Review – Tropic of Serpents

Posted 15 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Tropic of Serpents by Marie BrennanTropic of Serpents, Marie Brennan

When I was first reading the series, this is the book that really got me hooked. Isabella’s weathered the loss of her husband, and has bounced back by throwing herself into further research, planning to discover more about dragons. She and Thomas Wilker — and the new character Natalie Oscott — are heading to Bayembe, a stark contrast from their time in cold Vsytrana. Over the course of this book they chase dragons across the savannah and through a swamp. It’s hard to say whether the most interesting aspects of these books are the dragons, and the portrayal of Isabella’s scientific endeavours surrounding them, or the cultures Isabella comes into contact with… or the political situations she manages to muddy. Really, I suppose, it’s the fact that there is so much there, and that it portrays scientific endeavours as embedded into everything else.

It’s obviously intentional that these books are very much like a Victorian explorer reporting back on native societies around the world, but it can be a bit discomforting at times; Isabella is being a bit of a tourist in that way, for all that she tries to be respectful of the cultures she meets. There’s condescension in the way she agrees to go along with a rite or accept a taboo just to further her eventual goal, and while I think Brennan tries to be respectful of the history, and have Isabella point up the issues in hindsight, it can still be rather uncomfortably too much like an endorsement of that kind of exploration and colonialism. These books repeatedly engage with that, sometimes with success, and sometimes… well, sometimes it doesn’t quite work for me, anyway.

That said, I’m not sure you can make an analogue of this era of exploration without also having to deal with the racial and colonial issues that came with it. Any character in this situation is bound to raise this kind of discomfort, and it would be very difficult to ameliorate it entirely, I think. History is full of problematic attitudes, and these books address a lot of them, like the struggle for women and working-class men to be treated as scientists. It succeeds in many ways!

Whatever else it is, it is definitely entertaining, and it’s fascinating to see the way Brennan has woven dragons into the history and the fabric of the societies Isabella comes into contact with, in greater and lesser ways. I enjoy Natalie as a character a lot — she’s no less driven than Isabella to break the mould, though her interests are different — and this is also the book in which I fell for Tom Wilker as a character. I adore the relationship between Tom and Isabella, and the way they slowly learn to respect and rely on each other.

This book contains one of the best examples of Isabella’s “deranged practicality”, and I refuse to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet, but it’s a pretty amazing demonstration of how nuts she is and why she is awesome.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Brainstorm

Posted 14 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Brainstorm: Detective Stories from the World of Neurology, Suzanne O’Sullivan

This was somewhat of an impulse buy, because I do love neurology and the weird ways our brains work. I hadn’t clocked that it was all about cases of epilepsy and suspected epilepsy, but that doesn’t make it any the less interesting. It’s astounding the things that epilepsy can do — and as one or two of the cases discussed show, it’s amazing what our brains can do to themselves without any help at all from random electrical pulses. Our brains are so interconnected and so versatile, I don’t understand how anyone can fail to be fascinated by the way brains work and the way brains fail.

So, needless to say, I enjoyed this a great deal; I also found myself rather emotional about some of the stories, because O’Sullivan has certainly picked some deeply affecting ones. They don’t always show her in the best light — some of them show her inexperienced, some of them show her intuition being wrong — but that makes the storytelling better (if that’s a thing that matters to you), because you also get to see how a doctor’s interpretations and misinterpretations can shape a case.

They’re good stories, and they’re very good examples of how the brain works; perhaps not surprising, if you’re already into neurology, but definitely illustrative. If you’d rather the science with no human interest, this won’t be the book for you. It’d be a bit shallow if you weren’t interested in hearing about the people as well as the disease.

(Really, for me, if my mother had really wanted me to be a doctor, she could’ve achieved it with a stack of books like this one. That’s not a hint, Mum; I think it’s a bit late by this point. Anyway, the point is that the human interest alongside the illustrations of how the brain work really hit the spot for me — I wish I could do this, and help people like this.)

Rating: 3/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 13 July, 2019 by Nikki in General / 1 Comment

Good morning, folks! It’s Saturday again. How’s everyone doing? I’ve had a quiet week, with lots of reading, yay!

