Monday, July 15, 2024

Some Desperate Glory

Emily Tesh
Completed 7/14/2024, Reviewed 7/15/2024
5 stars

I hadn’t realized I had read this author before until I read the pages at the end of the book.  She previously wrote Silver in the Wood and Drowned Country, award winning novellas I loved.  Now she is nominated for several awards, including the 2024 Hugo for this her first novel, and I loved it.  It’s a queer space opera with an unreliable, unlikable main character.  It plays with parallel universes and trying to make the future turn out the way you want it to.  At times it was a little tough to follow the universe jumping, but once I got used to it, it was breathtaking.  The prose is as intense as the main character.  Even though it took me a week to read this, I read the majority of it on just a few nights, going to bed early on the others to catch up from reading so late LOL.  

Kyr, as in Valkyr, is a young warrior woman on Gaea, the last outpost of rebellious humans, a space station built from several war vessels on a planetoid.  She is ready to go claim vengeance on the aliens who destroyed the Earth.  When she doesn’t get the appointment she was expecting, she goes to look for her twin brother who supposedly betrayed the rebels.  Her journey takes her to a planet where a large group of humans live in peace with each other and the aliens.  There she learns the truth about her brother, Gaea, and the aliens.

Kyr is quite the intense character.  She, like almost everyone else on Gaea, lives for revenge on the aliens for destroying Earth.  She is the top female cadet, the darling of Gaea’s commander, her Uncle Jole.  He’s not really her uncle, but he adopted her and her twin brother Magnus after their mother died and their older sister betrayed Gaea.  Despite all the accolades, her “sisters” from the same age group don’t like her.  But she ignores that, living for the glory of humanity.  Even when she goes searching for Magnus, she is still intense, despite all the revelations she encounters.

The other characters are quite believable as well.  They are all pretty intense; that is how they are raised.  I liked that there were multiple queer characters, but no real romance going on.  Romance is basically eschewed for the greater glory of humanity.  And they weren’t all good.  Magnus’ seditious gay friend is bitchy and as unlikable as Kyr initially is.  Ironically, the only character in the first half or so of the book who acts human is an alien.  

The tough part about this book is that there are a lot of trigger topics.  They include, suicide, rape, forced birth, and almost every ism and phobia you can think of.  The society on Gaea exists as a militaristic installation with the sole purpose of the remnants of humanity taking revenge on the aliens.  Swept aside are things that make us human.  This is all represented in the character of Kyr.  Fortunately, she does go on a journey of revelation and change.  But it takes time for her to get there, and that may be problematic for some readers.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  I found it intense.  Kyr has completely bought into the cruel dystopia she was raised in.  When she does begin to transform, it is not sudden, and she learns the hard way what her belief system has done to those around her.  Eventually, you do come to like her, but just like for Kyr, the journey for the reader is not easy.  

Sunday, July 7, 2024

Witch King

Martha Wells
Completed 7/7/2024, Reviewed 7/7/2024
3 stars

This book wasn’t my cup of tea.  It was told in two timelines, and despite being clearly delineated by chapter titles, I found it confusing.  I had trouble getting into the initial timeline, the “present,” and when the “past” began, I lost track of the objective of the present.  Then I lost track of the objective of the past.  When it all came together in the end, I was non-plussed.  I have a mixed history with Wells.  I mostly enjoyed her Murderbot series, culminating in the award-winning Network Effect (although several more Murderbot books have been released since).  I didn’t care for her fantasy novel we read for book club, The Cloud Roads.  But this was nominated for several awards, so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.   It won the 2024 Locus Award for Fantasy and was nominated for Hugo and Nebula Awards.  It lost the Nebula; the Hugo will be announced in August.  

The book opens with Kai being revived from being dead for a year, his consciousness being suspended while his body lay trapped in an elaborate water tomb.  He awakens and escapes, capturing a new body from a group of marauders at his tomb.  He also finds and rescues Ziede, a witch who was one of his companions and was also entombed nearby.  Kai himself is a demon with a human body and is known as the Witch King.  He takes the gender of the body he inhabits.  The two begin a quest to find out who was responsible for their situation.  They also search for Ziede’s wife Tahren and Tahren’s brother Dahin.  The book then goes back to explain how Kai was captured when the Hierarchs took over, was rescued, and then with Ziede, Tahren, Dahin, and others try to overthrow the Hierarchs.  

Despite never feeling like I got into the book, I did like Kai’s powers as a demon as well as the magic of the others in the story.  There were magical people as well as mortals.  And the magic system seemed different depending on whether you were a demon, a witch, a Blessed Immortal, or a Hierarch.  It was always an interesting scene when they were using their powers for battle.  

I didn’t care for the world building.  I never quite got the scenario of Kai, Ziede, and their cohorts riding on a boat, and then later a raft through rivers, canals, and bays.  Water played a huge part in the story, but I had a tough time understanding how it all was laid out.  I thought the prose, while extensive, focused on the wrong things at crucial times, like clothing.  Or maybe I just was not getting it as I was reading it.

I give this book a tentative three stars out of five.  A part of me recognizes that a lot of effort went into organizing and executing the production of this novel, keeping the past and the present exciting and the plots moving forward.  I just didn’t get into it enough right from the beginning to understand, appreciate, and care about what was going on.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Thick and the Lean

Chana Porter
Completed 6/25/2024, Reviewed 6/25/2024
5 stars

This is the last remaining book nominated for a 2024 Speculative Fiction Lammy.  The winner was I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself.  I think it deserved to win.  However, this would have been a very strong runner up.  I was floored by the power of this novel.  It’s about a dystopian planet with capitalism run amok, where fat shaming has become engrained in the government and religion.  Corporations and ministers convince people that to eat is to sin.  The poor live on the ground, vulnerable to the rising seas while the super-rich live in towers.  At first, I was rather put off by the book, but after about one hundred pages, I had bought into the premise.  I was hooked.  

There are two main characters told in alternating chapters.  Beatrice is a teen living in a corporate owned community called Seagate.  Everyone there has bought into the societal and religious doctrine to eat as little as possible, as chewing, digesting, and defecating has become taboo, worthy only of animals.  Beatrice believes in the doctrine, but also believes food can taste good.  She wants to be a chef, but of course will have to leave home to live that dream.

Reiko has graduated high school with a scholarship to an expensive technical university where she can develop her amazing programming skills and have a chance at a good job.  She is of the lower class, the indigenous people who don’t cover their mouths when chewing and don’t starve themselves on nutrition pills, but are also not considered citizens of their own land.  When her funding is cut, she takes to a life of hi tech grifting to make her way to the top of society.

I think my initial hesitation with the book was that I didn’t like the circumstances of the main characters.  It was too bleak.  Sometimes a good book is too bleak to appreciate because you don’t want to enter that world.  However, I soon found myself very much inside Beatrice and Reiko’s heads.  They are both wonderful characters with fascinating arcs.  They start as na├»ve teens but grow into self-empowered women.  Neither is perfect, but they are both strong.  I enjoyed reading about them even when they were making bad decisions.  

One interesting thing about this society that Porter created is that the substitute for eating is sex.  Besides controlling hunger, society, particularly religion, has normalized sexual promiscuity as a form of worship.  Eventually, the reader realizes is that it has become the substitute for eating.  The book is not one big orgy, but sex plays a major role in how people interact with each other.  For people who are monogamous, it is almost as culturally difficult as wanting to chew food.  

The world building of this book is tremendous.  I was amazed at the imagination that went into extrapolating fat-shaming into a cultural, religious, and corporate norm.  When we finally get to parts where food is savored by the eaters, it is a splendid visceral experience.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  Reading it was profound, with the experiences of both Beatrice and Reiko, regarding food, sex, and simple control over their own bodies.  It’s a dark book and may be too much of a downer for some.  But I found it to be a worthwhile experience, provoking my own hangups around food and sex.  It’s well written and beautifully imagined.  Porter hasn’t written a lot yet, but I would definitely be open to more of her work in the future.

