flow with the prose or in the dialogue.  I think anyone who doesn’t know much about playing an instrument would find this really difficult to understand.  

Simon was the main character, but I never felt empathy for him.  I didn’t not like him.  Nothing really drew me into his mind.  Even when he finally falls in love with Lucien, I didn’t really care.  All I could think was “finally”.  Lucien was annoying.  He never gave clear answers to Simon’s questions.  I felt like this was a poor literary device to string the reader along as well as Simon.  None of the minor characters drew me in either.  

I’m giving this book two stars out of five.  It’s a good idea, but poorly executed.  Other books which use music for world building were much more successful, like Gossamer Axe and A Song For A New Day.  I also didn’t get how this was fantasy.  I thought it was much more like science fiction, with it’s post-apocalyptic London and lack of anything magical or supernatural.  I’m definitely going to think twice before reading another novel by this author.


Sunday, November 27, 2022

Spear

Nicola Griffith
Completed 11/25/2022, Reviewed 11/25/2022
5 stars

A truly gorgeous novella by an award-winning queer author.  This is a brief retelling of the Arthurian legend featuring a woman in the role of Percival.  The book draws on older sources of the legend and uses Welsh spellings of the names of the characters.  So Percival is Peretur, Arthur is Artos, and Camelot is Caer Leon.  Griffith did some intense research for this novella, as she describes in her Afterword.  This is my online book club selection for December and I’m glad I voted for it.  The prose is gorgeous, the retelling is inventive, and the characters are relatable.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this book nets Griffith her first Hugo next year.

Peretur grew up with her mother in a cave.  Her education was with nature, with whom she has a deep psychic connection.  Despite her mother’s insistence that she stay away from people, Peretur is drawn to leave for Caer Leon, where she believes she is destined to be a Companion to Artos.  Only through this journey will she figure out who she is.  So she leaves and works her way through farmlands disguised as a male youth, helping farmers, ridding the area of bandits, and breaking the hearts of young women on the way.  When she gets to Caer Leon, she finds her true destiny and the truth about her own past.

The greatest thing about our main character is that she is so humble.  She has many gifts including communicating with nature and a surprising talent for combat despite growing up alone.  Yet she is not a proud hero.  She simply wants to bring goodness into the world.  Even when she reaches Caer Leon, she does not want any reward for any of her duties.  She simply wants to be one of the King’s Companions so she can do good.  The process of her discovery of her sexuality is also very well done.  And how she accomplishes getting into relationships is marvelous.  But even there, she is humble and honest, despite her ruse of being a man.

I was really taken by the prose.  In the very beginning, it feels scarily overwhelming, but once I got into the story and the rhythm of the language, it flowed naturally, being just the right amount of description and plot moving.  It probably helped that this was a novella.  If this was a full-sized novel, the prose could have been a distraction from the movement of the plot.  

The world building is also wonderful.  Griffith takes the existing Camelot and transposes it to Welsh mythology.  The sword in the stone and the Grail are stolen power artifacts of the Welsh gods.  Merlin is not the benevolent wizard of Disney, but a more devious character with his own agenda.  And the whole early Medieval culture is fully realized in the countryside in which Peretur journeys.  

I really enjoyed this book as I have her earliest novels, Ammonite and Slow River.  I give this book five stars out of five.  I connected with Peretur right at the beginning and felt her passion the whole way.  And I knocked this book out in a day, even though the prose slows you down a bit with its lushness.  Griffith has a few other novels that I’m going to have to read, including the massive tome “Hild”, just because I want to read everything by her.  She’s three for three in my book.


Friday, November 25, 2022

Koko

Peter Straub
Completed 11/25/2022, Reviewed 11/25/2022
3 stars

This is a really good best-seller type novel.  However, it won the 1989 World Fantasy Award, so I was expecting some fantasy element.  Horror also often appears on fantasy award lists, so when I realized no fantasy elements were forthcoming, I figured this would be a horror novel.  But it turned out to be a straight-forward murder mystery.  No horror elements other than the horrors of war and human evil.  Disappointing. 

The story revolves around four Vietnam vets who come together to see new Memorial in Washington, D.C.  They come to find out about murders that have happened in southeast Asia that all have the same elements, missing eye, missing ear, and a playing card in the victim’s mouth with the word “Koko” written on it.  The thing is, they know Koko from their time during the war.  They were all present for an atrocity that happened during the war and Koko seems to be related to that.  Instead of going to the police, they try to solve it murders themselves.  Then when one of their own is murdered, the ante goes way up, because they may be next.

As a general thriller type novel, this was pretty good.  It was very long, like a lot of the best-selling horror and thriller books of forty years ago.  See Stephen King and Dean Koontz.  Lots of details about the characters that are tangential to the plot.  A lot of flashbacks to Vietnam to explain the terrible tragedy that the lieutenant was court martialed for.  A lot of PTSD.  The book felt long and often lost momentum.  I think if this book were written today, it would have been more like 400 pages rather than 600.   

The character development is pretty good.  I did come to like each of the four vets, even the crazy one.  They stayed true to character throughout the book.  One vet not in the original four was even gay, and the writer didn’t kill him off or resort to homophobia in his character arc.  For that I was grateful.  Michael Poole is the main character, taking up most of the page space.  A pediatrician in a crumbling marriage, he wants to leave his cushy practice in the suburbs for a private practice for the needy in the Bronx.  I liked him even though he went through most of the book in an emotionless state.

If I knew this was not fantasy, I would have probably rated this book higher, but I give it three stars out of five.  It’s hard to rate a book high when you’re disappointed with it.  Also, I thought the prose was very mediocre.  The prose and form of the book reminded me of an episode of the animated series “Daria” where her friend tells the head cheerleader that Daria is sick with “brain fever” and nothing that reading a couple of best-sellers couldn’t cure.  This book could have been one of those best-sellers.


Saturday, November 19, 2022

Nifft the Lean

Michael Shea
Completed 11/19/2022, Reviewed 11/19/2022
4 stars

I was taken by surprise by this book.  This 1983 World Fantasy Award winner by an author I never heard of was an astounding book.  Comprised of four related novellas, it’s about the best sword and sorcery book I’ve read.  It’s not just a D&D adventure, but a mythic journey into the underworld, replete with demons, giant bugs, sorcerers, and aliens.  Nifft is a thief who takes on well-paid missions that provide him with his own, personal Dante’s Inferno experiences.  And the prose is truly outstanding.

