Tag: book reviews


Review – Assassin’s Dawn

Posted 1 February, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Slow Fall to Dawn, Stephen Leigh

Slow Fall to Dawn is the first book of a trilogy. The basic premise is a sort of feudal clan/guild based system, and we’re following a guild of assassins within it. They have a very specific code, and are completely neutral, but naturally there’s a lot of bad feeling stirred up by a guild of murderers, particularly as they remain neutral (even as that makes them useful to everyone), and the book follows the course of a few events that threaten the stability and perhaps even the existence of the guild.

It’s a short book, and a fast read. There’s some clunky aspects — for example, mentioning something as a minor background point and then bashing you over the head with its relevance in the next chapter. (Although then it didn’t really seem to be that important at all…) But mosCover of Assassin's Dawn, the Hoorka trilogy omnibus by Stephen Leightly it flows very smoothly and while I wasn’t exactly sympathetic to the characters, I understood them and was interested in their conflicts and dilemmas.

The author cleverly avoids issues of it being an unrealistic science fiction future (i.e. one that’s been well outpaced by reality) by having it set after a civilisation collapse. It’s not the sort of SF that feels like fantasy; it does manage to feel like a world, a society, that has progressed and regressed and generally evolved over time.

I actually picked up this book (in the omnibus form) in Belgium, while I was doing a little experiment and only getting books I’d never heard of before, preferably by authors who were new to me too. In this case, I won’t hungrily seek out every book Stephen Leigh might ever have written, but I will happily finish this series.

Dance of the Hag

Dance of the Hag kept my attention well, considering I enjoyed but wasn’t that enthusiastic about the first book. Leigh is a better risk taker than I expected, not willing to take the easy way out, and I was also impressed that he managed to make an impersonal character like the Thane of the first book into someone we worry about personally.

I like the political background, too — it feels as if Leigh spent some serious time thinking about how exactly his society would work, so that while you might not know everything about it, everything works according to the internal logic of it.

It remains a smooth, easy read, and I was surprised (and pleased) that it did actually include a brief (very brief) reference to an LGBT relationship by a main character.

A Quiet of Stone

Damn.

That was not the ending I wanted. However, it makes perfect sense with the build-up. Leigh doesn’t go for any easy way out, as I already observed: we’ve been building towards this for the whole trilogy, and Leigh takes us there. It’s also a credit to his skill that where I wasn’t that enthusiastic about the first two books, with the third I actually had to make myself finish because I didn’t want to reach the end, which didn’t for a moment seem like it could be a happy one.

So yeah, this series is surprising, interesting, and worth picking up, I think I’d have to say. It’s still a fast read, and it took time to get hooks into me, but once it did, I couldn’t stop reading.

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Review – Natural-Born Cyborgs

Posted 1 February, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Andy Clark's Natural-Born CyborgsNatural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark

Most people who know me are probably aware that I am very pro-cyborgs. (I even wrote a four-page comic featuring my terrible art and a woman made into a cyborg for my Comics & Graphic Novels class.) The idea fascinates me and given half a chance I’d probably volunteer myself to get wired up. So this book caught my interest immediately, though how exactly Amazon knew to promote it at me, I’m not sure I want to know.

It was published in 2004, so in terms of the technology, it’s a little behind. It talks, for example, about the clunkiness of then-current e-reading technology. I read it on my little Kobo with its e-ink screen — you know, the little device that I actually bought for £24. But in terms of concerns about technology, we haven’t moved much past it. Some of them I was less convinced by (alienation, disembodiment), while others remain a concern, like the “digital divide”.

The main thrust of the book, however, is the theory that we’re already cyborgs, in a sense. Human beings are tool users; we’re not the only ones, but we’re the most sophisticated ones we know of. We’ve had a form of external memory for thousands of years — writing. Though most of us can’t hold numbers in our heads for complicated equations, given a piece of paper, we can work through it and produce the answer. (Given a piece of paper and appropriate time, even I can calculate the heritability of a certain gene in the population, for example, and yet I struggle with remembering how to calculate percentages.) And now, there’s the internet, information at our fingertips. When you grow up with these things, you learn to use them as semi-consciously as you do your own hands: I don’t consciously calculate where the keys are as I’m typing this any more than I consciously calculate how far to lift my hand to turn a door handle.

This aspect of the book hasn’t dated badly. I found it interesting and convincing, and while I don’t share all the author’s ideas about where the links between biology and technology are going, I do agree that the lines are blurring. Perhaps one day we’ll be indistinguishable — after all, our mitochondria began as separate to the cells that were our ancestors.

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Review – Ancient Rome

Posted 29 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Ancient Rome by Simon BakerAncient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, Simon Baker

Simon Baker’s Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire is a good introduction to Roman history, covering various key points in the history of Rome. Probably not the same key points that someone else would choose, but he makes a decent case for the importance of each stop on the tour. Some people’s reviews say that if you have the most basic grasp of Roman history, this is too simple: I wouldn’t say so. I have a GCSE and an A Level in classical studies, but the effect was a very similar kind of ‘tour’ of Roman history that just picked out different stopping points. So there were some things I didn’t know much about at all.

