Category: Reviews

Review – Dread Nation

Posted August 12, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Dread Nation, Justina Ireland

I can’t remember who I spoke to who thought this might be rather like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, just a sort of awkward shoehorning of zombies into a historical period in a fairly superficial way. That’s not how this comes across — I’d compare it more closely to Mira Grant’s Feed and sequels in terms of the way it’s built into how society works — and it does seem to me to reflect the era of history fairly well. Set after zombies rose during the American Civil War, this book follows the fortunes of Jane, a black girl who has been sent to a combat school in order to learn to kill zombies (along with all other non-white children of her age). No longer slaves, but definitely second class citizens, black people bear most of the burden of fighting zombies, leaving white people living in luxurious safety.

For the most part, anyway. Maybe things aren’t safe as they seem. But as soon as Jane starts to poke around into that even a little bit, she’s caught and carted off to a new settlement, a place that’s meant to be safe from zombies — safe because it’s guarded by a vast perimeter wall and the endless patrolling of people like Jane. Naturally, there’s all kinds of nastiness — in terms of race, class, and just plain horribleness — and a whole mystery into which Jane must dig.

I enjoyed her character on a superficial sort of level, though I found her somewhat contradictory. One minute she hates Katherine, another girl from the school, and the next she does her a favour with the thinnest of reasoning. (Tit for tat doesn’t work if you don’t like or trust the person covering your back if you cover theirs, especially if the stakes are rather different between the two of you.) Katherine’s the same, one minute despising Jane and the next relying on her. The interpersonal stuff just never quite adds up for me.

The setting works well, and I believe in the way Ireland has tweaked history and changed things up. What she changes makes sense, as far as I understand history, and the social consequences are all too easy to imagine. The story ticks along well, action following action rather than getting stuck — it certainly keeps the pages turning. In the end, though, I just wasn’t in love with it. It wasn’t bad, but nor do I feel any pressing need to read the sequel when it arrives.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Pandemic Century

Posted August 11, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Pandemic Century by Mark HonigsbaumThe Pandemic Century, Mark Honigsbaum

The Pandemic Century is a look at the last century or so of infectious disease outbreaks which picks up some illustrative examples in order to… well, the stated purpose is to discuss “panic, hysteria and hubris”, but I’m not sure that I ever felt there was a coherent argument going on here. There are a lot of interesting bits, mostly when he focuses on the investigation of what’s causing disease, or the social/political measures taken to ameliorate disease. I didn’t know a lot about, for example, the outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease, and Honigsbaum does break it down well and explain the historical context.

It’s just not clear exactly where he’s going with this. At one and the same time, he decries the panic around certain pandemics, while also showing that the response to many of them wasn’t fast enough. I suppose you can do that and be advocating ever-greater focus on detecting and understanding emerging infectious diseases, but it feels off. Is he correct that we still don’t always understand what we’re looking for? Yes. But… scientists are always working on improving this stuff; it’s not news that the unknown unknown is always going to be a risk. That doesn’t mean what we’re already doing is wrong.

On the level of pure prose, well, I mostly found it readable but there are choice bits like this: “If SARS was a calamity for Toronto, for Hong Kong it was a disaster.” Those are the same thing, Mark. Those are the same thing. One is not worse than the other, which is what that sentence construction requires.

It feels… to some extent, it feels like it parrots the understanding of other writers, without actually driving toward a particular conclusion of its own. And where those understandings conflict, we get that weird juxtaposition of “everyone is panicking too much” and “we’re not panicking enough because there are things we don’t know about yet”. There’s also a bit where Honigsbaum tries to present the understanding that human/animal interaction is a powerful vector for novel diseases as his own and new in some way, when it’s basically a parroting of David Quammen’s Spillover.

There’s nothing new here, ultimately, just some different illustrative examples. I found it enjoyable, and even informative when it came to facts about particular diseases, but there’s no stunning new insight.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Bitter Twins

Posted August 9, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Bitter Twins by Jen WilliamsThe Bitter Twins, Jen Williams

AAAH. Well, this book certainly did things to my heart. If people were hoping that the war beast pods at the end of the first book meant everything was going to be okay, then they were sorely mistaken (of course). Vostok is the only war-beast who has memories of her past lives, and the whole team are working badly together, finding it impossible to take orders and coordinate efforts. Vostok believes that the missing memories will provide that link, so Tor and Noon end up off on an adventure to find the Eborans who left to find where Ygseril originated, while Vintage, Bern and Aldasair hold down the fort.

