Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Awry with Dandelions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Ritual of the Ancients

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 24, 2024

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 20, 2024

The Light Brigade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 12, 2024

The Saint of Bright Doors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

The Eye of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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