Tag: SF/F

Review – The Churn

Posted November 22, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Churn by James S.A. CoreyThe Churn, James S.A Corey

The Churn is a short novella which tells the story of one of the major characters from The Expanse series: Amos Burton. I like Amos a lot, but I’m not totally sure I care about having read this; it wasn’t bad in any way, or not enjoyable, but it wasn’t necessary. We know who Amos is, and we get glimpses of where he came from… and I’m not sure I needed to read this novella to fill it in. I almost prefer piecing it together, because in some ways who Amos was isn’t as important as who Amos is… and in other ways, he really hasn’t changed very much in the series: it doesn’t add much development-wise, because the differences are simply in the different contexts.

So, if you’re a hardcore lover of The Expanse and you want to read every scrap of background, then yeah, The Churn is probably of interest. If not, then I don’t think I especially recommend it — the main series are all you need, I suspect.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Caliban’s War

Posted November 22, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Caliban's War by James S.A. CoreyCaliban’s War, James S.A. Corey

Caliban’s War is the second book of the Expanse series, and I can’t help but see it (and Leviathan Wakes) in some ways as an answer to Firefly/Serenity. Serenity ends as a triumph, to some degree, with Mal getting the story out there. That’s the big win. And yet… Leviathan Wakes almost starts with that, but Holden can’t sit back and retire. He figures that getting the message out is enough, and of course it isn’t — as we’ve found in our own timeline with Cambridge Analytica and the Vote Leave campaign and impeachment and… everything. Getting the signal out there isn’t enough, and Caliban’s War shows Holden continuing to reckon with that, and keep trying to find a place for himself and the crew of the Rocinante.

There’s another way in which Holden is like Malcolm Reynolds, and that’s really showcased here as well. It struck me during the middle-ish part of the book, when Holden goes to confront Fred Johnson — who spits back at him:

“I’ve been putting up with your bullshit for over a year now,” Fred said. “This idea you have that the universe owes you answers. This righteous indignation you wield like a club at everyone around you.”

And yeah, Malcolm Reynolds has that as well, for all that he wants to think he’s a hardened criminal. I think Caliban’s War does a good job of digging into that and showing what makes a man like that dangerous, as well as someone to follow.

Anyway, that’s what particularly struck me this time — maybe because the part about “we got the signal out and nobody cared” really cuts deep right now!

It really did bother me again that everyone spends the book running around looking for Mei, without questioning basic things like “why did they want an immuno-compromised kid?” And Prax is a biologist! Okay, not a human biologist, but at other times he clearly has a scientific mind and the ability to think through a problem, including those which aren’t restricted to botany. I’m not sure it changes the story to know why Mei’s key, but it bothers me as someone who knew what was going on from the minute her condition was mentioned.

This book introduces Bobbie and Avasarala, and they are both great and balance out the gender balance, and give us the outside-perspective on Holden and his crew that we need. I know we won’t be seeing a lot of them for a couple of books, which sucks, because Avasarala is the kind of character who really challenges the dudes-with-guns sci-fi stereotypes. (Bobbie is less so, since she’s essentially the female version of them.) She’s a grandmother, a diplomat, an Earther — and that’s a needed sort of perspective.

I’m looking forward to continuing to chew through this series; I called it popcorn before, and I still concur. It’s very more-ish, and it goes down easy.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Posted November 15, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon JamesBlack Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James

Black Leopard, Red Wolf follows the adventures of a man named Tracker, from childhood to a cell where he is forced to tell his life story. He has a wolf eye and a nose — he can track anything, anyone, once he has scented it once, and that’s how he gets pulled into a quest to save the son of the king’s sister, prophesied to save the kingdom. Not that the prophecy matters much to Tracker: he’s just in it for the adventure, for the sake of a shapeshifter he loves named Leopard, and gold. Mostly the gold.

The book was pretty hard going for me. It’s rife with violence, sexual and otherwise; the narration is stream-of-consciousness, in rhythms of speech that aren’t very familiar to me. Sometimes it lacks the expected punctuation or grammar, capturing a whole different kind of voice. I found myself skipping parts, because it would take so long to say a simple thing. If a man fires three arrows, one after the other, then each arrow will be described. This isn’t a quote, but it’s an illustration of the style: “Leopard fired one arrow and a man fell down. Leopard fired another arrow and a man fell down. Leopard fired another arrow and another man fell down.”

