Jul 042017

Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone

Synopsis: When the God of Fire dies unexpectedly, forensic accountant/mage Tara steps in to keep the infrastructure that ran on his power from collapsing. She soon uncovers a conspiracy from the first days of the God Wars.

Book Review: This is a snappy modern piece that hits all the important notes and left me admiring the ease with which it flowed.

As you can probably tell from the synopsis, Gladstone has a fascinating setting crafted. His world is in the early stages of the industrial revolution, featuring very cosmopolitan urban centers still surrounded by rural countrysides full of superstitious villagers. But this industrial revolution uses gods and a scientific renaissance in human-directed magic as power sources, rather than coal and gas.

A while back it was noted (by Winston Churchill) that if magic actually existed, it would be a branch of applied engineering by now. There’ve been a number of explorations of this over recent decades, and they are neat to see. I think this is the first time I’ve seen someone expand this to the financial system. Which, now that I’ve read it, makes complete sense. Of course it wouldn’t stop with the engineers. The quants would get up in that shiz and find a way to leverage and create financial instruments and soon half the world’s economy would be wrapped up in arcane contract law (pun actually not intended). Published in 2012, this is a very post-2008-financial-crisis book, and it pulls it off  with aplomb! It also marks this as a very modern work, despite being set in an industrial-revolution era.

The language and sensibilities are very contemporary as well. This feels like reading a modern urban fantasy. Except in urban fantasy the magical part of the world is always somehow hidden from the rest of humanity, and the entire genre is pretty tedious because of this. Here all the magic is out front and integrated into society, while keeping the modern parlance of urban fantasy. Our protagonists speak with our speech patterns. When a sleeping vampire wakes to find that someone has slid their wrist into his mouth he spits out “Haven’t you ever heard of consent?” It’s basically Steampunk Buffy + The Big Short, and it’s a delight to read. One of our book club members called it “Dark and Fluffy,” which is a perfect description. :)

There are some problems with pacing around the middle. It really drags for a while after a plot-transition, during which time we don’t really have anything invested in the protagonist succeeding. The threat of her losing her job doesn’t seem very threatening (even though, in theory, we know why it is, this isn’t conveyed in a compelling way). In a lesser book I might have abandoned it at this point. But the strength of the extremely relate-able characters and the enthralling setting pulled me through, and it started to pick up again.

And then the climax! This is one of those books where the climax lasts for the entire final third/quarter! I started into it a bit late in the night, and then I couldn’t put the book down until I was done, so I was up for far longer than I should have been. It is so good, it just keeps growing and topping itself and slamming new twists in which were well set-up before. Every character contributes in a meaningful way until it all cumulates in a glorious cresendo.

The book has some rough edges, but it’s got some real beauty in it too. Good story, imaginative setting, great characters – definitely Recommended.

Book Club Review: An interesting mix! While my overall impression was shared by most, the specifics that different people liked varied. Some weren’t as into the modern voice, others were less happy about the dark bits, and so forth. But they liked other bits of it more to balance it out, so comparing notes on what really spoke to people was neat. (Though everyone agreed the middle dragged). Only one reader disliked it, she didn’t find anything there that spoke to her and viewed it as lost time. Which happens sometimes, not everything works for everyone. Overall though, everyone else enjoyed it and was glad to have read it.

The difficulty comes in that there isn’t all that much else to talk about. There are obvious ties being made between the fantasy world and our own, but they aren’t used to say very much. The book could have made much stronger “Capitalism Will Take Everything True And Good, Dissect It, And Then Sell It Back To You In Super-Efficient Soulless Pieces” statement. It was obvious that was the theme that the book had originally been going for. It is a very pertinent theme, I’m seeing it more and more, and seems to be one of the biggest points of existential suffering in modern life. I really like works that explore that theme.

But somewhere along the way, Three Parts Dead got distracted by the evil-lich-is-evil, lets-all-stop-him game. Which is fine, it makes a good story. But the theme was lost. Now the villain was just a standard Nefarious Bad Dude, instead of The Systemic Forces That We All Embrace.

It’s still a good story. I’m just sad it isn’t the great story it looks like it was aiming for. I would give it a very mild Not Recommended. Depending on your book club’s moods/tastes, it might slip into recommended? Also it’s decently well known by a lot of people now, so that may give it another point in its favor.

Jun 152017

Hugo AwardOur book club read and discussed all freely available Hugo-nominated Novelettes and Short Stories this week. As always, it was a refreshing change of pace, and I highly recommend it to everyone! Here’s my review, which is a bit different from how I normally do these.


“The Art of Space Travel”, by Nina Allan
— This is Lit Fic. It is an author examining the human condition via the day-to-day struggles of a normal working-class person. There is no plot, and the entire story consists of the author emoting on the page, showing that emotions are emotional and humans are complicated, and hoping we think this makes the work deep and noteworthy. Look, dammit, writing Lit Fic and shoving it 50 years into the future does not actually make it SF. Bleh.

“The Tomato Thief”, by Ursula Vernon
— The strength of the voice in this piece is amazing. It reach out and grabs you in the very first paragraph. You are living in the world of this crotchety old grandma, and she is obstinate and salty and does not have time for your shit. It’s writing like this that makes you viscerally understand the difference between masters of the craft and people who write on a lark. It is just plain good. The voice is just the start, of course. The setting (American Southwest Desert mythology) is beautiful and richly detailed, the world building is comfortable and builds in well-executed blocks. The plot ramps at a great pace as well. This doesn’t have the deep emotional scars and quakes of last year’s killer “Jackelope Wives” (by Vernon), so I don’t find it to be as impactful. But it is a good tale, and very enjoyable.

