Category: Reviews


Review – The Dinosaurs Rediscovered

Posted 21 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Dinosaurs Rediscovered by Michael J. BentonThe Dinosaurs Rediscovered, Michael J. Benton

If you have a keen interest in dinosaurs, it’s most likely this “rediscovery” will hold no surprises for you, though it’s still fun as a synthesis of recent knowledge and understanding about dinosaurs. It’s also a beautiful object, with colour reproductions of dinosaurs and our best understanding of what they looked like, and other helpful illustrations.

There’s not much to say about it, really, beyond that: it provides good explanations of how we know what we know, edges toward the speculative at times, and generally is a paean to science and the way we are beginning to be able to test hypotheses that just had to kind of stand.

(One example being, of course, that we now know what colour some dinosaurs were, due to examination of the shapes and types of cells in their remains.)

Entertaining, and possibly worth keeping around just to be a reference work on dinosaurs, but not surprising. Unless you’re about ten years behind and need an update, in which case I’m sure it serves admirably!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Of Noble Family

Posted 19 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette KowalOf Noble Family, Mary Robinette Kowal

I can’t believe it took me so long to get to this book, gah. Well, apart from the fact that last I checked it wasn’t published in the UK, unlike the rest of the series. In any case, this wraps things up a bit for the Vincents, bringing to an end the long thread through the books: at the start of the book, they get the news that Vincent’s father is dead, and they’re asked to go and sort out his estate in the West Indies. They decide to go, of course, for a sense of closure as much as anything else.

Naturally, things don’t turn out the way they expected, and they find themselves trapped on the estate and working once more to untangle the mess Vincent’s father created for them without incriminating themselves or doing any harm. It would be saying too much to go into much detail here, but I love the way that their marriage is still work — they still need to negotiate, to know when to reach out and when to give space — and that they still do the work. There are some other fascinating characters introduced as well… and of course, since it’s set in the West Indies in that particular time period, there are issues with people of colour and with slaves, and with the kinds of life they lead.

As you’d expect, Jane and Vincent are generally ideal white people, giving credit to the people of colour around them, instantly recognising personhood, respecting them, etc, etc. It’s difficult to know, as a white person and as someone who enjoys these characters and wants them to be good people, how well Kowal has walked that line, so I won’t try to comment.

I did find the exploration of Vincent’s trauma around his father quite well done; other reviews seem to expect that abuse is a thing you can walk away from, and then you’ll see it clearly and understand it and cut all your ties with it immediately. That’s not something I’ve ever seen anyone be able to do, though I’m sure there are people who have. Particularly in the case where someone has been raised by an abuser, it can be so difficult not to have ties with that person — moments when things weren’t so bad, good things that happened, etc. I think the push and pull here — while frustrating in a way to read, because from outside (whether as a reader or an observer of a real situation) it’s so obvious, it’s also really true to what actually happens.

I don’t love this book, but I think it’s well done, and a worthy ending to the series.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Philosopher Kings

Posted 18 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Philosopher Kings by Jo WaltonThe Philosopher Kings, Jo Walton

This book follows The Just City, and develops on some of its themes. After the Last Debate, in which Sokrates defeated Athene, the Just City fractures: some left with Kebes, while others splinter off to form other cities following other principles. Athenia tries to follow Plato’s Republic even more strictly, while Sokratea questions everything; other cities exclude women, focus on numerology, mingle in Christian principles… I was about to say that isn’t really the heart of the book, but maybe it is in the sense that this book is so full of people trying to implement a just city in different ways, all more or less just, all flawed, but all trying.

In the emotional sense, however, the heart of the book is Pytheas, after Simmea’s death in a stupid art raid. Pytheas intends vengeance, absolutely sure it must have been Kebes’ fault, and into this Ficino, Maia, Arete (Simmea and Pytheas’ daughter) and a number of others from the Remnant City are dragged, going off on a voyage of exploration. They find other people, outside Kallisti, all trying to create just cities as well — with differing ideals, different ways of trying to achieve it, but all trying.

The most horrible and possibly unnecessary part of the book is when Pytheas takes vengeance on Kebes; I really didn’t like it, and I’m not sure it worked for me. The exploration of the other characters, particularly Simmea and Pytheas’ children, works for me, but that one scene is a sour note. Of course, it’s not meant to be fun to read, but still. I wanted Pytheas to be better, sooner, and I’m not sure he ever quite understood what Simmea wanted when it came to Kebes.

And then of course there’s the end of the book. I’m intrigued to see what happens in Necessity, and who the narrators are; I’m hoping there’s not too much of Ikaros/Pico della Mirandola, because I’m not a huge fan of him. (I’m more of a fan in Lent, but that’s quite different.) I do enjoy his struggle to understand what happened with Maia and the slow degrees by which he reaches a conclusion, but… gah.

In any case, I love this less than The Just City — I miss Simmea, and I don’t enjoy Pytheas’ character arc until the end — but I’m interested in where things are going for Necessity.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Rogue Protocol

Posted 16 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Rogue Protocol by Martha WellsRogue Protocol, Martha Wells

In Rogue Protocol, Murderbot figures out a way it can help Dr Mensah, though naturally while it gets to work on that it ends up entangled with — what else? — protecting a whole new group of humans, along with their pet robot, Miki. Murderbot has a lot of complicated feelings about the relationship between Miki and Abene, which is obviously a parallel to that between Murderbot and Dr Mensah.

This one didn’t really stick in my head very well before I reread it — I knew it was the one with Miki, of course, but to me it’s the least distinctive so far. It’s a bit like the second book over again, with a slightly less compelling companion/foil for Murderbot. It’s not bad, and of course it leads to Murderbot’s conclusion about what it needs to do at the end, but it doesn’t sparkle for me in quite the same way.

Very much looking forward to getting into the final act properly now, with everything fresh in my mind. Here goes…!

Rating: 3/5

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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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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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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 – Revenant 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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