Friday, June 2, 2023

The Circus Infinite

Khan Wong
Completed 6/2/2023, Reviewed 6/2/2023
5 stars

I loved this story about a psychically powerful young man coming into his own with the help of a modern circus troupe.  The story is equally sweet and dark.  It tackles a lot of topics including racial prejudices and ace-phobia.  The book has some some flaws, like development of some characters who should have been more prominent, but in the end, I didn’t want it to end.  This book is a 2023 Lammy nominee, and would have my vote, although I haven’t read the fifth nominee yet. 

Jes is an asexual mixed species escapee from an Institute where he was being studied for having the apparently never before seen ability to manipulate gravity.  There he was treated like a lab rat, controlled and tortured for the sake of science.  He finds his way onto a moon that one could call a new Las Vegas.  Sex, drugs, and debauchery abounds.  He finds his way to a moderately successful circus where he gets a job as a grunt.  Besides manipulating gravity, he has the usual gift of being able to read other people’s emotions, called sussing.  Through sussing, he finds himself able to share his other talent with a few key people.  Soon he helps transform the circus into something akin to a super-Cirque du Soliel.  Things are going well until the big boss of the casino that houses the circus discovers his talents, discovers the bounty on Jes from the institute, and uses it to manipulate him to do his dirty work.  Can Jes break free of this new indentured servitude to live in peace with the community he’s longed for his whole life?

Jes is simply a wonderful character.  Through him, we learn what it means to be asexual and accompany him on his first journey of falling in love.  I thought this was done brilliantly, giving voice to an orientation about which I know little.  We learn tons about him through his sussing gift.  Yes, we learn what the other characters are thinking, but in turn, we get a complete picture of how Jes responds to it all, very clearly informing us of who he is.  The story is told in two timelines.  One is the present where he finds his way to the moon with the circus.  The other is a journey through his past, revealing his disinterested parents and the horrors of his treatment at the institute.  All this made me so sympathetic to him that, well, yes, I was leaking a few tears at the end of the book.

Racism/Species-ism is a big topic through the book.  Jes is a mixed species person who gets poor treatment from both sides of his parentage.  One of the reasons he goes to this moon is that it is one of the few places in the nine species alliance where he has more of a chance to acceptance than on either his home planet of that of his mother.  The cast of the circus is complete with the representatives of the nine united intelligent species.  We learn a little about some of them, a lot about a few others.  It makes for great reading and is a great mirror into our own society today.  

The world building is interesting.  It doesn’t go into detail about all the different worlds visited in this book, but it gives you enough of the main ones that you feel like you’ve been there.  Along the same lines, the prose is nice but not overly flowery.  It gives you enough description to make you feel cozy or uncomfortable in this universe, but doesn’t rely so much on it that it loses momentum.  There’s enough action and believable dialogue to keep the book moving. 

I think my biggest disappointment with the book was that there wasn’t enough development of Jes’ love interest, Bo.  Through the sussing, we get a decent amount of information about him.  In particular, he’s very respectful of Jes’ asexuality.  But I felt there was something missing with Bo.  It may have just been time.  Perhaps if the two had more and longer interactions, I would have felt like I knew him better.  Instead we learned a lot about a few of the other circus people who get close to Jes.  I’m not knocking that, as there is good character development with the others.  I just wish there was more about Bo.  

I’ve spent a lot of time describing why this book is so sweet, with Jes’ journey, but it has a lot of dark moments, too.  The torture he receives at the institute is pretty horrifying.  The fate of some of the other young people there are gruesome as well.  Jes’ gravity manipulation not only can make the triplet contortionists float during their act, it can be used as a weapon and as a tool for its own torture and murder.  That’s what big boss Dax gets Jes to perform through blackmail and manipulation.  It can be hard to read as Jes tries to stay true to his morality but then allows himself to be controlled by Dax.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  It met my requirement of moving me deeply in some way.  It was my affection for Jes that did it for me.  Sometimes I think I’m a sucker for a sweet story, like the recent works of TJ Klune (The House in the Cerulean Sea and his next book on my TBR pile, “In the Lives of Puppets”).  I like a lot of different types of stories, but I will always have a place in my heart for books like these.  


Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Wicked and the Willing

Lianyu Tan
Completed 5/28/2023, Reviewed 5/28/2023
4 stars

Steamy dark gothic lesbian vampire romance is not my usual cup of tea.  I read this book because it is a 2023 Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Speculative Fiction.  So I was very surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did.  Tan is a wonderful writer who makes beautiful sentences, crisp dialogue, and intriguing characters.  I’ve been trying to read all the Lammy Spec Fic nominees for several years now, and this is definitely one of the better ones.  My only complaint with the book was that it had two endings to choose from (and a third located in another book).  I felt one ending was better written than the other.  And I’m not too keen on the concept of the pick your own ending, but in this case, I can see why Tan might choose to do this. 

The plot is straight forward.  Verity Edevane is a British vampire in 1927 Singapore.  Po Lam is the chief steward of Verity’s estate.  She is gender fluid.  Besides her usual duties to the household, she lures young women for Verity’s meals and disposes of their bodies in the bay.  She lives with the guilt of her obedience to her mistress.  Gean Choo, whom Verity calls Pearl, is a poor young woman whose remaining parent has just died.  She gets a job in Verity’s household as an amah, or personal maid.  Verity seduces Gean Choo sexually, mentally, and emotionally, making Gean Choo believe she loves her mistress.  Verity also believes she loves Gean Choo, but their relationship is anything but normal or healthy.  Po Lam tries to subtly and not so subtly to protect Gean Choo from Verity.  In the process Po Lam and Gean Choo seem to fall in love as well.  In the meantime, Singapore has a new Vampire liaison to the British rulers of Singapore who tries to convince Verity to marry him to strengthen their vampire bloodline.  

Gean Choo is the heroine of the story.  I had mixed feelings about her character because she is so damaged.  She was abused as a child, raised in poverty, and her only choice is to take this well-paying job for a mysterious mistress.  But even as Verity’s secret is revealed, Gean Choo remains, despite Verity’s narcissistic control over her.  I had to remember that this is 1927 British-ruled Singapore and not some contemporary urban Vampire story.  Gean Choo is not a kick-ass modern heroine.  She is a product of her times and place.  For what she is dealt, I found myself rooting for her through all the crap that happens to her.

Yes, Verity is a narcissistic and abusive lover.  She uses all the trappings to convince Gean Choo that they love each other despite the abuse, including the “you made me do this to you” excuse.  Sometimes, the scenes are very hard to read.  Just when you think she’s changing, she does something to make you wretch.  

I think the real romance is the slow burn between Gean Choo and Po Lam.  You want this to work out.  But the two walk so delicately around each other that it seems they will never get together.  They each have tons of baggage.  However, I kept rooting for them despite their trepidatious dance.  

I give this book a careful four out of five stars.  My only real complaint is the two endings.  I read both, and one seems less well crafted than the other.  I don’t want to give away either, so no spoilers.  However, I feel that regardless of the which ending she chose, if Tan had stuck to one or the other, it would have made a solid book.  Be aware that this book comes with warnings from the author.  She points out that it contains adult content, including sexually explicit scenes, rape, and torture.  There’s a particularly rough scene with holy water.  That is why the book is so dark.  It’s not just the tone, but the content.


Thursday, May 25, 2023

The Space Between Worlds

Micaiah Johnson
Completed 5/23/2023, Reviewed 5/25/2023
3 stars

This was one of those books where I could recognize that it is well done, but I just couldn’t get into it.  Time travel and dimension traveling can be difficult tropes to write about, keeping everything coherent, especially when you’re dimension traveling between very similar universes.  Johnson executed it very well.  The beginning is kind of tough, but when you figure out what’s going on, you realize it was all part of a master plan of storytelling.  Still, the plot would grab me, then release me, then grab me, then release me.  It was a book club read, and the majority of people liked it better than me.  It also won the 2020 Golden Tentacle Kitschy Award for debut novel that fits the criteria of progressive, intelligent and entertaining.  

