Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Trail of Lightning

Rebecca Roanhorse
Completed 6/27/2022, Reviewed 6/28/2022
3 stars

This was Roanhorse’s first novel.  It’s about a monster hunter in a post-apocalyptic world where both gods and monsters roam what’s left of the world.  I’ve read several monster hunter books this year, and this one is good.  It was fast-paced, inventive, and set in the remnants of the Navajo Nation’s reservation, one of the few places to survive the global climate catastrophe.  But something about it didn’t quite gel for me.  The characters were well developed, but I didn’t feel much empathy for them.  I plan on reading the sequel, and I’m hoping this experience with them sets me up for a better time with them in the next book.  This one was nominated for a slew of awards, including the Hugo and the Nebula.

Maggie Hoskie is the monster hunter.  At the outset, she saves a little girl from being eaten by a monster, a sort of zombie-like humanoid.  Unfortunately, it gnawed at her throat, which would make her a monster as well.  So Maggie kills her to spare her the agony of monsterhood.  Shortly after, she pays a visit an old man to ask for his help in identifying the monster and its origins.  The man doesn’t has some ideas, but surprisingly asks her to take his grandson as her partner in finding the source of the monsters.  The grandson, Kai, is about Maggie’s age, extremely handsome, and supposedly a powerful medicine man in the making.  She reluctantly agrees.  Together Maggie and Kai search the reservation for the witch that’s creating the monsters, meeting a trickster god, biker gangs, and wealth of other colorful characters along this dark and dangerous path.

Maggie is great as the knife wielding and magical firearm bearing Native American loner.  She has a lot of demons and is constantly questioning whether she is a monster herself.  She has the gift of her clan, which is like a superpower that consumes her when she or someone else is in danger, transforming her into a powerful fighter and killer.  She’s not too pleased when she has to take Kai along, although he seems to be able to get her out of potential scrapes with his charm before she turns into her killer aspect.  Of course, there’s sexual tension throughout, though Maggie is able to fend it off by dwelling on her terrible past and the guilt that comes from all the killing she’s done.  Kai is a little more likeable, though his background is dubious.  In fact, neither of them willingly tell the truths about their pasts, although the book is in first person Maggie, so we learn about her past along the way.

I like many of the minor characters, like Grace the bar owner, her paramilitary children, the trickster god Coyote, and Kai’s grandfather.  Through Maggie’s interaction with them, I came close to having some empathy for her, but never quite got there.  All her brooding and baggage got in the way, just as it did for her relationship with Kai.  

I thought the world building was really the star of this book.  She sets up a world consumed by a quick global meteorological event compounded by a recurrence of the New Madrid mega-quake in the central US.  Most of the coasts and a large section of the American interior are under water.  The Navajo nation has built a wall around itself and basically has become self-sufficient.  Of course things like alcohol and coffee are among the things in short supply.  There isn’t a lot of detail about the what’s left of the world and exactly how it all happened, but it was enough to satisfy me and my love of the disaster-movie genre.

The prose was really good, as was the story telling.  I followed it quite well, never losing the plot, even though it took me nearly a week to get through it.  I also really liked the weaving of Navajo mythology with a post-apocalyptic story.  It’s one thing to tell a fantasy story of an alternate past with non-European mythology, such as her later book Black Sun, and quite another to mix such mythology with events in the near future.  I just wish I was able to relate more to Maggie and get inside her feelings, not just her head.  I give this book three stars out of five.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Akata Warrior

Nnedi Okorafor
Completed 6/21/2022, Reviewed 6/21/2022
4 stars

This is the second entry in the Nsibidi Scripts trilogy.  It continues the story of Sunny Nwazue and her training as a Leopard, that is, a person with magical powers.  Sometimes, the sophomore effort of a series is not as good as the first, but this one matched the awesomeness of Akata Witch.  I enjoyed it just as much as the first.  It’s still set in the alternate Nigeria of the present where some people are magical and a whole other dimension exists side by side with the non-magical.  Sunny grows, being thirteen in this book, learns more magic, and has to fight an even more dangerous enemy.  The writing and imagination are simply terrific.  Yes, it’s YA so it’s easy reading, but it’s also engrossing, fast paced, and believable.  It was nominated for a Nommo Award and won the Locus YA Award.

