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.