As a stylistic choice, it adds a certain rhythmic energy, and it all adds to a clear picture of Tracker, so that you can almost hear his voice narrating… but I wasn’t a fan and found it hard to concentrate on (in the same way that it can take me a while to feel my way into the style of a Norse saga, or particularly the set-piece bits of The Odyssey).

Plot-wise, there’s a lot of back-and-forth to get nowhere, but the story builds up in its own time and I never quite got to the point where I got fed up and just wanted to put it down. I did want to know what happened. There are definitely some moments where it got under my skin, too, particularly regarding Sadogo, and another character from later in the book. The violence of it all really put me off, though; I can’t say I’d call it gratuitous, because it says something about this world and about Tracker, his companions and his outlook. It does begin to feel excessive, though.

I don’t think I’ll read the other books — I believe it’s meant to be a trilogy, and apparently the next book focuses on a character I really don’t care for. Not that I particularly care for Tracker, either! It seems like an awful long time to spend with characters I don’t enjoy, since I’m rather the type to hang a lot of my interest in a story on the players. I don’t have to like them, but I do have to be invested, and I barely was.

So, glad I read it, because there are interesting stylistic choices and a few bits I did rather like (to explain would be a spoiler, but it involves Tracker’s relationship with a particular character who appears later in the story, and secondarily with some other side characters). But… I don’t think it’s for me.

(Remember, I rate books on my enjoyment of them, not an objective assessment.)

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Fifth Season

Posted November 14, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Fifth Season, by N.K. JemisinThe Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin

Whoa. How to review this without spoiling it… It’s difficult, because The Fifth Season is cleverly structured so that pieces you see right at the start don’t fall into place until the end. I had the tiniest of clues to figure something out from what other people said about the book, and it helped me work things out; I actually like that sensation, of watching to see how the pieces fit instead of trying to find out where they fit, so to speak. I know a lot of people don’t like that and want to go into a book totally unspoiled, though… and I can see the value of that for this book.

I mean, you can barely even talk about the narrative style without risking treading on spoilery ground. Suffice it to say that Jemisin really does know what she’s doing, and you should trust that everything has a purpose. If you really hate second-person narration, or present-tense narration, and think it’s never going to work for you… I doubt it’s going to. But if you’re willing to keep an open mind, it pays off.

The worldbuilding is pretty awesome. Looking back from the end of the book, it’s amazing to think how much has been introduced, explained, hinted at, often without explicit instruction. Jemisin expects you to work for it, but she’s created a whole world and her characters live fully within it, which is always one of my big tests for good worldbuilding. She remembers that the characters will take certain things for granted, even as the reader needs to see and understand them, and she weaves that in beautifully. There are a few instances that feel like infodumps (including the first chapter), but again — it’s for a reason, and in my opinion, it’s not actually meant to be helpful. It’s all in aid of character and voice. Watch what is said, and what isn’t, and how it is said.

It’s worth noting that the whole story is pretty grim, and the outlook is bleak. There’s violence and oppression and coercion and slavery, and everybody is culpable to one degree or another.

I’m glad I waited until the trilogy was finished (and, cough, then some) to read this, because I think it’s probably best read all at once before I lose half the detail.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Leviathan Wakes

Posted November 11, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. CoreyLeviathan Wakes, James S.A. Corey

The opening of Leviathan Wakes is just pure horror. Julie Mao has been trapped in a storage locker for days, during a takeover of her ship. When her need for food, water and other relief overcomes her caution, she bursts out… to find the ship empty and almost dead. She works her way to engineering to find —

Well, I won’t spoil that moment for you, even though it’s at the start of the book. The horror aspect recedes for quite a while, leaving more generic (but fun) space opera and a touch of noir. One side of the narrative follows James Holden and his tiny remnant crew after the destruction of their ship, the Canterbury, as they acquire a new ship (the Rocinante) and attempt to find (and hurt) whoever blew up the Cant.

The other side follows Miller, a halfway-decent cop who is melting down a bit after being ditched by his wife, and who fixates on a job he’s asked to do — to find Julie Mao, daughter of a rather famous family, and ship her back home. The two sides converge, of course, juxtaposing Holden’s righteousness against Miller’s almost amoral tendencies and making both of them look like assholes in the process. (Though in most ways I’m on Holden’s side, and Miller’s just kinda really creepy sometimes.)