One thing that is a little disappointing is the transitions between each chapters. It isn’t really made clear how the transitions between the different time periods were made — it goes straight from Constantine, for example, to the attacks on Rome by Alaric, without covering the intervening time at all. Even a little timeline at the start of each chapter would’ve helped.

Still, Simon Baker’s prose is pretty readable and accessible. If you’re not especially interested in the topic, I still wouldn’t recommend this, as despite the six turning points it uses, it’s still a 400 page volume. A Very Brief Introduction it ain’t.

All in all, for me it was okay, but I’ll be donating my copy to the local library rather than keeping it.

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Review – What Makes This Book So Great

Posted 27 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of What Makes This Book So Great by Jo WaltonWhat Makes This Book So Great, Jo Walton

If you’re looking for SF must-read novels, I would say to start here (or by exploring the original posts on Tor.com) rather than with something like the “100 Must Read” books I’ve been reviewing recently. They barely scrape above the level of a list: while they include a bit about each book and why it’s worthwhile, Jo Walton is more passionate, more excitable, more like another fan — she doesn’t claim any kind of authority for her choice in books, doesn’t hedge about including one book over another because it was more influential. Those “100 Must Read” books are a reference, a list; this book is a conversation.

It’s rare for a non-fiction book to keep my attention so strongly as this one did. Part of it is, I guess, that various things Jo Walton’s written resonate right through me — and I also know a little of her personal warmth and kindness. While I’ve spoken to a few authors and even trade tweets semi-regularly with a couple, Jo Walton is the only one who makes me feel that she cares about me as a person and not as a fan to be casually courted. So there’s that: I’m utterly and completely biased about her and her work, and there’s some similar stuff going on in our backgrounds (Welshness, for one thing), and even our non-SF tastes like Heyer and Sayers (and casual references to the same, even in the context of talking about SF). So it’s no surprise that I adored this.

It also helps that it’s very easily bite-size. I could read a few entries, then roll off my bed and reluctantly transcribe another few words — or take some of her enthusiasm and interests with me into my slush reading for Lightspeed, or have lunch with my family, or watch a lecture on astrobiology.

It’s the enthusiasm that really makes it, though. She makes me want to hurry up and read all the books, not just the ones she talks about, but all of them. And then reread them. She made me sit up in delight and grin and go yes, me too. Or hey, I want that.

The books may not all be conveniently in print, as the editors of “100 Must Read” books and others of that species try and arrange, but there’s a love of the possibilities of a tiny second-hand bookshop and the charity shop find that had me scrawling down a list of stuff to look for. It’s not a catalogue, a marketing ploy, a competition to be the most well-read — it’s just sharing books and the love of books and our idiosyncrasies about books.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels

Posted 26 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels, Nick Rennison and Stephen E. Andrews

100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels is, like its fantasy counterpart, pretty predictable in many ways. There are some I hadn’t heard of, but it’s still predominantly from the white male establishment. There is some lip service to the increasing diversity of science fiction in the introduction, but that isn’t really carried through to the books. Flicking through it, I landed on female SF writers only twice in 84 pages.

On the other hand, the introduction is an interesting whip through of the foundations of the SF genre, and there are a fair number of novels here that I hadn’t heard of or hadn’t got round to yet that are now (higher) on my reading list. As long as you realise that it is limited in scope and not a definitive list of the best SF novels out there, it could be a useful resource.

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Review – Through the Language Glass

Posted 25 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Through the Language Glas by Guy DeutscherThrough the Language Glass, Guy Deutscher

I can understand people who feel that Through the Language Glass didn’t quite fulfill its promise. The subtitle might be more accurately, “does the world look different in other languages?” And the answer is yes, but in a limited way that won’t be satisfying to those who want the answer to be an unequivocal yes. People feel that the world is different (for them) in different languages, and even that they are different in other languages, but there just isn’t the scientific data to back those feelings up.

(For me, and this is a brief digression, I do suspect that those who “feel different” when they speak other languages aren’t taking into account context. For example, say you speak Hebrew with your family and English in school. You are a different person in those two contexts, but not because of the language you speak. You’re adapting yourself to the situation, including the language. I suspect that even years after that division is so clear, where you might speak Hebrew to someone in the workplace, the associations remain.)

Anyway, I found the book itself a bit dense and prone to repetition, but overall, very interesting. I loved the discussion of the issue of colour in Homer’s work, as it’s something that inevitably came up when discussing his epithets in class. Why “wine-dark sea”? How could the sea look like wine? And this book has the answer.

It’s fairly conservative in its conclusions, not going beyond the available data — and mocking rather people who did go beyond their data — and explaining everything at some length rather than packing in various new ideas. It does include a lot of examples and interesting facts about various languages, like languages which don’t use egocentric directions but always geographical ones. I would’ve been interested in a bit more on gendered language, but it doesn’t seem as if the work has been done there, yet. It also gives some credit for ideas that were ahead of their time, even if they were founded on shaky principles, which was interesting.

