Final Girls, Mira Grant
Received to review via Netgalley; release date 30th April 2017
This seems to be the year of Mira Grant aka Seanan McGuire, for me. I started the year with Rolling in the Deep, and I’ve read a couple of other Mira Grant and Seanan McGuire books since. Final Girls is what you’d expect of the Mira Grant half of the persona: a little horrifying, psychological, more towards the realistic speculative fiction end. This one examines the idea of a system that drugs people into receptivity, puts them into a simulated situation, and thus fixes their hangups and flaws. Sisters who hate each other can become friends, and lasting friendships can be forged based on fictional scenarios of blood and sacrifice and horror. It doesn’t even have to be that realistic: it just has to feel real.
One of the main characters, Esther, is sceptical about the truth of all this. It seems too good to be true, especially since her life was severely impacted by the false conclusions of people who went through regression therapy. As you’d expect, things go wrong.
Grant/McGuire’s writing is as good as usual, and the conclusion to the plot comes as a bittersweet surprise. Something is salvaged from the situation, but there’s a lot of damage along the way. Because it’s a novella, it doesn’t do more than hint at the long-term effects of the technology it explores. Instead, we experience it, its failures and its saving graces, through the characters. It works well.
Rolling in the Deep, Mira Grant
Rolling in the Deep is a documentary/found footage type story with a fairly predictable ending. Scientists, performers and television personalities go on a ship to find evidence of mermaids, with the scientists mostly using the opportunity to get some real work done without needing to charter the ship themselves. Everyone starts out sceptical, and the whole affair is rather cynical. The performers include professional mermaids — people who don mermaid outfits and swim in the sea to make it look like they really have found mermaids… or have they? Etc.
Naturally, this is a Mira Grant story and so things go wrong. The experiments disturb something real in the deep, and in the usual way of humans meeting other races, they cause harm. Cue the horror movie ending, and the later rediscovery of the empty, drifting ship… with some footage of the attacks intact. And of course, people ask if it’s real or not…
It’s a fun format and the story works well; it gets off to a bit of a slow start, which might disappoint horror fans. There’s a few too many characters in the space to really get attached to any of them, though one or two show promise. Not my favourite of Grant’s novellas, but definitely a good read.
On Basilisk Station, David Weber
The first time I read On Basilisk Station, I actually gave it five stars despite the flaws — it just caught me up that much. And it’s proven to have the same grip on my sister, who has been ravenously tearing through the series, reading and rereading it for the sake of Honor and her treecat. This time, I wouldn’t go as far as giving it five stars, but it’s definitely still very enjoyable, for all that I was even more aware of the flaws.
First, the flaws: the didactic, digressive sections like the whole ten-page section which interrupted a high-speed space chase to explain the math and physics behind it. The fact that Honor can do basically no wrong. The wish fulfilment of the smart, empathic space cats. Etc.
But then there’s the fact that Honor just has a presence, somehow. She’s not depicted as a sexual object, but nor is she denigrated by anyone for not being so. She’s a capable, attractive, dedicated woman who loves her home, her service, her ship and her crew. She’s, well, honourable. And she leads by example, slowly gaining the confidence and love of her crew. You can understand her thought process and all her decisions, and it all makes sense. And the people around her make sense too: their grudges as much as their loyalty.
So, yep. Still flawed, still enthralling.
Temeraire, or His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik
I’ve read this before, quite a ways back, and always intended to visit it anew, and finish the series as well. Imyril’s reviews of the series (for example, this first one) had a big part in making someday now, and I’ve got to be grateful for that. Temeraire is a lot of fun, just as I remembered it to be. It’s the Napoleonic War… but with dragons! And with a whole alternate history around the dragon corps and their officers, along with an alternative culture. It works very well, and produces a rather epic adventure… which nonetheless has plenty of tender moments, as Laurence comes to understand and cherish the dragon who has changed his entire life.