The horror comes back in the middle, for sure, and threads through the rest. There are some epic fight scenes, some great character moments, some horrible revelations… and for my money, it all comes together really well. It’s pretty breathless, for me; for all that’s ~550 pages long, I didn’t often put it down. It was a reread for me, and it stood up to the memory. I’m looking forward to rereading Caliban’s War, too.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Fly By Night

Posted November 10, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fly by Night by Frances HardingeFly By Night, Frances Hardinge

Fly By Night is a heck of a lot of fun, and though I’d say it’s perfect for a pre-teen or young teenage reader… there’s a lot to attract the adult reader too. Hardinge’s created a strange world, a bit aslant from our own, and through it rampages Mosca, a young girl who has run away from her home village; Saracen, a goose that she took with her; Eponymous Clem, the smooth-talking stranger she decided to join… and a host of other characters of various stripes. I have to admit that, primed by Untitled Goose Game, I was on Saracen’s side in all of this. In any given scene, at any given stopping point, my main concern was where is Saracen???

(People who watched me live-tweeting my binge of this book can attest to that. Several tweets demanding to know where the goose was.)

Part of the reason I was on Saracen’s side is that things get a bit twisty. Who do you trust? By the last hundred pages, I only trusted Saracen. There’s so much going on: old religious iconoclasms, political upheaval, guildsmen of different factions, censorship of the written word, secret schools in alleyways, floating coffeehouses which are free of some of the censorship and rules that apply in the city… And I haven’t touched on a lot of the other stuff. There’s highwaymen! Daring escapes! Shocking revelations! It’s a madcap world and the narration tumbles through it joyfully.

The book almost ends on this note: “I don’t want a happy ending, I want more story.”

I concur. Good thing I’ve got the next book!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Evie and the Pack-Horse Librarians

Posted November 8, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Evie and the Pack-Horse Librarians by Laurel BeckleyEvie and the Pack-Horse Librarians, Laurel Beckley

Received to review via Netgalley

Accused of leaking a manuscript she was supposed to edit, Evie gets exiled from her normal job as an editor to work as a librarian distributing literature via literally riding from homestead to homestead on a pack-horse, far from her usual home. Oh, and her girlfriend is the one who betrayed her, she barely knows how to ride a horse, and the place she’s going is full of privation and coal dust. Charming!

This is a very short book, but there’s a lot going on with the world-building (explicitly queer-positive: kids transition to a chosen gender as well as to adulthood, same-gender relationships are common or perhaps even the default; there’s some magic of various types, quite poorly defined; there’s some kind of law requiring literacy, hence the pack-horse librarians)… and yet there’s not a lot of detail on any of that. It feels like a side-novella in a known universe or something like that, though as far as I know that isn’t the case.

I found it a bit oddly paced, with instaluv into the bargain and a really obvious “twist”. It feels like a lot of elements were included to pad things out but didn’t actually get wrapped up. The romance is cute, but we barely know the love interest, who gets introduced pretty late. There were a lot of elements I found interesting, but overall it was kinda meh, I’m afraid!

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Mexican Gothic

Posted November 5, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-GarciaMexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I’ve been meaning to read this forever, and in fact I originally had an advance copy of this. As often happens when I get a much-anticipated book as an advance copy, I actually bought it as soon as it came out, since it didn’t feel fair to read the ARC anymore. So… Mexican Gothic follows Noemí Taboada, a girl from a rich Mexican family, living in the city and hoping to go on to study more, enjoying her life as a socialite. Her cousin recently married, but it seems that something odd has happened to her — she sent home an almost incoherent letter, raving about the awful things happening to her — and Noemí’s father decides to send her to see what’s happening.