The story continues as Sunny trains under her mentor, Sugar Cream, an older, very experienced, and very powerful Leopard.  Her relationship with her family is still strained as they are Lambs, that is, non-magical, and the rules say that she cannot let them know anything about her magic life.  However, they are beginning to realize that she is more than their disappointing albino daughter and give her more leeway, allowing her to spend more time with her Leopard friends and in training.  When her eldest brother goes away to college he gets caught up in with a dangerous confraternity.  Sunny and her friend Chichi must help to get him out.  Around the same time, she discovers that the masquerade, that is, masked demon, that was behind the evil Leopard of the last book is crossing over into the Lamb world and may cause the apocalypse.  It is revealed to Sunny that she is the one who must defeat the masquerade and save the world.  

The characterization in the book is still wonderful.  I love Sunny and her little coven, which includes Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha.  Chichi and Sasha still live dangerously and Orlu is still the one with the level head.  This time around, they are accompanied by a giant grasscutter, a large rodent that flies.  The grasscutter, known as Grashcoatah, is helpful and also precocious.  He has the power of invisibility, but loves to appear for a fraction of a second to Lambs to make them feel terror for what they believe is no reason.  This of course eventually leads to trouble.  However, he lightens the mood, throwing a little humor into the serious situation.

We also get a more descriptions of Sunny’s family, particularly her older brother Chukwu, whose name is also the name of the supreme deity.  Chukwu is in love with Chichi, but Sasha is also in love with her.  It becomes a love triangle as Chichi plays both boys against each other.  Sunny writes her brother off, considering he wrote her off most of her life, until he gets into trouble at university.  Chukwu actually grows and becomes a likeable person even through the tension with Chichi and Sasha.  I came to really like Chukwu and empathize with him as he became an unwilling aide to the coven.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s fast paced, exciting, and believable.  I enjoyed every page of this longest book in the trilogy.  The prose is terrific and the world building continues to expand in wondrous ways.  I already borrowed the third book from the library which I’m going to read after a break of one book, the July selection for Book Club.  

Monday, June 20, 2022


Olivia Tapiero, author/Kit Schluter, translator
Completed 6/18/2022, Reviewed 6/18/2022
2 stars

First of all, the definition of the title is the bodily movement of a motile organism in response to light, either toward or away from the light’s source.  It’s not taking pictures of taxi cabs.   This was a very strange, surreal, existential novella by a Canadian written in French.  It was translated last year and nominated for a 2022 Lambda Literary Award.  The category has changed from LGBTQ  Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror to LGBTQ Speculative Fiction.  And this book is definitely speculative fiction.  It’s not sci fi, fantasy, or horror.  In fact, I barely figured out what this book was about.

The best way to describe the “plot” is to just give you the online synopsis that most sites use.  “In a city mysteriously overflowing with meat, a museum is bombed, a classical piano player hooked on snuff films throws himself off a building, a charismatic but misled political organizer has disappeared, and a young immigrant navigates a crumbling continent.”  Two of the characters, Theo and Zev were in love at one point.  Theo is the classical pianist.  The other two characters, Zev and Narr, are the political organizer and the immigrant.  But I really can’t tell you what else happened besides a sandstorm.  The plot was barely linear.  The story is mostly surreal images.

The prose is the only thing that’s outstanding in this book.  Tapiero uses beautiful language.  But as for the rest of it, the world-building was as incomprehensible as the plot.  There’s no character development.  The characters are just there, when you can decipher who’s narrating.  Yeah, I didn’t get this book.

I can’t say much else about it because I can’t describe it.  I give this book two stars out of five because the words were pretty.  If you like weird, surreal writing and imagery, this is the book for you.  It wasn’t the book for me.  I think the Lambda Literary Awards selection committee for this category were just a little too erudite this year, choosing a book that that’s all style with no substance.  I’m glad it didn’t win.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Trouble the Saints

Alaya Dawn Johnson
Completed 6/18/2022, Reviewed 6/18/2022
2 stars

I had read four of the five books nominated for the World Fantasy Award for 2021 and loved them all.  When the award was given, it went to the book I hadn’t read.  So, I thought the winner must be really good.  I guess my hopes were too high because when I finally got around to reading it, I didn’t get the hype.  Through most of the book, I was bored out of my mind, which really disappointed me considering the setting, characters, and themes.  It’s a noir novel that takes place shortly before the American entry into World War II.  The characters are mostly African American and they have gifts called hands associated with their hands that give them something of an edge in an otherwise hostile, white-dominated society.  But I struggled with finding a plot and having empathy for the main characters.  It finally came together in the last fifty pages or so, but that didn’t make up for what I felt was a nearly incomprehensible and tedious first three hundred pages.

