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.  


Thursday, February 22, 2024

Trailer Park Trickster

David R Slayton
Completed 2/19/2024, Reviewed 2/19/2024
4 stars

I am loving this Adam Binder series.  This book continues the rural fantasy adventures of Adam Binder, a gay warlock from Oklahoma who is trying to save his family from an evil Druid.  It is a well-written, suspenseful tale that is grounded in issues like poverty, drug addiction, abuse, and homophobia, despite the whimsical title.  There are good elves, bad elves, and even Death makes an appearance.  I read this book in a day and a half, thanks to the long President’s Day weekend.  Looking at the number of reads on Goodreads, this has nearly five thousand ratings.  While respectable for a small novel, I really believe this should have a much wider audience.  I think it’s that good.  

WARNING:  Spoilers for the first novel to follow.

Adam speeds back to Guthrie, Oklahoma when he finds out that his Aunt Sue has died.  When he arrives, he finds that his cousin Noreen and her daughter Jodi have moved into Sue’s trailer.  The trailer suddenly explodes and Adam saves Noreen and Jodi is missing.  While saving his cousin, he sees an apparition of the evil Druid who seems to be murdering his way through the Binder family.  Adam’s mother and brother show up, more accepting of his mage status after saving Denver.  Together they try to unravel the mystery of who the Druid is and who the next victim will be.  

In the meantime, Adam’s new boyfriend, Vic, also travels to Guthrie, but with Argent, the Queen Elf of Swords.  They get sidetracked by an attack from the Sea Elves.  They try to infiltrate their domain, the Sea Upon the Land, only to find that their mission is to wipe out humanity because of the mishandling of the environment.  When Vic finally gets to Guthrie, he finds out some family secrets that cause him to question his ability to trust Adam, something he needs if he is going to continue pursuing this relationship.  Besides, as a newly appointed Reaper, he needs to understand more about the Other Side than Adam has told him so far.

Adam’s maturation process is at the forefront of this novel.  He has reached some sense of reconciliation with his mother and brother.  He must rely on and nurture those relationships to succeed in this quest to destroy the Druid.  He must also become much more trusting of the bond between himself and Vic.  He still is afraid to give himself totally to the relationship.  He must learn that he’s lovable, worthwhile, and unique in a good way.  

While Vic was only seen through Adam’s eyes in the first book, we actually get Vic’s perspective in this one.  We see him struggle with his bisexuality and the recent death of his own father from cancer.  His family dynamic is very different from Adam’s, but he still has his own self-doubts and frustrations from the people around him.  Some of it is a little humorous as he tries to understand the Argent the Elf Queen and the Other Side.  On top of this, he’s trying to figure out what it means to be a Reaper.  

The magic system in this book continues to be interesting and detailed.  The nice thing about it is that Adam is not that powerful, so it doesn’t require a whole lot of explanation.  It doesn’t get so complicated to lose the suspension of disbelief.  The Other Side, that is, the land of the Fae, on the other hand, gets more complex with the introduction of the Sea Elves.  But it’s pretty straight-forward and believable, while at the same time still awesome and awe-striking.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It is so entertaining and engrossing that I am glad there’s one more book in the series.  I love Adam and Vic and their character arcs.  I want to see them survive the crazy things thrown at them and then make it as a couple.  Perhaps I am a hopeless romantic, but I can’t wait until the next book to see them succeed, assuming they do.  I would be heartbroken if they didn’t.  Regardless of the outcome, I can’t wait to read the next book, which will hopefully be next week.  


Sunday, February 18, 2024

Paradigm Lost: Jamari Shaman

R Roderick Rowe
Completed 2/18/2024, Reviewed 2/18/2024
3 stars

I liked this book a little better than the first book in this trilogy, Paradigm Lost: Jamari and the Manhood Rites.  This book was not an erotic novel, and I understand that Rowe has toned down the erotica in the first book in a subsequent edition.  Sexuality is still at the forefront of this book, but it is much more tied to the spirituality of the tribe.  That made it more interesting.  However, I felt like the book still suffered from the same basic issues as the first, mainly, it feels more like a documentary than a novel.  There isn’t much tension or conflict until the last fifty pages or so.  Interestingly enough, I found myself pretty moved by the ending.  I guess I had become attached to the main characters more than I thought I did.  