The story revolves around Cara, a dimension traverser.  She was from the wastelands outside a walled city.  She got this job in the city because most of her doppelgangers in other dimensions have died.  That’s a prerequisite for traversers because if they go to a dimension where their counterpart still exists, it will kill them.  By having this job, she is on the way to citizenship and security.  However, when Cara is sent to a world where her doppelganger has supposedly died, she is nearly killed.  Her doppelganger is apparently alive.  Fortunately, she is saved, but is confronted with massive challenge, one where she knows all the players, but they have different roles, being in a different dimension.  This leads to crazy politics in her own dimension where she must keep her wits about her to survive the brutal head of the Institute which houses the traversing technology.  

It’s quite an elaborate setup, with lots of twists and turns, surprising the reader throughout the book.  It is a bit difficult to keep track of all the characters, because they have different personalities in the different dimensions.  The ones close to home, Earth 0, are more similar than the farther ones.  In particular, she traverses to Earth 175.  It’s about halfway to the farthest Earth traversed to, but it still holds many surprises.  

Cara is an interesting character.  She’s had a hard life, surviving abuse and difficult situations.  I was impressed by her survival skills.  Now free of some of the crap of her past, she can be more authentic.  However, she has an unrequited crush on Dell, her traversing engineer.  The feeling is mutual, but there’s something in the way that keeps them apart.  It creates a nice sexual tension that is handled well throughout the book.  It doesn’t get old or tedious, and the resolution is one of the neat twists that happens in the middle of the book.  Even though I never remained fully engrossed in the book, I did empathize with her, especially as she makes bold decisions about her future with the Institute.

The world building was good.  It wasn’t fantastic I think because you never spend a whole lot of time in any one dimension, except for Earth 0.  And there, you mostly stay in the walled city.  There isn’t much outside of it, besides the wastelands, and apparently, other walled cities.  Johnson gives you enough information to satisfy the scenes without going overboard in describing everything.  Related to that, the prose was pretty good, not too overwhelming, since we weren’t getting a lot of information at any one time.  The book overall was pretty readable.  

I kind of wish I had different circumstances reading this book.  I think I would have liked it better if I could have sat down and read it all in one or two sittings.  Maybe, maybe not.  I give it three stars out of five because it’s good.  Is it excellent?  A lot of people think so. But since I didn’t feel completely engaged in it, I knocked off a star.  The best thing about this book is that the author delved into the dimension hopping and doppelganger tropes with a fresh perspective, making it feel pretty original.  


Sunday, May 14, 2023

L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Vol 39

Jody Lynn Nye & Dean Wesley Smith, eds.
Completed 5/13/2023, Reviewed 5/14/2023
4 stars

I received a copy of this book before publication date from an illustrator friend whose first published art piece appears in this book.  Chris Binns signed it (page 13) for me.  I was so honored.  His piece is awesome as are all the art pieces in this book.  Little did I realize that it was also Illustrators of the Future as well.  As for the anthology itself, it’s really good.  I like or love almost all the pieces in it.  Interestingly, I didn’t care for the three pieces by established authors. But the stories by the “future” writers are full of great imagination with twists on existing tropes and wonderful prose.  I never quite know how to write a review of a collection or anthology, so I’ll mention the stories that really stood out for me plus a few others.

“The Fall of Crodendra M.” by T.J. Knight tore at my heartstrings.  In this futuristic world, networks televise galactic events, especially cataclysmic ones.  Hank Enos, a network tuner, finds a planet that will be demolished by an asteroid.  This will score great ratings.  But when Hank zooms in on the planet, he sees a local human-like boy looking back at him.  Filled with empathy, he’s determined to somehow alert the boy of his coming doom.    This story is fast paced with intrigue from competing networks.  Most of all, it calls us to examine our own morality and mortality when dealing with the forces of the universe.  

Another morality tale is “Timelines and Bloodlines” by L.H. Davis.  A time travel team is sent to the past to kill an 11th century Earl in England whose distant ancestor threatens London with a nuclear weapon.  If the team can kill the Earl, they’ll stop the terrorist.  But what other effects will this assassination have?  This story was full of mind-bending time travel twists and paradoxes.  It may have been done before, but I thought it was well written and complex, but didn’t leave me scratching my head.  

In another time travel piece, “A Trickle in History” by Elaine Micdoh tackles the question of traveling back in time to stop Hitler.  It doesn’t mess with your brain as much as “Timelines” but it does offer an interesting alternative to the more common responses to this question.  

I liked “White Elephant” by David K. Henrickson because it plays on the trope of an alien invasion, but in this case, the aliens seem peaceful.  The question is, can we handle peaceful contact?  This story was reminiscent of “Rendezvous with Rama” by Arthur C. Clarke in that we get a detailed view of alien technology.

“Piracy for Beginners” by J. R. Johnson was a fun romp.  This action-packed story has a former war hero who pilots a shuttle between Earth and the Moon that is attacked by pirates who aren’t quite so smart.  The story ended in such a way that you can see this becoming a series of popular novels.

“Death and the Taxman” by David Hankins was a lot of fun.  A tax auditor uses an ancient Sumarian body exchange spell to swap with the Grim Reaper.  Chaos ensues and the Grim Reaper must get his body back before he himself is reaped and judged for his own sins.  

The last story I’ll note is “The Withering Sky” by Arthur H. Manner.  It’s a dark tale of a group of people taken to a non-reflective spacecraft in Neptune’s orbit.  They are told to wait for the research team to come after them.  But no one comes and the crew finds themselves struggling to keep their sanity and their lives.  The tension in this story is intense and the ending is surprising.  It’s a mix of science fiction and horror and I think it would make a terrific film.

Even though I don’t mention the other stories by newly discovered authors, I did enjoy them.  I’d recommend reading this anthology yourself to develop your own opinions.  And don’t let the full title fool you.  Even though it is “L. Ron Hubbard Presents”, it is not a platform for Scientology.  It’s an annual contest that has given rise to some well-known authors writing today.  I give this anthology four stars out of five.  It has many terrific moments and only a few that are, well, not terrific.  I really enjoyed the artwork.  It’s of the type that we just don’t see much in modern book covers these days. I’d like to thank Chris for giving me this signed copy.  I was glad to read it and expand my horizons to authors I hope to see produce some novels in the futures and some illustrators who will find success in the various visual arts like book covers, graphic novels, and video games.


Sunday, May 7, 2023

The Paradox Hotel

Rob Hart
Completed 5/7/2023, Reviewed 5/7/2023
3 stars

Very complicated noir thriller about a lesbian chief of security of a hotel which features time travel who has become unstuck in time during the hosting of a summit of potential buyers during a snowstorm.  Yeah, kinda sounds like disaster porn.  There are a ton of characters which makes following the plot even more complex.  But the author does a decent job of holding it together as the mystery progresses and the main character falls deeper into her time disease. The writing is pretty fast paced, but with all the characters and time traveling, it was often hard to follow what was going on.  This book is a 2023 nominee for the Lambda Literary Award for Speculative Fiction.

January Cole is the chief of security.  Her partner died a few weeks ago in a gas explosion and Jan is not dealing with it well.  She covers up her feelings in dark, off-putting humor, alienating the family she built with the other employees of the hotel.  In addition, she is in stage 2 unstuck-edness.  During the present, she sees things from the past and what may happen in the future.  She doesn’t tell anyone about her being in stage 2 because that would get her permanently retired.  But now it’s interfering with her ability to control a summit of trillionaires looking to bid on purchasing the hotel.  Its attraction is that it features time travel excursions for the rich.  However, it is exactly this time travel that has caused Jan’s unstuck problem.  Of course, there are attempted and successful unsolved murders as the trillionaires come to the hotel with their entourages.  And the government is involved to boot, since it is the current owner of the hotel.  Jan’s job is to find who’s trying to murder everyone before she enters a stage 3 coma.  