Each novella is narrated by Nifft, except for the last one where he is more a spectator than an active participant.  In the first three, he, with his thief buddy Barnar, have a specific quest.  In “Come Then Mortal, We Will Seek Her Soul”, the two are visited by a ghastly ghost of a woman who made a lovers’ pact.  She died, but her lover didn’t.  She engages the two to find him and bring him to the underworld for breaking his oath.  “Pearls of the Vampire Queen” finds Nifft and Barnar attempting to steal a horde of pearls from a Vampire Queen who demands an annual sacrifice of a virgin man in return for protection for those on her land.  In “Fishing the Demon Sea”, the two are about to be executed, but are given a reprieve if they agree to rescue the noble’s son who was kidnapped by a demon.  This story finds the two on a subterranean ocean with Gildmirth, who is condemned to live in the underworld.  The three search for the son, who’s a thankless narcissist, only to find he is more interested in finding a powerful elixir than be rescued.  Lastly, “The Goddess in Glass” is a strange tale of giant rock-eating beasts and a dead goddess in glass that may be an ancient alien whom the natives worship.  

I loved the first two stories.  I thought they were very interesting and inventive in their world building.  Like all four tales, they were very dark, with bizarre demons and creatures.  They were just the right length for their plots.  The prose was stunning.  I was not expecting anything so literary.  The word choices were amazing without seeming self-aggrandizing.  That is not easy to pull off.  So many authors easily get into a “look at me, I have a big vocabulary” mode that detracts from the story.  I felt that Shea’s prose was devoid of anything like this.  It was simply marvelous to read.

The third story was a bit more difficult to get through.  There were a lot of scenic descriptions which frankly I found boring after a while.  I realize the intent was to be in awe of this strange underworld sea and demonic civilization, but it dragged for me.  It did not have the spark and freshness of the first two.  However, I really liked the character of Gildmirth.  He was a benevolent guide who had keen insight.  It was nice to have such a kind character show up in a world of pain and horror.  He is perhaps the best defined character in the whole book.

The last story was back to the pace of the first two.  However, Nifft had little role in this story, perhaps because he wasn’t the narrator.  Out of all four stories, this was the most unusual, with its mix of fantasy and aliens.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  Overall, it’s excellent.  If you’re going to read it, be ready for a challenge.  It’s not an easy read with its large vocabulary and intense prose.  It’s also not available in e-reader format and is not easy to find.  I got my copy from an InterLibrary Loan from Wisconsin.  But if you’re up for the task, I think you’ll enjoy it.  It’s a shame this book has not had more staying power over the years.  


Sunday, November 13, 2022

Or What You Will

Jo Walton
Completed 11/13/2022, Reviewed 11/13/2022
3 stars

I believe Jo Walton is the queen of meta.  Her imagination when it comes to mixing the magical with the mundane self-referentially is quite amazing.  This book is no exception.  However, I found it a tougher read than most of her books.  I could appreciate the brilliance that went into the concept, but I found the form hard to follow.  I’d say it took me half the book to really sink my teeth into it, and shocked myself when I realized it took me two weeks to read the just over 300 pages.  I think some people will really love this book and others will not.  I’m in the in-between place.  However, it did win the 2022 Mythopoeic Award. 

The plot is tough to describe, but I’ll give it a try.  Sylvia is an award-winning fantasy author who has cancer.  She has an imaginary friend/inner voice who has been with her since childhood.  This voice has appeared in all of Sylvia’s thirty novels.  Now that she’s dying, the voice realizes that he too will disappear.  He devises a plan to have Sylvia write herself into her next novel so that both she and he can be immortal.  The location of the book is a Florence-like Italian city called Thalia.  And the voice, as the character Pico, has already opened the doors of immortality in this world when he died in a previous novel set there.  But the question is, can the voice convince Sylvia that this is a real possibility, not just a literary device.

The voice is the narrator, which can make things very confusing as you read the book.  He often speaks in first person about his present interactions with Sylvia.  He also narrates the book she is writing and tells the history of her life, including her painful childhood and abusive first marriage.  There is something very autobiographical in the story of Sylvia’s life, but I don’t know enough about Walton to know if this is true or not.  It is written, though, with such urgency and realism that it leaves the question open.  

Another thing to be aware of is that Walton draws the characters of her book within a book from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “The Tempest”.  I’ve seen both several times, but only barely remember them.  You don’t have to know the plays in depth, but it would be good to know the main characters, like Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban.  She does a quickie summary of “Twelfth Night” to help with those characters.  They all do come alive thanks to Walton’s wonderful prose, something I’ve always loved of hers.  

The world-building is wonderful, making you feel immersed in both a Renaissance and present day Italy.  Walton describes the city so well you can taste the gelato and entrees Sylvia gets and gives you an in-depth analysis of the cobblestone history of the roads.  It’s truly magnificent writing.

Where I got lost was the jumping back and forth between the different times.  There are two characters from the turn of the 1800s who through the action of the gods (Sylvia), send them back to this alternate Thalia of immortality.  There, they encounter the destruction of Caliban and the political machinations of the rule of the city.  Sylvia is writing this while actually in Italy, and the narrator takes you back and forth between the present and Thalia so subtly, I often didn’t realize where I was and who was speaking.  We’d be following Sylvia as she waits for the delivery of a decent chair and then slide right back into Orsino figuring out what to do with his imprisoned half-brother.  

I give this book three out of five stars.  I really liked a lot about it, but found it difficult to follow.  This is the eight or ninth novel of Walton’s I’ve read, and there hasn’t been a bad one in the bunch.  This one was just hard to follow.  Between books like this, Among Others, and My Real Children, I can say Walton does wonderful things writing about real issues for women.  She also mixes genres in these books so that it’s hard to say if it’s regular or genre fiction.  But the overall results are generally really impressive.  I bet a lot of people will love this book, and it will have its detractors.  I’d recommend this book to anyone who loves immersing themselves in books, loving them so much that you’d love to be inside one. 