“Touring with the Alien”, by Carolyn Ives Gilman
— An interesting concept, but lacking in execution. The piece tries to re-examine the “intellect without consciousness” theme in a light-hearted way, and it just doesn’t work very well. Who is able to look at the death of consciousness and shrug? It’s a horrifying concept, it’s basically the impetus behind our fear of zombies. Every good handling of this that I’ve seen has been dark/horror, culminating with Watts’s masterwork. Maybe there’s a way to do it that isn’t so angst-heavy, but this attempt certainly didn’t pull it off. Also, the protagonists attitude throughout is basically one of “Meh, whatever,” including her decision at the end to allow the human race to be “colonized.” There’s been times in my life when I was OK with wiping out the human race, but never when my attitude was one of general “whatevs” and it just felt off. A decision like that needs some more motivation IMHO.

“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, by Alyssa Wong
— Beautiful prose, and an fantastic world. Again, American Southwest Desert mythology, because trends in SF are a thing. :) I love the world here, the “just beneath the skin of everything” magic, and the idea of the desert itself as a non-physical being – one that can marry a physical human and give birth to a son. The emotion throughout is beautiful, and the twist at the end makes for a good spice. It turns out this is basically a villain origin story, or what the rest of the world would consider a ‘traditional villain’ at any rate. I have a huge love of stories where the protagonist is a “villain”. That being said, the prose sometimes gets in the way of the story, rather than adding to it. The beginning drags on much longer than it has to. And then the end, where you expect to see our protagonist wreak bloody vengeance on his murderers (who are legitimately evil assholes destroying his hometown and way of life), you instead get a dance scene. Literally, a bunch of people dance with their deceased loved ones. I get what she was trying to do, a Dia De Los Muertos thing, but it just did not work with the narrative flow of what Wong had been writing up to that point. It interrupted it so badly that I didn’t remember how this story ended — I had originally read it back in 2016. I had to reread for the bookclub, and realized why this story hadn’t stuck in my mind (all I could remember was “cool world, pretty writing). The ending is dis-congruent enough that it’s hard for the story to cohere and leave a footprint behind in my memory.

[[ The next two aren’t available online, and so weren’t read by the majority of our book club. Here’s my impressions anyway ]]

Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, by Stix Hiscock
— this year’s Rabid Puppy troll nomination. Hilarious in many scenes! :) But not a contender. And not nearly as well written as Chuck Tingle erotica, which is weird. Chuck Tingle manages to capture the “New Relationship Energy” butterflies very well, and writes some hot sex scenes. Alien Stripper had great comedy, but didn’t do either of the things that erotica is supposed to do. IMHO… I’m not a huge erotica reader, maybe there’s sub-genres I’m not familiar with.

The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde
— Epic Fantasy in short form! The magic system is *amazing*! Semi-sentient gems grant people powers, but also slowly drive them mad through constant whispers into their brain. It’s like wearing The One Ring all the time. The story starts out right at the Disaster scene, and details an fantastic friendship between the princess and her magic-using servant as they try to survive an coup/invasion. The tension ramps constantly, and the stakes keep increasing. Every time a problem is solved, a new one crops up that’s even bigger, and oh god, how will they get out of this? A damn fine story! The voice wasn’t notable, but this one is probably my favorite. It’s one major downside is that it doesn’t really have an ending. It just… stops. It feels like the first few chapters of a great epic fantasy novel, rather than a self-contained story with an arc.


Short Stories:

“The City Born Great”, by N. K. Jemisin
— Another contender for the OMG AMAZING VOICE award! From page one you are in the skin of a the protagonist, a street rat in NY swept up in the affairs of inhuman godlike powers. It is gripping and epic, like everything of Jemisin’s I’ve ever read. Another one of those “Wow… this is why they are masters and they get the awards” moments. The story is a bit sparse, and near the end it gets so metaphysical and dreamlike that the story kinda loses the reader a little. A great display of craft, but it left me feeling sorta empty at the end, and I’m not really sure why. I don’t think the protagonist had an emotional/personal shift over the course of the story, leaving it without a solid arc for us to follow. That, unfortunately, means it won’t stay with me very long.

“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, by Alyssa Wong
— I wanted to love this story. Two reasons – first, the twist that finally comes clear in your mind about halfway through is a massive bombshell. It rearranges everything you’d read up to that point. And what had been confusing and incoherent suddenly all snaps into place and makes perfect sense and you get a feeling of “Ooooohhhhh!!! …woah, shit!” That is a superbly executed twist! Second – this story is what Vellum would be, if someone tried to write it as a short story. The same heartbreak, the same refusal to accept the unacceptable, the same desperate cycling of attempts to change the past, over and over across so many different universes. The same impossible frustration of never seeing it come to pass, of the horror-event occuring relentlessly, and the helplessness to do anything about it, ever. I love this thing so much. BUT… it really needs a full-novel-length treatment to do it right. You need all the pages and attempts and struggle of a full novel to bring the emotional devastation to bear. You need the time and word count to really get to know the characters, and fall in love with them, and feel the wrenching agony of the undivertable horror. When done as a book, it’s one of the best things ever written. When done as a short story, it is abrupt and truncated and falls flat. I wanted to love this story for what it could be. But it didn’t have the length to become what it needed to be. It isn’t a story that can be told well in this few words. :(