And then there’s Hest, taken up by the Jure’lia at the end of the book, and finding her way on the corpse moon itself…

The revelations of this book have it feeling ever more like it’s really sci-fi at heart, which is a pretty cool turnaround. Vintage continues to be awesome, and Bern and Aldasair come into their own a little more as well. I adore the relationship that grows between Bern and Aldasair, the care they take of each other, and the way they work together. Of course, by the end of this book the whole group have come together more, through yet more heartstabbing events. And Hest, well. The less I say, the better, in terms of spoilers, but if you spent the first book peeking at her warily wondering what on earth she was going to do… it’s that again and more so.

Once again, there’s just so much to chew on, and it delighted me. I’m very much looking forward to reading the next book, the last of the trilogy.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – An Artificial Night

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

Cover of An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuireAn Artificial Night, Seanan McGuire

In An Artificial Night, Toby ends up confronting one of the Firstborn in order to save children — both mortal and fae children, snatched away to join Blind Michael’s Ride. I think in the previous books we’ve had a reference or two to him here or there, but now he comes out in full force, and full horror. Toby has to be a hero, of course, even when her Fetch arrives to say hi early in the book. As ever, she goes through the whole thing a couple of steps from being killed, and the reader lets it work because we love heroes.

I think this is the book that really got me into this series: it’s so clever, the way the mythology is used and added to, and there are so many great emotional notes that I shouldn’t name for fear of spoilering people.

I do still feel that for all that Toby suffers in this book, it’s lacking in teeth in one way: I never really felt that someone we love was at risk, even when Toby behaved recklessly. We know she’s going to be fine, and I feel like I’m always waiting to see her reckless behaviour really hurt the people around her — not just because they’re worrying about her, but because she’s really pulled someone else into trouble. In the first book, there was Dare, of course, but… that was the first book. It feels like the stakes should be raised, and yet this book is remarkably bloodless in that sense. The person who suffers is Toby — and it’s not that it means nothing, but I’m just expecting the way Toby behaves to get Quentin killed or something. By rights, she should’ve by now.

Despite that quibble, it’s a strong book in the way it uses the mythology and ratchets everything up to the ending, and I enjoy it a lot.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Lent

Posted August 6, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Lent by Jo WaltonLent, Jo Walton

This review might be a little spoilery, so if you want to go in totally blind, this is more than just a high level overview of the setup. Just as a warning!

Though I didn’t know much about Savonarola, I thought that even for Jo, making me like him might be too much of a task — and here he’s the main character! But it works: with the first section of the book, we’re introduced to Savonarola, his genuine piety and his earnest attempts to rid himself of his sins, to the point where the first return burns. It’s just a horrifying moment, this holy man who loved God finding himself plunging into Hell, and finding that all his life has been a kind of cosmic joke, because there is no forgiveness, and even his “god-given” skills of prophecy and banishing demons are actually due to his demonic powers.

And then it begins again. This was a weaker part of the book for me, because it’s hard to avoid the repetition of all the different lives while also making it clear how much of a grind it is. The different lives are interesting in themselves, and it’s fun getting to see other sides of the same characters, and every return is still awful. But the actual resolution comes both too fast and too slow — it felt half too easy and half like reading it was about to become a drag. It’s an awkward line to walk, and I do think the book does a good job with something that’s difficult to portray well.

The section of this that is historical fantasy is beautifully done, and making me like — or at least be fascinated by — Savonarola when I was predisposed not to was quite a feat. I feel like I’m still chewing this one over, in a good way, even if I ended it not quite sure how I felt exactly. If I rated solely based on the punch in the gut of the first return section, I’d give it five stars.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Superior

Posted August 5, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Superior: The Return of Race Science, Angela Saini

As a history of race science and an examination of what people have believed about race from a scientific(ish) perspective, Superior is a good book. It gives a good account of where some of the current beliefs come from, and the ups and downs of race science in the wider science community. She’s sharp on the fact that there are journals, people and most especially funds, like the Pioneer Fund, that are deliberately advancing a racist agenda, and they need to be scrutinised.

It doesn’t really engage directly with the science itself, though, which is where it falls down a bit for me: Saini’s opinion on the material is clear, but I feel that I’m being told I should rubbish the data without actually being shown the data. She presents the work of scientists like Cavalli-Sforza as being inherently racist — in this book, it’s racist to track gene frequencies in populations and how they change over time, because… because it just is, darn it! I don’t think we can hide from facts just because they can be used as ammunition by our opponents, and it’s simply a fact that the human race is not homogenous. You’ll find some genes at a high frequency in some populations, and a very low frequency in others. That’s just inevitable unless the human race has always been geographically contiguous, and breeding has been entirely random across the whole geography, with no local clumps of people who are related to one another.