Friday, November 4, 2022

Thraxas

Martin Scott
Completed 10/30/2022, Reviewed 10/30/2022
2 stars

Martin Scott is a pseudonym for Martin Millar, the author of the only book I ever gave zero stars, “The Good Fairies of New York”.  It was before I wrote reviews, but on the WWEnd site I gave it ½ a star because there was no way to enter zero.  It was an atrociously written story of Irish fairies that make it to New York get into mischief and throw up a lot from drinking too much.  So I was very hesitant reading this book which won the 2000 World Fantasy Award.  Fortunately, there was only a few hangover and vomit scenes and the elves had an herbal cure for it.  This book wasn’t too bad, a noir PI tale with a fair amount of tongue in cheek humor set in a fantasy world somewhere between ancient Rome and Middle Earth.  But it didn’t grab me the way I expect an award winner to.  

Thraxas is the hard-boiled, overweight, hard drinking PI with a barbarian for a landlord and a female human-elf-orc mix ex-gladiator sidekick.  He owes one of the mobs money he lost gambling on chariot races.  He takes on several clients whose jobs all intertwine in a confusing mix of detail and intrigue.  There’s a box with secret letter in it.  There’s a magic red cloth that deflects magic attacks.  There’s murder and double-crossing and a whole lot of politics.  Somehow Thraxas wades through this to try to solve each case and hopefully collect his fees to pay off his gambling debt.

The world building was interesting to say the least, as was the magic system.  You can only hold a few spells in your head at a given time, and Thraxas being a mediocre sorcerer at best could only hold one.  Casting spells takes a lot of energy unless you are a master sorcerer.  There are dragons, elves, fairies, centaurs, orcs, and humans.  There’s an interesting priesthood of the True Faith which the priests are always trying to promulgate, though it is heresy to try to convert an orc.  The world feels like it’s typical medieval Euro-centric fantasy, but there’s a tinge of ancient Rome with Senators, gladiators, and chariot races.  If it sounds confusing and overwrought, it is, but I found broad mix helped keep my interest.

I didn’t relate to or have empathy for any of the characters.  Thraxas was not exactly likeable nor was he repulsive, he was just kind of meh.  I kind of liked his human-orc-elf sidekick Makri.  She took classes at the local college and was trying to get into university, all the while helping Thraxas get out of jams in his cases.  She was pretty well developed, with her education goals, her gladiator past, and her manipulation of men for tips by wearing chainmail bikinis while serving mead at the local inn.  She was pretty kick-ass, but in the end I felt nothing for her.  There were a lot of cases with a lot of minor characters, none of whom really stood out.  One scene I did like was when Thraxas and Makri go to the Fae enclave in the forest and the fairies and centaurs all were enamored of Makri.  What’s significant is that in the human world, she’s shunned because of her orc blood.  Here she was welcomed and loved.  It almost made me feel something for her.

I give this book two stars out of five.  It’s not bad, just not that good.  The prose, while not as bad as “Good Fairies”, has a lot to be desired.  However, enough people must have enjoyed this book because there are a total of twelve in the Thraxas series.  It’s not my cup of tea, but it obviously sells.


Sunday, October 30, 2022

Only Begotten Daughter

James Morrow
Completed 10/23/2022, Reviewed 10/23/2022
4 stars

Loved this book.  I also loved Morrow’s later “Towing Jehovah”, which I read back in the ‘90s, before I was writing reviews.  This one postulates a modern day messiah.  This one, though, is a woman, a half-sister to Jesus.  She is destined to battle the devil as well as the Neo-Christians who are trying to bring about the second coming.  It’s a satirical look at religious extremism and reflects on the question that if Jesus came back, would we recognize him, or anyone divine.  This book, as well as “Towing Jehovah” won World Fantasy Awards, with “Daughter” winning for 1991, and both were nominated for a slew of others.

Murray Katz is an awkward, lonely, Jewish man living in a defunct lighthouse near Atlantic City, New Jersey.  To earn extra money, he regularly sells to a nearby sperm bank that specializes in contributions from Nobel winners as well as common men.  After one such visit, Murray is contacted by a scientist at the bank and is told that he produced a full embryo, not just gametes.  Upon finding it, the scientist put it in an artificial womb. Murray steals the womb right before a Neo-Christian group called the Revelationists bomb the bank.  He and a lesbian woman named Georgina who had been impregnated from the bank bring the fetus to term and they both raise their respective daughters together.  After realizing that his daughter Julie can perform miracles and is begotten of God, he spends her childhood trying to reinforce in her to not perform any such miracles, lest groups like the Revelationists come for her.  As she grows, she is tempted by the devil, spends time in hell, and does her best to stand against the Revelationists, all the while trying to gain direct contact with God.  

I really like all the characters in this book.  Julie and Murray are terrific characters.  So human, and Julie, also so divine.  I could empathize with both.  Georgina and her daughter Phoebe are also great, though Phoebe develops a lot of behavioral issues.  It is all done so well.  They are believable and natural.  Even the bad guys are well-developed, specifically, Reverend Billy, who heads the Revelationists and tries to bring about the second coming through violence, fire, and murder, all based on his interpretation of Revelations.  He’s not totally one-dimensionally evil, having questions of conscience about what he’s doing throughout the book.  He’s more three-dimensional than I would have expected.

Morrow is a good writer, with spare prose that’s not too flowery.  It kept me engaged even during some slow parts of the book.  Yes, there were some slow parts, particularly when Julie is finally adult.  She tries to figure out ways to spread her message without being a miracle-worker.  And that section is a little dry.  Also, when she returns from hell, it gets a little slow at times until the finale.  But the majority of the book is well-paced and very interesting.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It fell just short of five stars because of the slow-paced sections.  I found myself questioning Morrow’s choice of situations to put Julie in.  However, overall, this book ranks up there with some of the great religious satires of the 90’s, like American Gods and “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff” by Christopher Moore, and “Live from Golgotha” by Gore Vidal (the last two also from the time before I was writing reviews).  I find it a shame that Morrow is not as well known and as widely read.  He’s a very good writer and has some terrific ideas, questions, and points to make.  I’ve been wanting to read more of him for a long time, and after “Daughter”, I think I’ll be searching his other books out a little harder.