“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, by Brooke Bolander
— I like the experimental structure of this story. I was disappointed by the content. It is a revenge story, except without the revenge. We don’t get emotionally involved in the wrong that was done. And when the revenge comes it is off-screen. How do you tell a revenge story without the wrong OR the revenge? IMHO – you don’t. It basically boils down to braggadocio. “We’re so bad ass. We’re the baddest ass mother fuckers. Don’t fuck with us. We’re rolling around in a bad-ass car, smoking cigarettes, and being bad ass, cuz that’s how bad ass we are.” It would have appealed to me when I was an angry young teenage boy, but that sort of posturing doesn’t really do it for me anymore.
Also – as part of their revenge, the protagonist and her sisters damn someone to unending, unimaginable, eternal suffering. At that point any author completely loses my sympathy. Your protagonist is LITERALLY AS EVIL AS THE CHRISTIAN GOD! Fuck right off, I will never empathize with that sort of monstrosity, no matter how horrendous the victim of the retribution was. Please do better than “literally the most morally depraved actor imaginable” for your protagonist…
That being said, several people in my bookclub loved this story, so tastes differ.

“Seasons of Glass and Iron”, by Amal El-Mohtar
— An interesting mash-up and retelling of two little-known fairy-tales. The visuals are very cool, and it has a rich fairy-tale flavor. And the friendship forged between the protagonists is done very well. I also read this one in 2016, and it also didn’t really stick with me, because it seemed, for lack of a better word, childish. I could tell there was supposed to be some sort of message the author was conveying, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it’s supposed to be. Centuries-old fairy tales are really sexist? Well, ok. That’s not news, and usually a message is supposed to impel one to reconsider their biases or update their view of others or modify their unexamined behaviors, or something. What is anyone supposed to do with “very old fairytales are sexist”? We already know, and it’s not like we can go back in time and change them…
Readers in my bookclub suggested the message is “Treating women as objects to be pursued/won instead of people is bad. Women are people too.” I think this just doesn’t come across well in the fairy-tale format, because fairy-tales are already so cartoonish by nature. Having a bunch of cartoon men at the base of a hill shaking their cartoon fists at a woman really didn’t convey an emotional truth. Compare to James Tiptree Jr’s “The Women Men Don’t See,” which conveys powerfully and in a gut-churning way what it is like to live in a world full of hostile, physically-overpowering creatures who’s primary motivation is sexual exploitation. I’ll never forget that story, it crystallized so many things, and I cannot recommend it enough. “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is mostly a gathering of applause lights for things we already know. Abusive husbands are bad, selling your daughter is bad, and women shouldn’t put up with it. That’s a great theme, but putting it in a fairy-tale just sorta makes it cartoony instead of emotionally relevant. This is the sort of story I’d expect to see as someone is working their way up to writing something significant, but it isn’t there yet.

“That Game We Played During the War”, by Carrie Vaughn
— A great piece about being understood in the midst of isolation. The protagonist is the only non-telepathic person in a country populated by mind-reading telepaths. All her thoughts are on constant display to everyone, but she can’t see anything they are thinking. Interestingly, it never feels overly paranoid, due to the protagonists warm disposition and acceptance of her circumstances. It takes place after a war between their two people, where she was a nurse in a POW camp that held the telepathic soldiers, where she befriended one. The connection they make despite their differences brings warmth to both their lives, and while this is never said in the story, I get the impression that both of them are very isolated in their societies, and discover they can only be truly understood by the enemy. It also touches a little bit into game theory, but not very significantly for those from a rationalist background. Still, it was fun to see! I found this piece touching and comfortable to read. Not intense like I usually like my stories, but pretty good anyway. The ending seems to come too soon, and without enough punch. Overall, I think I liked this one best in this category.

[[ The last story isn’t available online, and so weren’t read by the majority of our book club. Here’s my impressions anyway ]]

An Unimaginable Light, by John C. Wright
— John C. Wright has never been subtle. He’s basically today’s Ayn Rand, with monologueing characters who spell out the superiority of their morality for the benefit of the reader. Of course this is my guilty pleasure, so I generally really enjoy his work. It doesn’t hurt that he is an extremely talented writer. Say what you want about the shlockly substance of his stories, he is a master of wordcraft.
Anyway, he’s decided that all his previous screeds were TOO SUBTLE and went full frontal. The antagonist is a disgusting, ugly, fat man, that spouts non-stop SJW platitudes. Basically the worst possible representation of liberal america as culled from the internet. He is a literal inquisitor in a hellscape future where SJWs have taken over. Our protagonist is a female version of Jesus. Not the offspring of God, but that is the only difference between her and the historic Christ. She espouses Christian ideals, takes on all the sins of her people, forgives her persecutor, and is then chained to a cross-like structure and tortured to death in order to absolve her people of their sins. YES, REALLY. (also, for extra culture war points, the SJW caricature demands she fellate him)
So, yeah, not subtle. But the twist delivered at the end is super effective. I had to go back several pages and reread their final conversation with the new information in mind, and it changed everything. It turned from a putrid anti-SJW screed, to a really beautiful message of redemption that happens to be wrapped up inside a putrid anti-SJW screed tortilla. I can overlook the festering tortilla for the tasty redemption story underneath, because that’s what was instilled into me in childhood, and those roots run deep. I’m embarrased to admit this, but I liked the ending. Like I said, morally self-righteous screeds are my guilty pleasure. I like Ayn Rand’s works too. I just know better than to take her (or Wright) seriously. It is like porn for my moral sense. Fun to diddle to now and then, but not something that should impact real life in anyway.
I hope no one thinks much worse of me due to this admission? Both Rand and Wright as still repugnant as people. They just make art that tickles a thing in me that doesn’t get much tickling IRL.