Jan is the narrator.  She’s a complicated mess who constantly disparages her friends and refuses to listen to their pleas to get help to deal with her partner’s death.  She believes she is using humor to cope, but she is only alienating everyone.  Her Stage 2 condition makes matters worse, but in this case, it gives her clues into the intrigue going on at the summit.  This being a thriller, you know she’s going to figure out who the bad guys are, so it’s her journey that is important.  That being the case, this thriller is pretty innovative, with mysterious ripples in time-space that only Jan can see, prehistoric raptors that have been brought back from the past illegally, and a kick-ass, snarky sidekick AI drone that helps Jan along the way.  But with all this wacky science fiction, it didn’t help me really empathize with Jan.  She just becomes irritating after a while as she fights tooth and nail against getting help.  It was the sci fi and the mystery that kept this book going for me.

It was pretty cool that Jan was a lesbian.  This is a near future story and her identity and past relationship are done matter of fact, with a supportive diverse staff which also includes a non-binary person.  It was refreshing to have these characters in the book, done well and without any pomp.  I love this trend in science fiction, having LGBTQ+ characters where their sexuality is not an issue.   I just wish that with Jan being the main character, I could have liked her better.  

As for the mysteries that are resolved, I did have an inkling as to who was behind everything.  So I don’t know if this book was as successful a thriller as it could have been.  And the snowstorm reminded me of the movie “Airport.”  This would make a good disaster film.  So I give this book a three star rating out of five.  It wasn’t excellent, but it was pretty good.  It takes some effort to trudge through it, but it didn’t hurt my brain that much.  As for winning the Lammy?  I wouldn’t vote for it, but it was a decent nomination.


Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Kafka on the Shore

Haruki Murakami
Completed 5/2/2023, Reviewed 5/2/2023
5 stars

This novel was a lot less complicated than I thought based on some of the reviews I read.  It’s a modern fantasy which takes place in Japan.  Not really urban fantasy, it might be thought of as magical realism, or simply, a non-traditional fantasy.  It has some elements of Oedipus Rex, plus a simpleton who can talk to cats, and a mythical being that appears as Colonel Sanders.  The beginning is a little tough to figure out what’s going on, but it eventually makes sense.  It leaves some questions unanswered in the end, but still delivers a satisfying finish.  Despite the confusing beginning, I read the second half of this book voraciously.  This book won the 2006 World Fantasy Award.

Kafka is a fifteen-year-old boy who runs away from home, leaving his single-parent indifferent father who is a famous sculptor.  He makes his way to a distant town, living off some money he stole from his father.  He eventually finds himself apprenticing at a private library run by the elusive Miss Saeki and her only librarian, Mr. Oshima.  On another plotline, Mr. Nakata is an old simple man who cannot read or write, but he can talk to cats and knows when it’s going to storm, especially if it will rain fish or leeches.  After killing a man who has been capturing and beheading stray cats, he tries to tell the police, but they think he is a crazy fool.  The next day, he leaves town not really knowing where he’s going because it hasn’t been revealed to him yet.  On the way, he meets a benevolent trucker named Hoshino who helps him complete his esoteric mission.  Eventually, the two plots intertwine through magic and coincidence without Kafka and Nakata ever meeting.  

The story is definitely weird.  It’s basically about finding one’s self in a confusing world at a confusing time in life, the teen years.  The Kafka narrative is first person.  I didn’t really like him at first, but grew to really care about him, worrying about the decisions he was making.  He runs away because he gets no warmth from his famous father.  His mother left with his older sister when he was four.  He doesn’t remember much about her.  In fact, when he found his birth certificate, no mother was listed.  His father once told Kafka he was cursed to kill him and sleep with his mother and sister.  During the course of the story, he seems to fulfill this prophesy, or does he?  It’s times like these that you wonder how reliable Kafka is as narrator.  Still he’s so endearing and lost that you can’t help come to care for him.

Mr. Nakata is loveable from the start, from the way he expresses himself to his belief in the messages revealed to him.  He is so gentle and childlike you just want to take him in and protect him.  That’s basically what draws in Hoshino after offering him a ride over a big bridge.  Hoshino cares for him like he’s his grandfather, but slowly experiences his own metanoia through knowing and helping Nakata.  In fact, Hoshino became my favorite character through the second half of the book.  His transformation is fun and tender.

A special note should be made for Oshima.  He’s an LGBTQ+ character that becomes a protector and mentor to Kafka.  He is warm, gentle, and complicated himself.  I don’t want to go into more detail because it gives away some plot elements.  But he was my favorite character from the time Kafka meets him until Hoshino begins his transformation.

Based on the three paragraphs above, the characterization and development is simply marvelous, and I didn’t even delve into the female characters, Sakura and Miss Saeki, who are also wonderfully done.  The prose is perfect, that is, lovely without being overwhelmingly flowery.  The dialogue is realistic, especially for the quirky Kafka, who sometimes sounds like an adult, and sometimes like the kid he still is.  And the magic involved is weird, but delightful.

I give this book five stars out of five.  I read about two hundred pages through the wee morning hours last night and finished the last seventy before going to work today.  I became obsessed with how it was going to all tie together.  And I wanted to see what decisions Kafka was going to make.  My stomach dropped a few times with some of the twists and turns, and my heart warmed at the end.  I guess I had quite the visceral reaction to this book, which is why I gave this excellent book the fifth star.  


Friday, April 28, 2023

The Book Eaters

Sunyi Dean
Completed 4/27/2023, Reviewed 4/28/2023
4 stars

Initially, I thought this book sounded like a bibliophile’s dream.  A race of human-like creatures eat books and absorb the contents.  But it is much more than that, specifically, more horrifying.  There are also brain eaters that suck out the consciousness of a brain and absorb the memory of that person.  There are family dynasties and secret societies, and we never find out where these creatures originated.  From space aliens perhaps?  Despite this and other lingering questions, this book is a fascinating, horrifying, and satisfying fantasy/horror novel.  It’s been nominated for a 2023 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ+ Speculative Fiction. 

Devon is a Book Eater of the Fairweather family.  She grows up thinking herself a princess, like in the many fairy tales she’s eaten.  As she grows, however, she becomes disillusioned with her life and the family’s expectations of her.  When it is time for her first marriage, made specifically so she can bear the first of two children, she’s devastated that she cannot keep her daughter.  Upon her second marriage so she can bear her second and final child who turns out to be a brain eater, she escapes with the boy, leading to a multi-level chase for a drug that can convert the boy to a book eater.

One of the most interesting things about this book is that everyone is a monster.  Even Devon is of questionable morality.  However, we still feel for Devon, her son Cai, and a few others she meets on the way.  The story is told in two timelines, one after she’s escaped the family, and one recounting the time before escaping.  It’s done very well without being too confusing and helps round out the character of Devon.  I didn’t really like Devon, but I empathized with her.  

My favorite concept of the book is the absorption of knowledge through eating.  Perhaps the brain eating part is more interesting because the eater displays personality quirks of those eaten.  This is horrifically comical in Cai.  He’s a five-year-old, but having eaten so many adults, he has the vocabulary and mental awareness of an adult.  Cai was actually very likeable.  He had his own moral crisis over his natural dietary requirements.

The prose is nice, though the world building is a little vague.  I read an FAQ on the author’s website where she explains her reasons for the light world building.  I actually didn’t mind it.  I was caught up in the mythology of the Book Eater and that satisfied me.  There were quite a few loose ends left.  Upon finishing the book, I thought it was ripe for a sequel, which the author admitted to hoping to get to, but not in the near future, which is too bad.  At a smidge under 300 pages, I thought there was so much more that could have been included.  It could easily have been a 400 page book and still be satisfying.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It surprised me with its originality.  The relationship Devon has with a woman is sweet even though it develops a little too quickly.  I think the thing to remember in this book is that Devon grew up eating fairy tales and everything is a take on fairy tale tropes, including the princess who falls in love at first sight, even though it’s with another princess.  But like the old original fairy tales, there is a darkness that isn’t necessarily overcome, and even a princess could become a monster.