Saturday, October 22, 2022

The Ascent to Godhood

Neon Yang
Completed 10/15/2022, Reviewed 10/15/2022
4 stars

I guess I like Yang’s more sprawling stories because this one got me like the first.  It’s a short novella, but tells the story of how the Protector came into power through the eyes of her former closest confident.  I usually don’t care for court intrigue.  However, this one gave just enough detail to keep it enthralling and fast paced.  It’s told as if the narrator is recounting the past to someone, but the style makes it feel very immediate.  This book was nominated for several novella category awards. 

The narrator of this book is Lady Han.  As a child she was sold from her poor farming family and then sold again into prostitution.  She serviced high ranking officials and also performed as a dancer with the other girls from the house where she worked.  At one function, Hekate, the daughter of the Protector, contacts her and asks her to steal documents from one of her clients, a high ranking noble who supports a cousin as the next Protector.  Hekate wants to see her brother on the throne instead.  Lady Han does the deed and the uses the documents to discredit the noble and the cousin.  Thus begins the relationship with Lady Han and the eventually ascension of Hekate to the throne.  

Lady Han is a great character.  She’s loyal to a fault, but eventually has epiphanies that lead her to realize she can’t trust Hekate.  In a short eighty pages, she grows from a na├»ve young girl to a wise old woman who can see through the mess her life has become being associated with Hekate.  This is one of Yang’s strongest points.  She creates believable characters with depth and passion.  As for Hekate, we knew what she was like from the first three books, and this story shows she was a shrewd and cunning person from early in her life.  Her cruelty begins later in the book after a betrayal by her brother.

I like origin stories.  I think that’s why I enjoyed this book so much.  The other origin story I can think of that blew my mind was “Dragonsdawn” by Anne McCaffrey.  It’s a very different book, but it’s another example of how a prequel can be great after having been immersed in the world building through the previous books.  

I don’t have much more to say about this book, it being short and too easy to stumble into spoilers.  But it’s a great ending to a terrific series.  I give this book four stars out of five.  Overall, I’d say the series is four stars as well, even though I gave the middle two books only three stars.  I loved the world building, the prose, the characters, the form.  If Yang continued to write novellas in this series, I’d definitely read them.  


Saturday, October 15, 2022

The Descent of Monsters

Neon Yang
Completed 10/12/2022, Reviewed 10/12/2022
3 stars

The third entry in the Tensorate series was another good story, but again, not as great as the first.  This one was basically a murder mystery.  However, it was about the slaughter of a whole institute of people and the cover-up that ensued.  It did keep me on the edge of my seat, mostly because of the narrator, a police investigator who figures out that the government is hiding a big dark secret.  Most of the main characters are back, but in smaller roles.  It’s all about the investigator and how she deals with conspiracy to hide the real reason for the institute and the cause of the murders.

Investigator Chuwan Sariman is called to resolve the murders of a large number of people in a secret institute that conducted strange experiments, about which she can get no information.  Even the interviews with the two suspects, our Akeha and Rider, have deleted content.  The government is pushing Chuwan to close the case, but the whole story is messy.  The more she uncovers, the greater the conspiracy seems.  Finally she quits the force and tries to figure out the real purpose of the institute and real cause of all the deaths.  Of course, this leads her to our main characters from the first two books.  

What I liked best about this book was the form.  It’s epistolary, that is, told in letters, memos, and journal entries.  Almost all the content is narrated by Chuwan, with the exception of a few of the memos she receives from her superiors.  There’s also an interview with Rider that is splendidly told.  I was impressed by Yang’s ability to keep the story going without it seeming like exposition.  What really helped were Chuwan’s journal entries where she gets very real about her disgust for the police force and the Tensorate government.  

The world building is pretty interesting in this book, particularly when the real purpose of the institute is revealed.  Despite the sense of the setting being medieval China, there’s a lot of technology, from machines and from magic.  There are guns, hovercrafts, and mechanisms that are almost steampunkish.  I’ve seen references to this being silpunk, which I’m guessing means silk punk.  Anyway, it kept me on my toes whenever I would lapse into thinking it was all horses and kimonos.

I also really liked the writing.  Yang really got into the meat of Chuwan’s dilemma making me feel her frustrations as the case reached its premature end.  I definitely could empathize with her.  And the writing was very real and immediate, not full of flowery prose.

I give this book three stars out of five.  Despite this rating of “good”, I did enjoy it and am glad I’m reading the series.  As a whole, I think it exceeds the average of the ratings of each individual book.  We’ll see if this holds true through the fourth installment.  

Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Red Threads of Fortune

Neon Yang
Completed 10/9/2022, Reviewed 10/9/2022
3 stars

This novella suffers from sophomore slump, as many second books in a series do.  It didn’t grab me the way the first one did.  The plot simply felt average and the magic system, spirituality, and gender innovations weren’t really taken to a different level.  It was simply a story in the same universe as the first, The Black Tides of Heaven.  It didn’t help that I’ve been so distracted by work.  However, I was hoping for something to get lost in so I could stop thinking about work, but this book didn’t pull me in.  It was nominated for a 2017 Otherwise Award, vying against the first book, strangely enough.

This story takes place two years after the events of the first book.  Mokoya has recovered from the physical damage she sustained, but emotionally, she’s a wreck.  She’s lost her gift of prophecy as well as her daughter.  Now she takes to the countryside, hunting down the terrifying naga, which are flying dragon-like creatures.  In particular, one enormous naga seems bent on destroying the mining city of Bataanar.  On her journey, she meets the mysterious Rider, who she takes as a lover.  Together, they try to unravel the mystery of this mega-naga before it destroys the city and leads the countryside into another war.

This book is told from Mokoya’s perspective.  So that’s different from first book, which was mostly told from her twin Akeha’s perspective.  However, there isn’t much new about her here, other than her grieving over her daughter.  Akeha and the rest of the characters from the first book play smaller roles.  It’s really about Mokoya and her budding relationship with Rider.  

There isn’t much more to the world building here either.  The only item of note is that we learn more about the naga and the experiments performed with them by a nefarious cabal.  The prose, however, really shines.  There’s a lot more description here as we spend a lot of time in Mokoya’s head rather than in dialogue. It’s beautifully written, but doesn’t advance the plot very much.  In fact, I felt like it took half this short work to really get going.  

I give this book three stars out of five, kind of a let down after Black Tides.  But Yang continues to impress me with her wordsmithing and ability to portray a complicated gendered society with grace and ease.  I’ll continue to read through this series, having all of them in one volume, because I’m interested to see where else Yang can go in this world.  Hopefully it picks up a bit, but even if it stays average, it’s still worth reading.


