Tag: SF/F

Review – Head On

Posted August 6, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Head On by John ScalziHead On, John Scalzi

I don’t know why it took me so long to read this sequel to Lock In; I really liked the first book, and Scalzi’s work is always breezy in the best way. Unsurprisingly, when I got to this I steamed through it in two days (and I’d gladly have finished it in just one day, but bedtime is a thing that has to happen now I’m getting to the ripe old age of 31). Head On is set a year later than Lock In, and to some extent, I think you can read it without the previous book; it catches you up pretty well on the most pertinent information.

The investigation centres around the death of an athlete during a game in which people piloting robot bodies try to tear each other’s heads off. Something about what happens during play when one of them gets his head torn off causes him to die… and the league pull his details from the live feed, arousing the suspicions of Chris Shane. It gets worse: right before Vann and Shane go to interview him, one of the bigwigs apparently kills himself.

Curiouser and curiouser, as they say. Everything spirals from there, with Scalzi’s usual pace and wit. Some aspects of the mystery were obvious to me pretty early on, but it’s fun to watch Scalzi spin it out and complicate it before bringing it home.

It feels maybe a little less urgent than the first book, somehow, and I probably still prefer Lock In… but it’s a worthy sequel, and I’d love to spend more time following Shane and Vann around as Vann bulldozes her way through all opposition to solve the case.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Drowned Country

Posted August 4, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Drowned Country by Emily TeshDrowned Country, Emily Tesh

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 18th August 2020

Drowned Country is a follow-up to Silver in the Wood. Tobias Finch has left the wood, leaving Silver behind to… well, mostly mope, actually. It’s a bed of his own making and he has to lie in it: it’s slowly revealed that he managed to drive Tobias away, despite the deep affection between them. But he has a chance to make things right: Silver’s mother returns to the wood to get him, in order to help with a particular case of supernatural shenanigans she and Tobias are dealing with. There’s a vampire roaming around, a young girl is missing, and they require Silver’s particular talents.

It’s a little disorientating to start where we do, but it makes sense: it allows a slow unfolding of how exactly Silver could mess it up so badly. We’re also in Silver’s point of view now, and get to see Tobias from the outside; that’s rather enjoyable, and the close-third POV is livelier and a little more human in outlook than the close-third to Tobias from the previous book. It gives everything a little more depth, and a different colour; the light has changed in the forest, though the trees are all the same.

It’s not a simple adventure, and the relationship between Tobias and Silver isn’t the sole driver of the plot. Instead, we get a little glimpse of other things deep and strange.

And of course, you still have to love Silver’s mother.

The two novellas are very easy reading, and beautifully written. Very worth it!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Lock In

Posted August 3, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Lock In by John ScalziLock In, John Scalzi

My review is going to discuss a certain aspect of this book that you might like to make your mind up about yourself, in case you haven’t read it. It’s not a spoiler per se, but it’s something you might like to bring a fresh perspective to!

So that said, Lock In follows Chris Shane, a brand new FBI agent… who happens to have had “Haden’s syndrome” as a child, leaving Chris “locked in”. It’s pretty much how it sounds: some people who get Haden’s syndrome after a bout of a particular pandemic strain of flu find themselves unable to communicate, unable to move their own bodies, but awake and aware. Back when it happened, Chris was just a child… and all kinds of funding and research was thrown at the situation to render Hadens (people who were locked in) to communicate, and eventually to pilot robot bodies around and interact with society in much the same way as anyone else.

Chris joins the team that deals with Haden-related crimes. The first week… does not go smoothly. Therein lies the story of a conspiracy, some real nastiness, and some familiar-feeling events and issues.

The first time I read this book, I read Chris as male; I’ve since experienced the narrator as female, having listened to the Amber Benson version of the audio (there’s a version with Wil Wheaton as well, a clever gimmick). This time… I didn’t really bother either way? Having realised that it wasn’t part of the narrative, I read Shane as being more like myself… but only now I know about the gimmick. Before that, even I couldn’t help myself!

Anyway, Lock In is a pacy and entertaining mystery, with some thrilling action scenes, banter and clever quips, and moderately high stakes. The characters are likeable enough, inasfar as you’re meant to like Vann, and in retrospect it’s an obvious set-up for a series (now with a follow-up, Head On). I’ve read it before, so I steamed through it knowing all the twists and turns, and just kind of enjoying watching Scalzi experiment with this narrator and with a near-future world.