Sunday, April 23, 2023

Jade City

Fonda Lee
Completed 4/23/2023, Reviewed 4/23/2023
5 stars

I loved this book.  It’s about the control of the jade trade, a magical stone that is only found on one island.  It’s a fictional Asia-based island that has recently achieved independence.  Although it has a government, the island is basically run by several families, not unlike mafia families.  The family with the main characters is mostly benevolent while its main competition is not as nice, illegally mining jade and dealing in a drug that counters the effects of the stone on those who aren’t born with the gift of using its power.  Reading the author’s notes, this book is a mish-mash of Mario Puzo and other mafia tales along with martial arts movies and other Japanese and Chinese influence.  Despite sounding like there’d be a lot of politics, and there is, I was completely engrossed in it.  I read this nearly 600 page book in six days and loved every minute of it.  This book won the 2018 World Fantasy and Aurora (Canadian SF) Awards and was nominated for several others.  

There are quite a few characters and the third person omniscient POV follows many of them.  The book begins with a street urchin, Bero, attempting to steal jade from a Green Bone, that is someone who has the ability to wear jade and use its powers.  He’s thwarted by Lan, the Pillar of the No Peaks cartel.  He’s the third Pillar since the island gained independence.  His brother Hilo is the Horn, the head of the group, some would say thugs, that keep the peace, handle crime, and fight the Mountain cartel.  Shae is the sister who renounced her jade and family responsibilities and left for the love of a foreigner and to go to college abroad.  She returns to the island at the beginning of the book, looking to live a life apart from the family.  The book begins with an uneasy peace between the No Peaks and the Mountain.  Soon however, there are clashes between the families that escalate to a near-war status.  

There are a few other characters worth mentioning.  Anden is the closeted gay teen, adopted by the Lan’s family as a “cousin”, who is finishing up schooling at the family’s academy.  He’s expected to take his place in the organization upon graduation.  Doru is the advisor to Lan and an original member of the No Peaks.  He fought in the war for independence along side the family’s grandfather, who founded the No Peaks.  Wen Is Hilo’s lover, a stone eye, that is, someone who is not affected by jade.  She refuses to live with Hilo because of her questionable parentage and because she is a stone eye and not a Green Bone.  Finally, Mada is the head of the Mountain cartel.  She is a very complex villain.

I spent a lot of time introducing the characters because the plot is very complex and rich.  I don’t know if I can summarize it better than the blurb in my first paragraph.  But the book is really about the relationships.  They are tense at the beginning of the book, between the families, within the families, and among siblings.  But things escalate about halfway through the book, throwing them all into an all-out turf war.  

Despite this being a gangster story, I really liked the main family of the No Peaks, whose family name (if I remember correctly) is Kaul.  The story is told from their point of view, so of course, we believe them to have higher morals than the Mountain.  They’re still gangsters, but you develop empathy for them as the events progress and tension escalates.  Lan, Shae, and Anden are easy to like.  Hilo takes some effort.  He’s a loose cannon that Lan is constantly reining in.  But by the end, I was fully dragged into the plight of the Kauls.  Needless to say, their characters are very well developed. 

The world building was tremendous, complete with gods, mythology, and of course, the magic jade.  However, the jade magic is not in the forefront of the story.  This is first and foremost a gangster tale.  But the jade magic naturally flows into the story so that by the end, I was fully accepting of it and its place in the book.  The prose was also great, not too flowery, with convincing dialogue and exciting action.

I give this book five stars out of five.  It had me hook, line, and sinker.  Even at nearly 600 pages, I never found it boring.  The pace was perfect with no low points.  And by the end I was as much a part of the family as any one of the characters.  If I was still on medical leave from work, I probably would have finished this in three days instead of six.  This book is the first in the Green Bones Saga, which is a trilogy.  I’m going to try to finish it before the year’s out.  Even if the second book suffers from sophomore slump, I really want to get back in and see what happens to the family.  


Monday, April 17, 2023

Radiance

Catherynne M Valente
Completed 4/17/2023, Reviewed 4/17/2023
3 stars

I have a mixed relationship with Valente.  My favorite book by her was In the Night Garden, my least favorite, Palimpsest.  This book is somewhere in the middle.  What stands out about the books of hers that I have read has been their structure.  This one was no different.  Told through interviews, films, letters, and flashbacks, it recounts an investigation into what happened to the daughter of a famous director on Venus.  It’s sort of an alternative universe, taking place in the first half of the 20th century, and assuming all the planets are easily reachable and inhabitable, like classic sci fi speculation.  In addition, film is mostly silent and in black and white because the heir of Thomas Edison holds the patent for color and sound and rarely gives permission for anyone to use that technology.  It’s an extremely interesting premise with lots of potential, but I found it mostly okay.  This was a book club selection.

Severin Unck is a documentary film maker from Luna.  Her father makes sweeping interplanetary romances and thrillers.  Severin takes a crew to Venus to find out what happened to a settlement there.  The only survivor is a boy she names Anchises.  Then one by one, her crew dies until only a few are left.  Severin disappears and the remaining crew and Anchises return to Luna.  Then the studio and her father try to piece together what happened to the crew and the fate of Severin.  There are interviews of the crew, letters from one of her stepmothers, treatments for a docudrama by her father, and the transcript of the few bits of film footage that remained from the Venus trip.  

The star of the book is the form.  There is no straight narrative describing anything.  You have to piece together the events from fiction and non-fiction with mostly unreliable narrators.  I found it both brilliant and annoying.  After reading most of the book, I just wanted to be told, straight out, what the hell happened out there.  

The prose is formidable.  Like the form, I found it both brilliant and distracting.  It often went on and on describing a scene or situation.  Sometimes it was wonderful, sometimes irritating.  I think the part of the book I liked the best was the interviews with Erasmo St. John, her sometime lover.  They were low on prose, high on content.  The treatments for the father’s movies were where it really bogged down.  He was trying to come up with a way to tell the story of Severin’s disappearance in a fictionalized form from the point of view of Anchises.  He does it initially as a noir detective film, then as a kind of fairy tale, finishing as a post-modern murder story.  This made it quite confusing, requiring the reader to change gears throughout the book.

It is difficult to say if I liked any of the characters because some were real while most of the others were fictional within the fiction.  I think that’s why I liked the Erasmo interviews.  They were “real”.  The characters do develop though throughout the book.  You get the sense that they were all authentic.  I wanted to like Anchises but he kept changing as the film he was in kept changing.  We get to know Severin as a child, but as an adult, only through the film footage from Venus.  The father, Percival, was kind of a jerk, having seven ex-wives as well as a lover or two.  In fact, we never know for sure who Severin’s mother was.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  I contemplated four stars because of the form, but I just couldn’t say I had gotten into the whole book.  Valente is quite a writer, though.  Even when she doesn’t succeed (from my perspective), the books are still forces to be reckoned with.  I have another book by her which I’ll probably get to in the next year or so.  We’ll see how that one pans out.


Saturday, April 15, 2023

The Dragon Waiting

John M. Ford
Completed 4/15/2023, Reviewed 4/15/2023
3 stars

This is an alternate history fantasy of the rise of Richard III of England, complete with wizards, vampires, and a dragon.  The setting is a medieval Europe where Rome has fallen, Christianity hasn’t become dominant, and the Byzantine empire is on the march to conquer western Europe.   It’s complex in its style and detail.  It seemed like many vignettes rather than one overriding plot.  There are four main characters and a myriad of others, including several Richards.  All of this made it difficult for me to appreciate.  I often found myself lost, trying to figure out where the arc was going, and often where it came from.  I read in several reviews that this book takes a lot of effort, and I think it probably requires several readings to really understand and appreciate.  It also requires some knowledge of history, not limited to the disappearance of the two young Princes in the Tower whose murders for which Richard was blamed.  This book won the 1984 World Fantasy Award.

The book begins giving you the backgrounds of the main characters, leading up to how they met.  There’s Hywel, a Welsh wizard; Cynthia, an Italian doctor forced to flee Florence after the death of several Medici’s; Gregory, a German mercenary vampire; and Dimitrios, exiled heir to the Byzantine throne.  After a chance meeting at a pub, they make their way to the British Isles to help Richard III gain the throne.  Most of the plot of this book after leaving the pub is intrigue amongst the many political factions, eventually leading to a war between Richard III’s forces and the Byzantium backed Henry Tudor (who would be Henry VII).