Noemí goes, partly out of affection for her cousin, partly out of curiosity, and partly to prove herself. She immediately finds that Catalina’s new family are rather odd, with oppressive rules and a rather awful house. And Catalina is ill: tuberculosis, the doctor says, and yet Noemí doesn’t think it seems to fit. When she snatches a moment along with Catalina, her cousin sends her to get a remedy from a local woman, and yet it seems to make her even more ill…

I won’t say too much more about the plot: it settles in to be nicely Gothic and weird. I don’t know if it was because of the books I’ve been reading lately (I shouldn’t name them, in case it’s too much of a spoiler), but I figured a good chunk of the plot out through noticing a recurring motif. I found that I wasn’t as riveted as I’d hoped to be, because it took me time to really connect with Noemí — – her confidence in her own intelligence, beauty and charm was a bit too much toward overconfidence, and though I can’t say that I’d fall in with the traditions of Catalina’s new family(!), it also seemed weird that she was so unwilling to respect simple things that are asked of her as a good guest, like not smoking in the bedroom. (Sure, different era and all, but… being a good guest hasn’t changed that much.) She just seems quite entitled.

However, as we got to see more of Francis, and as Noemí worked things out, it started to work a lot better for me — and the last third/quarter of the book, ish, is pretty nail-biting. Naturally, it doesn’t end in a terribly comfortable way, leaving a few questions and horrible possibilities hanging…

Really enjoyable, all in all, though I didn’t get into it as much as I’d expected to until later.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Blackout

Posted November 2, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Blackout by Mira GrantBlackout, Mira Grant

Finally, I actually finished reading this series! It was never from a lack of interest: the three books are all thrilling, with great twists and turns, and themes I enjoy. When I first read the first book, I had a lot of health anxiety that was totally on top of me, and the book made me really viscerally uncomfortable the whole time… but it stuck in my head, and I came back to it again and later again.

It’s an uncomfortable world to think about, especially now in the middle of a pandemic, and it has worthwhile messages for us about fear and control and freedom. It predicts, for example, the sort of hygiene theatre we have at the moment with spraying of disinfectant on every possible surface… when in fact fomite transmission of COVID is thought to be rare. That’s a good parallel with the situation in the books where people get tested again and again for signs of “amplification” — sometimes within minutes of each other. It’s theatre to make you feel better, without addressing the real issues.

I think reading this book might give you the impression that it’s a good idea to just face a virus head-on, zombies or not, but I think the message is more subtle than that. It’s about being informed, and about fiercely interrogating everything to discover the truth. If the truth is that you should wear a mask, wash your hands a lot, and sometimes put up with a national lockdown… then that’s what you should do.

It’s hard to talk about this book in detail without giving massive spoilers for something that happens at the end of Deadline, so I won’t go into detail. I found the ending a little abrupt, actually — a little too naive about what it would really take to put a spoke in the wheel of such a massive conspiracy. In a sense, it ends with much left to do, of course, but there is a feeling that the Masons have done their part and their lives and deaths can go out of the spotlight because they’ve achieved something. It feels way too easy when you look at exposures in the last few years that have done nothing to change politics whatsoever.

It’s still really enjoyable, while being emotionally impactful — Mira Grant doesn’t hold back on those punches, so I’m not saying this is a sunshine-and-daisies sort of story.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Stormhaven

Posted November 1, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Stormhaven by Jordan L. HawkStormhaven, Jordan L. Hawk

The third Whyborne and Griffin book is rather fun! My main issue with the previous books was a sort of general squick about Whyborne’s total lack of self-worth, which translates into a lack of trust in Griffin. I’m pleased to note that that’s a bit better in this book, though I shan’t say too much about it because sssh! Spoilers!

In any case, this book features Griffin facing a number of things about his past. One is his adoptive parents, who are coming on a visit and mustn’t know about his relationship with Whyborne. And another is a doctor at an asylum who has ruled that Griffin’s client’s brother, accused of murdering his uncle, is insane. He happened to do the same for Griffin at the end of his career with the Pinkertons, you see. So Griffin has all that on his plate — and Whyborne is hallucinating about a vast underwater city…

A couple of things didn’t turn out as expected, which is always nice, and Whyborne and Griffin move forward a bit with their relationship and find some more comfort and security with one another, which is lovely. I could always do with more communication (talk! about! your! problems!) — but it was a good step forward, and a believable step in them figuring out their relationship.

So I think my issues with the earlier books are, if not completely shelved, then partially assuaged. (I should emphasise that that’s a very personal nitpick, and not necessarily something that will bother other people.)

Oh, and Christine is still absolutely the best.

Rating: 4/5

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