Phyllis, aka Pea, is an assassin for a Russian mobster.  Her hands have a mastery with knives and mete out justice to those she is assigned to kill.  The book begins with her refusing an assignment to kill a woman despite the woman trying to kill Pea. Instead, she focuses on trying to kill Victor, the Russian mobster for whom she works.  Pea falls back in love with Dev, a British Indian undercover cop who has infiltrated Victor’s organization.  Before Victor dies, he curses Dev and Pea.  The second part of the book is from Dev’s point of view and focuses on his struggle with his job versus the deep friendships he made in the mob and his love for Pea.  The third part focuses on Tamara, the snake dancer from Victor’s club.  Her hands are that she’s an oracle, telling fortunes from a special deck of playing cards.  What she sees throws her into a moral dilemma between saving Pea and protecting herself. 

Out of the three main characters, I came closest to having empathy for Tamara.  That’s probably because there was more of a plot to the third part, and her struggle is relatable.  It’s summed up perfectly in a riddle she tells.  Two people die, one a good person destined for heaven and one a bad person destined for hell.  The good person is given a choice.  If he lets the bad person go to hell, he’ll go to heaven.  But he can save the bad person from hell by choosing purgatory and thus they will both go to purgatory.  So does he go to heaven and have to live eternity knowing he condemned someone to hell or suffer in purgatory knowing he saved the person from eternity in hell?  It’s a powerful question and Tamara does not find the answer easy.  But it does exemplify the love and relationship the three characters have for one another.  

Through most of the book, I felt that there wasn’t much plot.  It jumped back and forth in time, describing the trio’s current situation as well as their relationships while Victor was still alive.  It told vignettes that help with understanding the characters’ motivations.  I can deal with character studies, but I still need something interesting to happen.  And I didn’t find anything really interesting in the events of the book until the end.

One positive thing I can say about this book is that it’s beautifully written.  I really liked the prose with its descriptions and word choices.  I guess I can say it’s a pretty book about not so pretty characters and situations.  Another is the topics brought out by the plot, the lack of choices and freedoms of black people in the forties, the need for something to overcome their difficult existence, and the dilemmas they must bear in their daily lives.  

I give this book two stars out of five.  I just couldn’t get past the boring nature of it.  I don’t need continuous action in a book, but I need some kind of movement of plot and empathy for the characters. If I were picking the WFAs, I would have chosen Piranesi by Susanna Clarke or The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones.  Looking at the ratings on several sites, this book gets as many four and five star reviews as it does two and three.  It’s definitely mixed.  So if the book sounds interesting to you, you may like this.  I didn’t. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2022


Honni van Rijswijk
Completed 6/6/2022, Reviewed 6/6/2022
4 stars

This Lambda Literary Award nominee for 2022 is a dark, trigger-filled read.  It has strong echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale, but believe it or not, darker.  It’s a dystopian future after the Fourth Depression.  Climate change, world war, infertility, everything bad you can think of has happened.  There’s one city that has reinvented itself, controlled by a massive corporation that has created its own caste system based society and isolated itself from the rest of the surviving world.  Girls are taken at 12 or 13 and placed in incubators where they bear children derived from the embryos of the super fertile.  They are called breeders.  After a large number of live births, they become shadows, women who have earned enough credit by their birthings to marry and possibly bear their own children.  It’s so dark, I normally would have had a tough time getting through it.  But it is very well written and very fast paced and I ended up devouring it.

That’s the premise.  The plot features Will, a Westie, living in the outermost circle of the city, Zone F.  His education is Corporation indoctrination and working a menial job.  He lives with his grandmother.  They barely scrape by, living mostly in debt to the Corporation.  However, Will makes extra money by breeder running, that is, ferrying young girls from poor families to a shady organization that profits from making them breeders for the Corporation.  He also gets a drug called Crystal 8 on which he is highly dependent.  By chance, he meets a girl named Alex who reveals she is part of a revolutionary organization, called the Response, which is trying to topple the Corporation.  It becomes clear to him that she is a breeder in hiding.  They bond, although he does not tell her he’s a breeder runner.  One day, they get high and sneak into Zone B, one of the innermost circles, not meant for the lower class that they are.  They get caught and Will has to face one of the greatest fears of his life.  

The best part of this book is the plot.  It is intricately weaved with lots of surprises along the way.  The world setting is also well done.  Notice I didn’t say world building.  That’s because the world building is a little weak.  I had lots of questions about the world and the Corporation, and just took a lot of it as it came, filling in a lot of parts myself.  But the setup of this little world, like the zones, the incubators, the rators (as in incinerators), were very interesting and mostly made sense.  