Books acquired:

And I’ve already got stuck in!

Books read this week:

Cover of The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton Cover of The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal Cover of Necessity by Jo Walton Cover of Magic Strikes by Ilona Andrews

Cover of Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Reviews posted this week:

The Just City, by Jo Walton. A thought experiment about actually enacting a thought experiment, with help from a little time travel. I do so enjoy Simmea’s narration. 4/5 stars
Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee. Lovely ending to a rather mind-bending series. I’m sure I won’t understand it all unless I reread it. 4/5 stars
Lifelode, by Jo Walton. A domestic fantasy with a curious structure/narration, and a whole lot to enjoy. Made me think mostly about what my lifelode is… 5/5 stars
Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells. Pooossibly my favourite in the series because of ART. Robots watching drama together just kinda warms the cockles of my heart. 4/5 stars
The Border Keeper, by Kerstin Hall. This one didn’t quite work for me. Some beautiful images, but it felt all disconnected and discombobulated to me! 2/5 stars

Other posts:

WWW Wednesday. The usual weekly update about what I’m reading, what I’ve just read, and what I might read next.

Out and about:

NEAT science: ‘Cancer-killing cold virus.’ By request, an explanation of how an experimental new treatment for bladder cancer might work.

So how’re you doing? Anything delicious on your reading pile? Share, share!

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Review – The Border Keeper

Posted 12 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Border Keeper by Kerstin HallThe Border Keeper, Kerstin Hall

Received to review via Netgalley

The Border Keeper lives on the border of the land of the dead, mostly alone, mostly untroubled by people and not taking any trouble about them. Vasethe comes to her house and, by virtue of mostly just being annoying enough to keep her attention, eventually goes inside and has the Border Keeper, a woman he calls Eris, take him into the lands of the dead. There’s a lot of beauty in this book, and grotesquerie as well, in the descriptions of their journey through Mkalis. There are some interesting worlds that they pass through, with their own very specific rules, and lots of fascinating stuff going on… But.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid this book didn’t really work for me. I felt like I never quite knew where it was going, and like I was missing a lot of cues. Maybe I was! Maybe the cues were there and I just wasn’t catching hold of them; it’s entirely likely. But for me it just never caught hold, and I read the whole thing feeling as if I was skimming off the surface instead of getting involved and really getting interested. It’s not that the rules of the story made no sense — I think it’s intentionally prone to taking a left turn and leaving you going, ‘wait, what now?’ But that didn’t work for me, in this instance. It didn’t come together for me at all.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Artificial Condition

Posted 11 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Artificial Condition by Martha WellsArtificial Condition, Martha Wells

Artificial Condition might be my favourite book of the quartet so far on this reread (though I haven’t read the last book yet). It features ART, Asshole Research Transport (so-called by Murderbot), and the interactions between the two are just a delight. Murderbot stows away on ART, only to find that the intelligence controlling the ship is far greater than usual, and very curious about Murderbot, its motives, and where its going. With ART’s help, Murderbot disguises itself to look a little more human, and even ends up with a human job as a security consultant, which it naturally takes very seriously. Protecting humans, after all, seems to come naturally — as long as Murderbot can snark about them being idiots to itself in private, at least.

Really, my favourite parts are the way ART and Murderbot interact when they’re alone, the tentative trust between them, and of course the fact that they watch Netflix and pretend not to have feelings about it. The part where Murderbot is actually figuring out its past and helping the humans from the team it works as a security consultant for is a bit secondary, though ART does add commentary and help throughout.

I really do hope we see more of ART (and understand some of the mysteries around ART, because really, why is that AI so independent and well armed?). I do enjoy the episodic nature of these novellas, but I’m also looking forward to the idea of an actual Murderbot novel with more room in it to roll around in.

Rating: 4/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 10 July, 2019 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts.

What are you currently reading?