Overall Impressions of 2017

I found this to be a lackluster year, from my perspective. Some good examples of craft, but almost every story lacked the thematic depth and emotional super-stimulus that I crave in fiction. I know that’s just a taste thing, but most years the Hugos manage to have a couple pieces in every category that really hit “theme” and “emotion-journey” very well. None of the 2017 crop were as compelling or wrenching as the few I found for myself. I hope this will not be a trend.

May 252017

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Synopsis: A child factory-slave escapes from a slave planet. Also, an AI transfers from ship-embodiment to humanoid-robot embodiment, and tries to get used to that.

Book Review: The first few chapters of this are fantastic! We jump right into action, in which a ship’s AI thrust into a humanoid-robot body against her wishes. She experiences intense body dysphoria, which is something I have a lot of interest in reading about. And her mere existence is illegal, so there’s great set up for action.

Likewise, the child-slave’s POV is fascinating, with her having been completely sheltered from everything in the world that isn’t the factory. When there’s an accident and she sees the outside world for the first time she doesn’t have the words to describe a room that goes on forever without walls, and a ceiling that… isn’t? It’s awesome.

And then you get a few more chapters in and you realize this is a terrible book. It is a first draft. And half of it is a 14-year old’s diary. The AI gets a job, goes to parties to meet people, has picnics, fights with her guardians, etc. There is no conflict or stakes, and the “character growth” is of the superficial variety that you get when you’re a teen growing up in suburbia. I realize there’s an entire genre of fiction that focuses purely on examining character, called Literary Fiction. But writers of Lit Fic know that Lit Fic is inherently boring, so they do a lot of cool things to spice it up! They develop unique and quirky voices. They use lyrical prose and experiment with structure. There is a huge amount of flair and style to keep one’s interest. And they often bring in very emotionally-charged stakes. That is how one makes something like this interesting and fun to read. Becky Chambers didn’t do any of that. The AI chapters are basically what Lit Fic boils down to if you remove all the stylistic trappings: a 14  year old’s diary. It was so intensely boring I just started skipping all the AI chapters after a half dozen of them.

The child-slave’s chapters were neat in that they were written at a 4th-grade level or so, really bringing across her mental simplicity. I thought that was a nice touch, until I realized that the AIs chapters are written at the same level. I expected the AI to use fancy words and complicated concepts. I quickly came to suspect that’s just the native writing level of this book, rather than a stylistic choice. Sooo… there’s that.

But the child-slave chapters soon grew boring too. Any difficulties are solved quickly and with a minimum of tension. There is nothing to look forward to from one chapter to the next. I stopped reading the book 2/3rds of the way through because I just couldn’t find any reason to open it again.

Also of note – for how many non-humans are in this book, there aren’t actually ANY non-humans in this book. There are lots of humans with tentacles, or humans with scales, or jelly-fish humans that talk by changing color, but every single mind in this book is a recognizably human mind, with human thoughts, emotions, and motivations. Even the AI is basically just a young, slightly-autistic human. It’s the most cliched and underbaked style of space opera possible, a true embodiment of the “aliens are just humans with forehead prosthetics” trope.

Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Another interesting mix (two meetings in a row!). Some of our readers really liked the simplicity of the story, and truly enjoyed the sincerity and earnestness of the writing. It is, in a way, the opposite of Red Rising. Where Red Rising is an obviously soulless product extruded to collect entertainment dollars, Closed and Common Orbit has a lot of heart. If there’s one good thing that you can say about all 14 year old’s diaries, it’s that they are always intensely earnest. So if that’s your jam, this’ll do ya good.

It was fun seeing the breakdown between people who require a compelling narrative and those who just want to hang out with a character they like for a while. Both sides acknowledged that the other was correct in their claims, but they simply didn’t find that that affected their enjoyment (or lack thereof). It’s impossible to hate this book. But it’s entirely possible to find it a tedious waste of time, and be surprised that there’s enough people out there who like it that it ended up a Hugo Finalist. The discussion of this was interesting in its own right.

If this was any other book I’d say Not Recommended, because there’s tons of books out there that are a tedious waste of time and nothing really sets this one apart… except that it’s a Hugo Finalist. So if your book club is interested in seeing what this sort of thing reads like, I guess Mildly Recommended?

May 112017

Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Synopsis: A young captain, aided by the ghost of a genius-but-insane general, must retake an impenetrable space fortress from the rebels that have seized control of it — in a universe where the laws of physics can be changed by consensus belief.

Book Review: First thing to note is that this is a Science Fantasy. That’s a fairly new term for an old concept. It’s been said that genre is mainly defined by its furniture, and I basically agree with this. So what do you call it when the furniture is both Science Fiction – spaceships, lasers, computers – and Fantasy – ghosts, ritual magic, sword fights? You call it Science Fantasy. It’s generally closer to Warhammer 40K than Star Wars, but both of those count. So, if you don’t like magic in your SF, you may not like this.