Friday, June 21, 2024


Robert Jackson Bennett
Completed 6/20/2024, Reviewed 6/21/2024
4 stars

I was surprised by how much I liked this book.  I hadn’t read Bennett since City of Stairs in 2018 and loved that book.  However, I didn’t remember I had even read it until a friend found it in my blog and pointed it out to me.  It was one of those really good books that just kind of slips out of mind considering the number of books I read a year.  I’m hoping this one sticks in my head a little better.  It’s a book club read and the first in a trilogy.  It features a kind of industrialized magic in a place so entrenched in capitalism, government no longer exists and the ruling merchant houses abuse their power over the people.  I found it a gripping statement on late-stage capitalism and the pursuit of the ultimate weapon to wipe out all the competition and remake the world.  This book was nominated for a 2019 British Fantasy Award and a 2023 Best Series Hugo.

Sancia is an orphaned thief.  She’s so good, she scores a lucrative deal to steal a powerful magical artifact from one of the merchant houses.  Curiosity gets the best of her and she opens the plain box holding it.  She finds an ornate key.  When she touches it, it speaks to her.  After forming a strange bond with it, she does not hand it over to her employer and she finds herself at the center of a grand chase by unknown assailants.  Soon, she is in race to keep the key out of the hands of those who would use it to remake the world.

The book begins a little mundanely.  It feels like standard fantasy fare with a thief and a treasure.  It’s not until the key begins communicating with Sancia that the feel of the book takes a turn and it becomes completely engrossing.  I found myself wanting to understand Sancia and Clef, the key, about her horrific past, and what that means for her relationship with the Clef.  Then all the intrigue between the merchant houses and the system of magic all make sense and gives everyone their motivation.  

The little group of people Sancia ends up working with consists of dicey characters.  She has no reason to trust them except for the fact that there is no one else to trust.  They are all generally likable, although they are all very flawed.  The one character who seemed the most trustworthy was Berenice, with whom, Sancia has a little spark of a burgeoning romance.  However, not much happens in this book.  I assume their relationship takes off further in the series.  Her two other companions, Gregor and Orso, I didn’t trust until the end of the book. 

The book is very well written, with multi-dimensional characters and an unbelievably complex magic system and society.  I was constantly amazed by unfolding description of the society, including its founding by a king who tried to tap into the power of the gods, that is, the making of everything.  It kept me intrigued right up to the end, which of course leaves you hanging and wanting more.  I don’t know if I’ll actually follow through on this trilogy, but I wouldn’t be averse to it.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s exciting, fast paced, and one of the best world-building books I’ve read in a while.  It felt very original and well thought out.  I liked the main characters and eventually loved Sancia and was pained by her backstory.  And I was pleasantly surprised by the little romance between her and Berenice.  But the star of the book is Clef, the key.  He ties everything together and makes what could have been just another thief fantasy something extraordinary.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Road to Roswell

Connie Willis
Completed 6/7/2024, Reviewed 6/7/2024
2 stars

I was sadly disappointed with this novel.  It’s supposed to be fun fluff.  For the most part, it was cute.  Unfortunately, it suffered from the same tired formula Willis has used in most of her books.  People don’t listen to the protagonist, they talk over him/her, the protagonist gets into some kind of trouble, someone saves them.  My disappointment was compounded by a tediously trite ending.  I’ve really liked some of Willis’ other books, including Blackout and Passage.  While they had the Willis formula, the circumstances and specifics were enough to make them terrific books.  Roswell simply didn’t have enough interesting circumstances or specifics, despite it being about UFOs and aliens.  The one thing it had going for it: it was a very fast read. 

Francie goes to Roswell to be the maid of honor at her college roommate’s wedding.  Shortly after she arrives, she’s kidnapped by an alien and forced to drive it into the New Mexico desert to some unknown destination.  Along the way, they pick up others:  Wade, an alien abduction insurance salesman; a sweet little old lady casino aficionado; a UFO conspiracy theorist; and a western movies fan in an RV.  But there’s more to these characters than meets the eye.  Everyone is hiding secrets.  As they travel together, they figure out how to communicate with the alien and Francie and Wade figure out that it needs their help to find another alien out in the desert, and it’s of utmost importance.  

As far as characters go, I actually liked them.  I thought they were a well-rounded collection of pushy people.  You may ask about Francie, the protagonist.  Was she pushy?  Actually, she had a pretty strong self-editing brain.  She didn’t need the people around her to prevent her from talking.  She prevented herself just as much.  But she was nice.  Wade clearly has massive secrets.  The hints in the text are pretty obvious, but I kind of liked him anyway.  And just when the jokes seemed to run out with a character, Willis introduces a new one.  

I’m not sure whether I liked the alien, who Wade and Francie nicknamed Indy because of the way he whipped around his tentacles.  Indy reminded me a lot of the character named Cheese from Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.  He’s comical, but if used too much, is just plain annoying.  I did like the process of Indy learning to “speak” in English, learning jargon from all the Westerns’ DVDs on the RV.  However, Indy’s mode of communication, letters or characters scrolling across their tentacles, was bizarre and a little tough to accept.  I like the concept of imagining different communication modalities, but couldn’t totally buy into this one.  

I know quite a few people who really liked this book.  I give it two stars out of five.  It would have been three stars, but the end killed it for me.  It was just too trite and formulaic.  If I’m going to read any more Willis, I think I’m going to stick with rereading the Oxford Time Travel series.  I’d recommend them to people new to the author.  To Say Nothing of the Dog particularly is much better at being a fun book than this one was.  

Friday, June 7, 2024

The Archive Undying

Emma Mieko Candon
DNF 6/2/2024, Reviewed 6/2/2024
1 star

This is the first book I did not finish (DNF) in a very long time.  I found it simply unreadable.  I got 150 pages in, about a third of the way through the book, and had to put it down.  I had no idea what was going on.  I’m pretty sure the author did, but I did not.  I found a review by one of my favorite authors these days, Rebecca Roanhorse.  In it, she articulated every issue I had with the book, and then some.  I hope I don’t repeat what she said here, but my main issues overlap with what she wrote.  For some inexplicable reason, this book was nominated for a 2024 Lambda Literary Award.  

From what I could tell, the plot went something like this.  The world was controlled by AI’s.  They collapsed or self-destructed and destroyed their central cities and killed many people in the process.  There are some people who still can communicate with the AI’s.  They are called relics.  The main character Sunai is a relic.  Sunai may also be a god, or maybe just an eternal.  I wasn’t clear on that.  But he heals very quickly, maybe even gets resurrected.  Despite this, he has a bum ankle.  Sunai’s been squandering his life with booze and anonymous sex.  After one such hook-up, he finds himself on a rig and the guy he had sex with is now his boss, Veyadi.  Adi is a doctor, I think, and the mission of this ship is to find the remains of an AI, or its city and temples, or something like that.  Then they come back and someone asks Sunai to go on another mission.  He brings Adi along even though Adi is disgraced or wanted by the Harbor.  I wasn’t clear on that either.  After a while on this mission, I gave up.  

The most confusing thing was that Candon took everyday words and changed their meanings:  Archive, relic, Harbor, ENGINE (yes, in caps), etc.  Also, the names of the AI’s and the ships were all very similar.  I think there were giant robots that wandered the countryside causing mayhem and tried to destroy the rigs Sunai and Veyadi were on.  And rigs were some kind of ships that floated like boats but also could traverse land.  I’m not sure if they could fly as well.  Lastly, the point of view changed occasionally.  The majority was general third person omniscient.  Other times, there was something in italics that I think was first person.  And there was second person narrative as well.  I didn’t know who was narrating the first and second person POVs.  From reading other reviews, the POV changed more frequently as the you got farther into the book and it got even more confusing.  

Character-wise, I think I liked Sunai.  He was a bad boy.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out what he was doing and the decisions he was making.  Apparently, he made a lot of readers mad doing a lot of terrible things.  I hadn’t gotten to that part before I put the book down.  I couldn’t figure out Veyadi at all, other than it seemed he was falling for Sunai.  

I think the prose was good in spots.  Candon chose lots of pretty words and made pretty sentences.  However, the world-building was as confusing as the plot and characters.  Occasionally, I would find myself understanding a page or two and think I was finally catching on.  Then there’d be a turn of events, or dialogue between characters that would lose me again.  