I’m tearing through books right now, so that question is a bit of a toughie. Technically, I’ve just started on Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland, so we’ll say it’s that one. I’m a little nonplussed as to why black girls specifically would be used to fight zombies — the notion of black people in general being used to fight zombies in this time period because their lives are considered worthless is quite obvious, but the school for black girls specifically… why? Hopefully that will somewhat get explained, because right now it feels odd.

Cover of Magic Strikes by Ilona AndrewsWhat have you recently finished reading?

I just finished rereading Magic Strikes, which is mostly just a lot of fun. Partially because it’s a reread and I knew what the stakes were and how things turn out, sure, but also because the relationship between Kate and Curran sparkles. I’m not sure yet whether I’m going to start counting these books as romance as well, now Kate and Curran’s courtship is really off the ground. Really, it feels… not incidental, because it is key to their characters and to later events, but it doesn’t feel more like romance than any of the other genre books I read. I feel like the paranormal romance stamp got applied to this series because they eventually get together, and it just can’t shake it.

Still, I gotta decide soon when I made its motif for my blanket. Any thoughts, folks?

Cover of The Cruel Prince by Holly BlackWhat will you be reading next?

Most likely it will be something from my July TBR, which I have been tearing through. I think either The Cruel Prince or The Fated Sky are likely to be up next, because I’d like to keep up my book-a-day streak, and I think I can finish those in a day each. Record of a Spaceborn Few, possibly.

But mostly, as always, we’ll see where my fancy takes me.

What are you currently reading?

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Review – Lifelode

Posted 9 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Lifelode by Jo WaltonLifelode, Jo Walton

Lifelode is a mostly domestic fantasy: the central character (for the most part) is Taveth, a woman whose lifelode (chosen purpose in life would be a simple way of “translating” that) is taking care of the home. There are lifechanging things for the characters of the book, but Taveth is usually making the bread or washing the clothes or cleaning out the bedrooms when it happens. When there’s an attacking force, she’s the one who worries about the supplies; as people storm the gates, she’s making stew and figuring out what will keep the children happy.

Arguably the other central characters are Hanethe and Jankin, but they aren’t really the emotional heart of the story: they’re the movement that stirs the whole pond, but Taveth is the core of it all, what holds it together. It’s tempting to talk about the plot and say too much about the way Hanethe is being pursued, the cause of the problems that she stirs up, but really the key to this book is the domesticity and also — to me, at least — that concept of a lifelode. Something that you not only intend to spend your life doing, but which to me gives you more life. You can pour everything you have into doing it, and it repays you tenfold.

When I first read this, I was 21, and I don’t think the idea resonated with me so much. I would’ve been towards the end of my first degree, and planning a fairly straightforward track through academia. At 29, with another two degrees behind me and eagerly looking forward to the next, it’s clear English Literature was not my lifelode, but just a part of it. Really, what gives me joy and feels like my real work is finding out more, about all kinds of things. Not just with the degrees, but with everything I read and do and talk about. It’s such a powerful concept, and probably not enough of us in this world think about finding our lifelode and making it work — and I’m glad I picked this book up again now and got to have a think about that, and about what I’m willing to do to keep pushing through and doing what I love.

There are also other lovely things about this book — the domestic detail, the casual queerness (including asexuality), and yes, the magic and the actual plot, and the structure of the narrative. But really this time what stuck with me and resonated with me was that idea of a lifelode. I’m really very curious as to why I never seem to have thought about it the first time I read it, but then, I know I hadn’t figured out yet that there was no straight track through to an obvious career that was going to satisfy me!

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Revanant Gun

Posted 8 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha LeeRevenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee

I don’t know how to review this book! The first thing to say is that it’s a beautiful conclusion to some of the character arcs and questions, while leaving a big wide universe full of questions, and a history full of things to unpick as well. I’m sure I won’t understand everything until I read it again, and I could probably benefit from reading it again right away. So many things answered, so many new questions… gah!

It’s hard to give a precis of this book since it’s so strongly following the first two, so I won’t try. I definitely don’t recommend it as any kind of starting point: I think that would be a miserable idea, and unnecessarily annoying to anyone who could just pick up Ninefox Gambit and start there. It continues to make me feel in ways I don’t expect, to surprise me in how things work out while making them feel perfectly in tune, and it continues to have dozens of small moments that delight me — witness my expression when it mentions that Mikodez crochets, for instance.