Now, does that actually mean anything? For my money, no. It can tell us things about history and about the pressures on survival/reproduction in past populations, but it doesn’t predict anything much about people now. As Saini does point out, it’s entirely possible that there is more variation between me and another random white British person than between me and someone from Pakistan (as long as you don’t pick someone I’m actually closely related to). Populations of modern humans haven’t ever been isolated long enough to speciate, as proven by the fact that all populations on Earth can readily reproduce. We’re just not that different, though some populations have developed adaptations to local conditions (like pale skin, lactose tolerance in adulthood, and sickle cell anaemia).

But isn’t it better to argue that from data, look right at what the race scientists are saying and refute their claims, than pretend there are no differences between populations at all? I’m pretty confident their data is rubbish, from my own knowledge and experience, but I haven’t been given any of their data by this book. I’ve been told they’re bad and wrong people, I’ve been told what their motives are, but in most cases here I have no real idea of how they’re trying to prove their points or what they’re arguing, except that they’re wrong. Yes, you’ve told me! But why are they wrong? What proof have they presented?

As a history, then, I’m all on board — it’s valuable to see how race science developed, and the motives of the people using it — but don’t file it with the pop science books, because it doesn’t go there. I feel no better qualified to refute the claims of race science than I was before I read it. It makes a moral argument, but (with a couple of exceptions) not a scientific one. I’m still rating it quite highly, because I think it’s a valuable read, and it’s not the book’s fault it’s been marketed as science, but if you actually want to get your teeth into the science, you’ll need to start with the references and go look at the actual sources.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Traitor Baru Cormorant

Posted August 4, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth DickinsonThe Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson

I reread this because I wanted to read the sequel, just out recently. It’s stood alone for a few years now, and almost feels complete in itself: the story of a young girl, Baru Cormorant, who comes of age just as her home is taken over by the Empire of Masks. She vows vengeance in her heart, while on the surface she plays their game, and keeps on playing it as she becomes the Imperial Accountant for another land in transition. She keeps on playing the game as she gets embroiled in a rebellion, though she’s now compromised by her love — a love the Masquerade would kill her for having — for the Duchess Tain Hu.

The ending is one of those awful punches in the gut that you kind of know is coming, but which still feels awful and which you keep hoping you’re going to be able to dodge. It’s amazing that this book about an accountant manages to be riveting, really shows how money has the power. Sometimes I think it’s simplified a bit too much in this book: it’s a bit too easy to push this lever and get that reaction from the people of the country. But in principle, it works, and it’s a hell of a ride. There are so many characters to love even as you know nothing good is going to come of this.

It’s a shame that when I read the first 10% of the sequel, it didn’t work for me — something felt off, and people’s reviews encouraged me to put it down and let The Traitor Baru Cormorant stand alone. Luckily, in a bleak way, it does stand alone — and really, after everything that happens in this book, I don’t think there’s anything that would feel like enough of a payoff, or enough of a triumph. I kind of like the idea of treating it as a standalone, with that awful and hopeful ending.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Magic Strikes

Posted August 2, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Magic Strikes by Ilona AndrewsMagic Strikes, Ilona Andrews

In the third book in this series, Kate finds that Derek’s got himself into some kind of trouble, and it seemed to be tangled up with Saiman’s involvement with an underground arena that pits people against one another in gladiatorial bouts, with real blood, guts and death. It’s pretty obvious where that’s going to lead, and yes, there are some epic team-ups in the arena. There’s also progress on Kate’s non-courtship with Curran, and we get to see several characters old and new kicking butt in lovely ways.

(There’s also finger-gnawing anxiety for one particular character, and no shortage of high stakes, but that’s what you get with Ilona Andrews!)

