Tag: book reviews


Review – Lent

Posted 6 August, 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 5 August, 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 4 August, 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 2 August, 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 1 August, 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 30 July, 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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Review – Necessity

Posted 29 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Necessity by Jo WaltonNecessity, Jo Walton

It took me far too long to get round to reading this, but I’m glad I did so after just now having reread the first and second book. I think it would’ve been rather odd to jump back in without preparation: by this point, there are so many names and things to remember, not to mention following which city believes what and who is related to whom exactly. It’s definitely not a good book to start with, but I never do think that about series — I find it so weird when people jump in at the middle! I could have done with a family tree by this point, even having read the other books so recently; that might have helped me keep everything straight!

In any case, Necessity takes place on the new planet Plato, just after Pytheas — Apollo incarnate — has finally died, leaving behind a whole tribe of descendants. One of his descendants is a point of view character, but we also get Apollo himself, Crocus (the Worker who first became sentient!) and a Silver-ranked member of the city, Jason, who is rather in love with one of Apollo’s grandchildren. Oh, and the planet has just been conquered by the first other humans to venture out that far from Earth the conventional way.

Most of the story is taken up with chasing Athene through time, and it turns out that she did have another reason for setting up the Republic. There’s also a new god — an alien god — and the inclusion of alien characters, the Saeli. In other words, there’s magic, tech, philosophy, romance, aliens, spaceships, prophecies, gods, and more or less everything else you can think of, in a nice big melting pot.

I’ll admit that this trilogy hasn’t been my favourite of Jo’s works; I did love The Just City, but The Philosopher Kings didn’t work as well for me. I’m still not entirely sure what I think of this book, though I think it finishes out exploring some of themes of the whole trilogy beautifully. And I read it in a day, almost without pausing; Jo’s prose is always so clear and leads you on effortlessly from page to chapter to oops I finished the whole book in a day. So though it’s not my favourite, I have to say I admire it — I wasn’t sure how things could pull together, and not go sprawling off into infinity, but this does pull it off. It’s a satisfying end, and there’s so much more I could talk about!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Storm of Locusts

Posted 28 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Storm of Locusts by Rebecca RoanhorseStorm of Locusts, Rebecca Roanhorse

After the events of Trail of Lightning, Kai’s back, but he hasn’t been to see Maggie. Maggie hasn’t entirely been idle, helping out the Thirsty Boys, and it’s when she’s with them helping out that she finds herself saddled with a new charge… and almost immediately afterwards, with the news that Kai’s been kidnapped. The two incidents turn out to be linked, of course, and it’s off on another journey to figure out what’s going on, maybe save Kai, and kick some ass along the way.

My feelings about this book are much the same as the first: I really appreciate the setting, and the fact that the background mythology is somewhat out of the ordinary. It’s certainly a quick read, and short of feeling that sometimes the plot requires Maggie to be hit with an idiot stick, I enjoy it. It doesn’t stand out for me from the urban fantasy crowd, though; in the sense of the tone and style and overall plot arc, it feels fairly typical. Maggie and Kate Daniels are not a world apart by any means.

I’m not uninterested in future books in this world, but I’m not dying to get my hands on them right now, either. (I mean, good, because there are no other published books in the series, but you know what I mean.) I enjoy them, but it doesn’t feel as fresh as I’d like. It doesn’t have to — I’m not saying Roanhorse has to come up with something amazingly new and fresh in terms of plot, just because she’s using something off the beaten path for the setting; it’s perfectly fun as it is! But for me, I’d have liked to go a bit further afield.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Voyage of the Basilisk

Posted 26 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie BrennanThe Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan

In this installment of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, Isabella and Tom are heading on a voyage around the world in search of dragons, in hopes of shaking up the way dragons are categorised and understanding how the species relate to each other. This gives us a whole bunch of new characters, including a somewhat older Jacob (the son) who is now actively a part of Isabella’s life, and Suhail, an archaeologist.

The first time I read this, apparently, I actually wanted Isabella to end up marrying Tom Wilker. Admittedly, now I know what happens in the later books, but this time I found myself focusing on the platonic relationship between them — I adore the way they depend on each other, and the way they’re inextricably part of one another’s lives through everything they’ve been through together and everything they believe. There’s no way Tom isn’t necessary to Isabella, and vice versa, and it’s lovely.

It’s also fascinating to continue seeing the scientific process played out in fiction: Isabella makes mistakes based on theorising ahead of having all the data and must correct herself, and it’s a) so typical that it affects her career because she’s a woman and has to be twice as good, and b) so lovely to see in fiction someone having to change their mind, instead of being a genius right off the bat. Because science needs that, science needs people who can recognise when they are wrong and correct themselves, because the aim is not personal aggrandisement but knowledge. And there, that’s another of the reasons why Isabella is just the best.

It’s also enjoyable to see more pieces falling into place, and having Suhail’s skill as an archaeologist beginning to add things to the picture. I had no idea where it was going, the first time, and yet now it’s obvious. It’s just so well put together!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Spinning Silver

Posted 25 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Spinning Silver by Naomi NovikSpinning Silver, Naomi Novik

I did love Uprooted, and there was something so solidly satisfying about it, so I was eager to give Spinning Silver a try when I could. I was a bit surprised, halfway through, why I was seeing a couple of reviews saying that it was a bit too like Uprooted, but having finished it I can totally see the point. There’s something in the shape of the story, and in the type of the reveal, that makes it very like Uprooted. That’s not to say it’s not satisfying, but unfortunately it’s one of the weaker aspects of Uprooted to me that is duplicated here in Spinning Silver

In any case, the story: Miryem’s father is a moneylender, but a fairly useless one. She takes over from him, improving the prosperity of her family to no end, until the point where she boldly boasts that she can turn silver into gold. Naturally, the wrong people hear that and the Staryk king comes to demand she prove herself. The reward for success is ultimately to marry him and leave for his kingdom — a fate Miryem’s not so sure she wants for herself. Alongside Miryem, there are other protagonists: Wanda, a poor girl from the same village; Irina, a girl who might just (through her father’s machinations) become a princess… and a number of other POV characters, for some reason.

Mostly, it was just dragged out too much, with too many voices for the narration — who all sounded a little too alike. They’re not demarcated well on the page either, which doesn’t help. You can be reading for half a page before you realise there’s no way it can be Wanda talking.

There are definitely things to like about this, and the plot itself — and the cleverness of the fairytale retellings (because there’s more than one going on) — is definitely a draw. But it got a little bit too long, a little bit tedious, a little too bogged down in detail. And, like I said, there was something about the shape of the story which was very like Uprooted.

I enjoyed it well enough, but it certainly won’t get my Hugo vote.

Rating: 3/5

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