I give this book one star out of five.  It reminded me of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, which I also thought was unreadable.  After reading other online reviews from readers, it was clear that many people did not understand the book.  Still, some of those people loved the experience.  On the Worlds Without End site, only four people had read it so far, giving it 2, 3, 4, and 5 stars, respectively.  I’m the fifth reviewer and I give it one star, amusingly rounding out the ratings.  

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Bang Bang Bodhisattva

Aubrey Wood
Completed 5/27/2024, Reviewed 5/27/2024
5 stars

This is another 2024 Lambda Literary Award nominee for Speculative Fiction.  If I had just read the tag line, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up.  It’s cyberpunk noir, two genres I generally don’t like.  Turns out, I really loved this book.  I read it in a day.  Well, technically, two days.  I started at ten in the morning and finished at one the next morning.  I found it well written, fast-paced, and above all I understood everything going on.  Usually, cyberpunk loses me in the usually large amount of invented jargon.  This book takes place only ten years in the future, so all the technology is just a little more advanced than today.  And even though a lot has to do with streaming games, which I don’t play, I understood enough that I didn’t get lost.  I also don’t always like noir, but this mystery really pulled me in.  This book really clicked for me and I forced myself to stay up to see who the murderer was.

The story is about an ex-cop PI named Angel who often teams up with a transitioning woman named Kiera to help with cyber research and occasionally getting into places he has been banned from.  One day, he gets a job from his ex-wife to find her new husband whose been missing for a week.  Turns out the man is the attorney for Kiera, helping her with pro bono work to help her change her legal identity.  When they find the attorney’s body and call it in, they are immediately made prime suspects.  More bodies pile up and Angel and Kiera get more and more implicated in all the deaths.  In addition, Kiera meets and kind of falls for a person named Nile at a party who mysteriously disappears.  After finding Nile’s hand chopped off at their apartment, they look for them too, since it seems the disappearance is related to the murders.  Since the cops are focused on Angel and Kiera, they must do their own investigating to clear their names.  Their only lead is a burned stick of Nag Champa incense left at every scene.

The best thing about this story is the rocky relationship between Kiera and Angel.  Angel is a gruff guy who’s almost old enough to be Kiera’s father.  Kiera is an almost thirty-year-old who does odd jobs for money.  Despite the love-hate relationship between the two, she always goes back to helping him because the money’s good.  But now they’re tied together because of this murder rap.  The result is a buddy story with lots of light and dark humor.  Their relationship also brings out the theme of finding and sticking to one’s authentic self against all the odds.  I really liked them both and got a kick out of their constant banter throughout the investigation.

I thought the writing was terrific for a thriller, with just the right amount of prose amid the fast-paced dialogue.  The descriptions never slowed down the action, but provided the right amount of world building and mood setting.  I thought the ending was very realistic as well, leaving enough uncertainty of the final resolution for each character to let you guess for yourself how it would end.  We do find out who the murderer is, but we’re left guessing about Angel and Kiera’s final decisions.  I thought it was a great way to end a book.  

I give this novel five stars out of five.  I was floored by how much I loved the characters and their personal journeys through the mystery.  I also thought the state of the world was masterfully imagined, so much like our own today, but extrapolated ten years in the future.  I would definitely read more by this author.  I think she has a great vision and a wealth of personal experience to pour into her stories, considering she’s also a biracial trans woman with both and inside an outside view of what’s going on in our society today.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Awry with Dandelions

JS Fields
Completed 5/25/2024, Reviewed 5/25/2024
3 stars

This is another Orycon Sci Fi convention find.  I’ve met Fields and listened to them on panels at the convention.  I really like their perspective and ideas.  That goes the same for their books.  This one is an interesting mix of science fiction and fantasy with dandelions being an integral part of both.  The characters are on a colony planet of Earth and the only species of plants to survive genetically unmodified on both is the dandelion.  It grows anywhere, even on other planets.   I enjoyed this book until the end, where I got somewhat confused about the magic with the dandelions.  But overall, a fun, inventive novella.

Orin is a non-binary person who sells dandelions wherever he can for the latex they produce (a real thing!).  Xer best friend is Blathnaid, a young man xie grew up with who helps xer in the dandelion business.  Blathnaid practices magic on the sly as it is frowned upon in their part of the planet.  

Xie has an interesting problem.  Xie is linked to Mette, a young woman, possibly a princess, through dreams.  During a dream, they have 30 seconds to communicate before the connection dissipates.  Afterward, they both get sick.  After twenty years of these nightly connections, Mette reveals she may have the answer to unlinking them.  It requires Orin to travel halfway across the planet.  Unsure if this is real or not, Orin balks until Mette travels to xer first, convincing xer and Blathnaid to accompany her back to her home, the center of the government, a land where magic is not feared.  Together, the three of them work together to make this plan to unlink the two.  As they travel, they discover that dandelions have their own magic and may be integral in this plan to free them.  

The best thing about this book is the characters.  I really liked Orin, Blathnaid, and Mette.  In this short 90 page novella, I felt like I had spent a full novel with them.  The world building is smart and interesting.  I wouldn’t mind seeing a series of novellas featuring these characters, alone or together on this colony planet.  In particular, I think Blathnaid (whose name means “flower”) would make a good main character of several more stories, as he is fun and snarky.   He studies magic and it would help flesh out the magic system employed here.  I also enjoyed this world where non-binary people are integrated into society.  They even have a way of greeting them to signify their gender:  men are kissed on one cheek, women on the other, and non-binaries on the forehead.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  Sometimes the prose is a little iffy.  At times I found I wasn’t following the descriptions too well.  And what happens at the climax was a little confusing.  I like that it ended on a middle note between happy and sad.  I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was realistic.  I have to say I liked Fields’ most recent novel, Queen, a little more.  However, I’ll probably continue reading Fields’ books as long as they keep cranking them out.  They’re fun and definitely interesting.  

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Ritual of the Ancients

Roan Rosser
Completed 5/25/2024, Reviewed 5/25/2024
3 stars

I picked up this novella at the 2023 OryCon Sci Fi convention.  The convention wasn’t that good, but the group of self-published authors in the vendors room was wonderfully diverse.  I picked up books by three authors, this was one of them.  It’s a simple trans M/M paranormal mystery romance, but it’s more fun than I expected.  It started out slowly, but soon it had me pretty gripped in trying to figure out how the main characters were going to survive the situation.  The prose is average, but the plot is exciting.  There is at least one big plot hole that doesn’t make sense.  But I found myself liking the story and the characters.  I daresay I might actually read the rest of the series.

Everett is a transitioning trans man who wakes up in a dumpster.  He’s just been mugged, is covered in blood, and is thirsty as hell.  He makes his way back to his apartment building but can’t get in because the mugger stole his keys along with everything else.  When another resident approaches his thirst overtakes him.  He bites the man’s hand and starts drinking his blood.  A third resident appears and Everett attacks him, but the resident turns into a jackal.  This shapeshifter resident, Jack, tries to convince Everett he’s a vampire.  Unconvinced, they go to Ev’s apartment where they find his roommate murdered in her bed.  The police arrive and the two escape.  Turns out that Everett has stolen an amulet from the museum he works at and his boss, the local crime lord, wants it badly and will kill for it.  Jack works to try to keep this fledgling vampire alive, train him in how to be a vampire, and try to get to the bottom of who turned him in the first place, all while avoiding the crime boss.

I really liked Everett and Jack.  They were relatable.  I found myself on Everett’s side pretty quickly, empathizing with his circumstance of transitioning and the implications of now being undead.  Jack is a nice guy, maybe a little unbelievably nice.  But he also works for an organization that helps newly turned shapeshifters and vampires (lucky find) come to grips with themselves and get them to the right people.  But Everett doesn’t know who turned him and Jack takes it upon himself to help Everett get to the bottom of all his problems.  And he falls in love with him.  

The big plot hole is right at the beginning.  When Everett and Jack find the bloody body of the roommate, Everett doesn’t grieve.  Throughout the book, there’s no crying jag over her.  I got the impression she was his best friend although I don’t remember if it’s explicitly stated or not in the book. 