Sunday, October 9, 2022

The Black Tides of Heaven

Neon Yang
Completed 10/5/2022, Reviewed 10/6/2022
4 stars

This is probably the first fantasy I’ve read with a complete but not complicated non-binary gender fluid society.  With it’s three sequels bound in one volume, this novella was nominated for the 2022 Lambda Literary Award.  Standalone, it was nominated for the 2017 Sideways and Golden Tentacle Awards.  It has a very engaging story about twins with special powers who take very different paths, but ultimately are trying to escape and rebel against the shadow of their monarch mother.  

Akeha and Mokoya are twins of their mother the Protector who rules their land with an iron fist.  She bears the twins solely for the purpose of repaying a debt to the monastery that helped her overcome a rebellion.  The twins go off the monastery and learn the spiritual and magical ways of the monks and nuns.  Soon Mokoya displays the ability to see the future through their dreams.  When the Protector gets wind of this, she demands them back so she can exploit the gift to keep her enemies at bay.  They do return to the castle but are very unhappy.  When the time comes to decide their genders, Mokoya decides to be a female and return to the Monastery.  Akeha decides to be a male and runs away from their abusive, exploitive mother.  Eventually, he becomes linked to the Machinists, a rebel group aimed at overthrowing the Protectorate.

The narrative is mostly told from Akeha’s point of view, but it feels like you’re inside the head of both them and Mokoya.  I found myself empathizing with them and their plight, particularly their frustration with their scheming mother.  She knows how to press their buttons and does it well.  Once she makes the twins return to the castle, she makes Mokoya wear a box that records and transmits their dreams to her so that she can see what’s about to happen and try to fight it.  But the twins already know that there is no getting around Fate.  The box is the ultimate in parental control of the lives of children, and I think everyone can relate to that at some level.

Yang was primarily a short story writer.  When they were approached with the idea of writing a longer piece, they procrastinated for a while out of fear.  When they finally wrote this novella, they came up with a hit.  It was well received, and for good reason.  It’s beautifully written, with just enough prosy description to get a good sense of the world of the Protectorate, its religions, and culture.  At first you would think the non-binary nature of the society would be a difficult read, but it was not.  I found it to be very easy to slip into the culture and follow Akeha and Mokoya’s lives, before and after their choosing their gender.

I give this novella four stars out of five.  I have the whole series of novellas and I’ll be reading them one after the other because I like the world Yang built so well.  The remaining three are shorter than this one, so it shouldn’t take me too much time to get through them all.  


Thursday, October 6, 2022

A Desolation Called Peace

Arkady Martine
Completed 10/1/2022, Reviewed 10/1/2022
4 stars

I’m begrudgingly admitting to liking this book. I was pretty meh about the first book in the Teixcalaan series, A Memory Called Empire, and I wasn’t looking forward to reading the sequel.  However, it won the 2022 Hugo Award and was nominated for a slew of others, including the 2021 Lambda Literary Award.  Since I’ve read all the Hugos, and since I’ve been reading all the Lammy nominees of late, I buckled down and read it.  Starting it was like pulling teeth.  It had all the pitfalls that I didn’t like from the first book, the wacky names, the character statements interrupted by long prose, and tons of politics.  It took me nearly a week to get through the first third of the book.  Then it was Saturday, and I read the last 300 pages.  And I got it, and I liked it.  So yeah, I’ll admit to agreeing with the Hugo voters on this one.

The plot is convoluted as it has multiple points of view bouncing around and it takes a while before the narrative narrows down to two main story lines that eventually converge.  The empire is on the verge of war with an unknown enemy.  It is slaughtering citizens and barbarians with no discrimination.  Three Seagrass takes it upon herself to invite Mahit to join her on a diplomatic mission to try to communicate with the enemy and prevent a long destructive war.  In the meantime, the clone of the old Emperor is now eleven-years-old and as precocious as ever.  He’s heir to the throne and his guardian is the current Emperor.  She calls him her little spy, becoming her ears in secret places.  But soon he has his own realizations about the enemy that could put a stop the genocide that seems inevitable.

Yeah, complicated.  And the setup in the first hundred fifty pages is so tedious.  I could not for the life of me get into what anybody was doing or saying.  It was a lot of posturing and playing politics.  After that, I finally got what all the setup was about and it started to make sense.  However, it still took about another fifty or so pages to remember who all the characters were.  The whole naming scheme kept me from remembering who was who.  There’s Three Seagrass and Eight Antidote, and Nineteen this and Nine that.  When the narration finally narrowed down to Eight Antidote, the heir apparent, and Mahit and Three Seagrass, I finally was able to follow what was going on.  Then the first contact plotline emerges and is really interesting.

I kind of remembered Mahit from the first book.  She was the main character.  But I read that book early last year and didn’t remember details.  Nor did I remember that she and Three Seagrass had a spark between them.  In this book, their relationship erupts into full intimacy, and I have to say, it was done really well.  Great character development and relationship building.  I did also like Eight Antidote.  As the heir apparent, he takes his job as the Emperor’s spy seriously, but also has his own sense of morality.  He develops a well-informed conscience and gets to act on it.

I’m glad I devoted a whole Saturday to finishing this book.  Reading only twenty pages a night for a week doesn’t lend itself to remembering a cast of characters with unmemorable names.  It also makes it hard to follow all the narratives that the book starts out with.  But reading in one sitting made it all come together for me.  I give this book four stars out of five.  Unfortunately, I don’t think a good book should have to be read in one sitting.  I like books that are a little less complicated.  That’s why I tend not to like space opera.  There are too many characters and situations to remember.  And if you only get to read twenty pages a night for a while, it makes the book that much less enjoyable.


Saturday, October 1, 2022

The Shadow Year

Jeffrey Ford
Completed 9/25/2022, Reviewed 9/25/2022
5 stars

This awesome book won the 2009 World Fantasy Award as well as the 2008 Shirley Jackson Award.  Like some of the WFA that I’ve read recently, it’s a novel with a little fantasy element to it, but just a little.  It’s mostly a fabulously written story about a boy and his family in the early sixties living in a Long Island town with turmoil within and without the family unit.  There’s mental illness and terrible crimes in this sleepy town.  The main character and his brother and sister feel it is up to them to solve the mystery.  Like the blurb on the back cover, the book is reminiscent of Stephen King’s “The Body” (aka by the film’s title “Stand by Me”).  It is an excellent psychological drama that grabbed me in the morning and didn’t let go until I finished it late that night.