As you can guess by the tone of this review so far, I had trouble following this book.  It seemed to me that there are way too many short scenes which jump between the characters, making it difficult to follow any one subplot of the story.  And there are a ton of subplots.  That’s what made it such a complicated read for me.  Even though I read most of it in large blocks, I still had trouble following it.  Then when I went back to work part time, my reading blocks were shorter, making it even more difficult for me.  

I did like the main characters.  They all had good intentions.  I particularly liked Gregory the vampire.  He was thoughtful and gentle vampire who didn’t terrorize villages by drinking everyone’s blood and turning them.  I also liked Dimitrios who seemed to have some gay tendencies which were subtly alluded to.  Cynthia was a little tougher to get to know.  She was very guarded, but generally a strong female character in this mostly male dominated story.  Hywel was mysterious, generally good natured, but a tough read.

The world building was as complicated as the plot.  I did get a good read of each of the places the main characters came from, but after that, the scenes jumped around so much, I found it a tough task.  The prose was generally good and the dialogue realistic.  Even the secondary characters dialogue was fleshed out pretty well, believable and natural, making them seem as three dimensional as the main characters.

I give this book three stars out of five.  It has a lot going for it, but definitely needs to be read a second time, or perhaps studied in a group or class to really understand all the subplots and nuances.  


Sunday, April 9, 2023

Bid Time Return

aka “Somewhere In Time”
Richard Matheson
Completed 4/9/2023, Reviewed 4/9/2023
5 stars

I was really hesitant about this book.  I wasn’t up for a romance.  I never saw the film but I knew it had to do with time travel.  But I read it because it won the 1976 World Fantasy Award, so it was on my reading challenge.  Turns out I loved it.  It’s an amazing book about obsession and desperation.  The obsessive quality of the romance on the part of the main character, Richard Collier, made it a page turner.  And, as in his books I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, the prose is simply phenomenal.  

It is 1971.  Richard has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.  He decides to travel across country, sort of as a bucket list adventure, finishing out his limited time as he wants.  He’s single, never married, never in love.  He stops at an old seaside hotel near San Diego and gets a room.  There he sees a picture of a famous actress from turn of the century.  He immediately falls in love with her.  He becomes obsessed, reading everything he can about her in old theater books.  He finds a clue that makes him believe that he went back in time and met her in 1896.  So he tries to devise a way to go back in time and fulfill that historical side note that might indicate that he really did accomplish this. 

The method of time travel is interesting, using a hypnotic self-will to accomplish this.  I had to remember that this is more of a fantasy than a science fiction novel.  That made the suspension of disbelief easier to accept.  I also had to buy into the notion of love at first sight, and in this case, obsession.  Something in the reading of this made that easy to buy.  

The book is told as journal entries, long journal entries, recounting the few days in 1971 and then in 1896 in which this all happens.  So the voice is first person present.  I worked well for me, adding the immediacy of the narrator’s plight and desire.  In a way, I became obsessed with him finding the actress, Elise and trying to convince her of his honest intentions.  And even though you know how it’s going to end, it’s still devastating.  

I was surprised by the character of Elise, the actress.  She was a strong, independent woman throughout the book.  I liked her because she approached this relationship with trepidation for quite a while.  Later, her reasons for giving into the passion were believable.  And I really liked her command over her mother and manager, even though there were still Victorian mores dominating polite society.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  Matheson is simply a master wordsmith.  This book was readable and lovely.  In contrast to the last book I read, Matheson knows how to use prose to move a plot forward, not derail it.  Now I’m interested in the film to see if it’s all schmaltzy or if they captured the intensity of the obsession.


Saturday, April 8, 2023

A Stranger in Olondria

Sofia Samatar
Completed 4/8/2023, Reviewed 4/8/2023
2 stars

I’m a sucker for good prose, but sometimes it can be overbearing, obfuscating the plot and its progression.  This book’s prose is the latter.  There was so much description of people and places that I regularly lost the point of the action or dialogue.  It’s beautiful but extremely distracting.  At times I thought the thin plot was just an excuse to write a poetic travelogue.  This book won the 2014 World Fantasy and British Fantasy Awards and was nominated for several others.  I have read three of the five other nominees for the WFA and would given this award to any one of them over this bloated book. 

Jevick is the son of a pepper grower and merchant.  His father brings in a tutor to teach his son the language and customes of Olondria, where he goes to sell his pepper.  Jevick becomes enamored with Olondria.  Particularly, it reveres books and language, unlike the island where he lives.  When the father dies, Jevick leaves the family farm to explore Olondria.  While there, he experiences an apparition of a sickly girl who was on the boat with him.  He’s terrified of this and tells no one.  The haunting eats at him and eventually he tells the owner of the inn where he is staying, who turns him in to the head of one of the religious sects of the land, one where belief in ghosts, or angels, is considered a mental health issue.  However, word gets out of Jevick as a seer and soon he is pursued by another sect, one that reveres those who can see angels.  The result is an exploration of the sects’ rituals and eventually a travelogue as Jevick tries to rid himself of the angel and return home.

I never completely connected with Jevick, only in the lightest of terms.  He’s a moody boy and na├»ve adult.  I was actually more interested in his older brother, who appears to have been on the spectrum, which resulted in their father passing over him as the inheritor of the family business.  I also found the tutor to be quite interesting and would have liked more exposure to him.  I didn’t really care for many of the other characters.  They all felt one dimensional, being there solely for Jevick to react to.  

The plot left a lot to be to be desired.  It felt flimsy with no real purpose other than to provide Samatar with something to expound upon.  I felt like every aspect of every person, place, and thing, was there solely for the purpose of writing prose to describe it.  There are multiple stories within the story, which are just more opportunities to write overbearing prose.  They do give some background to the characters and color to the places, but eventually, they become tedious.  Even the big background story about the angel was tough to take even though it is the crux of the motivation for the angel.

I give this book two stars out of five.  It was way too bloated for me.  I knew I was in trouble when in the early pages of the book, the paragraphs were more than a page long.  That’s often a warning signal that the writing may be hard to take.  It’s great for world building, but not for general enjoyment.  


Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Boy’s Life

Robert R McCammon
Completed 4/4/2023, Reviewed 4/4/2023
5 stars

I was completely blown over by this book.  I thought it would be another pseudo-autobiographical slog about being a young aspiring writer.  Instead, I found it one of the best of the pseudo-autobiographical novels I’ve ever read.  And it had some magical realism to boot.  The story takes place in 1964 rural Alabama and is written in a vignette-type form.  The characters are likeable and relatable, even for a city boy like me.  And I was surprised and drawn into the main plots running through the vignettes.  This book won the 1992 World Fantasy Award and the 1991 Stoker Award for horror, even though the supernatural elements are mostly fantasy.

Cory is eleven-years-old at the beginning of the 1964.  He and his three best friends ride bikes, read comic books, go to the local movie theater, and play little league together in the little town of Zephyr.  That March, life changes for Cory when he accompanies his dad on his milkman route and sees a car drive into the local super deep lake.  Cory’s father goes after it, hoping to save the driver, and finds a dead naked man handcuffed to the steering wheel, strangled with a wire, and beaten to a pulp.  When they report it to the sheriff, they find out that no one is reported missing.  It appears to be a cold case and life goes on.  However, Cory slowly gets small clues over the rest of year of who the killer might be.  Throughout the rest of the year, life goes on, but Cory begins to have magical experiences, like the bike with the all-knowing eye, encounters with the river monster, and flying with his friends.

The book began as a slow read, as I let me expectations get the best of me.  Then the scene with the body in the car happened.  I’m usually not a murder mystery guy, but this really grabbed me.  Then when I saw that it was a setup for some supernatural happenings, I found I couldn’t put it down.  The whole coming of age trope took on a new dimension this way, making it not just a rehash of books like Stephen King’s “The Body” (aka “Stand By Me”).  Taking place in 1964, there was also a strong Civil Rights theme running through, with Cory experiencing the racism and violence with this little town and it's mostly black suburb.  