Another plot hole is that shapeshifters and vampires usually don’t mix.  Vampires smell like death to a shapeshifter when in the animal state.  Yet Jack pretty quickly falls for Everett.  I guess love knows no bounds, and they deal with the prejudice of the other shapeshifters and vampires pretty well.  It just makes no sense that Jack doesn’t have some initial revulsion toward Everett that he has to overcome.  It’s love at first sight, and I find it harder to believe than usual.  But once together, I’m in it and rooting for them.

I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s fun.  At the same time, it deals with big concepts like coming out to parents and hormone replacement therapy.  It even touches on transition issues after becoming a vampire.  It’s serious and also silly.  It meets the objective of the author: to write books that would have been helpful if they were around when he was beginning transitioning.  It’s a quick, enjoyable read and I’ll probably pick up the other books in the series as well.  

Friday, May 24, 2024

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself

Marisa Crane
Completed 5/24/2024, Reviewed 5/24/2024
5 stars

I loved this book.  I had a hard time going to sleep last night because I wanted to keep reading it.  Then I woke up around 5 a.m. and finished it (LOL…yaaaaawn).  Narrated in first person in an unusual form, this book about a self-doubting, widowed lesbian raising her child in an unjust surveillance state was gripping.  The near future dystopian society is not much unlike where we seem to be going now, with rampant hate and scapegoating.  The theme is grief and trying to overcome it when all the odds are against you.  It's nominated for a 2024 Lambda Literary Book Award.  This is only my second nominee read, but I would consider it a strong contender if I was a judge on the awards panel.

In this terrible surveillance state, criminals are saddled with an additional shadow so that everyone can see they are criminals.  Kris is a shadester.  Her daughter, known to us as The Kid, was condemned with a second shadow at birth with no explanation.  Kris’s wife Beau died giving birth to The Kid.  Kris struggles with the prejudice of being a shadester, raising her non-biological daughter, and dealing with the grief of Beau’s death.  She has some friends and the help of her father and her mother-in-law, but she wallows in self-pity and despair.  One day, her father drags her to the only gay bar left in town to a shadester support group.  There she meets a woman who just may hold the key to helping Kris through her grief, the trials of parenting a precocious child, and just maybe live a normal life in this twisted society.

I thought the form of this book helped make it a gripping read.  It’s told in three chapters.  Each chapter is composed of short spurts, between a few paragraphs to a few pages long.  They propel you through the story rather than bog you down with long, winded prose.  It’s told in first person so you’re in Kris’ head while she goes on and on about missing Beau and her fear of raising The Kid wrong, but it doesn’t feel monotonous.  There’s constant movement forward in the plot as the world around them is revealed.  There’s the Department who watches all its citizens through intrusive cameras everywhere.  There’s the mysterious but loving neighbor Zig Zag.  There’s the drama at The Kid’s school from prejudiced teachers and classmates.  It all keeps you going as Kris slowly evolves out of her grief.

The world building is interesting, because it creates an oppressive environment without a lot of details about the government.  We know that the president is a populist who came up with the idea adding shadows to people.  The resulting fear and scapegoating kept him in office for a fourth term with no end in sight.  There’s the terrible “Department” that does the surveillance of citizens and the harassment of shadesters.  But there isn’t much more than that.  Yet Crane finds a way to make you feel the misery and oppression felt by Kris and The Kid.  And despite this, there’s a lot of humor amidst it all.  The Kid is precocious as hell and Kris’ father is a hoot.  As a reader, you feel everything the characters feel but don’t feel absolutely miserable.  For a first novel, I think Crane did a terrific job of balancing all the emotions.

I give this book five stars out of five.  I completely enjoyed it and could barely put it down.  I haven’t felt this way about a book in a long time.  It’s not a literary masterpiece by any means.  It is an engrossing book about grief with a vision of a not-so-unthinkable future if we keep on the path we’re going.  

Monday, May 20, 2024

The Light Brigade

Kameron Hurley
Completed 5/19/2024, Reviewed 5/20/2024
4 stars

Nominated for a 2020 Hugo Award, this novel was a departure for me.  It’s an intense military SF novel with time travel thrown in.  Unlike The Forever War, which had relativistic time dilation, or Starship Troopers, which was a love letter to militaristic society, this book was a basic “War is Hell” story in a world of corporate control.  Governments no longer run countries.  There are just six mega-corporations that control everything.   The armies are corporate controlled and the war is against the democratically governed Mars emigrants from Earth who have no corporate rule.  It takes late-stage capitalism to its extreme and explores the extent to which it will go to preserve itself.

The corporations have perfected something like Star Trek transporter technology, breaking down soldiers into light and sending them at the speed of light to their battle assignments.  Some soldiers, known as the Light Brigade, have completely different memories of where they were sent compared to the rest of the squad.  They are studied by the corporations and grounded, or killed.  Dietz is one such soldier.  As the book unfolds, we find that Dietz is actually jumping in time, being sent to past and future assignments, and finding out who in their platoon is getting killed in battle and who survives.  Dietz never reveals the condition to the corporate medical or psychiatric team, keeping the details secret.  But after numerous jumps through time, begins to put together the truth of the Martian war.

If you noticed, I never used a gender pronoun for Dietz.  That’s because the book doesn’t make that clear until the end of the story and I won’t give it away.  It’s an interesting conceit, particularly because the soldier is bisexual.  But that’s not the point of the story.  Dietz is an angry young person.  Their family members were not citizens and had no privilege.  Dietz’s father disappeared because of the corporation they were residents of.  Dietz’s mother died with no healthcare because they weren’t citizens.  She encouraged Dietz to become a soldier to earn citizenship.  Dietz is also angry because the rest of the family, including extended members, were killed when the Martians bombed Sao Paolo into a giant crater.  Now, as a soldier, Dietz questions the decision to fight in the war for the corporation.  

The travel by light is no where near perfected.  Besides the experiences of Dietz and the Light Brigade, there are also major mishaps in this mode of transportation.  Some soldiers are mutilated by the process.  So if you don’t die in battle, you may die getting there or coming back.  It’s an extremely dangerous career, being a soldier, and the corporations train out almost every instinct of self-preservation one has.  It brainwashes them into super killing machines, willing to die in whatever way death comes for the honor of the corporation.

I really liked the characterization.  Dietz is the narrator.  Whether you like Dietz’s personality or not, you completely empathize and understand their thought processes.  Many of the secondary characters are standard fare for military SF, or military fiction in general.  But I found myself buying into them as more dimensional than they really are.  Think of the stereotypes of soldiers in “Aliens.”  They were all caricatures, but all very believable.  Same here.

The writing is intense as well.  As we are in Dietz’s mind as narrator, the prose is angry and crisp.  There is no flowery language.  It’s war and it’s brutal.  Still, I felt I had great pictures of all the characters.  The world building was amazing.  Whether the troops were fighting on Mars or on Earth, the images of the locals and the carnage there were amazingly vivid.

I give this book a solid four out of five stars.  It’s a nearly perfect military SF novel.  It doesn’t paint a rosy picture of heroes and winning.  It’s about the truths of war and the machine that keeps it going.  I’d actually like to read some David Weber to compare and contrast his military SF with what I’ve read, despite not really liking the subgenre.  But that’s somewhere down the road.  I’m glad I read this book, which was an online book club selection.  So far, I’m two for two with Hurley’s books, having enjoyed God’s War about five years ago.  

Sunday, May 12, 2024

The Saint of Bright Doors

Vajra Chandrasekera
Completed 5/11/2024, Reviewed 5/12/2024
4 stars

This book was very original in its mix of demons and anti-gods, brightly colored portals, and dystopian South Asia.  I must admit, it is like nothing I’ve read before.  At the same time, the strangeness of it made it difficult to stick to it.  The prose, though, was phenomenal.  It’s a very literary novel, with little back and forth dialogue and a ton of world building.  I assume it’s set in a dystopian South Asia as the author is from Sri Lanka, there are tuk-tuks, there’s racism and castes, and saris are worn.  But the location is never clearly defined.  I can see why this book was nominated for a 2023 Nebula, but I thought it might be a little too prosy for a Hugo.  However, it was nominated for a 2024 Hugo as well.  