I liked Will.  I had a lot of empathy for him, especially as his past is revealed.  It’s done slowly, with the big reveals not happening until about halfway through the book.  I was surprised by his revelations, missing the hints in the first half of the book.  But it is done well, my empathy for him grew as the book went on.  Alex is also a good character, although she is frustrating in her careless flaunting of her activities with the Response.  Ma, Will’s grandmother, is also a decent character, doing her best to keep Will’s profile low in this awful dystopia, where the slightest infraction can get you thrown in the Rator.

I’ve written over five hundred words already but have not mentioned any queer content, as one would expect from a Lambda Literary Award nominee.  It turns out it’s there, but it’s one of the twists and turns the book takes when everything goes wrong for Will.  When it appears, it’s pretty powerful stuff.  But it’s part of the dark context and can be a trigger for some readers.  

I give this book four out of five stars.  The lack of world building is made up for by the fast pace of the book.  I found myself reading this voraciously over a weekend.  I was also a little disappointed by the ending.  After finishing the book, I discovered that the author is making this into a series.  In that light, I can forgive the ending a little bit.  I do recommend this book, but there really isn’t any levity in it to soften the darkness.  

Saturday, June 4, 2022


Alan Moore (Author), Dave Gibbons (Illustrator)
Completed 6/4/2022, Reviewed 6/4/2022
4 stars

I’ve always been interested in this graphic novel because it is on two lists on Worlds Without End, the Top Listed and Most Read Books lists.  So when I found the omnibus at Powell’s on sale, I got it, and wasn’t disappointed.  It’s a dark, gritty graphic novel about superheroes and the cold war in an alternate U.S. where Nixon is still president in 1985 and Gorbachev isn’t dismantling the Soviet Union.  Tension is incredibly high and the only thing that keeps the cold war from turning hot is the existence of one of the Watchmen.  While reading this, you have to remember it was written in 1985, and that it’s an alternate world, otherwise, you won’t get the anxiety of the population.  I remember that time, and I got the intensity of it.  This book won a 1988 Hugo for “Other Forms”.

So, in this alternate New York, one of the superheroes, Rorschach, believes there’s a conspiracy to knock them off.  The problem is, Rorschach is a possibly psychotic asocial who has killed his own share of people.  He tries to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, and along the way, runs into the rest of the now defunct Watchmen.  You see, they’ve been outlawed by an anti-heroes act.  Nonetheless, they don their costumes and try to figure out who’s killing them at a time when the US and USSR are on the brink of nuclear war.  Things escalate when Dr. Manhattan (the big naked blue guy) exiles himself to Mars and the USSR take advantage of the loss.  Can the remaining Watchmen find the killer and at the same time, prevent Armageddon?

It's a complicated plot, actually, as the graphic novel had twelve issues, and they follow the point of view of most of the Watchmen.  In addition, there are some side characters that act as a sort of classical chorus, as well as a character who is reading a graphic novel about a shipwrecked man trying to escape pirates.  So there’s a lot going on.  I really enjoyed getting the backstories of each of the Watchmen as the story progressed.  There’s also a previous generation of superheroes known as the Minutemen.  We get a lot of their backstory as well.  

Dr. Manhattan is pretty great.  He’s the only one who’s really “super” in that he survived a massive dose of radiation and was transformed into a powerful blue being.  He’s quite emotionless, although is affected by his relationships in interesting ways.  Rorschach is the epitome of creepy.  After a terrible childhood, he vents all his anger into his persona.  In fact, he’s the only Watchman whose real name and face no one knows.  Sally Jupiter is pretty great as one of the Minutemen, and her daughter Laurel is one of the Watchmen.  So at least there were some women in the groups.  

I was really moved by the story, freaked is more like it.  But I was pulled out of the story by the far-right and far-left split among the Watchmen as well as the population.  The right are Nazis and Klan supporters and the left are communists.  It seems like there’s no middle ground.  There are racist references, anti-Semitism, and a lot of hate speech.  If I read it when it first came out, I probably would have taken it more in stride, but it is pretty cringeworthy today.  And I know that it’s all done to make a point, but it is still hard to read.

I give this book four stars out of five, because the intensity of the book was broken several times by the hate content.  But this is a very dark story from a very dark time.  I’d say it’s still relevant today with the extreme political divisions and the fact that so few see any grey.