I really liked Cory, who is the narrator, even though he grows up to be a famous author, like McCammon.  He’s believable, even if you struggle a bit with the supernatural elements.  He’s genuine and sincere.  Not everything goes his way throughout this book.  If it did, it would be boring and you’d have to say he’s an unreliable narrator.  But I really came to believe his experiences as authentic and valid.  The other characters in the book were colorful and interesting.  Even the bad people were drawn well.  Of note, I liked The Lady, a 106-year-old black woman from the neighboring hamlet who had a touch of the magical in her as well.  Cory’s father was well developed, as well as Cory’s small group of friends.

I give this book five stars out of five because I literally could not put it down until I was passing out.  I read this 600-pager in 3 days.  I’m glad I read it while home from work with this shoulder surgery recovery, because it would have taken longer to read.  Getting it in three days though kept it sharp and immediate.  The prose is excellent and the dialogue realistic.  Having read this book, I’m interested in what some of McCammon’s other horror fiction is like. 


Saturday, April 1, 2023

The Kaiju Preservation Society

John Scalzi
Completed 4/1/2023, Reviewed 4/1/2023
4 stars

This was the right book at the right time for me: a light romp which the author compares to a pop song.  Sometimes, we just need a pop song to lighten our day.  After reading so many heavy books, some of which were slogs to get through, I needed this book.  It didn’t win any awards, but it has a good rating on the different review sites.  Scalzi knows how to deliver an enjoyable novel, whether it’s heavy or fluff like this one.

Jamie Grey is an executive at a competitor of the big food delivery apps.  Right at the start of the COVID pandemic, he gets laid off and becomes one of the “deliverators” at the company.  By chance, one of his regular clients offers him a job with mysteriously little information.  Jamie takes it and ends up a member of a team whose mission is to preserve large animals.  What he doesn’t know until he’s there is that the large animals are Godzilla-like creatures who live in another dimension of Earth.  His primary job is as a grunt, mostly moving and lifting things.  Quickly however, he is tasked with being an emissary to government, military, and investor visitors, based on his previous background as an executive.  On his first day as a liaison, who would appear but the CEO of the company he used to work for.  And of course, his motives for investing are anything but pure.  Soon, Jamie and three other newbies are on an adventure to save one of the kaiju who has just laid a brood of eggs from the clutches of this evil investor.

One of the things I liked best about this book was that Scalzi knows it is for fun.  Whenever there’s a plot twist that the reader can see coming from a mile away, Scalzi includes the phrase, “because of course it is”.  That was great.  It helped keep me from taking the book too seriously.  I’m reading this for book club and I can already hear some of the members decrying plot holes and silliness.  But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am not ashamed to say that.  

Jamie Grey is the narrator.  He’s a nice guy in a lousy situation who happens upon the opportunity of a lifetime, even though he doesn’t know that at the beginning.  There aren’t really a lot of deep emotions here, with Jamie or with other main characters.  In fact, the characterization is rather thin.  But I still liked Jamie and the rest of the characters in the KPS.  One thing I found interesting is that Scalzi has the main character meet three other characters who comprise a little posse, which if I remember correctly, was a gimmick he used in Redshirts.  And their names were all rather difficult to remember, being of different ethnic backgrounds.  But I forgave Scalzi all this as I realized how light the novel was going to be.  And there was enough interaction with the other characters that I got their personality differences down pretty well, although I didn’t really remember their genders.  

As for the other items I usually mention, it was all rather light.  The prose was not heady.  In fact most of the book is dialogue driven.  Scalzi didn’t go out of his way to really define what the Kaiju looked like.  He left that up to our imagination.  I let myself imagine Godzilla- and Mothra-like creatures be the source of the pictures in my head.  And the organic nuclear reactor concept was pretty weird, but suspension of disbelief comes a lot easier when you’re having fun with a book.

I give this book four stars out of five.  As far as fluff goes, it’s near perfect, totally enjoyable.  I think only a curmudgeon would not have a good time with this novel.  Now I must return to the heavy world of World Fantasy Award winners, the remaining eight of which all seem long and really intense.  I’ll probably have to throw a gay magical romp in there to lighten things up as I complete my challenge.


Friday, March 31, 2023

Declare

Tim Powers
Completed 3/30/2023, Reviewed 3/30/2023
3 stars

Another book by Tim Powers under my belt and I have to say I’m not a fan.  I thought this book was overblown.  At nearly 600 pages, I found myself mentally editing out bloated character backgrounds and repetition.  Although, some of the repetition was useful when my mind wandered and needed to refresh what exactly was going on.  This book is a combination spy and fantasy novel, but you don’t get an inkling of the fantasy until about halfway through, especially with double agents.  My forte is not remembering who is spying for which country at what point in time, and keeping all the spies straight in my head.  The fantasy part was about the djinn, which normally would have kept me going, but I even had trouble with that.  This book won the 2001 World Fantasy Award and was nominated for a slew of others.

Andrew Hale had a strange childhood.  Born in Palestine to his British and Catholic mother the nun, he’s raised in England.  He’s brought into the world of espionage by a secret government agency that funded his single parent family as well as his education after the death of his mother.  Soon he’s a spy in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, trying to infiltrate the Soviet movements there.  While in Paris he falls in love for another spy, Elena, a Spanish orphan of the revolution there, now a red spy.  Also in the mix is a British double agent named Kim Philby who has a strange psychic connection to Hale and also loves Elena.  Fast forward to the cold war of 1963 and Hale is assigned to discover the mysteries of the djinn residing in Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat and take vengeance for a previously aborted attempt from 1948, codenamed Declare.

The whole book wasn’t a slog.  In fact there were times I thought the plot was pretty inspired.  I actually liked the part that took place during WWII which occurred before the supernatural stuff comes in play.  I also liked the background stories of Hale and Elena.  However, by the time we get to the background stories of Philby, I was worn out by my confusion of who was spying for whom at what point and why.  I also thought the description of the encounters with the djinn were not always very well written.  I often found it difficult to follow the action.  I’ve read a lot of djinn tales over the past few years now and found this book to be the weakest depiction of them so far.  

I guess I kind of liked the protagonist and his love interest, especially in their time in Paris, as noted earlier.  However, I never empathized with either of them.  My relationship with them was rather cold.  We know a ton about them, but we don’t really get much in the way of emotions from them.  And Philby, I didn’t get at all.

I give this book three stars out of five.  I would have given it two, but the writing and character development were better than that.  I’m done with Powers though.  Unless he wins another Mythopoeic or WFA, I don’t plan on reading him anymore.  However, looking at his ratings and reviews for this book on the internet, he’s quite popular, and this book is considered one of his best.  So take what you will from that.  You might find this book a better read than me.


Friday, March 24, 2023

Our Lady of Darkness

Fritz Leiber
Completed 3/24/2023, Reviewed 3/24/2023
2 stars

This book was a tedious bore.  I found it difficult to get through.  I didn’t like the prose or the plot. The book takes place in San Francisco after the heyday of the ‘60s and before hi tech.  It’s also an urban fantasy before the concept became a subgenre.  It deals with an unknown horror in modern day San Fran.  It tips its hat to several other literary figures, including Lovecraft.  However, none of these things held any appeal for me.  I don’t seem to have much luck with Leiber, having read two other books by him and not caring for either.  This book won the 1978 World Fantasy Award.

Franz Westen is a horror writer who one day sees a cloaked figure on the top of Corona Heights waving at him through his binoculars from his apartment.  Intrigued, he goes to the Heights and finds nothing of note.  However, he turns his binoculars back to his apartment and the figure is there leaning out his window waving at him again.  He does some investigation and finds that an author who believed in something called Megapolisomancy, the access of power of a large metropolis, put a curse on some fellow writers (his acolytes) and that curse seems to have found Franz.