In this book, the older members of the tribe realize that Jamari has the talents to be a shaman.  Jamari himself isn’t aware of how advanced he is, until he is told.  Jamari worries that the others of his age group who are training to become full men and citizens of their tribe will treat him differently.  However, that fear is unsubstantiated as most things proceed as normal.  Jamari and the others of the Young Men’s Hall are now mentoring newer young men who are ready for adulthood.  As he and his peers excel in their studies, they are awarded new ranks in the militia.  Jamari, while being a shaman in training, becomes the chaplain.  Things go well for a while until he is sent with a squad to the coast to manufacture salt from the ocean, negotiate a treaty with the coastal tribe, and look for illegal fishing practices along the way.  

What I liked best about this book was the introduction of more spirituality into the story, which you expect as the main character finds out he is not just a shaman, but has talents greater than the current Knight Shaman.  I can’t remember if this is from a review I read or one of the book’s descriptions, but it’s like a mix of Native American and Celtic spirituality sprinkled with a little Gnosticism.  It makes for very interesting directions in the plot.  I particularly liked how one of the other shaman’s references quotes from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.  It is some beautiful theology, which I’ve been exposed to by reading Elaine Pagels, which I bet Rowe himself also read.  

What I didn’t care for was that most of the book is the day-to-day activities of the tribe.  That’s the part that reads like non-fiction.  While many may find it interesting, I would have liked to have seen more fiction in it.  By that I mean some tension and conflict to move the plot along.  It makes for great world building, as it did in the first book.  I just need some more tension to keep me interested in the story.  I think another reason is that this tribe is a utopian society.  And in that environment, the people are all happy and work toward the common good.  Most utopian novels turn out to be dystopian.  This one isn’t.  And that’s what makes it dry in many places.

Now, there is some conflict, like one of the young men Jamari mentors is probably exclusively heterosexual.  This poses the question of how to work him in as a productive member of the tribe.  It’s a neat reversal of how society normally works.  However, it continues to pop up through the story and doesn’t get resolved until the end.   There’s also an exciting scene with a cougar and the realization that Jamari has more than one spirit animal, and for that matter, more than just an ordinary shaman.

The ending of the book is really good.  That’s where there is tension and conflict, and even tragedy, which I did not see coming.  The tragedy was done with much grace and sensitivity.  It drew a tear to my eye.  That’s where I realized I was more caught up in the characters than I thought.

I give the book three stars out of five.  I have the third book, which I’ll read in a few weeks.  The author has many other short books out which include side stories this post-apocalyptic utopia.  There are also a few books to where Rowe has moved all the erotica.  I’m not sure I’ll read any of those, except for one book I got at the sci fi convention which tells the account of how the tribe got started.  I’ll read that one after I finish this trilogy.  


Sunday, February 11, 2024

White Trash Warlock

David R Slayton
Completed 2/10/2024, Reviewed 2/10/2024
4 stars

I thought this book would be a light-hearted urban fantasy farce based on the title.  After the last book I read, I needed one.  But this turned out to be a very serious drama, featuring the struggles of a gay mage who grew up very poor in rural Oklahoma and goes to Denver to help his estranged brother out of a supernatural nightmare.  Despite being so serious, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It has action, suspense, and most of all, heart.  And it has a very interesting magic system along with the usual inhabitants of fantasy:  elves, leprechauns, gnomes, and reapers.

Adam Binder is a young gay man living with his great aunt, who is also a mage, in her trailer in Oklahoma.  He’s been searching for his father who he believes was a bad mage and disappeared when he was around ten.  The only clues he has are bad magical items that pop up from time to time.  Out of the blue, he gets a text from his brother Bobby, who is a doctor in Denver, to call him.  He tells Adam that something is wrong with his wife and only he can help.  So he makes the trek to Denver to find that she is being possessed by a gigantic evil force that floats over Denver like a huge black cloud.  Seeing this is beyond his powers, he reluctantly asks the elven Guardians for help battle this terrible menace.

The characters of Adam and Bobby, along with their mother, are very complex characters.  Turns out that Adam’s dad was very abusive.  Bobby, who is ten years older than Adam, was his protector, but Adam felt betrayed by him when he locked Adam up in an insane asylum for hearing voices.  The voices, of course, were the beginnings of Adam’s magical ability.  Their mother, a Bible-thumper, cosigned the documents to lock up the teenager.  After escaping at the age of eighteen, Adam escaped and left his mother and brother behind.  Now Adam is trying his best to learn magic skills while dealing with being gay in rural country, Bobby is a doctor who goes by Robert and lives with his wife in the ‘burbs, and their chain smoking, God fearing mother is staying with Robert to take care of his mysteriously ailing wife.  Needless to say, all the interactions of the family are difficult and tense.  