The magic in Ninefox Gambit is particularly neat, because the conceit is that consensus belief (as expressed through holy days and religious ritual) alters the laws of physics. That means that if enough people start believing things outside of official dogma your super-powerful space weapons and exotic defenses stop working, and your stardrives break down and you can’t keep the empire together. Publicly torturing heretics to reinforce orthodox belief becomes a matter of both galactic security and personal safety (who wants to find out what happens when your artificial gravity or inertial dampners stop working?).

The fact that the story is conveyed within an altered physics by a character who is native to that physics makes the world endlessly fascinating. When a fox-servitor hops up *on the air* to come level with a table was my first big “Oh, wow, this is nothing like my physics” moment. In places light has texture. It’s relentlessly cool. But it’s also dense and alien, and all these things are conveyed by just thrusting you in the world and letting you figure it out via context, so the reading requires work. It took me as long a read this book as one twice it’s size normally would, because it was slow going parsing what was going on. I view this as a mark in the book’s favor, but don’t underestimate the time this will take, and don’t rush through it or you’ll lose lots of important details.

The plot is mil-fic layered over espionage. I find this a bit of a problem, because I’m not that big a fan of mil-fic, but I wasn’t ever bored, so at least it wasn’t bad mil-fic. The espionage added an interesting aspect, but… well…

I fell in love with this book early, due to the rich complexity and the LIBRARIES of potential here. The insane general who can only speak to the protagonist (Cheris) is basically an AI-in-a-box, with Cheris’s mind as the box! And she has to rely on him to win the battle, while being very careful not to let him escape, or betray the empire covertly, or subvert her into joining him. I thought the line “When he sounds sane and the rest of the world doesn’t, you know it’s time to pull the trigger” was the best freakin’ setup in the history of mental-battles ever. I was looking forward to some serious Death Note/Sword Of Good-style mind-fuckery.

The general’s mysterious mass-slaughter betrayal centuries ago was a fantastic set-up for some sort of Traitor Baru/Mycroft Canner/Cold Equations style “forced to do horrific thing for the greater good” backstory. The servitor’s secret society who’s existence must remain hidden from the humans was fascinating. There was just sooooo much deliciousness here that I still get excited thinking about it!

Plus the writing is gorgeous.

But in the end it all boils down to a basic plot with pretty simplistic motivations. All that potential is wasted in the service of a regular ol’ good person v evil empire story. It’s well done, and I feel like the parent who complains that their super-genius child is wasting their potential simply getting A’s in regular school when they could be pushing into early-college classes and super-advanced hard stuff. Like, it’s the kid’s life, it’s the kid’s potential, they can use it any way they please. But it’s still so heartbreaking to know what’s possible, and not see it realized.

I think this is an amazing set up for what could be one of the most epic Rational Fics ever. I kinda (very much) hope that someone in the RatFic community picks this up and creates the fanfic that makes it what I wish it was. :) Which sounds awful to say, and I’m sure Lee wouldn’t thank me for poo-pooing on their ending. I’m sorry! I loved the rest of it so much.

Anyway, despite the flat ending, still Recommended. Enough coolness in there to make it worth it, and maybe someone will be inspired to take it further.

Book Club Review: An interesting mix. This seems very much a book that grabs you early or turns you off early. A few of our members just didn’t get (or didn’t like) the “physics is altered by consensus beliefs” thing, and so the magic was chaotic and confusing and the universe made no sense to them. To be fair, the magic is chaotic and confusing, and the universe is intentionally bizarre. If you don’t pick up several core concepts fairly quickly the book is borderline nonsensical. Even among those who got it, not everyone appreciated it.

Due to the strangeness of the setting, most of the discussion ended up circling around that. Exploring the implications and/or complaining about the obfuscating explanations. The major theme(s?) of the book were lost among world building details and explosions. I don’t think this is bad though, we still had a pretty fun time talking.

It’s also a Hugo Finalist, so a bunch of other people will also have read it. One can discuss what traits likely caught the attention of Hugo readers, and how one feels about literary awards generally.

If your group is up for a challenge, then Recommended.

Apr 272017

Red Rising, by Pierce Brown

Synopsis: Another crappy remake of Hunger Games.

Book Review: The worst part of Red Rising isn’t that it’s a crappy remake. The worst part is that it’s so blatantly obvious that this is a completely mercenary, soulless work meant to cash in on a fad. There is no joy or passion in this writing. You can literally see Brown just taking large chunks of good books and putting them together in typical Hollywood fashion while changing a few words. He preserves the corpses of the works he’s looting, while discarding all the soul and emotion they once held. It is a monstrosity.

It starts with a crappy remake of Braveheart for motivation, uses a crappy remake of Hunger Games for setting/plot, and runs heavily as a crappy remake of Ender’s Game (with medieval weaponry) for its action. It temporarily marred my memories of the previous works (slightly) with its grubby paws.

And due to its soullessness, it’s impossible to care about anyone in the story, or anything that’s happening.

Actually, I take back what I said at the top. The ACTUAL worst part of Red Rising is that it’s successful. It sells spectacularly, with the 3rd book in the series making it to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, and it is now being made into a movie. Brown’s rich now. It worked. Even though these books are the Transformers Franchise of SF Lit. As Cracked puts it “The question isn’t what’s wrong with him, the question is what is wrong with US.”