The main character is a sixth grader.  His brother Jim just started junior high and his younger sister Mary speaks in multiple voices, has a savant relationship with numbers, and seems to know what’s happening around town because of them.  Jim has built a replica of the town in this basement with clay figures representing the inhabitants.  He calls the replica Botch Town.  When Mary whispers numbers to herself, she moves the people pieces around Botch Town representing where they are or where they’re going to be.  At the beginning of the novel, there’s a peeping tom.  A little later, a boy from the main character’s class goes missing.  Later, an old man is found dead of a snapped neck in a snow drift.  The school janitor receives an anonymous letter telling him he’s in danger.  The main character and his brother try to solve the mystery of who these perpetrators are during the “Shadow Year”.

The writing of this book is marvelous.  It has an easy prose style that makes reading a joy and lets you read faster and faster until you get to the very end.  The setting is so well described that you really feel like you’re living in the sixties.  The only part that didn’t seem right was some of the details of the period, specifically, the music.  The story begins towards the end of one summer and continues through the end of the next.  That Thanksgiving, everyone is learning how do dance “The Twist” by Chubby Checker.  Later in that time period, “Time of the Seasons” by the Zombies is playing on the radio.  In reality, the songs were released several years apart.  If you could ignore this, though, the penny candy and references to “Leave it to Beaver” and President Johnson fill in the gap nicely.

The main character (M.C.) calls this time period the Shadow Year because so many terrible things happen.  At home, money has become an issue.  Father works several jobs.  Mother works and is a bipolar alcoholic. Every night, she chain smokes and drinks wine and cream sherry until she passes out on the couch.  The M.C. has trouble in school.  In fact all the children have trouble this year.  In town, there is the peeping tom.  Then the little boy goes missing. The M.C.’s only escapes are books and Jim and Mary.  

Mary is an interesting character.  She appears to be the problem child.  No one can figure out if she is smart or stupid.  While reading, you get the feeling she’s a savant with multiple personality disorder.  She plays school by herself, changing her voice for the teacher and the other students.  One of the students, Mickey, is a boy.  Sometimes, during stressful situations, Mickey comes out, like at Thanksgiving, or even at school where she is in a class for problem children. You never really know what Mary’s issue is, you just infer them from her behavior.

The fantasy element is very light.  There is a possibility that one of the characters is a ghost.  Also, the children believe that the murder suspect has “powers”.  Then there’s Mary who seems to know where to put the clay figures in Botch Town to represent where they really are, as if she has some psychic ability.  She claims to know where the missing’ boy’s body is located.  She seems to know where the murder suspect is going to appear next.  It’s as if her mental illness comes with a side benefit.

I give this book five stars out of five.  I was completely engaged in this book, wrapped up in the characters and their search for the murderer.  I couldn’t put the book down.  Thanks goodness I was reading it on a Saturday and was able to finish it in one day.  I had empathy for the M.C. and his situation at school and in the family.  I was surprised to feel this way about the book because it read like regular fiction rather than genre fiction.  But it was so marvelously written and engaging that I found I loved it.  I was glad it pulled me in right at the beginning, unlike the author’s previous WFA winner, The Physiognomy, which took a long while to get into.  If another book of his popped up on my radar, I would definitely give it a whirl.


Saturday, September 24, 2022

The Space Merchants

Frederik Pohl & CM Kornbluth
Completed 9/24/2022, Reviewed 9/24/2022
4 stars

I first read this book in college for a Sci Fi class.  I didn’t remember a thing about it.  When my book club voted for this book, I was excited because I had wanted to read it again to see what I thought of it now.  Turns out I liked it a lot.  It’s a biting satire on the sleazy world of advertising first published in 1952.  A few parts are dated, but it is still a very accurate portrayal of corporate greed in America. 

The story is told by Mitch Courtenay, an executive copywriter for one of the biggest advertising companies in the world.  He is tentatively married to Kathy, a doctor, who as of late has been avoiding him.  She hasn’t signed the confirmation document that would make their marriage permanent.  At work, Mitch has been assigned the Venus account, heading the campaign to convince people to sign up to colonize Venus.  Up to this point, only one person has been to Venus before, finding it an inhospitable desert, as the scientists had theorized.  However, there is another firm that had originated the idea, which Mitch’s company stole and sold to Congress.  They seem to be out to kill Mitch.  Things turn bad when he is abducted and sent to work as a lower class drudge in Costa Rica and learns what it is like to be a consumer of the products his company brainwashes people into needing.

While the story is good, there isn’t much to like about Mitch.  He’s a company man through and through.  When he ends up in Costa Rica, I was actually happy that he had to work as a scum skimmer in a plant that produces the protein called Chicken Little.  It feels like he gets his comeuppance.  I felt, though, that Mitch was pretty well developed for me to dislike him so much so quickly, and get this reaction when falls from his lofty heights of society.  The women in this book are interesting.  They are pretty reflective of the era, the early fifties, even though Kathy is a doctor.  Yet they have some strength to them, which I thought was surprising.  Most notable is Mitch’s secretary Hester who, like a good secretary of the fifties, is faithful to her boss and his needs.  Of course, she’s in love with him too, but I thought she was a better than a lot of women from the pages of this era.

The world that this takes place in is the 22nd century.  Earth is overcrowded, massive amounts of people are homeless and sleeping in the stairwells of the corporate skyscrapers, fossil fuels are depleted, and all food is synthesized.  I liked Mitch’s discovery of the effects of his campaigns for his products.  Eat a snack.  It makes you crave soda, which makes you crave a cigarette, which makes you crave snacks, all in a never-ending loop of addiction.  Even the coffee, called coffiest, is made to addict you.  

I liked the structure of the US government in this book.  Congress represents corporations, not the population.  It’s like today’s corporations gifting congresspeople for votes, but being honest about it.  And other little things, like the saying that a thousand innocent deaths are worth it if it helps bring the one guilty person to justice.  Pohl and Kornbluth take many axioms of the present and turn them on their head.  You get a chuckle inside, but also feel a little sick when you realize this is where we seem to be headed today.