He missed some tricks with his portrayal of the pandemic and its aftermath, in some ways; it’s surprising that Haden’s is caused by an influenza and there’s no reference to vaccines or anything… and somehow that same strain of flu is still burning on, still causing the same disease, when someone who caught it as a child is old enough to be an FBI agent. Other stuff is pretty on point, and one can only hope the funding and government initiatives that help Hadens in the book are coming for “long COVID” and vaccine research. I won’t hold my breath; I think Scalzi’s vision was really optimistic here (though I suspect partly based on initiatives like the March of Dimes for polio).

Enjoyable, even on a reread when it couldn’t spring surprises on me and I’d read all Shane’s lines before.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Deep

Posted July 30, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Deep by Rivers SolomonThe Deep, Rivers Solomon

The Deep is a novella which the afterword describes as part of a game of “narrative telephone”, inspired by the work of clipping., an American hip-hop group. I know absolutely nothing about the music, to be honest, so The Deep was my introductory point.

The story follows Yetu, the Historian of the wajinru, a mermaid-like people who were born by magic from pregnant women tossed overboard from slave ships. They have few memories, leaving all of it to be held by their Historian — and Yetu is too fragile, losing her sense of self and drowning in the accumulated memories of her people. During an event in which she passes all the memories on to other wajinru, Yetu flees, hoping to be free of the burden…

There’s an awful lot going on in this novella, especially given it’s pretty short: coming to terms with the past, mental and chronic illness/neurodiversity, moving forward despite trauma, finding your place and your people… Obviously, some things are just taken for granted (there’s no real reason given for why the wajinru were born like that), and some bits of the story are painted in broad strokes. Yetu’s point of view is rather dark and hopeless at times, and she has suicidal impulses as well, so I definitely wouldn’t recommend this if you’re feeling unwell yourself. Nevertheless, it’s not an especially dark novella, somehow — it’s not about wallowing in past awfulness, despite the provocative idea of a human-like people being born from the corpses of pregnant slaves. It could be a lot darker than it is, but actually it finds a way to shine a light.

I enjoyed the character of Yetu in some ways — her determination to make space for herself — and in other ways she frustrated me so much. She just… runs away, leaving her people in the torment she’s fleeing, and that’s not really something I can relate to. The whole bit flopping around in the tide pool was extra frustrating. Like, of course she needed a period of healing, but… gah, the self-pity. I did like her matter-of-fact conversations with Oori, at the same time.

Overall, I found it beautifully written, and the structure works well, despite the repetitions (which I think bothered some folks). I was surprised how much got told and felt in such a small space. I found the ending came a little easily… but then of course that’s what anxiety and mental illness is like: it holds you back from seeing an obvious possible solution.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Ring Shout

Posted July 17, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Ring Shout by P. Djeli ClarkRing Shout, P. Djèlí Clark

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 13th October 2020

I’ve pretty much had Clark on my “must-read” list since I picked up The Black God’s Drums, but I was less sure about reading this one. I wasn’t sure about the idea of the Ku Klux Klan being literal monsters: it seemed a bit unsubtle? And I don’t know much about the Ku Klux Klan beyond the very basics, and I just don’t have that deeply American background where they’re a part of my story. That said, I’m gathering that a lot of (white) Americans don’t either, and I don’t normally let a lack of context stop me! Just I’m not always sure what’s really clever and what actually happened, when books blend reality and fantasy like this, and I was worried it’d matter particularly with a book like this, grounded in the pain of Black people and the real horror of history.

I’ll admit, I’m still not entirely sure the literal monsters worked for me. I stayed a bit too conscious of how apropos it is, almost to being a cliché… But laying that aside, it was a quick read, albeit a challenging one: trying to parse the Gullah dialogue kept me busy, especially since I’m not actually good at sounding out what I read, and the dialogue sometimes gave me pause at first. I think it’s probably a good thing I read it in one go, because it gave me a chance to get into the swing of the dialect!

The horror is genuinely horrifying, and I quickly got fond of Maryse and (mostly) Chef. I can’t say any of the twists of the story really surprised me, but they unfolded in such a way that they felt like the only natural way for things to go — not that they felt forced, but that it all flowed from one decision to another. I loved the quoted bits about ring shouts, which illuminated the story and gave me the background I needed… while teaching me a bit of history that I didn’t know about at all.