Ultimately, Deutscher explains why early assumptions that language affects the way we perceive the world were wrong — but then goes on to explain that that instinctive feeling isn’t wrong in itself.

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Review – Captain Marvel: Down

Posted 25 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Marvel's Captain Marvel: DownCaptain Marvel: Down, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Christopher Sebela, Dexter Soy, Filipe Andrade

As with the first Captain Marvel book, I liked half the art (Dexter Soy’s work) and then hated the latter half. More so in this one. Carol just looks deformed in half of this. But story-wise, this is another good volume: Carol as Captain Marvel is rash, determined, unstoppable, and the latter half of the book with the worries about her health kept me interested. It doesn’t matter that I’m lacking some of Carol’s backstory — and the Helen Cobb story from the first volume seems to be playing a bit into this, too, which I enjoy. I’m even a bit anxious about Carol and how exactly this will play out.

I love her interactions with the people around her. I haven’t read anything with Monica Rambeau as Captain Marvel — actually, I haven’t got round to anything with her in it at all — but I loved her back and forth with Carol. I enjoyed the inclusion of Spider-Woman, too, and Captain America and Tony Stark’s brief appearances.

Really need to get hold of The Enemy Within, pronto.

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Review – Steve Rogers: Super Soldier

Posted 24 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Ed Brubaker's Steve Rogers: Super SoldierSteve Rogers: Super Soldier, Ed Brubaker, Dale Eaglesham

I have a soft spot approximately two miles wide for MCU Steve, before he gets the serum. It’s probably something vaguely maternal about wanting to protect him, but either way, I think he’s precious. There’s a bit of that here, but not that much. It’s a fun little story, even disconnected from the other stuff going on around it (like the issues of Steve’s death/resurrection, Bucky as Cap), but it isn’t very substantial. There were some bits of Cap canon that I wasn’t aware of — Anita Glass, mostly, but also the villain, Machinesmith.

It is fun to see Steve without his powers, to see that he’s more than his powers, that what made Steve happened before he was ever injected with the serum. I love the “phantom” shield that they’ve drawn in, so it’s clear he’s using the same tactics he learnt as Cap. It just seems right.

This title definitely isn’t a must, though.

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Review – Emilie & the Sky World

Posted 23 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Emilie and the Sky World by Martha WellsEmilie & The Sky World, Martha Wells

I was pretty excited for Emilie & The Sky World, so I moved it up the reading queue when I got the ARC, along with the previous book which I only recently finished. It really is a great girl’s own adventure story, with plenty of strong, capable women and some intriguing other races — in the previous book, Rani and Kenar, in this book, Hyacinth. I love that while Wells has a fertile imagination, she doesn’t tell all she knows — Hyacinth leaves at the end of the book, with so many questions still hovering around it.

The Emilie books are very fast-paced, and I agree with people who say they feel quite slight. Definitely not the same audience as City of Bones (my other read by Wells), but it’s not the book’s fault if it doesn’t work with an audience it’s not meant for. I mean, it’s on the Strange Chemistry imprint, not Angry Robot: I’m expecting YA, and that’s what you get here — perfectly pitched, to my mind.

There are a couple of nitpicks, maybe. Emilie vacillates a bit between being a total kid and a capable person, but… that happens, with teenagers, so it isn’t so strange. I enjoyed the realism of her relationship with Efrain, her younger brother, and the bit at the end where she resolves things with her uncle. It isn’t perfect — it’s awkward as heck — but it feels genuine.

Also loved the casual inclusion of an LGBT relationship. It just feels so… normal. Martha Wells isn’t making that dumb mistake of just taking the mores of our (past) societies just to borrow the steampunk motifs that work for her. I like that a lot.

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Review – Ultimate Hawkeye

Posted 21 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Marvel's Ultimate HawkeyeUltimate Hawkeye, Jonathan Hickman, Rafa Sandoval

Ultimate Hawkeye seems to be the jumping off point for a larger plot about “the People”, who are like mutants and are staging a revolution. It isn’t really about Hawkeye being a badass, but nor is it like Matt Fraction’s take on Hawkeye where he’s more like an ordinary guy. Hickman’s Hawkeye is… kinda badass, kinda snarky, definitely Fury’s right hand man.

It’s okay, but I’m not that interested in reading more. I was most interested by the part Bruce Banner/Hulk played in this, I think, the way he was just brought in as a weapon of brute force. I think I might’ve appreciated it more if this was a story about Bruce and how he’s used by Fury.

As others have noted, it’s kind of annoying that Hawkeye has powers here. Not very impressive ones — modifications to his eyes — but still. He’s not an ordinary person who is preternaturally good with a bow, here. I think what makes Clint interesting to me — and I come at it from the MCU angle, I didn’t read comics much before I saw Avengers — is that he is an ordinary guy, a soldier, a spy, caught up in a world of gods and heroes. I want to see this guy who seems destined for a supporting role having to step up to the plate. This is not that. Fingers crossed for Jeremy Renner’s portrayal in the next Avengers film.

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