I give this book four stars out of five.  At just around two hundred pages, this was a quick read.  The prose is pretty spare.  It gets right to the point and keeps you engaged.  I’m impressed with how good a book this was, though I’ve read Pohl before and have enjoyed his work.  Gateway won a Hugo and Man Plus was pretty satisfying.  I’m always a little suspect when two authors write a book, but this one felt pretty seamless.  I read that the two have collaborated quite a bit and have developed a quite a pychic connection when writing a story, easily picking up where the other leaves off.  I think this is a book that should endure.  It’s well written and still relevant today.


Thursday, September 22, 2022

Galveston

Sean Stewart
Completed 9/22/2022, Reviewed 9/22/2022
4 stars

This book started out slow.  Then I discovered it was the third book in a trilogy.  So then it made some sense that I was having some trouble getting into this universe because it was assuming some knowledge.  However, once I got into it and understood the mythology and backgound, I read it voraciously.  It’s quite a page turner, set in a post-apocalyptic near future on the island of Galveston, Texas, where there’s a city within a city full of magic, gods, and monsters.  It’s sort of a microcosmic version of American Gods crossed with the weirdness of a Clive Barker novel.  This book won the 2001 World Fantasy Award.


Josh is a luckless survivor of the 2004 “Flood”, when magic poured into Galveston during some sort of apocalyptic event.  He runs an apothecary of herbs and what’s left of modern medicines, treating the poor as their doctor since they cannot pay for actual medical help.  His best friend is Ham, a very large and strong sidekick.  When Ham saves Sloane the socialite from a beating and rape, he brings her to the apothecary.  It turns out Sloane has been going into the magic side of Galveston to bargain with one of the gods to extend the life of her dying mother.  Sloane continues to visit Josh after each visit to the magic side, known as Mardi Gras.  Josh has been infatuated with Sloane since elementary school and his desire for her escalates.  One day, when Sloane doesn’t return and her mother dies, Josh and Ham are accused and convicted of her Sloane’s murder and exiled to the mainland where they must survive among the cannibal remnant population.  Then Sloane returns, as do Josh and Ham, looking to avenge their accusers.

This plot may sound complicated, and it is, but it all flows as you progress.  There are more twists and turns in the story, even though it may sound like I gave away a lot.  The writing is pretty great, with terrific prose that’s not too flowery.  It was just enough to give you vivid images of people, places, and action.  It made up for my not reading the first two books of the trilogy, providing enough detail of the societal structure to understand what’s going on.  Stewart builds a very interesting, very different type of post-apocalyptic world, even though it has echoes of other books.  It would be interesting to know if China Mieville was influenced by the dual city concept in his The City and the City which was published almost ten years later. 

The characters are not really likeable.  Josh is cold and selfish.  He doesn’t have any friends except Ham who he often belittles.  He likes to show how smart he is and takes everyone for granted.  Then he can’t understand why people don’t like him.  Sloane didn’t grab me either.  She’s rather oblivious to the people around her, being brought up by the woman known as the Grand Duchess of Galveston.  Sloane’s mother basically held together the non-magical side of the island.  Sloane wants her mother to live so that she won’t have to watch her die.  

All the other characters are well-developed.  Ham makes a good sidekick.  There’s the Recluse, the woman who keeps Mardi Gras and the monsters from creeping into the non-magical side.  She’s almost likeable, but has a darkness about her that runs pretty deep.  Even the bad sheriff and the snobby rich people are portrayed multi-dimensionally.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It was pretty close to five stars, but the ending was a little anticlimactic.  And there’s a poker metaphor that Stewart keeps hitting over the reader’s head.  Aside from these two issues though, I thought the book was terrific.  Except for a few spots, it’s exciting and fast-paced.  I was interested in the main characters even though I didn’t really like them until pretty close to the end.  And I really liked that the book stood pretty well on its own despite being part of a trilogy. 


Saturday, September 17, 2022

Dr. Rat

William Kotzwinkle
Completed 9/17/2022, Reviewed 9/17/2022
4 stars

This is a surreal sci fi/fantasy novel that carries deep messages about animal rights, war, and genocide.  At first it’s funny, but quickly becomes very dark in its tale of a hyper-intelligent, yet insane rat that justifies cruel animal testing to the other rats and animals in the lab.  Winner of the 1977 World Fantasy Award, it shows its age with its feel of nouveau sci fi that was popular in the late sixties and early seventies.  At times it’s very boring, with Dr. Rat going over and over his justifications for animal testing.  Other times, it’s brilliant in how it gets its points across.  But overall, the effect is profound.

Dr. Rat is the result of experimentation.  Castrated at a young age, he was subject to tests that drove him insane and made him intelligent.  He has a PhD and has written papers on animal experiments.  He tries to calm the fears of the other animals in the lab by explaining how the cruel torture they endure is for the good of science and the US.  One day, the other rats decide to revolt against their captors and escape from their cages.  They build up an army to subdue Dr. Rat and escape.  At the same time, all the animals around the world getting visions of a great meeting, the subject of which is not known.  All the animals on the all continents begin to gather in huge numbers, laying aside their natural instincts to attend this meeting.  Dr. Rat tries to thwart the revolution as authorities try to thwart the animal meeting.

It’s hard to describe the different aspects of this book.  Dr. Rat is the main character.  I guess he’s well developed because pretty quickly, you get that he’s nuts.  He sings morbid songs, talks in rhyme, and reminds you of the apologists who tried to defend the Holocaust as nationalism.  Throughout the book, we meet other animals, who are hearing the call to the meeting.  Elephants, hyenas, sloths, turtles, dogs, and many others explain what they’re hearing and feeling.  The chapters mostly alternate between the Dr. Rat narrative and that of the other animals, which at first was really confusing, but by halfway through, you get.  I really did empathize with the other animals, hoping for some intense divine revelation for them.  

The prose is good, too.  In general, I liked the way it was written, including the some of the insane thinking of Dr. Rat.  Not too flowery, but good word choices and descriptions.  I didn’t get all of the world building.  Specifically, there was some kind of transmission of the gathering of the animals that was being broadcast via some kind of wheel the rats powered by running.  I never really got it and had to just accept it as it was happening.  But that was how the revolution of the rats was being supported, by hearing about all the other animal meetings around the world.