Fetter lives in Luriat.  He goes to group therapy to deal with being the son of a messiah.  He wants nothing better than to have a quiet life with his boyfriend Hej in the big city.  All his life, his mother trained him to assassinate his father, but now, away from her influence, he’s trying to shed that part of himself.  But the past is hard to release when your therapist is secretly a revolutionary, trying to bring you into the overthrow of the influence of Fetter’s father on the government.  He did inherit some magic from his mother, like being able to see demons, feel cold winds from Luriat’s brightly painted doors that go to nowhere, and be impervious to fire.  Oh yeah, and his mother tore off his shadow at birth so he sometimes passes by with little notice.  But as much as he tries to avoid it, it looks like he’s on a collision course with his father and his henchmen.  

I found the book difficult to dive into in the beginning.  At first, I was in love with the prose, but then I became rather bored with it.  It was tough getting to like Fetter, who seemed aimless and kept too much to himself.  So it took a long time to decide whether I liked him or not.  The best part of him was that other people really like him, like his boyfriend Hej, his therapist, and Caduv who connected with Fetter when Caduv first came to Luriat.  But as the plot unfolded, it became easy to see why Fetter was not very likeable by the reader.  He didn’t like who he was supposed to be.  And trying to shed that persona and finding who he wants to be made it difficult to empathize with him.  

It took me nearly two weeks to read this book, which was only about 350 pages.  I went for days only reading two pages at a time, partly because I had many late evening meetings with a work team in India.   And that’s too bad because I lost some of the world building during that period, causing me to be a little lost at times.  However, I read the last 200 pages in two days, and it did come to a good climax.  I was able to recall everything I needed for the ending to make sense.  

One thing I really did like was finding out who the narrator was.  It happens at the end, so I’m not going to spoil it.  But it did surprise me.  

Reflecting on the book for a day, I give it four stars out of five.  It really is a good book.  It was nice to read a book with LGBTQ+ characters after a long hiatus from the subgenre.  I just found it hard to stay with it.  It might have a good chance at winning the Nebula, which is a peer award, and the Nebulas often reward prosy work.  But I don’t know about the Hugo.  I have to read the others to see what I think fans would reward.  Chandrasekera has written a lot of short works and I would really be interested in reading some of those stories.  This is his first novel.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

The Eye of the World

Robert Jordan
Completed 4/29/2024, Reviewed 4/29/2024
4 stars

This was a book I was interested in because of its popularity.  It is the first book in the fourteen volume The Wheel of Time series.  So when my in-person book club chose it as their May selection, I was excited.  I finally had an excuse to read this 750 page monster.  I gave myself a lot of time to read it, because the last 800 pager I read took me three weeks.  This one took about two and a half.  I really liked it, but I didn’t love it.  Towards the end, I was struggling to pick it up every day, not because it was bad, but because of the effort just to keep going and I was losing interest.  I kept feeling like it was dragged out more than it needed to be.  I can’t image what would go into another thirteen books of this world.  So I’m probably not going to continue the series.

The plot is a relatively standard quest.  There’s a little town with charming, colorful people.  One day, the Trollocs attack.  They’re sort of orc-like half-man, half-beasts.  A mysterious woman who had come to town figures out that they came not to destroy the town, although they did some of that, but to attack three young men in the town.  Moiraine and her mysterious ranger-like companion, Lan, realize it is because of the evil shadow that has reemerged after keeping low for a long while.  Moiraine and Lan whisk the three young men, along with an insistent young woman, out of the village to seek the guidance and protection of the Aes Sedai.  Thus begins an epic journey across lands, meeting magical people and fighting evil beings to escape from the call of the Dark One.

Yes, it is reminiscent of Lord of the Rings.  Apparently, Jordan claimed that he started the series in an LOTR fashion so as to ease people into a new magical world.  I found the similarities a little too close for comfort.  I don’t know if I’d call this lazy or smart.  Since this was first published 34 years ago, so much more fantasy has been written that has challenged readers more directly.  I think I would have been much more interested in it if it wasn’t such a knock-off.  

What the book really had going for it was the writing.  It was beautifully written.  During the times I was struggling to stay interested, that’s what kept me coming back.  My biggest problem with the book was that I didn’t find myself endeared to any of the major characters.  I liked several of them, but never felt I was fully in their heads.  The book is told in third person perspective from Rand’s point of view.  He’s is basically the main character, he’s one of the three that the Dark One seems to be after.  I really wanted to be drawn into his head, but couldn’t get there.  The other two young men, Mat and Perrin, and the young woman, Egwene, had many strong moments throughout the book.  However, they often did things that fell out of character.  Egwene started out as a strong character, but I felt like she ended up a girly-girl, weak and whiny.   Mat gets possessed by an evil sword and starts acting strange, but as a character, it’s inconsistent.  Perrin discovers he can speak to wolves.  While that seems like an opportunity to shine, he gets all whiny about it.  So yeah, a lot of whining.

There were a few characters I did really like.  There was Thom, a gleeman who sings, tells stories, juggles, and plays the flute.  He travels from town to town to make money as a performer.  He ends up on the journey and adds some much needed humor.  I also like Loial, a very large being with some animal characteristics, but is not a Trolloc.  The Loial is from a race that cares for trees and built many of the cities preceding this era of time.  He’s lumbering, but smart and, well, loyal.  He’s not quite an Ent, but is reminiscent of that Tolkien race.  There was also a wolf-friend guy, I think his name was Elyas.  He helps Perrin realize he’s also a wolf-friend.  He was one of the few people who generally seemed good in this world succumbing to the Dark One’s shadow.  But even he was a little inconsistent in places.

But through all my complaining about the characters, the book is very readable.  I just wish it was tighter and more original.  There’s a lot of action featuring many side characters, good and evil.  There are many twists and turns, even a splitting of the group, a la the breaking of the Fellowship.  So it all has a familiar feel if you’re an LOTR fan, and it may irritate you.  But at it’s core it’s a solid four stars out of five book.  I probably won’t continue the series, but I’ll probably rewatch the series to see how much it followed the book.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Golden Enclaves

Naomi Novik
Completed 4/11/2024, Reviewed 4/11/2024
4 stars

Well, I finally enjoyed a book in the Scholomance series.  It all came together for me in this concluding volume.  Once again, we spend a ton of time in El’s head, but this time, I felt like all her rage and frustration was justified and coherent.  And the book takes place after graduation, so it’s not all take class/kill monsters.  We get to the root of the problem with the monsters and the destruction of the enclaves.  We get relationships with wizard parents.  And of most interest to me, we find out what happened to Orion at the end of the last book.  This book was nominated for a few 2022/2023 awards, but I thought this one should have gotten a Hugo nod as well.  

Galadriel, or El, has escaped the graduation ceremony of the Scholomance and helped all the remaining students escape.  However, Orion, who was last with El, pushed her out as the portal closed, leaving him locked in the school with all the mals (monsters) as it goes off into the void.  She goes home to Wales where she grieves for Orion while her mother tries to help her through it.  Eventually, some of her closest classmates come to drag her out of her depression and go back to try to rescue Orion.  They do, but he is not the same person, appearing to be about as bad as the mals he destroyed.  Then they get word that another enclave has been destroyed.  They are called upon to help rebuild the enclave and figure out what’s causing such cataclysms.  Of course, El’s most important task is to figure out what’s wrong with Orion.

As in the first two books, the writing is amazing.  It’s hard to believe that Novik was able to write three books of what goes on in El’s head.  For me, this time, it was completely engrossing.  I was finally empathizing with El and could understand the constant, near-stream-of-consciousness rant that was going on inside her head.  She had clearly grown since the first novel.  She is still kind of a brat, but a much more mature brat, reconciling the fact that she’s one of the most powerful wizards of the last generation or so, as well as the fact that she might not be able to save Orion from the state he is in despite her amazing powers.  I was fully invested in the rollercoaster of emotions she experienced through the whole story.

