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


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.