I can’t say I liked it as much as The Black God’s Drums, but it might stick with me more in terms of the story and images (there’s some really gory bits). I’m not quite sure how to rate it, being honest: my first instinct is three stars, but other aspects (including a worry that I just don’t “get it”) make me want to bump it up… and reading other people’s reviews and what they pick out (particularly the use of folklore, including the shouts) I think that’s more than fair. I’m just a wuss and still cringing at some of those descriptions!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The A.I. Who Loved Me

Posted July 12, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa ColeThe A.I. Who Loved Me, Alyssa Cole

Trinity Jordan is recovering from an accident she can’t wholly remember, traumatised and struggling to get back on her feet, despite her physical recovery. She’s thrown out of her usual, comfortable(ish) routine when she meets Li Wei, the nephew of the scientist who lives in the same building. He is, Dr Zhang says, recovering from a terrible accident of his own, and relearning almost everything. There’s something powerfully attractive about Li Wei, for Trinity, and she’d almost forgotten what that’s like; they find themselves drawn together, even before Dr Zhang suffers a stroke and begs Trinity to take care of Li Wei.

The thing is, Li Wei is an AI in a synthetic biological body, learning to express himself and unlock his past memories — and his progress accelerates around Trinity, who is still powerfully drawn to him when she discovers the truth. The problem is that he’s beginning to pick at the inconsistencies in her life: why does she say she frequently leaves the area, when he’s never known her to do so? Why does she describe a childhood memory and then immediately forget it?

I wasn’t quite expecting the turn the story took, from the description, but it was definitely an interesting way to twist the expectations from the cover and description. There’s more sci-fi lurking under the hood than I’d expected, though it builds up toward that point pretty well.

Apparently this was originally written for Audible and recorded with a full cast, which I think might be a better way to experience it (or at least some of the dialogue-heavy sections). If you’re looking for a sci-fi romance to listen to, it sounds like it’d be fun — and the story itself is definitely fun. I didn’t expect to find myself reading non-stop for just over an hour to read it in one go, but whomp! It happened.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Ruin of Shadows

Posted July 12, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Ruin of Shadows by L.D. LewisA Ruin of Shadows, L.D. Lewis

General Édo is a stone-cold killer, brutal and inspired in crushing the enemies of the Boorhian Army. The elite Shadows who cluster around their General boast about their number of kills, and tell stories of her power and ferocity… but she’s getting a little older, and tireder, and the Emperor’s demands finally go too far. Even her own Shadows will come after her… but Édo has some tricks up her sleeve, and a Djinni on her side.

I was a little confused by other reviews who found this funny; I didn’t get the joke, if there was one. It’s fairly brutal and there are long stretches of action sequences — beautifully choreographed, and never boring, but definitely not funny. Édo makes for an interesting character: she doesn’t really seem to regret her brutal past, or have very strong feelings about having to kill: what she’s asked to do seems more like it’s demeaning for her, or at least unfitting, because it’s unnecessary.

It’s not that she’s tired of killing per se, but it no longer seems worth it: she wants more, now, and the Empire won’t let her have it. It’s not a moral stand, exactly; in fact, it’s rife with her ego and her need to be recognised as powerful, as worth all the adulation and everything she’s been paid. She’s a strong female character, and yet profoundly flawed in a way I’m more used to seeing for male characters.

The Djinni was a fascinating bit of the story that didn’t quite work for me — the story could have functioned almost the same without the character entirely, and yet I wanted to know so much more about the Djinni.

All in all, a fast and entertaining read; if I gave half-stars, I’d bump it up higher, but I didn’t quite connect with it enough to give it a four.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Threshold

Posted July 7, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Threshold by Jordan L. HawkThreshold, Jordan L. Hawk

Threshold takes Whyborne, Griffin, and their friend Christine to a mining town, after Whyborne’s father (who has a large stake in the company) asks him to investigate the strange rumours coming from the town. It’s time for more horrors, some amateur spellcraft on Whyborne’s part, and an awkward meeting with one of Griffin’s former coworkers. They investigate the mystery — and the mysterious changes of personality from a prominent member of the company — while Griffin and Whyborne trip over their relatively-new relationship and their insecurities.