Adam’s one source of joy is Vic, a cop whose life he saved by slicing a piece of his soul and stitching it in the fatally shot cop.  Now they are connected in a mysterious way, and Adam finds that his attraction to Vic is reciprocated.  However, he doesn’t know how to deal with someone who actually likes him, second guessing that it is their magical connection that is causing Vic’s feelings.  

There are two elves who play key roles in this story, Argent, Queen of the Elves, and her brother Silver, who is a Prince.  They are also pretty complex characters who go from being stand-offish and otherworldly to pragmatic and friendly.  There are other aspects to their relationship with Adam, but revealing that would be a spoiler.

I was so impressed by these characters that I was able to empathize with all of them.  I also thought the worldbuilding was just terrific.  And if you know Denver, you will get some of the unnamed references, like the May clock tower, Casa Bonita, and the amusement park (although I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be Elitch’s or Lakeside).  On top of the corporeal setting was a magical realm which Adam traversed with the Elves.  The realm was not always welcoming of humans and Adam gets imprisoned there for a while.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It was so much more amazing than I thought it would be.  The only thing that was lacking a little was the writing.  It felt very plain, as many books with a good amount of action often are.  But I could overlook this because the plot, the characters, and the world all came together in a fascinating and engrossing way.  This book was not as widely read as it should have been, but it did get a 2021 nomination for Sci Fi/Fantasy novel in the Colorado Book Awards.  I can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy.


Sunday, February 4, 2024

The Gate to Women’s Country

Sherri S Tepper
Completed 2/4/2024, Reviewed 2/4/2024
2 stars

I did not like this book.  I found it extremely irritating.  It could be classed as ecofeminism, but I found it to be the most hateful book I’ve ever read.  It does create empathy for the main character, but none for hardly anyone else.  Almost every other character is unlikable, from the manipulating women to the violent men.  It creates a worst-case dystopian future of gender separatism and suspicion.  It almost felt like she was trying to one up “The Handmaid’s Tale” and failed.  I have read quite a bit of feminist science fiction and often find it to be worthwhile and rewarding no matter how uncomfortable it makes me feel as a man.  This book only succeeds in turning off the reader.

The story begins with Stavia finding out her son has decided to turn his back on Women’s Country and stay with the all-male warriors who live outside the city.  It then jumps back in time to Stavia’s youth, where we learn more about the society in which she is being raised.  Women get to stay in Women’s Country, getting educated, learning science, skills, and arts.  Boys at the age of five are turned out, to be raised by the male warriors who protect the city.  At the age of fifteen, they must choose whether to stay with the men outside or rejoin the women inside.  The men who return also get education and help with the women’s society.  Twice a year, the warriors come into town at Carnival and have sex with the women in a party-like, socially condoned celebrations.  This is how new children are born.  Then the cycle begins again for the boy children while the girl children get encultured.

Around the time Stavia is twelve, the warriors outside the city believe that the women hold some kind of secret weapon and should be overthrown.  Women of course should not have weapons.  They should only be making more warriors.  So they send two young men to woo Stavia and her sister Myra and manipulate them romantically to get the secrets out of them.  Stavia and Myra are daughters of a Councilwoman for the city, so the warriors believe her daughters would know any secrets the mother has.  This leads to all sorts of trouble for Myra.  However, Stavia is a pretty clear-thinking girl, but she does make some bad decisions.  Her suitor-spy doesn’t try to have sex with her, but he does manipulate her into smuggling books out of the city, which is forbidden by ordinances.  This only whets the appetite of the warriors for more information.  The plot then follows the troubled relationship between Stavia and the young spy.

Assuming someone would like this story, there are technical problems with the book.  The first half of the book is very dull.  I thought the exploration of this society would be better than it was.  Instead, it was so slow in parts, I think I lost brain cells.  There is also a juxtaposition of a play about Iphigenia’s ghost returning to talk to Achilles and some some surviving woman from the battle of Troy.  Through most of the book, its inclusion does not make sense, other than talking about the futility of war.  It just makes for jarring interruptions in the story.  The prose is okay, but not good enough to really enliven the world building.  