Also, I want to know who in Del Rey decided this should NOT be categorized as YA. Then I want that person to lose their job, and contract a very painful rash, and have their house catch on fire. I dislike most YA, and if it had been categorized correctly at least I would have been prepared. This is a STELLAR example of the worst of YA. It is NOTHING but YA tropes, stacked on each other, and sold to the YA audience. Look, you incredibly cynical, soulless, motherfucker at Del Rey – you and I both know that just because your YA novel has murder, rape, and cannibalism, that does NOT make it an “adult” novel (whatever the fuck that means). It is simply YA with murder, rape, and cannibalism. I hate you, don’t lie to us.

Not Recommended With Extreme Prejudice.

Book Club Review: Some people enjoyed it. I don’t judge people for enjoying something, everyone should be free to like whatever they like. Hey, I love Tinglers! I don’t read Romance, but I don’t begrudge people their Romance novels. I don’t judge Romance authors either, because they are putting out something they love, something with passion in it. All this goes for Lit Fic and YA as well. Enjoy what you enjoy, write what inspires you!

I do judge the cynical author who doesn’t have any passion for his story, or any care for his art. Much of the discussion in our group was along those lines, with some people (like myself) being offended at the brazenness of this exploit, and others saying “Eh, it was an easy read and I was entertained.” I don’t know if all groups will split this way, or if people will find other, deeper themes to discuss. But I cannot, in good conscience, inflict this “story” on anyone else. Not Recommended.

Apr 182017

City of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Synopsis: In a world where humans killed their gods, the functioning of certain holy relics suggests one might have survived, and the consequences if this isn’t fixed could be world-ending.

Book Review: This is a sequel to City of Stairs, a book I really liked! Unfortunately, the sequel has lost much of the mojo.

To start, the protagonist of City of Blades isn’t nearly as charming or likable. The setting feels much less realized, and with the exception of a single cool fight scene, there just aren’t the Moments of Awesome that the first book had.

It also is basically a low-budget remake of the first book. The plot is nearly identical, with a few details changed here and there. But again, a government agent working in secret is investigating a murder, and discovers clues that a deity may not be as dead as was thought, and has to work against skeptical local government interference and the plotting of cultists in order to unravel the mystery and stop the god.

Now, I understand many people like this sort of thing. There’s quite a number of authors who make a fine living by having written one really good book, and then just re-writing it every year or two with the details changed but nothing of substance differing. I understand the human pull to relive and relish the familiar and the comfortable. It’s every sitcom episode, it’s every romance novel, it’s every Disney movie (and I mean every property Disney owns, not just the animated stuff, side-eye-at-several-franchises,you-know-who-you-are). But I find it boring. Please give me something new.

I dunno, am I a whore for novelty? Will I some day burn through all the creative new stuff, and live a life of artistic ennui, never satisfied with a world I’ve drained of color? Hm. A topic for another day. In any case, I consider this story to be somewhat creatively lazy.

And just as bad, I found it lazy in terms of craft as well. The first half plods along slowly. Then we get a GIANT MONOLOGUE that reveals everything to our protagonist, in the worst tradition of “Let me tell you the entire plot now.” It’s not a bad plot, but that is not how to skillfully guide your reader through a plot! You might as well just have handed us your outline. I expect to have a fair bit of plot revealed to me over time, within the story, preferably via actions/investigations of the protagonist. To have so much of it laid out as a lecture is unexciting.

Then in the second half it feels like the author lost a lot of interest in the story, and sorta goes through the motions hurriedly in order to get us to the end.

I can’t say this was a bad book, really. It was OK. But there was nothing here I found interesting, and quite a bit that I thought was subpar. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not bad. We did talk a bit about the nature of sequels, and the human desire for repetition vs novelty. Also the demands we place on creative people (“Make your next album like your previous album, I want more of what I loved! But not TOO much like it, I want it to be new!”), and how one evolves in their creative lifetime. But those things don’t really necessitate reading this particular book.

There was praise of the cool scene in the middle, and some griping about the various things that annoyed us (grenades are not demolition charges!), and most people in the book club enjoyed this to some extent. A few liked the book quite a lot. So I’m reluctant to say one should avoid this. But there are so many other, better books out there, that I can’t recommend it either. If you’d like a good book in this setting that is new and interesting, I’d steer you to the predecessor, City of Stairs. :) But as for City of Blades – Not Recommended.

Apr 042017

Synopsis: An orphan child prodigy is held by the military, who conduct bizarre experiments on her and her classmates. The outside world appears to be crumbling.

Book Review: The good parts of this book are REALLY GOOD. And basically all the good parts are the ones focusing on the eponymous protagonist Melanie. She is an absolute delight to read. She reminds me very much of Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres of HPMoR. Prodigious, with tons of book-smarts, but no idea about social conventions or how to relate to other people.

And very very isolated from the world, due to her captivity by the military. We realize quickly that Melanie has never seen the outside world. Here’s a fantastic depiction of a super-smart kid with huge gaps in her knowledge trying to describe a new object her teacher has brought in from the outside world:

> The big stick breaks into smaller sticks, and again and again, so there’s more and more of them, like breaking down a great big number in the long list of its prime factors.
“It’s a branch,” Joanne says.