The relationship stuff is… a bit frustrating to me, mostly, because I felt that it was somewhat contrived. We can’t have them be too settled in themselves, so Whyborne has to be jealous and Griffin has to be hiding something, and no one can just talk about it and tell the truth. They figure themselves out without it being dragged out too long, but Whyborne’s huff with Griffin felt very similar to his reaction in the last book, and that… bothers me. Like, can you ever just sit down and listen to Griffin’s explanations? Maybe trust him a little?

I really hope this will not continue to be a theme of these books, because it’s one that I’ll get tired of pretty quickly… and otherwise it’s a lot of fun! And it’s not that I don’t want to see any conflict between the leads, but I’d prefer it not to be something that is so thin and well-worn. I’m still enjoying this series a lot, but one more book of this kind of lack-of-communication will quickly start turning me off. Here’s hoping some more trust develops between Whyborne and Griffin!

All that aside, I tore through the book. The mystery and its explanation are perhaps a little obvious, but some of the details come as a gruesome surprise, and there are some genuinely horrifying moments. Christine is amazing throughout, and I have a feeling that — support Whyborne though she does — she’d concur with my second paragraph completely. She’s a joy, and a breath of no-nonsense fresh air.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders

Posted July 7, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders by Aliette De BodardOf Dragons, Feasts and Murders, Aliette de Bodard

Received to review via Netgalley; release date 7th July 2020

Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders is set in Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen universe, but it’s really apart from the main plot (at least as far as the first two books go — I haven’t read the third, yet). It’s a standalone, so you don’t need to have read the series, but it may enhance things a little bit and crack open the motivations of the main characters a little more. It follows Thuan and Asmodeus, rulers of Hawthorn House, on a visit to Thuan’s family — a dragon court in a Vietnamese style, rather than the post-apocalyptic Paris that the main series focuses on. Thuan is a bookish sweetie; Asmodeus is a sadistic murderer. They love each other very much. Do they trust each other? Rather less.

It’s a rather fascinating pairing, as it happens: they have very different outlooks, and different motivations — their interests and their aims don’t always align. It makes for an interesting tension between the two and within the story, which involves a murder at court which Thuan must unravel, to prevent his dynasty from being unseated from the throne.

I found it all really enjoyable, particularly in the exploration of the balance and tension between them. For me, as someone who has read part of the main series, it’s also an opportunity to see a bit more of the world, but I don’t think that’s a requirement. The traditional mystery of the dead body itself isn’t much of one, really; the question is not so much whodunnit, or even howdunnit or whydunnit, but a question of how Thuan will use it to unpick the greater issue of the attack on his family.

And let’s face it, there are just some really great lines. I love Asmodeus as a “sweet, murderous delight”, in particular.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Annabel Scheme

Posted July 5, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Annabel Scheme by Robin SloanAnnabel Scheme, Robin Sloan

I’ve started trying out Storygraph, and one of the main features that drew me in was the ability to search for a book recommendation based on various inputs: not just genre, but pace, mood and length as well. So I thought I’d give it a try and buy one of the books it recommended — and thus, Annabel Scheme, “perfect for people who like Sherlock Holmes, Douglas Adams, ghosts and/or the internet”.

Annabel Scheme is a detective in a cyberpunk/horror landscape, with all kinds of weird and wonderful details. Hu is her assistant, an ex-Grail (think Google) server that just really wants to help and be a good sidekick. The story opens with a client, as this sort of story has to: a man wants to know what the heck is happening when new tracks of himself and his dead girlfriend are suddenly appearing across the internet, and he thinks Annabel Scheme can answer.

That mystery itself gets wrapped up very quickly, and obviously reveals itself as a portal into a larger story, which was… a little too tenuously connected, for my taste. It felt like the story fell into parts, and that was just a bit too much of a separate story.

Overall, though, it’s pretty entertaining: the Holmesian pastiche is there, but it’s not too much of a copy/paste of Holmes canon, style of character; though I can see what the comparison to Douglas Adams is there for, that’s not really the vibe I got. Ghosts, well, there are kind of some ghosts, but I didn’t really feel that was the key thing… In the end, the more I think about it the more it crumbles, I’m finding: there are loose ends and things that I didn’t quite get — but it was a fun enough read for the less-than-an-hour I spent on it. Score one for Storygraph.

Rating: 3/5

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