I also liked that we got the history of the origin of the school and the wizards’ enclaves around the world.  It completed the world building that was begun in the first two books.  It also fleshed out the magic system and the source of the mals.  It was quite gruesome, but brilliant.  Hats off to Novik’s imagination.  I would think it was not easy to come up with a magic system that seems fresh after all the fantasy that has been written over the decades.  

In the end, I have to say that it was well worth reading this trilogy.  I’m glad my book club picked all three books.  In retrospect, it was a good experience.  I bet it would make a good reread knowing the end and looking for all the foreshadowing in the first two books.  I also bet El’s hyperactive, angry mind would also make a lot more sense as we finally meet her mother and her father’s family.  But I probably won’t reread it anytime soon, as my TBR pile grows continuously.  I still have the first three books of Novik’s first series waiting for me on my e-reader.  Sigh.  So many books so little time.  I give this book four stars out of five, and would venture to say that as a whole, the series is a four star series.  If you want to check out the reviews of A Deadly Education and The Last Graduate, click on those purple titles.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Starter Villain

John Scalzi
Completed 4/7/2024, Reviewed 4/7/2024
4 stars

This is a short, entertaining novel by one of my favorite authors, John Scalzi.  He has written some good space opera, but has also written some wonderfully witty pieces.  Redshirts and Kaiju Preservation Society are two of his funnier pieces.  This one ranks up there with them.  It’s about man who has inherited his estranged uncle’s villain empire and the trouble he ends up in because of it.  It’s a comical fish out of water story with numerous twists and turns that you’d expect from a story about villains double- and triple-crossing each other.  And it has typing cats and talking dolphins.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and was surprised by the big twist in the end, even though I knew one was coming.  This book has been nominated for a Hugo this year.

Charlie is a loser.  He’s divorced and lives in the house owned by his late father.  His half-siblings are nipping at his heels to sell the place.  Charlie, who’s a substitute teacher doesn’t really have any other place to go.  One day a strange woman appears on his doorstep announcing she worked for his recently deceased uncle Jake.  She makes him an offer to get him the house along with some inheritance money if he stand in at his uncle’s wake.  It turns out that the only people who show up at the funeral home are clonish business men who just want to make sure that the uncle is dead.  When he returns home, he sees the house blow up and quickly burn to the ground.  Someone wants him dead.  The mysterious woman whisks him off to the uncle’s secret lair on a volcanic island in the Caribbean and the intrigue begins.

Charlie is a wonderful schlemiel.  He’s instantly lovable in his misery.  When he’s whisked off to the secret lair, you immediately think he’s going to inherit the whole villain business.  But it’s not quite that simple as there are other villains who want a piece of the uncle’s fortune.  Of course, Charlie is just a “starter” villain and has no experience dealing with such devious people.  However, he does have some tricks up his sleeve that make you love him even more.

Some of the best moments in the book are the genetically modified cats who communicate by typing on keyboards.  Two of them, Hera and Persephone were spies for the uncle, making sure Charlie was not the target of the other villains.  They were both snarky and endearing.  And then there were the foul-mouthed dolphins who want to unionize after feeling like they’ve been under-appreciated and under-compensated for the work they did for the uncle.  

The thing about Scalzi’s more humorous books is that the writing is not very prosy, but it is very readable.  It moves the action very well, and is rarely dull.  It is interesting that in the acknowledgments, Scalzi noted that he caught covid during the writing of the book.  While the physical symptoms were not severe, it did scramble his thinking quite a bit.  Not only was the book late to the publisher, but it required some major editing where it was evident he was writing while sick.  He must have had some good editors, because the book is easy to follow.  It only bogged down a bit about halfway through when Charlie is at a convention of villains learning about their evil organization and the reasons for their wanting a big chunk of his uncle’s business.  (Some meta timing here, I’m writing this review with a serious head cold hoping this is readable, LOL).  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s more fluff than anything else, but it’s good fluff, entertaining and enjoyable.  I’m at the point where I’ll read just about anything Scalzi publishes.  This one lived up to all my expectations.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Trading in Danger

Elizabeth Moon
Completed 3/31/2024, Reviewed 3/31/2024
3 stars

This is the first book I’ve read by Elizabeth Moon that I didn’t think was great.  It was good, but not great.  I thought it was uneven in pacing and I had a tough time staying interested in what the character was doing.  Moon’s prose is terrific, as usual.  When I began the book, I was pulled in right away.  But as I reflect on the book to write this review, I have concluded that the sum of the parts was better than the whole.  In the end, I just didn’t quite care about the main character.  

The book begins with Kylara Vatta being kicked out of a military academy in her last year.  She helped someone whose blabbing to the press brought shame onto the academy.  Expelled, she is returned to her family which owns a huge interstellar transport company.  Her father gives her command of an old junker of a ship to deliver some cargo and then sell for scrap.  Once again, she makes a judgement call that blows up in her face.  She contracts to deliver agricultural equipment to a planet that’s been waiting over a year for another company to deliver.  On the way, the FTL (faster than light) console starts to go out.  She goes to another planetary system to acquire the ag equipment and get the necessary repairs.  However, the system is on the brink of war, leading her and her crew from one crisis to another.

Ky is a strong, well-developed character.  She’s the only daughter of the Vatta family and the only child who wanted to go into the military rather than the family business.  Her problem is she sometimes makes bad choices that lead to terrible consequences.  Her road to hell is always paved with good intentions.  However, she always seems to come out stronger at the other end.  But this time, she’s in the middle of a war, something no captain of her family’s cargo business has ever had to face.

She’s got a good crew, too.  I liked the “babysitters” that her father sent with her on the ship.  They were strong supporters of Ky and not annoying “told-you-so” characters.  The bad guys show up when her ship is contracted by mercenaries to carry some passengers from other ships.  That’s when the real action begins, testing Ky’s mettle.

While this wasn’t exactly military sci fi, it wasn’t space opera either.  It was sort of an old-fashioned space adventure with a modern female lead.  It was crafted well, with the character going from one bout of trouble to another, like a good plot should.  I think the problem for me was that the build up from the time Ky is expelled to the beginning of the war felt meandering.  Granted, the character was meandering as well, dealing with the expulsion, the loss of her boyfriend at the academy, the question of whether she’s worthy of commanding a ship, and debating about entering a contract on her own.  By the time the real action starts, I had lost my interest in her.  

The ending is good, however.  I was pretty satisfied with it.  But once I finished the book, I felt kind of meh.  Hence, I give it three stars out of five.  The characters are good, the prose is good, the world-building is good, all the parts are good.  I just don’t have any inclination to ready any other books in the series.  There are four more in “Vatta’s War” and two in “Vatta’s Peace.”  

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Mammoths at the Gates

Nghi Vo
Completed 3/25/2024, Reviewed 3/31/2024
4 stars

This is the fourth book in the Singing Hills series of novellas by this author.  This book was a beautiful story about how different people (and talking birds) cope with loss.  The nice thing about these books is that they all follow the same cleric, Chih, but could be read out of order.  Despite their small size, they fill you in on who’s who and what’s what, enough to appreciate and even love a book as I did this one.  It was just nominated for Best Novella for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards.

Cleric Chih returns to the abbey to find two women and their royal mammoths at the gate.  Once he makes his way into the abbey, he finds out his beloved mentor and Divine Cleric Thein has died, and the two women are Thein’s granddaughters.  They want to take the body back to the family burial grounds.  However, tradition has it that when a cleric of the abbey dies, their body remains there, as they have given up their previous life.  Chih must work with the Acting Divine and the granddaughters to find a resolution before the women storm their mammoths through the gates and destroy the history and stories that generations of clerics have collected and stored there.

At Chih’s side once again is their beloved neixin Almost Brilliant.  The neixin is a bird, also known as a hoopoe, with an eidetic memory to help the clerics remember the stories and history they collect until they are written down.  Almost Brilliant advises Chih that Thien’s own neixin, Myriad Virtues, needs to be heard.  Myriad Virtues is in a deep depression and needs to work through this, and this might just resolve the conflict.