As always, I find myself pondering the classification of these books as paranormal romance. I’m wary of saying a thing isn’t paranormal romance just because I like it… but I think that genre label is sometimes used to dismiss a book that (if written by a man) would be urban fantasy, and I’m also wary of that. The thing is, I really don’t see these books as being all that much about the romance, especially not the first two or three. The real driver of these books is Kate’s given purpose in life — to kill her biological father — and the way she struggles with it, sometimes willing to follow it, sometimes throwing caution to the wind. It’s a slow process of her letting people in, and that doesn’t mean Curran, primarily: it means having a best friend, it means having an adopted kid, it means trusting and protecting Derek…

I mean, there is romance there: there’s a lot of sexual tension between Kate and Curran, and their stupid banter is the reason these books crease me up with laughter. (A particular kind of laughter which my wife can pinpoint to meaning “ah, Nikki’s reading that series”, embarrassingly.) But I’d more readily categorise something as romance when the plot is all about driving the characters together and the end payoff is the relationship. The drive in romance is typically toward Happy Ever After — to the point where people get very upset if something is billed as romance and doesn’t have a Happy Ever After — but I think the real drive here is about Kate facing her demons, and the romance is just one part of that.

On the other hand, I am also totally ready for Kate and Curran to hurry up and get together already, so that’s probably a vote that it is romance — I don’t have opinions this strong about Peter Grant and Beverley Brook, after all. And there are things about the relationship that are pretty tropey: His Furry Majesty can be kind of creepy at times, in a way that can be very wish-fulfillment-y for some people. (Never mind that Kate usually flings that back in his face and things are rarely less than equal between them.)

The point is, there’s a lot going on in these books, and though romance and sex are a part of it, there’s also a very long game being played concerning Kate and her biological father, and that story is also pretty riveting. This book takes a step further in that direction… but just a step.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Tower of Thorns

Posted August 1, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Tower of Thorns by Juliet MarillierTower of Thorns, Juliet Marillier

After the events of Dreamer’s Pool, Blackthorn and Grim are both rather well-settled in Dalriada, respected by their community and particularly by Lady Flidais and Oran. Blackthorn is more or less resigned to staying put and awaiting the end of the term set on her by Conmael, and Grim… well, he’s happy, taking care of Blackthorn, doing odd jobs for local people. Still, when a woman called Lady Geiléis arrives pleading with Oran for help, it’s no surprise that Blackthorn is caught up in it. Where Blackthorn goes, Grim follows — even if one of Blackthorn’s long lost friends has also shown up on the scene, disrupting the dynamic between them.

I love the way this book is put together: the mystery, the slow revelation of the backstory through the story about Lily and Ash, and the way it also brings to light things about Grim and his past. There’s so much that goes on in this book in terms of development, even while there’s a kind of ‘monster of the week’ to provide the excuse. The backstory is heartbreaking, of course, and even though I saw the ending of it coming a mile off, it’s still powerful. Look away now until “spoilers endeth here” if you want to remain spoiler-free!

The betrayals were also fairly expected, but it still works — it’s so amazingly sad that Blackthorn found someone from her old life again, opened up to him, and was even beginning to hope that it might mean she could act against Mathuin… and was betrayed. Especially the way her love for her dead family is used against her by someone who knows very well how to use it. I found the reappearance of that character suspicious, and didn’t particularly like him, but I did find myself hoping it wouldn’t happen. Alas.

Blackthorn and Grim work beautifully together as a partnership, and I’m a little sad that it’s clearly trending towards a more conventional romance in the end. I was really hoping that they would remain as they are: non-sexual and non-romantic, but nonetheless deeply necessary to one another. Their bond read that way to me from the start, and I find it more interesting than a conventional romance. I’m hoping Marillier can stick the landing and make me happy about it, but I’m not convinced yet by a long shot. As ever, though, the relationship between Blackthorn and Grim is what holds the book together and makes everything work. It’d be interesting without them, but it wouldn’t be so full of feeling — for all that these are characters who don’t talk much about their feelings.

Still — and the spoilers endeth here — it’s an engrossing story, and I found myself tearing through it. Marillier evokes this half-fairytale Ireland well, and though I didn’t find myself surprised by the plot, it definitely gave me feelings!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Forces of Nature

Posted July 30, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Forces of Nature by Brian CoxForces of Nature, Brian Cox, Andrew Cohen

This book mostly poses a smaller question — how are snowflakes formed, how is a rainbow produced — and explains it by delving as deep into physics as possible. I imagine it was very effective as a TV series: at least twice, Cox describes how the series demonstrated a particular principle. It might even be that that would actually finally get some of these concepts through my head, though in book form I’m afraid I still struggle with relativity.

However, Cox does write extremely clearly, and I have to admit that one or two concepts finally slammed home in my head with a clunk after reading this. It’s enjoyable even when I don’t quite follow, and always readable. The section on the origin of life was obviously solidly in my wheelhouse, and Cox rattles through it all in a very pacy way. I can’t help but feel he’s happier once he gets back to physics, though.

Rating: 4/5

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