The entire first part of the book is full of this sort of stuff, and it’s a delight to watch. Plus Melanie has the most adorable puppy-crush on her teacher. And we get more and more clues as to what’s going on with this research project and why the outside world seems to be falling to pieces, until at some point the reader realizes what The Thing is, and we go “Ooooooooh shiiiiiit!! That is a really good thing!”

I’m being as vague as I can, because the moment of realization is really cool, and it’s as easy to spoil as “Snape Kills Dumbledore.” You cannot even read most blurbs or reviews without risking spoilers. So try to avoid those. It’s worth it.

That being said, about a quarter of the way through the book the focus shifts away from Melanie. She and a handful of adults (both scientists and soldiers) escape from the military facility, and after that the book becomes pretty boring. It has a few bright spots here and there, but nothing worth the slog.

I mean, it’s not painful or anything. But it’s just the exact same thing we’ve seen a thousand times before. Some running, some hiding, some shooting, some yelling. There is nothing new here at all. It’s color-by-numbers. It could be cut-and-paste from any of a thousand shlock stories.

But then we get to the ending, and the ending is once again freakin’ amazing. It’s the bright nova at the end that inverts everything that we were presented with in the first quarter of the novel. A perfect mirroring, and it feels so right!

This book was adapted from a well-regarded short story, and one can tell exactly where the short story ideas are. They are the first quarter of the book. Up to page 150 or so. The ending is a fantastic follow-up to the story itself. But everything else, the 3/4ths that’s in the middle, is basically just filler. It feels like Carey was just running up the word count so he could get a novel out of this, and it’s NOT a novel-length idea!

Unfortunately, with the publishing world being what it is, only novels make money. So if you have a brilliant story idea, the only way to be financially rewarded for it is to write the cool story, and then bloat it with lots of meaningless extra stuff until you’ve got enough mass to sell it as a novel. Bleh.

As published – Not Recommended. But if you read up to the point where they leave the military base, and then skip to the second-to-last chapter (and maybe ask me or someone who’s read it for a quick summary of what happens in between) – Totes Recommended.

Book Club Review: I’m torn on this. It has the benefits of being accessible and fairly easy to read. It’s mostly enjoyable, and there’s several cool things to talk about, as there would be with any good short story. However there isn’t a ton there, because like I said, there’s a lot of filler. On the other hand, that makes a topic in itself, sort of. And also may bring on conversation about the state of the genre in general (the book is a very specific genre that everyone will be extremely familiar with). And the good parts really ARE good. Several people in our book club didn’t mind reading through the formulaic parts.

I guess, since it’s unreasonable to ask a book club to skip the majority of a book, I have to go with Not Recommended. That being said, your mileage may vary, I’m pretty unsure about this one.

Mar 172017

100 Ghost Soup, by Robert Chansky

Synopsis: An orphan adopted by a fox-spirit becomes a pawn in a centuries-old plot to save a village of ghosts from damnation.

Personal Note: I am familiar with Rob Chansky, I see him a few times each year and we often critique each other’s work. I do my best to be impartial in this review, but my personal liking of him invariably must color some things.

Book Review: It’s been said that you can’t read a piece of good fiction without getting a feel for its author’s personality. This is never more true than when you actually know the author in person. You can read read Fifth Season and get a sense of simmering anger and the Will To Justice. You can read The Martian or HPMoR and get a feeling of optimism and joie de vivre. But those are impressions. When you read a piece by someone you know personally, it’s surprisingly like having them in the room with you, engaging in conversation.

100 Ghost Soup is like this, and if there’s one word I would use to describe Rob, it’s Contemplative. Reading this novel is much like slowly building a giant pot of rich soup, adding in bits and simmering and stirring. It is comfortable and warm, and spends a fair bit of time ruminating.

This has both good and bad effects. On the good side, there is a lot of wonderfully evocative prose. Turns of phrase that linger in your mind. A gorgeously realized ghost town that makes you feel like your inside it, and memorable characters. The plot resolution is delightfully trick-sy and wordplay/loophole-ish in EXACTLY the way you feel a trickster archetype would hoodwink the gods and laugh at them afterwards. It feels foxy.

In addition, it really captures the alien afterlife of a Very Different culture, the same way Ghost Bride did. It’s bizarre and fascinating for someone as steeped in the Western tradition as myself to read of a heaven that is very much a spiritual bureaucracy, often set in opposition to the material world. This heaven has their own affairs to concern themselves with, and doesn’t have time for your petty mortal whinings. It feels terrifyingly indifferent to me, TBH.

On the minus side, the plot does move rather slowly, in part because it is so contemplative. The denouement in particular went on for too long. More unfortunate is that the protagonist (Jimo) doesn’t really do much of anything. He is a pawn, along for the ride and witnessing what’s happening without any hand in the events. The lack of agency makes him forgettable and makes me wonder why this story wasn’t told from someone else’s perspective.

As if to emphasize how little agency Jimo has, he’s written as extremely naive, to the point that one wonders if he suffers from a disorder of some sort (No, you do NOT engage in blood rituals with a stranger you just met in an abandoned train station in a ghost town, no matter HOW rude it would be to not give him tea, are you freakin’ kidding me??). I suspect this is to hand-wave some of the more implausible tricks Jimo falls for, such as his extremely unlikely return to Beijing after the ping-pong match. I kinda consider that cheating, and I don’t particularly enjoy super-naive characters.