I felt very moved by this novel.  I think if read one after another, it might even have been a tear-jerker.  It’s beautifully written, as the previous books have been.  It is so thoughtful and sincere in its contemplation on death and relationships that I don’t think you cannot be moved by it.  I love the world Vo has built for these books.  And even though it’s been a year since I had read the first three (the most recent being Into the Riverlands), I was back in Vo’s world in no time.  I may just jump ahead and read the fifth book, which has already been published, without waiting for it to go on sale.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

The Mountain in the Sea

Ray Naylor
Completed 3/24/2024, Reviewed 3/24/2024
3 stars

Besides reading the winners of certain awards like the Hugos and the Nebulas, I try to read as many of the nominees as I can.  This book was nominated for a 2022 Nebula.  I can see why.  It has very pretty prose.  The Nebula award is a peer award, so you can almost always count on the nominees having nice prose.  Unfortunately, I didn’t think it translated into a great novel.  It was weighted down by disparate plotlines that didn’t come together until the very end.  The result was a lot of characters you only see every few chapters or so, and action that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the main and most interesting plot, intelligent octopuses.  

The main plot follows marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen, author of a celebrated book about octopus intelligence.  She gets sent to island in an archipelago that is owned by the DIANIMA corporation.  Along with Atlantsetseg, a seasoned security agent, and Evrim, the world’s first and probably last conscious android.  Aside from a group of non-conscious Tibetan Monk androids, they are the only ones on the island.  It is protected from all outside entities, civil and corporate.  Around this island, octopuses seem to have some type of symbolic communication mechanism.  It’s Dr. Ha’s dream to study this phenomenon.  

At the same time, a mysterious person whose face and voice are disguised by a something like a cloud and a voice changer contacts Rustem, the world’s greatest neural network hacker, to break the code of the tightest neural network ever found.  And amidst the Pacific, an AI slave boat illegally catches and processes seafood.  This plotline follows Eiko, a former dive guide, and Son, a refugee from the octopus island.  Son and all the inhabitants were evicted from the island, with some monetary renumeration, by DIANIMA when the corporation was acquiring the archipelago.  

So yeah, a ton of plot, a ton of characters, and pretty language.  I found it very hard to follow and had no idea where anything was going until the very end.  It made for trudging experience.  The book spends a lot of time with the idea of consciousness, whether it’s the octopuses, Evrim, the neural network Rustem is trying to break, or the slave ship’s AI.  I was most interested in the octopuses and Evrim.  Usually, I’m pretty amazed at authors who have multiple plotlines going parallel to each other.  I think it takes a lot of talent to keep the reader interested and not confused.  Unfortunately, I felt like Naylor couldn’t achieve that.  

Character-wise, I kind of liked Dr. Ha and Evrim.  I particularly liked Evrim, especially when they found out that their maker considered them non-conscious, only able to pass the last Turing test, but not actually self-aware.  I did feel sorry for Eiko and Son taken by slavers and dumped on a processing ship, with almost no chance of ever being seen again.  But with the way the book bounced around, I never fully empathized with any of them, and Rustem, not at all.  Rustem also went by an alias, which confused me, thinking he was another character for a time.  

The world building was almost good.  It’s a near future world with very different states and mega-corporations.  And with the neural network hacker, Tibetan monk androids, and an AI slave ship, one could say this was a cyberpunk kind of world.  But it was also a first contact novel.  And it’s also a pretty cerebral look at intelligence.

I give this book three stars out of five.  What saved it from two stars was the main plot with the octopuses.  I just would have liked a lot more interaction with them.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Fourth Wing

Rebecca Yarros
Completed 3/18/2024, Reviewed 3/19/2024
5 stars

Wow!  What a well-written book!  This first installment of the Empyrean series took my breath away, after getting over hating half the characters in the beginning.  It is a dark fantasy; a cadet school for fighting on dragons where a large percentage of the students die before graduation.  It is also a steamy romance.  A little research showed that Yarros wrote a lot of romances before turning to adult fantasy.  I think my mom would have liked this book for that part of it.  It’s very fast paced, and the writing simply holds you in its grasp.  I surprised myself by how much I loved this book club selection.  It will be interesting to see what the reaction will be from the group.  I bet this will be a love it or hate it book. 

Violet is the youngest daughter of the General who runs the Cadet school.  Despite being an adult, her mother forces her to abandon her lifelong dream of becoming a scribe like her father to enter the dragon cadet training program, a program that can end in death before graduation.  She accedes, despite being frail, unlike her tough older sister and the superstar older brother who died in battle.  Also at the school are the sons and daughters of rebels who were executed after the rebellion was squashed.  These cadets are still bitter about their parents’ deaths which were overseen by Violet’s mother, the General.  So Violet begins her first year with the additional trouble of them wanting to kill her for her mother’s actions.  All this is complicated by Violet’s powerful attraction to Xaden, the son of the leader of the rebels.     

The plot is very dark.  Violet is warned to make allies, not friends, because it’s basically every person for themselves.  Think a “survival of the fittest” type Hogwarts for twenty-year-olds.  Emotions and passions rage.  And if they survive, they get to be picked by a dragon to be its rider.  But even the dragons are dangerous, often killing cadets who are unworthy of being riders.  So if the curriculum doesn’t kill you, the dragons and your classmates might.  But Violet is tougher and smarter than she thinks.  She finds ways to survive.  In that, she is a very strong female character.  Her one weakness is her uncontrollable feelings toward Xaden.

The characters are very complex, at least the cadets are.  Violet, as the narrator, has a wide range of strength, weaknesses, and emotions.  Xaden, who starts out as a two-dimensional bad guy, expands into a fleshed-out character.  Dain, Violet’s best friend growing up and possible paramour, comes off as fully realized, but still hides secrets from her.  Secrets is actually the name of the game with the interaction of the characters, despite Violet’s demand that everyone be truthful to her.  All the secrets unravel at the climax, nearly destroying just about everyone.  By that time, you care and empathize with almost everyone.  It’s remarkable.

There are a lot of secondary characters and a ton of minor characters.  I did surprisingly well remembering them all.  Rhiannon is Violet’s best friend at the school and, contrary to the warning about friends, is honest and true, at least in this first book.  Liam, who is a son of a rebel, starts out stoically and ends up just as important as Rhiannon.  There’s really only one despicable character with no redeeming qualities, Jack.  Once you get used to the idea of surviving a ruthless school, you just want Violet to kill him before he kills her.  However, Violet doesn’t want to kill anyone, even a homicidal classmate.  

The whole dragon plotline is very interesting.  Just like Pern dragons, they bond with their riders.  Once they bond, the rider channels their magical power.  Each dragon provides a different primary power.  In addition, they link psychically to their rider.  And mated dragons can link to both riders.  And if the dragon dies, so does the rider, and sometimes, vice versa.  It’s all very interesting, as if Yarros took the Pern dragon mythos and extrapolated it into her violent, dark fantasy world.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  I was completely taken with it, despite the dark nature.  The characters, the snappy prose, the gripping tension, the relationships between the cadets and with their dragons.  I even thought the steamy parts were well paced and well written.  The ending isn’t exactly a cliffhanger, but it clearly intends to continue. There are four more planned books in the series according to some discussion I saw.  I’m raring to get the next book, which is already out, but will hold off a little bit as I have a monster novel coming up in May for in-person book club.  

Monday, March 11, 2024

Fevered Star

Rebecca Roanhorse
Completed 3/11/2024, Reviewed 3/11/2024
4 stars

I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read the second book in the “Beneath Earth and Sky” trilogy.  I forgot almost everything about the first book, Black Sun, except that I totally loved it.  I didn’t love this book as much, as I struggled to remember the characters and situations.  Roanhorse does a decent job of reminding you what happened, but even halfway through, I felt like I was missing something.  Fortunately, the prose is so amazing that reading the book is a joy.  And I did remember quite a bit.  I just think I would have enjoyed it better if I hadn’t waited so long.