One thing that really turned me off was the little aside that homosexuality was successfully bred out of the culture.  This aberration was found to be a hormone imbalance that could be eradicated through breeding manipulation.  My only thought at this point was “Fuck you, Miss Tepper!  You can take your homophobic nonsense and shove it where the sun don’t shine!”  I tried to recover my senses after reading that passage but never forgave Tepper.  Even when she has the characters captured by an inbred, Fundamentalist Mormon-like enclave, I still kept one foot out of letting myself enjoy the suspense of how they were going to escape.  And this was the one part of the book that actually had some decent pacing and excitement.

I liked one review I read that said this book was “gender essentialist, heterosexist, cissexist garbage.”  Yes, it is all that, and every page reinforces it.  Even the revelation of the big secret at the end couldn’t bring me to fully engage with the book.  If you’re looking to read a book that stays relevant to the oppression women feel today, read “The Handmaid’s Tale.”  Don’t read this.  I give it two stars out of five solely because I thought Stavia was a good character and actually two of the men within the city, Joshua and Corrig, were relatable and empathetic.  Without these three being written as they were, I would have given this book one star. 


Saturday, January 27, 2024

Paradigm Lost: Jamari and the Manhood Rites

R Roderick Rowe
Completed 1/27/2024, Reviewed 1/27/2024
3 stars

Gay Science Fiction Erotica is a narrow subgenre in which I’ve delved a bit.  What I look for in such a book is the same as in any book: plot, prose, world building, and characterization.  I also like to see the explicit sexual scenes flow naturally within the story.  Back in the 80’s, there were some incredible writers of gay erotica that wrote for explicit gay men’s magazines which were later compiled and published because they were recognized as great writing.  That’s my background coming into this book.  It had some of the qualities of a good, even great, erotic novel.  However, it came across more like a documentary.  

The book began strongly, with the main character, Jamari, coming to the decision that it is his time to begin the Manhood Rites.  In this not-to-distant world, a tribe of people have established a utopian society in which young adults decide for themselves when to begin the rites and the community affirms that decision after the process.  It prevents immature people from attaining full adulthood and participation in the community before they are ready, and mature youths to attain it sooner.  This utopia also keeps men and women separate, where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuality is used for procreation only.  

Jamari’s training begins by getting an insider’s view of what keeps the tribe going.  He visits the power plant, the farmlands, and lots of other trades.  He learns more about the history of the great ‘quake that threw the U.S. into chaos, the subsequent wars in that region (the great Northwest), and the establishment of the tribe.  He is also trained in the way of sex, both for pleasure and for procreation.  He has a mentor, Shane, who is a few years older.  Shane is his guide through much of this exploration, both industrial and sexual.

I think like many queer readers of science fiction and fantasy, I liked the reversal of the sexual norms.  It gives us a feel of what it would be like to not have to fear being ourselves.  But it still acknowledges the need for straight sex to provide for future generations.  Rowe does some interesting things with this, though, namely, during Jamari’s training for his first breeding.  Women are given all the power in the situation.  They decide whether they just want to be impregnated, or if they want to experience pleasure in it.  They are trained more than men in self-defense to prevent being taken advantage of sexually or raped.  In the male-male sex scenes, it’s all about giving your partner pleasure and mutuality.  Sex in general is not taboo, but merely an expression of one’s self or a means to an end.

Unfortunately, I found Jamari’s training in the functioning of the tribe to be rather dry.  It was more like a social studies lesson than a fictional account of a working society in a post-apocalyptic future.  Jamari was all, “Golly gee” and “That’s awesome.”  Okay, not exactly those words, but books where there is a lot of description and resultant wonder get tedious after a while.  Even the sex scenes in the midst of this exposition were not that inspiring.  The best parts of the book are the beginning and the end.  They hold the most drama.  The middle, not so much.  

This was too bad, because I thought the writing was pretty good.  The world building really is quite phenomenal.  Rowe put tons of thought into how he wanted this society to operate, based on mistakes and lessons from the past.  He brings in current events that formed our national psyche and rebels against the resulting malaise.  It’s very smart and very inventive, even though I didn’t necessarily agree with all of it.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  I liked the characters.  Jamari and Shane are well developed.  I liked the writing.  I liked the world building.  I just didn’t like the lack of movement in the plot.  This book is the first of a trilogy.  I don’t have the other two books, but I have a standalone about the genesis of the tribe, which I’ll read soon.  Will I read the rest of the trilogy?  I might.  I’d like to see how Jamari transitions into adulthood, and if the story becomes more plot driven.