The message of the book is pretty heavy handed.  You quickly realize this is at least about animal cruelty in scientific testing.  And with the dark tone of the book, it’s hard to actually enjoy it.  It’s a book to be experienced, not necessarily enjoyed.  I give it four stars out of five.  I knocked off a star because in the middle of the book, the ramblings and justifications of Dr. Rat get pretty tediously repetitive.  During those sections, I looked forward to the chapters of the other animals.  The book and its chapters are short, so you don’t have to sit too long with the crazy musings of Dr. Rat too long at any one stretch.  This book is not for everyone, especially if you’re sensitive to animal cruelty.  But if you can stomach it, you’ll definitely have a visceral reaction.


Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Water Knife

Paolo Bacigalupi
Completed 9/13/2022, Reviewed 9/14/2022
4 stars

This thriller was more a general speculative fiction than a full-fledged science fiction.  It’s a near future tale of water rights in an American Southwest of climate change and drought.  I was a little hesitant about this online book club selection because I didn’t care for the author’s Hugo winning The Windup Girl from several years back.  But this one was quite exciting and relatable, after a slow start.  The prose, character development, and world building were all quite good and the ending was a surprise.  I didn’t quite see it coming.  This book was nominated for two 2016 awards, including the Campbell.

Angel is a water knife, a corporate heavy, investigator and some time assassin for a Vegas water lord.  He is sent to Phoenix which is now a dying city as its water is being literally sucked away by California and Nevada.  There he meets Lucy, a dedicated journalist who is trying to find out why a friend of hers was tortured and killed.  Also in Phoenix, we meet Maria, a street tough who is trying to survive the realities of a water scarce inner city.  The three paths cross in various ways when a rich water lawyer is murdered for trying to sell the water rights guaranteed for Phoenix in a 150-year-old treaty between the Arizona government and a Native American nation.  

The plot is initially complicated.  The narrative follows the three main characters in alternating chapters for much of the book.  After a while, their paths begin to crisscross and it becomes clear their destinies are tied together.  Exactly how is part of what makes this book exciting.  

The characters are well crafted.  No one is totally likable.  Angel is downright despicable.  We are introduced to him as he goes into a small city to force the inhabitants out, practically destroying the city to accomplish this.  Lucy the prize-winning journalist is idealistic, living in Phoenix to cover the water situation and the crime and mayhem that results.  While not one of the bad guys, I was not immediately drawn to her.  Likewise with Maria, although she’s relatable.  She’s poor, living day to day trying to make money to survive when every idea she has results in organized crime taking her money as “tax”.  She lives in a world of conflicting values, those of her deceased hopeful father who remembers when times were better and those of her own, developed out of the reality of the day.  While not really likable, all the characters came across very realistically, so that when the climax occurs, it’s completely surprising and believable.  

The prose is really good.  Almost journalistic in style, it reads well, building the excitement as the plot becomes realized.  There are no superfluous passages of descriptions.  Everything written gives you a strong sense of the world and the characters in it without become flowery and boring.  The world building is good, although there were a few words whose meanings I couldn’t figure out in context.  About halfway through, I figured out desal was short for desalinization and not a slang for something else.  Aside from those few things, I really got a sense of the horrible world of Phoenix and the inequities of the rich living in luxurious complexes filled with water basically stolen from the general population.  It probably helped that I lived in Colorado for many years and spent many a vacation in the parched southern Utah.  I love the fierce landscapes of the desert Southwest so it was easy to picture settings in my mind.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  After I realized I had gotten into a thriller, I was able to enjoy the book immensely.  I’m not always a fan of the thriller with its double and triple crosses and noir settings.  But after about the first third, I was pretty hooked.  I was even able to concentrate on finishing the book while waiting to be examined in the Emergency Room for a throbbing torn bicep tendon. (And yes, typing this review with a damaged dominant arm was not easy.)  I’d recommend this book to anyone, with it’s easily accessible plot and not too farfetched dystopian setting.


Friday, September 9, 2022

Zoo City

Lauren Beukes
Completed 9/7/2022, Reviewed 9/9/2022
3 stars

This book is a little better than the rating I gave it.  I was just disappointed in it because there wasn’t much fantasy.  I realize this is an urban fantasy, but the book felt more like a murder mystery with a little magic thrown in.  The magic is interesting, having to do with animals attaching themselves to people, sort of like a tangible spirit animal for troubled people.  The prose is delightful.  The character development isn’t too bad.  It just didn’t add up into an enjoyable reading experience for me.  Nonetheless, this book won a couple of awards, the Clarke and the Red Tentacle, and was nominated for a few others.

Zinzi is a recovered alcoholic/addict who killed her own brother.  Sober now, she has a sloth that has bonded with her.  She has a gift for seeing the connection between people and their lost things.  She makes some money finding the lost items for people, but most of her income comes from running email scams.  When one of her lost item clients winds up dead, she’s a suspect, but also ends up looking for a missing person.  She doesn’t like finding missing persons because it isn’t her gift.  Next thing we know, she’s hired by an eccentric music producer to find a missing teen music sensation.  This could be her ticket out of the slums, known as Zoo City because of all the people with animals.  Instead it leads her into a dark underside of the city filled with murder and a little magic.

Zinzi is a nicely developed, believable character.  I really liked her.  She was smart, funny, and is stronger than you would expect.  I thought, though, that not many other characters were as well developed.  The closest we got was the eccentric record producer.  He was pretty slimy.  I thought he was done well, evoking distaste from the moment we meet him.  There were a lot of other characters, but many of them ran together for me.  I think it was more because I lost interest in the story than because of the writing.

As for the writing, I was quite impressed with it.  From the beginning, you feel like you are getting immersed in an interesting world.  The story is told in first person Zinzi, making you feel like you’re a part of Zoo City.  Where I lost it was when the magic took a back seat to the murder mystery.  Zinzi’s sloth is always around, but the magic really wasn’t.  You get some in the beginning and in the end, but little else.  This was too bad because I liked the general feel of the book, and if there could have been more development of the magic system, I think it would have made the murder mystery part more interesting.

I give this book three stars out of five.  Another one of these where the parts were greater than the whole.  I was expecting more.  I read this book for my in-person book club.  I don’t think I’d seek out the author again on my own.