Tag: book reviews


Review – The True Queen

Posted 23 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The True Queen by Zen ChoThe True Queen, Zen Cho

The True Queen is a not-quite-direct follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown. It’s set in the same world, and some of the same characters play a part, but for the most part the main character is Muna. Muna doesn’t remember her past before she and her sister were found on the shore of Janda Baik, and she doesn’t seem to have any magic (while her sister Sakti possesses a surfeit of it), but she nonetheless finds herself entangled when Sakti is abducted into Fairyland, a rescue must be made to get Damerell back after something goes rather wrong for Rollo, and all the while she’s staying in England at Prunella Wythe’s school for female practitioners of thaumaturgy.

Thinking about it now, I think it wasn’t as strong as the first book, particularly because Muna isn’t nearly as strong a character as Prunella. It was certainly entertaining while I read it, but even just a couple of weeks later some of the details have gone all thin for me. I did enjoy the f/f romance aspect, though I confess it felt a little out of nowhere, but really my strongest feelings were about the relationship between Rollo and Damerell! Also, the whole section that involved Georgiana Without Ruth, because she’s awesome.

The ending sort of didn’t surprise me, and everything tied up neatly; I was less invested in the final get-togethers than I was in Sorcerer to the Crown… All in all, it just doesn’t seem to have worked quite as well for me, though it’s still an entertaining read.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – The Calculating Stars

Posted 22 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette KowalThe Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal

I was so eager to read this when it came out, and then somehow it slipped further and further down the pile. Finally, with Hugo voting coming up, it was time! And I devoured it in a day. The Calculating Stars is an alternate history wherein, after a meteorite large enough to wipe out most of the East Coast of the US strikes, the space program is dramatically accelerated, with one chief aim: a colony on the Moon. It’s an extinction-level disaster, with a good chance of leading to the world’s oceans boiling, and in the center of this is Elma York. She survives the initial strike, along with her husband, and returns to her work as a computer, easily winning her way into working for the space program. But she has a bigger dream: she was a WASP pilot, and she wants to become an astronaut.

I love the way that throughout this book, her relationship with her husband is rock solid. He seems like a pretty great guy, and between them they make a formidable team — even when sometimes (like Kowal’s other protagonists in the Glamourist Histories) they have to work on their relationship. (Actually, there’s something a little idealised about Kowal’s leading couples, to me, and it’s partly because they always seem to work through their issues. It’s lovely! There needs to be more of it in fiction! But it feels weirdly unexpected.) I also love that they’re Jewish, because that shapes some of their responses to people, and that Elma suffers from fairly intense anxiety, because a) representation and b) it makes her relatable. And I do enjoy the way that Elma is repeatedly forced to confront that there are people just as good as her being blocked from the space program because they’re black, and the way she uncomfortably and conflictedly tries to deal with it.

I also really enjoyed the slight nuances about a character who is pretty unlikeable: Parker. He’s a sexist pain in the butt, and yet he has his moments where you see the humanity in him. I was surprisingly invested in wanting to know what happened to him, and between him and Elma. There’s also Betty, who is in some ways unlikeable and yet you can also see why she does what she does.

Finally, let’s talk about the magic system. People being able to compute those numbers in their head? Ha! Totally unrealistic… (Note: this is a joke. I do not actually think it is magic. It is possible, it just feels magical to me.)

It’s amazing how fast 400 pages can whip by: there was something joyous about Elma’s achievements and this whole story, as well as more quietly in her relationship with her husband, and I’m very much looking forward to where the second book goes. I’m not entirely sure about giving this five stars, but then the rate I whipped through it speaks for itself. I don’t think I have any genuine quibbles, so… there we go.

Rating: 5/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – The Dinosaurs Rediscovered

Posted 21 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

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

Tags: , , ,

Divider

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

Tags: , , ,

Divider

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

Tags: , , ,

Divider

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

Tags: , , ,

Divider

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

Tags: , , ,

Divider

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

Tags: , , ,

Divider

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

Tags: , ,

Divider

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

Tags: , , ,

Divider