Sunday, January 21, 2024

The Last Graduate

Naomi Novik
Completed 1/21/2024, Reviewed 1/21/2024
3 stars

Like its predecessor, A Deadly Education, I didn’t care much for this book.  I felt like the first three-quarters of the book were a slog.  I didn’t warm up to it until about the last seventy or so pages.  Then I did care about the plot and the characters and the finale.  This, again like its predecessor, was a book club read.  Nonetheless, I still want to read the last book to see how it ends.  I’m hoping it does get picked as a book club read in a few months.  Novik is a good writer, creating different styles for the different series she writes.  This series is written very differently from her fairy tale books, which were different from her Temeraire series, so I’m told.  I loved the fairy tale books, look forward to the Temeraire books, but this series leaves me rather cold.

The book begins with Galadriel, or El, as a senior at the Scholomance.  She has allies now as well as very tempered relationship with Orion.  Like in the first book, she goes through the first semester trying to study spells, languages, and other magical disciplines while fighting off the monsters that seep into the school.  Strangely, this time, they appear to be focusing on her more than the other students.  So the first half of the book is her trying to fight off the monsters.  The second semester is a class-free semester where the seniors are expected to prepare for the great purge known as graduation.  They are to hone their mal killing and protection spells to survive the ceremony and go through a portal to return home.  El decides that, because of her power to cast large, very powerful spells, it is her duty to save all the seniors.  But then she realizes that’s not enough and must save future students from the graduation purge as well.

I was really bored by the first half of the book.  I thought I’d enjoy it more considering I warmed up to the first book by the end.  However, it just felt like a rehash of the first book.  The only difference is that El is not as mean to other people.  She doesn’t say a lot of what she normally would have in previous years.  This made it easier to empathize with her this time around.  At the turn of the semester, the practice sessions to prepare for graduation were rather tedious as well.  It didn’t get good until she starts to figure out she has to do something to end the death of so many students once and for all.  Then it feels like there’s some skin in the game.

I was actually disappointed that this had very little buildup of her relationship with Orion.  I think I would have enjoyed a teen romance spread over the book a little more evenly.  It does become intense in the last 70 pages, but for me that was too little too late.  My reaction was “Finally!”  I guess I wanted to see her more vulnerable, to see someone breaking through her hard shell.  She doesn’t break character, but she does let loose.  So when we finally got to it, I will admit it was very well done.  

There was one element of the story that did not seem to add anything for me, except extra pages.  That was her familiar, a mouse.  The students get familiars.  El’s takes a long time to bond with her but eventually does.  Except for the occasional biting of her ear to warn her of things, I didn’t see a real reason for bringing the familiars into the story.

The world building continues to be terrific.  The Scholomance still blows my mind and the sheer variation of monsters is creatively staggering.  I just wish the majority of the book was more interesting than simply: 1. Go to class 2. Kill monsters.  For that reason, I again give three stars out of five to this book.  It’s well written, the characters develop, and the ending is really good.  Yet it’s still a dull read through the first three hundred or so pages.  That was the disappointing part.  


Monday, January 15, 2024

Queen

JS Fields
Completed 1/14/2024, Reviewed 1/14/2024
4 stars

I have picked up quite a few self-published books by local authors at the Oregon Science Fiction Convention.  This is one of them.  I’ve shied away from this author in the past because she mostly writes space opera, touted as “pew-pew” action (hold your fingers like laser guns and go pew-pew).  But I’ve always enjoyed them on panels at the convention and thought I’d give one of their books a try.  Sure enough, there’s a lot of pew-pew, but after warming up to it, I found myself caught up in the action of the unique, crazy world that Fields created.  There’s giant lightning bug-like creatures, a massive bunny population, and lots of special sand that big business wants to exploit, all on a Dune-like planet.  It’s an all-woman planet where all you need to immigrate to it is a vulva.  However, emigration is not permitted.  Lots to think about, lots of fun, and decent character development as well.  I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

The book begins with Ember on patrol duty outside the colony on the planet Queen.  The planet is tidally locked to its sun, meaning one side always faces it, one side never does.  In her flyer over the habitable zone, she grieves the recent death of her wife Taraniel from cancer.  She is ambushed by the pirates where she finds out that before her death, Taraniel disappeared into the wastelands, met with the pirates, and with them built a spaceship to take Ember and the pirates back to Old Earth.  Taraniel even uploaded her personality to the ship’s AI.  Ember does not handle this revelation well.  