Temeraire himself is just the best character: he likes to read, he’s very curious, he’s polite and protective and worries about all things Laurence — which results in rather funny scenes in which Laurence discovers his dragon has learnt about prostitutes, or things like that. The insatiable curiosity is both funny and, at times, touching.
And come on, if Temeraire weren’t a dragon, everyone would be calling his relationship with Laurence what it is: a bromance.
The reason this really works for me is that it doesn’t just add in dragons, and expect everything else to be more or less the same. Instead, the dragons have an effect on society and Novik worked out exactly where they, and their riders, would stand. And the other thing is, people don’t always get what they deserve, despite the temptation: there’s a horribly touching emotional arc involving one mistreated dragon, and it does not end the way you hope it will. Which makes it all feel more real, and like bad things can genuinely happen — a wise thing for a writer to establish when otherwise things might look just a bit too easy.
I’m looking forward to continuing the series, though I do recall I didn’t love the later books as much, however far I got with reading them.
Chalk, Paul Cornell
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 21st March 2017
I don’t quite know how to rate this, because it’s not much my thing. It’s a bit too close to horror, it’s so grim, and the teenage boy fixation with sex was, well, rather beyond my experience or anything I’m interested in. Bullying I know well, and Cornell captures it wonderfully — but I can’t say beautifully, because who could call that beautiful? The magic is weird and wondrous and I do enjoy the way it’s tied in with history and the landscape.
I was less interested or convinced by Angie’s pop music magic; it felt very thin indeed, almost just a way to give her more of a role in the story without it feeling organic. But the main character’s ambivalence to her, the people around him, the great big revenge that’s happened because he wanted it — that feels real.
I can’t say I enjoyed this, and I can’t say I’d read it again, but nor would I urge someone not to read it. It’s definitely powerful, and I had to read to the end, even though I found aspects of it distasteful (I suspect I was intended to).
Martians Abroad, Carrie Vaughn
Received to review via Netgalley; published 17th January 2017
I had pretty high hopes for this, since I enjoy Carrie Vaughn’s work. And it’s not a bad book; it just never took off for me. The set-up, the conflict, the conclusion — all of it felt a little flat to me. I didn’t quite believe in it, I definitely didn’t believe in the stakes, and I don’t think I really believed in the characters either. On the face of it, I should really enjoy Polly’s character: her presence of mind, her refusal to think inside the box, her quickness to act and her willingness to protect others. I don’t even really know why I didn’t. I suppose because I didn’t feel her emotions coming through. She was dumped by her boyfriend and my reaction was ‘oh, well’ — partly because of her reaction, though admittedly also because that relationship isn’t built up at all.
If the phrase “dumped by her boyfriend” makes you feel like this might be a little juvenile, you’re right there, too. It feels like a YA novel, not just because of the age of the characters but because of the relatively low stakes. I mean, the stakes are allegedly life and death, and yet it always felt like a game. You got the sense that things would be okay. I almost hoped they wouldn’t be, at one particular point near the end, because that would’ve surprised me.
Bit of a miss for me, alas.
The Burning Page, Genevieve Cogman
Full disclosure: I did receive a review copy of this, but I also bought a copy.
I was really, really looking forward to this book, and for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed. It continues to be a fun romp, centring around that idea of an interdimensional library preserving all kinds of variant texts. The warmth and love of books is still a key feature, and the characters are the same group we’ve come to love. While the last book was a bit of a break from overarching plot, this one returned to it: in this one, Irene has to confront the rogue Librarian, Alberich — and he has some very big targets in mind this time.
I especially loved the visits to alternate worlds; I’d love to see more of that. The visit to a Russia ruled by an immortal Catherine the Great was pretty awesome, and there’s so much room for Cogman to play with all kinds of alternates. They aren’t the main point of the book or plot, but they’re still fascinating little microcosms of things that could be.