The book begins on the heels of the cliffhangers of the first book.  Naranpa, the Sun Priest, finds herself prematurely buried and must claw her way out.  While crawling out, after her lamp burns out, she finds her hands glow, for she has become the avatar of the Sun god.  However, she doesn’t know how to use her powers yet.  Her narrative takes her on the journey of self-discovery while continuing to try to bring peace to the clans.  Serapio has become the avatar of the Crow god and continues his quest to kill the Sun Priest.  He struggles with power, trying to figure out how to still be a human while being a living god.  It is sort of the opposite of Nara’s problem.  Xiala, the Teek who brought Serapio by boat to Tova, searches for him, for she has become infatuated with him.  However, fate keeps her from him and she finds herself on a different path in this political nightmare.

As you can tell by the plot summary, there is a lot of journeying in this book, either physical or spiritual.  And that’s my main problem with this book.  It is rather plotless.  There is a lot of political intrigue as the myriad of secondary characters jockey for position in the new order of things, but not a lot actually happens.  I was disappointed in this.  I wanted forward momentum.  Instead, I got a lot of meandering.  So I concede that this novel suffers from middle book syndrome. It exists to position all the characters for the dramatic conclusion in book three.  

However, the book is beautifully written and the world building continues to be outstanding.  I was completely sucked into this alt-pre-Columbian culture and propelled forward by the prose alone.  I didn’t love the book, but I loved reading it.  Since I don’t know much about indigenous cultures of Central and South America, I found the mythology as engrossing as in the first book, perhaps more so since I was rediscovering it.

My reading challenge this year is to stick to books I already have on my Kindle.  However, I’ll probably pick up the final book of the trilogy so that I read it on the heels of this one.  Probably in a month or two.  Roanhorse has become one of my favorite authors and I want to get as full an experience of this world she built before I lose my memory of it.  I give this book four stars out of five even though I was a little lost and there was a lack of a strong plot.  I enjoyed reading it that much, all because Roanhorse has gorgeous prose that gripped my attention.  If her writing wasn’t as strong, I would have only given it three stars.  

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Deadbeat Druid

David R. Slayton
Completed 3/3/2024, Reviewed 3/3/2024
5 stars

This book is an amazing, heady conclusion to the Adam Binder novels.  Slayton’s imagining of the underworld is truly spectacular, with demons who eat away the feelings of the souls so that they can transition uncaring into the next plane of existence. Adam must travel there to save his love, Vic and to finally destroy the druid-gone-bad that is killing his family.  By this third novel, I so fell in love with Adam, Vic, and Bobby, that I didn’t want the series to end.  But it did, and in a spectacular way.  There are so many twists and turns in this hell that it kept me up at night reading.  I’m sad to see the series end but am so glad I took the chance on this “suggested for you” book.  I discovered a new author that I love and want to continue reading.  

Adam must journey to the underworld after Vic saves him from the evil druid. Vic and Adam’s cousin Jodi were transported there along with the druid.  Adam consults with Sara, who is Death, for info on how to get there.  She gives it to him, but also tasks him with finding her daughter Mel.  He and his brother Bobby take his beloved Cutlass and drive through the portal at the one place that was hell on earth for Adam.  Once there, they encounter a variety of demons, and even a “sanctuary” of souls who eat other souls to keep their feelings and not move onto the next plane.  But he must get Vic, Jodi, and Mel out of there, for the living cannot be allowed to infect the dead.

The book is also told from Vic’s POV.  He and Jodi are captured by demons and experience firsthand how they suck the feelings out of souls.  In their captivity, they happen upon Mel, who has been there for a hundred years.  This sucking out of feelings is an interesting way to get the backstory on Vic. Even though the previous books fill you in on the events of his life, the reader gets to experience his emotions in those events.  It’s a profound way of fleshing out a character’s past and exploring motivation.  At times, it slowed down the action a bit, but it also provides the gritty reality of Vic’s love and loss of his father.  

I was impressed by Slayton’s characterization of Adam’s brother.  Bobby is wholly committed to helping Adam find Vic and Jodi, even though the relationship between the two brothers is still new and tenuous.  It’s very realistic and honest.  Adding one more twist to the plot is the finding of their father, who Bobby killed as a teen trying to protect Adam.  The reunion is also tenuous and uncomfortable but provides Bobby and Adam with some closure.  

I also liked the personification of Life and Death.  They were both manipulative.  Death is present in all three books, so we understand the manipulation.  Life, however, was a surprise.  Life tells Adam it is also known as Chaos, as per the understanding of the Greeks.  It’s not all touchy-feely warm and wonderful Mother Nature.  It is also a punitive force that demands justice.  The interplay between Life and Adam is unexpected but understandable in this universe.  It also uses trickery, as did Death, and as do all the demons and souls Adam has encountered so far.

The ending of the book is grand, as any reader would hope and expect.  Adam’s choices are surprising, but they work out.  Indeed, they are realistic, and all those around him must deal with the aftermath, the elves, the leprechauns, and the humans.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  It took me longer to read it because of the character demon-torture flashbacks.  They slowed down the action somewhat.  But the lack of action was countered by the profundity of the emotion.  It fueled my desire to see Adam and Vic finally get together, which I think is what every reader will want.  I was so sad when the book ended even though it’s a relatively happy ending.  I didn’t want to say goodbye to the characters. But I was also glad I did, because the amount of craziness they went through was more than enough for one lifetime.  And after literally going through hell and back, anything else would be anticlimactic.  

Monday, February 26, 2024

Paradigm Lost: The Founder’s Sons

R Roderick Rowe
Completed 2/26/2024, Reviewed 2/26/2024
4 stars

At last in this final installment of the Jamari and the Manhood Rites trilogy, the book reads more like a novel than a documentary.  There is ongoing conflict, issues, and a mind-blowing ending.  This edition of the book was modified in parts, and it shows in the maturity of the prose.  At the end of this book, there’s a description of all the books in this universe and it added some clarity to the first two.  Both Jamari and the Manhood Rites and Jamari Shaman were reissued as a single volume with all the erotica removed.  I think I would have preferred reading the reissued volume.  All the erotica was placed in a separate book.  I have one more book to read in this universe, which I’ll get to in a few weeks.  I’m actually looking forward to it.  It delves into the prehistory of this tribe and its spiritual roots.  

The plot picks up where Shaman left off.  Jamari is in soul crushing despair over the loss of his lover, with whom he had just agreed to become lifelong partners.  It takes great effort to reconnect with his inner sense of God.  Just as he does, the tribe comes under threat of a tree harvesting corporation that claims to have rights over the tribal lands, nullifying the treaty that established it eighty years before.  In the meantime, Jamari resumes his role as Shaman, growing more spiritually, and has a vision of the Founder asking him to accomplish a task involving the Founder’s newly born son. 

A lot goes on in this book.  There is a lot of conflict and resolution going back and forth.  It makes for exciting reading.  I was caught up in Jamari’s despair.  I was aghast at the corporate attempts to reclaim their land.  Most of all, I was thrilled by Jamari’s rapid growth into a leading Shaman of the tribe, particularly, with his experiences in meditation with the Divine.  This being the third book, his character developed a great deal and the journey that propels him into the spiritual leader of the tribe is quite riveting.

I thought the writing in this book was much better.  This is probably because most of the world building has finally finished and the prose is more focused on moving the plot forward.  Even the description of the world outside the tribal lands is much more interestingly depicted as Jamari and the Knight Shaman make their way to Salem to fight the evil corporation.  It reads much more like a novel than a documentary, which made a big difference in my enjoyment of it.

There was a little more interaction with the women of the tribe in this book as well.  It added a little something, perhaps balance, in this male-dominated story.  I really like Sophia, the women who is his first mating partner.  She is also elevated in the tribe around the time Jamari is, and she accompanies him on one of his meditation sessions to help him reattain the contact with the Divine that has eluded him since the death of his lover.  It is an extremely touching scene as she provides insights that he can’t perceive on his own.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It is a well written, well thought out conclusion.  If I am ever so motivated, I will go back and read the combined and edited first two volumes to see if it reads better than the originals.  And I may just read some more of this universe as Rowe produces more.  I’m looking forward to the next book I have, “Cernon,” the genesis story.  It is told from Sophia’s point of view.  I always like genesis stories to fantasy and science fiction universes.  And this one looks to be quite intriguing.