When Ember’s sister Nadia goes looking for her, she comes across a secret conference where she finds out that Queen is going to be sold to the highest bidder for its special sand.  When they are finally rejoined, they use the planet’s beetles who have a strange symbiotic relationship with the invasive bunny population to fight the forces at the conference so that they can return to old Earth.  They initially left the home planet because of its environmental collapse.  Now they want to return based on Taraniel’s belief that after the massive diaspora, Earth has been renewed, mostly from the plant research done on Queen.

It's quite a wild plot with a lot of crazy ingredients, but it works.  From the giant flying beetles with the phosphorescent tails that can be tamed and ridden like flying horses to the bunnies guarding the fungi that exude the pheromones that can help tame the beetles, it’s loads of fun.  But amidst that fun is a lot to think about.  Specifically, Ember and her dealing with the death of her wife.  First, she must deal that Taraniel died alone in the desert, of her own free will.  Then she finds out that she actually survived, lived for a while longer with the pirates when she could have still been living with Ember.  Lastly, she uploaded her memories and voice to the ship’s AI, so now Ember has to deal with hearing her dead wife’s voice again.  It’s a hell of a lot to take in and Ember remains bitter and angry for a while.  Eventually she makes peace with the past and moves on.  She even develops a mild crush on one of the pirates.

While Ember is the main character, I also enjoyed her sister Nadia who tries to keep an eye on her.  So when Ember goes missing, Nadia goes after her without qualms about the rules of the colony.  Asher, the head pirate, is also very likeable, especially with her ability to handle Ember’s reaction to the ship’s AI.  

The world building is phenomenal.  One might think it’s a Dune rip-off, but even the author pokes a little fun at their own use of a desert planet.  The bunnies add a special touch.  One might think it’s simply a case of overrun invasive species, but here they’ve formed a strange relationship with the beetles.  The only thing I thought was a little weak was the prose.  The description of the action was good, but overall, I thought the prose sounded the same way the characters talked.  It was a little disappointing during the less exciting points in the book.  

Still, I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a fun and exciting action-packed adventure.  It’s the first of a series, so it ends on a giant cliffhanger.  I didn’t mind it, because I’m sure I’ll read the next book when it comes out.  It also plays around a little with gender, which of course it would need to being an all-women planet.  But it’s not heavy handed like the gender-based utopian and dystopian novels of ‘70s women authors.  It’s much more organic.  I actually would have liked a little more gender and sexuality discussion in the story, though there are still two more books that might cover it in more depth.


Sunday, January 7, 2024

Lovecraft Country

Matt Ruff
Completed 1/7/2024, Reviewed 1/7/2024
4 stars

I had trouble getting into this book at first.  I didn’t like the writing.  I thought it was pedestrian, lacking any emotional force.  But as I continued on, I came to really love the characters and feel terrified for them by the supernatural and natural horrors in their lives.  It probably didn’t help that I saw the mini-series before reading the book, so I had an expectation of the emotional impact it should have.  But after the first story, any qualms I had over the prose dissipated and I could enjoy the stories.  

This book was initially pitched as a series like The X-Files.  When it came to novel form, it ended up as seven interconnected vignettes, or episodes, featuring the main characters and an eight story that ties them all together.  It was a great way to introduce everyone, giving different perspectives and experiences with the horrors of Jim Crow and the Lovecraftian supernatural.  The overarching plot is that Atticus Turner is the last surviving descendent of a powerful “natural philosopher,” i.e. a magician or alchemist, from the 1700’s.  Caleb Braithwhite is also a descendent and has supernatural powers.  He plans to use Atticus and his family and friends to try to take over and unite all the houses/lodges of the Sons of Adam.  The result is the seven episodes in the book.  I liked all of them, but the two I liked most were about Hippolyta, Atticus’ aunt, and Horace, his nephew.  

All three families in the story work or are associated in some way with the “Safe Negroes Travel Guide”, a fictional version of the Green Book, which lists restaurants and hotels and other travel related businesses that serve blacks without harassment or danger.  In the story featuring Hippolyta, she goes to Minneapolis to research some entries in the guide, but makes a stop at an observatory on the way.  It turns out to be related to one of the now deceased but immensely powerful Adamites, H. Winthrop.  She enters it one night, hoping to see the stars and discovers an interdimensional traveling device that reveals the fate of the black staff of Winthrop. I loved this story because the main character wanted to be an astronomer, but being poor and black and a woman in America in the early 20th century didn’t lend itself to that type of opportunity.  I, myself had other reasons why I didn’t become an astronomer, but I empathized with the longing.  