I’m relieved that this isn’t the last book, because there are a few more mysteries introduced here. Irene’s parentage, where the Library is going now… it feels like the beginning, rather than the end of a plot line. And if I have any disappointment about this book, it’s in that: somehow, the seeming end of the story arc didn’t feel final enough. There may be good reason for that, in which case this book would work better on a reread after reading sequels; for now, it just felt a little odd. It felt like a return to the status quo, without being knocked as far away from it as I’d expected.
There’s still plenty to wonder about, and plenty of room for more stories, thank goodness. I think I sound more critical than I really am; I enjoyed the book a lot, and read it in almost one gulp. The whole series is a lot of fun, and I definitely recommend it — especially if you need a break from reality.
Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
This would probably have got a higher rating from me if I’d reread the first novella. As it was, I couldn’t tell what was supposed to be new to me and what was just part of me remembering the first book poorly. Things just kept happening, and I couldn’t make any guess about the next event — and then it suddenly ended. I forgot the basics. So if you were wondering about reading this as a standalone, I would say: don’t.
I really want to find the Okorafor novel/la that will work for me. Binti hasn’t been it, with either instalment. I do enjoy the worldbuilding, the mix of cultures, and the feeling of warmth I get from the story, from Binti’s courage… but I found the movement through the story a little too bewildering. I probably won’t read any more books about Binti; I just don’t seem to “get” it.
Standard Hollywood Depravity, Adam Christopher
Received to review via Netgalley, publication date 7th March 2017
Just like Made to Kill and Brisk Money, this is an entertaining story — imagine Chandler’s noir detectives, that kind of world, but add in one robot detective-become-assassin and his profit-orientated handler (actually a computer). It’s full of references and hat-tips to Chandler’s era, and though it doesn’t have Chandler’s flair with words (few people do), it’s well written and goes down easy. It’s also reasonably clear of sexism, racism, and Chandler’s other such vices.
This story in particular involves Raymond getting tangled up in the antics of various criminal cartels, and all that sort of thing implies. Bullets and assumptions fly, garnering a possibility of some grudges being held against Raymond and Ada, his handler — and we end the story with Ada and Raymond in a pretty good position. All ready for the next novel, since this is marked as 1.5 in the series on Goodreads?
In any case, this is readable whether or not you’ve read Made to Kill and the short story Brisk Money, but it is worth reading those for extra background and a better understanding of Raymond, his capabilities, and his limitations. The ARC version I read bundled in Brisk Money, so you could comfortable skip to that and read it first before going back to read Standard Hollywood Depravity.
Meanwhile, I never seem to have reviewed Brisk Money itself, and the release of this novella seems like a prime opportunity to do so — so watch out for that review coming sometime soon as well.
Brother’s Ruin, Emma Newman
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 14th March 2017
Brother’s Ruin is another of the Tor.com novella series, though this one is very obviously just the beginning of a series of novellas, rather than standing alone (as, for example, Passing Strange does). So it mostly seems to function as a way of setting up the world: there is a story here as well, but more important is the alternate reality being created. It’s sort of vaguely Victorian, but with magic as a relatively commonplace event, and some steampunky elements. There’s some politics around magic and its practitioners that is obviously going to become more important as the novellas go on.
The main character, Charlotte, is pretty cool. She’s part of a family and has a fiancé, but she also earns her own money through illustration work and hides her own strong magic. She’s prepared to take risks to take care of her family, and she’s fine with supporting them from her own funds. She has her weaknesses — a pretty face, apparently, as well as her strong and almost uncontrollable magic — but she also has great strengths.
The reason I’m not rating this more highly is that it does feel very much like an introduction, and it only grazes the surface of the male character who is presumably going to become a much bigger part of Charlotte’s life. I don’t know what motivates him and why he’s interested, and nor do I understand why Charlotte finds him so fascinating. The scenes where she’s suddenly finding him amazingly attractive don’t quite ring true to me, given her otherwise practical nature.
There’s a lot of potential here, but I’m not 100% sold — yet.