It’s also delightfully queer, both in gender roles and in sexual roles, and it’s a delight that it’s so brazen about that. There are no apologies.

I enjoyed it greatly, and if it isn’t my vote for Best Novel in the Hugos I’ll be surprised; I will also give this my vote for Best Series. It’s not that it has no flaws, but if I tried to name them I couldn’t right now; I enjoyed it fully, and am glad I read it.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Just City

Posted 7 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Just City by Jo WaltonThe Just City, Jo Walton

This whole novel is a bit of a thought experiment about people enacting a thought experiment: what would happen if people travelled through time to make Plato’s thought experiment of the Republic real, with the help of the Greek goddess Athene, the participation of her brother Apollo, and the addition of robots to do the hard work. There are multiple points of view: Maia, one of the readers of The Republic who comes to the city to found it; Simmea, one of the 10-year-olds recruited to be the first generation raised in the Republic; and Pytheas, the god Apollo incarnate in human form as another of those children. Those three perspectives together give us the City, from start to… well. The end of the book.

It’s really fascinating reading about the arguments for setting up the Republic, the way the Masters (Maia’s generation) interact and react to each other — because of course, very few people read The Republic and think that Plato’s suggestions should be implemented exactly as he says, but most people disagree on what things are right. And Walton has fun with who might plausibly be part of setting up the Republic: Pico della Mirandola, Ficino, Lucrezia Borgia… along with other people real and fictional.

(It’s especially fun going back to this after reading Lent, and seeing two different…ish takes on Pico!)

It’s also fascinating following Simmea and Pytheas, seeing the way they pursue excellence not only for themselves but for each other. If there’s an ideal love affair in fiction, this might be it: while there are physical elements to their relationship (more implied in the second book than actually seen here), that’s not the basis of their love for each other, and they’re never static. Right to the end, they’re always pushing at each other, demanding excellence of one another, and it’s lovely.

And then of course there’s Sokrates, brought into the City in its fifth year. With him comes change: greater freedom for Simmea and others like her who are deemed to be ‘golds’, or budding philosophers, and greater questioning of what Plato meant, what will work, and of almost every assumption the Republic has been founded on. I’d have loved to see more of Crocus and the other robots and their developing intelligence and sense of self.

Really, I could delve into several different aspects of The Just City, have it all in much greater detail, and be pretty happy.

Before writing this review, I deliberately refused to look back at what I thought when I first read it until I finished writing this. It’s… a quite different review, from a different me, and probably also worth reading; I still agree with it, but I experienced the book differently this time!

Rating: 4/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 6 July, 2019 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

Good morning, folks! It’s been a quiet week on most fronts, but I’ve done a fair bit of reading. What’s more, I had a greedily-awaited book come in months ahead of schedule, since I just got an e-ARC ooooof…:

I am very excited!

Books read this week:

Cover of The Bitter Twins by Jen Williams Cover of Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells Cover of Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

Cover of Forces of Nature by Brian Cox Cover of The Just City by Jo Walton Cover of Lifelode by Jo Walton

Reviews posted this week:

The Afterward, by E.K. Johnston. An enjoyably fluffy fantasy romance about what happens after an evil god fails to take over the world. 4/5 stars
A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan. A beloved favourite and a timely reread. This time I couldn’t help but appreciate the science the most. 5/5 stars
Extraordinary Insects, by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson. Insects might be extraordinary, but this book wasn’t. Maybe a good introduction? 2/5 stars
The Ninth Rain, by Jen Williams. A deeply satisfying fantasy world, with some fun characters to boot. 4/5 stars

Other posts:

A July TBR. Here I go, possibly biting off more than I can chew. It’s going well so far, though.
WWW Wednesday. The usual update!

Out and about:

NEAT science: ‘NEAT RNA.‘ Yes, I found that there’s an RNA called NEAT1, and I had to write about it, because… well, what it does really is neat.

So what’s everyone else been up to? Good reading week? Anything enchanting on your pile?

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