The other story featured Horace, an asthmatic tween who creates his own comic books.  He’s being hounded by white detectives to spy on his parents because they may lead the detectives to Braithwhite.  They put a curse on him that worsens his asthma to the point that he cannot speak whenever he tries to tell someone about the investigation.  In addition, he’s being chased by a “devil doll”, not unlike the scary tribal doll come to life from “Trilogy of Terror.”  I empathized with Horace as a young person struggling with asthma.  

The other stories were really good as well, such as the ones about the haunted house that Leticia buys and the potion that turns her sister Ruby into a white spy for Braithwhite.  All the stories are hard to read, though, because the Jim Crow prejudice and segregation is so prevalent and severe that it makes you wonder how black people survived the era as they did.  Reading it made me uncomfortable in my own skin, the same way watching the film “KKKlansman” made me so uncomfortable.  On the lighter side, it inserts black people into the speculative fiction fandom during a time when the authors weren’t black, and there were no black characters. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I recommend reading it before seeing the series.  If you get a copy of the book with the interview of the author, I highly recommend reading that to get a perspective of the actual events that Ruff directly included or fictionalized within the book.


Wednesday, January 3, 2024

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Completed 1/3/2024, Reviewed 1/3/2024
4 stars

Moreno-Garcia is an awesome writer.  Even when I find I’m not really into a book of hers, the writing keeps me going.  That’s what I discovered with this book.  I did not find it quite as compelling as the other books of hers I’ve read, Gods of Jade and Shadow and Mexican Gothic.  But the language is just astounding.   I also liked the premise, the Dr. Moreau story set against the 19th century Mayan revolution on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.  It has other positive qualities, like great character development and excellent world building.  The whole just felt a little less than the sum of the parts.  This book was nominated for 2023 Hugo, Aurora (Canadian Sci Fi/Fantasy) and Locus Fantasy Awards. 

The story begins with the arrival of a British man accepting role of mayordomo at the Moreau compound.  Montgomery was found by the owners of the property and sole benefactor of Moreau’s research, the Lizaldes family.  Montgomery is a ne’er-do-well alcoholic and gambler who has nothing to left to lose and oddly enough, doesn’t bolt when he finds out about Moreau’s human-animal hybrid experiments.  Helping him adjust is Moreau’s daughter, Carlota.  Of course, sexual tension develops between the two.  Everything and everyone remain in a state of balance until the Lizaldes’ son Eduardo shows up and falls for Carlota.  Suddenly, almost every combination of relationship, including between the people and the hybrids, falls to chaos.

Carlota and Montgomery are the main characters.  The book alternates chapters with their points of view.  Carlota is a sweet, caring individual with relatively modern thinking, despite growing up with only the hybrids as companions and her father as her teacher.  She even agrees to her father’s wishes to be open to Eduardo’s advances so that the Lizaldes family will keep funding his research.  Montgomery on the other hand is rough around the edges.  He doesn’t trust the Lizaldes family nor their son’s intentions toward Carlota.  He, of course, is in love with her, but can’t admit it to himself as his own secretive past eats away at him.  I actually liked Montgomery more than Carlota, I think because he’s broken and I could relate to his brokenness.  Carlota is no Mary Sue, but I couldn’t relate to her as well.  I’ll admit though, she was a strong, multi-dimensional character and I did like her.

The secondary characters are also well developed.  Eduardo, his cousin, Moreau, the hybrids, are all interesting and realistically portrayed.  No one is a caricature of good or evil.  There are just a lot of bad circumstances that throws people into difficult situations that evoke passion and bad decisions.  Still, the evils of slavery and abuse of the indigenous population come through.  Ultimately, the Lizaldes are the privileged landowners who represent everything that was bad with colonization in Mexico.    

There are so many things to like about this book, but while reading it, I occasionally found myself struggling to stay interested.  If I could have found it more exciting and perhaps a little less prosy, I might have empathized with Carlota more and experienced a more emotional response at the book’s conclusion.  But this is a good read, and I don’t dissuade anyone from it.  I like Moreno-Garcia and will probably continue to read her output.  She’s a terrific writer with good vision and great imagination.