Judging by the blurb about the book and this summary, it sounds like it might be an intriguing twist on the haunted place.  However, not much happens after seeing the apparition.  He does a lot investigation, which is how he finds out about this (fictional) author and the curse.  To my dismay, a lot of the revelations were in the form of exposition and were tedious to read.  The big info dump where Franz learns everything bored me to tears.  Nothing supernatural happens again until the very end.

I kind of liked the characters.  There’s Cal, as in Calpurnia, a harpsichordist with whom Franz had an affair after his wife died of brain cancer.  Then there’s Gun and Saul, two friends of Franz who live in the same building.  They were colorful characters and almost gay.  Then there’s the Peruvian apartment manager, her daughter, and the chess loving maintenance man Fernando, whose relationship to the first two I couldn’t remember.  All these characters go out to eat with Franz and have a lively conversation where Franz reveals what he’s seen.  The interaction is playful and gives you a good idea of what each of the characters is like.  That scene solidified that I liked them.

Franz himself is kind of a bore.  He’s about a year sober after plunging into the depths of alcoholism after his wife died.  Yes, he wonders if he is going insane often, but there’s no real evidence of him going through the struggle of what a newly sober person goes through.  A year sober may seem like a long time, but in terms of getting your life back to some semblance of normalcy, it’s still a fresh trauma that is only beginning to heal.

I give this book two stars out of five.  Either Leiber is an overrated author, or I just don’t get him.  I read his Hugo winning books The Wanderer and The Big Time, and found them either lackluster or undecipherable.  In all cases, I found the prose generally confusing and difficult to read.  I’m probably not going to read anything else by him, despite him having won most of the major awards including the Grand Master award.


Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Madouc

Jack Vance
Completed 3/22/2023, Reviewed 3/22/2023
5 stars

I was really impressed by this last installment of the Lyonesse trilogy.  I felt that it was much more organized with a more relatable main character.  It still had a lot of characters, but by this time, I had them all down pretty well.  I also felt that the story followed the main character longer with fewer jumps to the subplots.  It was more cohesive and overall read much better than the first two books.  This book won the 1990 World Fantasy Award.  I can’t say it stands on its own.  You have to read the first two books to know what is going on in this one.  However, everything you need to know is eventually reviewed in this book, but you’d miss out on so much without reading the first two.

This book begins with the changeling that replaced Suldrun’s son in the first book.  Madouc is a precocious teenager who like her mother, wants nothing to do with the royal life.  She doesn’t want to be a trained in the genteel arts, she only wants to learn what she’s interested in, and most of all, she doesn’t want to marry for political gain to appease her father the King.  But unlike her Suldrun, she’s much more creative and aggressive in the way she avoids commands and responsibilities.  Eventually, she figures out she’s a changeling and meets her birth mother from the faerie realm.  However, the mother does not remember who the father is.  So Madouc goes on a quest to find out who he is so she can know her pedigree.  Along the way, she also discovers her father the King’s plans to unite the Elder Isles under himself.  She also meets Dhrun, the true son of Suldrun with whom she was exchanged.  

Madouc is a terrific character, a strong young woman with a passion for what she finds interesting and rejection of the oppressive patriarchy her father and mother condone.  It’s her way or no way.  I think this is one of the strongest female characters written by a man from a book so old.  This book is over thirty years old, and while you would think that female characters would have generally been well written by that time, it wasn’t necessarily true.  

Dhrun and his father Aillas appear in the book, but only in much briefer scenes.  It’s really too bad because they were the standouts in the previous book, The Green Pearl, and Aillas particularly in the first book, Suldrun’s Garden.  Casmir is ruthless and devious as ever.  Shimrod comes back and plays an important role in the magical politics of the Isles.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  This one is a little out of my usual requirement for a perfect score.  The book wasn’t perfect.  In particular, I thought the ending was rushed, even though the book was already about five hundred pages long.  I also didn’t have a visceral reaction at the conclusion.  I give it a five star rating because it’s about the best high fantasy trilogy I’ve read in a long time.  Vance does a terrific job with the Faerie realm, especially once embodied in Madouc.  The prose is flawless and the worldbuilding is simply phenomenal.  I highly recommend this book to readers who miss traditional fantasy.


Saturday, March 18, 2023

Mythago Wood

Robert Holdstock
Completed 3/18/2023, Reviewed 3/18/2023
4 stars

I liked this book despite its misogynistic sensibility.  It was really good while it stayed a sausage fest and lost momentum when it brought in a female character whose main purpose seemed to be to make men fall in love with her.  Granted, the book was published in 1984 and takes place after WWII, but it still could have been much more enlightened in its treatment of woman.  Otherwise, the basic premise of the book is very original and the prose is terrific.  This book won the 1984 British Sci Fi Award and the 1985 World Fantasy Award.  

Steve Huxley comes home from the war to find his brother Christian a wraith.  He has become obsessed with the forest near their house that their father was obsessed with.  After Christian disappears, Steve tries to figure out the mystery of the ancient wood.  It seems to generate archetypal creatures and beings partly generated by mind of the observer and partly by the history and folklore of the area.  Christian comes back from the wood and has become powerful, burly, and aggressive.  He is in search of the woman from the wood with whom he fell in love.  He goes back into the wood and again disappears.  This time, the woman of the wood shows up for Steve and the two fall in love.  This of course causes conflict between the brothers, though it feeds into a folk tale of the murderous Outsider and the Kinsman who must kill him.  

As noted above, I really liked the beginning of the book.  It was quite a mystery, this wooded area being only a few square miles in size, but people get lost in it for long periods of time.  It is not necessarily of the faerie folk, but it has that time dilation.  Inside the wood, there are extinct animals like wild giant boars and bears.  There’s a Robin Hood like person and various other peoples from cultures that lived in this area.  It’s an enigmatic area that seems to drive mad the people trying to explore it.

The story loses its appeal when Guiwenneth shows up.  She’s like a warrior princess, so it takes a while before she and Steve hit it off, but of course they do.  I found the whole courting ritual to be rather tedious.  Then Christian returns, steals Guiwenneth from Steve, and leaves him for dead.  I would have rather seen more exploration of the wood, or perhaps a less stereotypical trope.

One aspect I did like was the appearance of a royal air force pilot who Steve spots trying to fly over the woods.  Harry Keeton is a charming guy with his own mystery.  He came across a similar wooded area in Belgium during the war.  Harry, Steve and Guiwenneth become good friends.  When Christian steals Guiwenneth, Harry accompanies Steve on his journey into the wood to find her.  Harry offers a different perspective and occasional breaks in the tension with humor and kindness.  

I reluctantly give this book four stars out of five.  If I read it when it first came out, I would have had no qualms about the rating.  But reading it forty years later, the book drips with misogyny.  The appearance of Guiwenneth was a distraction from the more interesting primeval forest mystery.  And she goes from being a force to be reconned with to a victim way too quickly.  If I remember correctly, there was only two other female characters noted, one was a “spinster” from the house of the owners of the land that the Huxleys live on.  She was only in her twenties and was already bitter.  The other was a thirteen-year-old naked girl covered in green who tells stories.  She herself wasn’t creepy.  Her being written by a white cis male who finds it necessary to describe her breasts was the creepy part.  The further back I go with a book, the more forgiving I am of these things, but for 1984, Holdstock had the opportunity to be a little more enlightened.  


Thursday, March 16, 2023

The Song of Kali

Dan Simmons
Completed 3/15/2023, Reviewed 3/16/2023
4 stars

The Song of Kali is the first novel by Dan Simmons.  He would later go on to win the Hugo for Hyperion.  This book won the 1986 World Fantasy Award.  It’s more horror than fantasy although by looking at many Fantasy Award lists, you will find a lot of horror.  This one takes place in Calcutta.  Upon reading, it becomes pretty clear that Simmons hates Calcutta.  In fact, he spent 2 ½ days there, resulting in this paean of hatred.  If there is a good quality of Calcutta, you won’t find it here.  But what you do find is a well-written horror novel steeped deeply in the mythos of the goddess Kali.  

Bobby Luczak is an American poet and writer.  His Indian wife Amrita is a professor of mathematics.  They have a baby daughter Victoria.  Bobby is assigned to go to Calcutta to retrieve a new manuscript of the legendary Indian poet named M. Das who has supposedly been dead for nearly eight years.  He takes his wife and daughter on the trip so that they can stop in London to visit her parents who have not yet seen Victoria.  Upon arrival, Bobby is immediately disgusted with the squalor and poverty.  He connects with people who promise him the manuscript, but not a meeting with Das.  They tell him of how Das has been resurrected by the goddess Kali and has written an important work about her and her coming into power.  He gets a major runaround through the misery and violence that is Calcutta.  The end will break your heart, traumatically.

It was hard for me to get into this book.  Simmons paints a horrible picture of Calcutta, complete with rats, garbage, poverty, fecal waste, and death.  Everywhere he turns, people are squatting in the streets urinating or defecating.  There is no reprieve from this misery except in the hotel where the Luczaks are staying.  Even when it gets into the cult of Kali and the mythology surrounding her, I found it difficult to stay connected with the book.  The descriptions are that miserable.  I have to say, though, that the prose is quite good, otherwise, I don’t think I would have had as visceral a reaction to it.  

The book is told from Bobby’s first person perspective.  You experience his disgust throughout the book.  He meets a variety of people, all who claim to be part of the writer’s guild that brought him over.  But rather than a simple transaction, acquiring the poem’s manuscript is a complicated and dangerous mission.  He encounters a cult of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction.  She has supposedly resurrected Das who is now dedicated to bringing her to world consciousness.  Bobby’s fatal flaw is that his curiosity wins over his disgust and he tries to pursue a meeting with Das even after he gets the manuscript.  He believes he needs this meeting to write a reasonable article for Harper’s, the magazine hiring him, as well as for “Other Voices”, the independent poetry magazine to which he contributes.

I give this book four stars out of five.  The writing is really good.  However, I can’t say I enjoyed the book.  I was caught in an internal struggle of liking the writing and being disgusted by Bobby’s reaction to the city.  It made me think of a tables-turned scenario, where an Indian comes to Portland, goes walking on the waterfront amongst the homeless, trash, and refuse, gets accosted by meth-heads, and writes a book about how horrible Portland is.  Is this the scenario of Simmon’s two and half days in Calcutta?  Or is it a first world observer trying to wipe the muck of the third world off their shoes so they can ignore it as they return to their comfy mountain home and schoolteacher job?  


Monday, March 13, 2023

The Sudden Appearance of Hope

Claire North
Completed 3/13/2023, Reviewed 3/13/2023
4 stars

When you read the plot summary of this book, you might think that The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue was a rip off of it.  Both are about a girl who no one remembers interacting with.  But while Addie LaRue is kind of a fairy tale-ish romance, this book is a hardcore reflection on what it means to be perfect in a world dominated by social media, toxic capitalism, celebrity, and low self-esteem.  I don’t know if the basic trope started with North, or if it’s found in other books.  Having read these two so closely together, it's easy to draw comparisons and contrasts between the two.  North’s book won the 2017 World Fantasy Award.  Addie LaRue was published a few years later.

At the age of 16, Hope Arden’s family starts forgetting that she is their daughter.  At school, she is introduced as a new student every day.  Her friends don’t remember her.  Only her developmentally challenged sister remembers her.  She eventually leaves home and becomes a thief to survive.  She finds herself in Dubai going after a priceless diamond necklace.  She steals it, but it was during a party for ultra-wealthy people who are using an app called Perfection.  This app tells them what choices and changes to make to make themselves perfect.  Soon she is in the target of a hunt to find the thief.  The problem is no one remembers her.  Still, she becomes embroiled in the dirty world of the ultra-rich and a plot to destroy the company that makes Perfection.

While this book won the WFA, I would consider it a little more science fiction and a little less fantasy.  It might fall under the subgenres of cyberpunk and human development.  A lot of the chase happens online and the key to perfection is undergoing treatments for behavior modification.  Regardless of the category, I found it a terrifically written thriller.  I particularly liked the stream of conscious thinking and google search results that give Hope’s life some definition and meaning.  It makes for a much grittier feel than Addie LaRue.

Hope is the narrator of the story.  She tells it in first person, bouncing back and forth between how this condition began and evolved while telling the main story beginning with the theft of the necklace in Dubai.  Despite the mixing of the timelines, it was easy to follow.  I think that goes back to North’s excellent writing.  Hope is not necessarily a character you can empathize with.  She certainly doesn’t evoke pathos.  It’s also clear that she is not a reliable narrator.  Nonetheless, I found myself on her side through the existential crisis this predicament arouses in her and the actions she pursues as a result of her decisions.  

The toughest part of this book is reading about so many self-absorbed people becoming more self-absorbed.  It reflects the world we find ourselves in already, with tailored ads, self-help and self-actualization programs, and all the other deplorableness that comes with being obsessively online.  While the book is set in upper stratosphere of society, it still trickles down to the common folk.  And it’s hard to admit that I can be as caught up in the mania as anyone else.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It ranks up there with the last book of North’s that I read, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.  While the style is different, the writing is equally terrific and the plot commands some hard reflection on morality.  The book is really dark, even the earworm of The Macarena is darkly humorous.  It was nice to read this while off from work because I was able to really dig my teeth into it.  I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it as much if I read it in small bits.  North’s writing evokes an immediacy and tenseness that keeps you pulled into the book.  I’ll definitely keep reading North as more works of hers come out.  


Friday, March 10, 2023

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Karen Lord
Completed 3/10/2023, Reviewed 3/10/2023
3 stars

I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since I read Lord’s first novel, Redemption in Indigo.  It was a retelling of a Senegalese myth, award-winning and masterfully done.  This second novel is a jump over to the SF side.  It was inspired by the devastating tsunami in the Indian and Pacific Oceans in 2014, along with some stories by Ray Bradbury.  However, it didn’t grab me the way Indigo did.  I had several issues with the book, namely, keeping track of all the names.  I also didn’t care for the episodic nature of book.  But it had its moments of brilliance, just not nearly enough of them.

Grace Delarua is a linguist working on Cygnus Beta, a home of various strains of humanity who have been refugees from another place.  Grace is brought on to work with the incoming Sadira, all-male survivors of a terrible invasion that devastated their planet and their female population.  She travels with a team including Dllenahkh, a refugee from Sadira, to find homesteads and a solution to their wifelessness.  

The main differences between the different lines of humanity living on Cygnus Beta include, of course, the physical, and also psionic ability.  Grace comes from a line that doesn’t generally have much, but Dllenahkh does.  When all the episodic adventures are stripped away, the book is a slow-paced romance between these two despite their differences.

I kind of liked Grace and Dllenahkh.  Grace was goofy next to Dllenahkh’s stoic cultural nature.  The book tackles some intense issues including genocide and human trafficking.  At one point, Grace takes a stand on one of these issues, jeopardizing her job on the mission.  She is a strong woman despite the goofiness that comes through most of the time.  Sometimes, I did find it a little difficult to get really serious on these issues as we see them through Grace’s perspective.  I thought this was a flaw in the writing, which wasn’t always as tight as I thought it could be.  It was much easier to take things more seriously  through Dllenahkh’s perspective as he was almost Vulcan in his stoic nature.  

I had trouble identifying with all the secondary characters.  There were many of them, with many different names.  I regularly lost track of who was who, what their ancestral line was, and sometimes, whether they were male or female.  This was a shame because there was even a non-binary character, but I could not remember their name.  I often confused it with the name of the male who was romantically interested in them.

All in all, I was pretty meh about this book.  I was disappointed after being wowed by Indigo.  I do have an old Advanced Reading Copy of the sequel, The Galaxy Game, which I’ll probably read soon, just to give Lord another chance.  In general, I think she has a good vision and imagination.  And she comes from the new wave of Caribbean women authors of the past twenty years.  I think she and they have a lot to offer in creativity and perspective in fantasy and science fiction.  I give this book three stars out of five.