All in all, this was an enjoyable read and I don’t regret it. The conceit of my reviews is “would I recommend the book to myself-from-one-month-ago,” and that throws me for a tiny loop on this one. I still would recommend it to me personally, because I know Rob and reading this added an extra bit of enjoyment due to that fact. (In related news, I highly encourage people to go see local bands if there’s a friend-of-a-friend in the band, and to otherwise participate in art and activities on the local level with people they can interact with in meatspace. Highly fulfilling!) However if I were to consider a person just like me but who didn’t actually know Rob, that doesn’t apply. And for someone with my tastes, this book is a bit too slow, and the protag a bit too non-agenty, to really be considered great. It’s still a perfectly fine book, but given how little time for reading there is, I have to go with Not Recommended.

As an additional note, the climax contains the best sensory description of eating delicious food that I’ve ever seen in print. It made me really want some of that soup.

Book Club Review: Basically everything I said in the Book Review goes for the Book Club Review as well, writ slightly larger. It makes for some fine chat, especially about trickster spirits and cultural differences. And a bit of talk will go into trying to decipher the twisty illusions near the middle. It feels like something that could be discussed over a friendly dinner. :) But again, there’s nothing truly compelling that makes me want to grab the person sitting next to me and say “Oh man, I really gotta bring up Thing X!” So again, with feelings of warmth and not to say it’s bad or anything – Not Recommended.

Mar 042017

Planetfall, by Emma Newman

Synopsis: In a post-scarcity utopia, a woman struggles with decades of guilt by running away from everything.

Book Review: The majority of this book is kinda mediocre.

It can be hard to create meaningful conflict in a utopia, because what is there to fight about? This leaves most things feeling very low-stakes. The author also has an immensely irritating way of constantly bringing up this Dark Act in the protagonist’s past, and then pointedly not telling us anything about it. Every few dozen pages it’s “but I couldn’t do anything about it, because of the Dark Act in my past,” which is exactly how to NOT do this sort of thing. You’re supposed to hint about it, and drop clues in the protagonists actions and speech patterns. Chasm City did this thing wonderfully. Planetfall hacks at it clumsily. Plus from page 1 we all want to scream at the book “YES, WE KNOW SHE KILLED A BUNCH OF PEOPLE AND THEN COVERED IT UP FOR THE GOOD OF THE COLONY, GET ON WITH IT ALREADY!”

The book does do some cool things with mental illness, I think. The revelation of the protagonists compulsive hoarding, and how much it rules her life, is interesting. Our book clubs pysch major didn’t like it, said it was a superficial handling, but I found it one of the neat things here. Unfortunately that’s not really enough to hang a whole book on.

The colonists are remarkably incurious for a religious cult living in the literal shadow of their giant god, but I dunno, I’ve seen enough crazy shit in real-life religions to let that go. Their attitude of “eh, whatever” is a good summary of how I felt reading this book. It was easy enough to read and it didn’t hurt or anything, but I wouldn’t write home about it.

Until the end. Oh dear lord.

There are three different climaxes. The only one that is related to the rest of the novel, thematically, is the rest of the colony discovering our protagonist is a hoarder and tearing apart her house in schadenfreude. It fits the story, but it’s not particularly well done. A good handling could make this sort of thing feel like the end of the world. Instead it was just sad. But that climax is quickly abandoned for RANDOM ATTACK BY SAVAGES!

Which is completely unforeshadowned and basically bullshit because it comes out of nowhere. Also, we’re supposed to believe seven savages with knives are able to overwhelm a modern colony of 1,000 space-faring peoples? And where they hell did the savages get explosives? After a quick raid they kill a dozen people and kidnap ten more and flee back into the wilderness, which makes me wonder – what the hell was their end-game? They aren’t worried about the fact that they pissed off 975 people with the ability to print guns and vehicles on demand, with orbital cameras? (Yes, the savages know this, one lived with the colonists for some time!)

But without a doubt the worst, most infuriating thing is the third climax. Protagonist enters god/god’s building and walks through what is basically the worlds easiest puzzle game. It’s laid out exactly like a video game, except the puzzles are aimed at the 5-8 year old demographic. Not ONE other colonist in the past 20 years bothered to sneak into this building to try this?

Our protagonist makes it to the end of the video game, discovers that progenitor aliens seeded the galaxy with humanoid life, and basically kills herself. I mean, technically she transcends physical existence and is now at peace and one with everything, but that’s functionally indistinguishable from suicide. And this is while A. The rest of her colony is being ravaged by savages with knives, and B. there is still a religious taboo against entering god’s building, so this secret will die with her.

In theory I guess anyone else could walk through the puzzle rooms as easily as she did, but that is some serious bullshit. Your people need you, you have the secret of god or whatever, and you’re just gonna say “eh, fuck those losers” and kill yourself? SCREW YOU.

Not Recommended.

Personal Musing: It’s books like this that make me wonder why I bother with reading unknown authors. I feel like I wasted many hours of my life on this, and I look back on Obelisk Gate and think “I should just stick with known quantities. If I already know someone is good, or a book is getting a lot of buzz, I read that, and don’t waste my time on the rest.” It’s seriously disheartening to run into a climax that makes me want to hurl a book across the room.

But then I think… if it wasn’t for picking up random books, I would’ve never read Perdido Street Station. OK, that’s not entirely true, I would’ve heard about how great it is eventually. But it took a bunch of people willing to pick up a random first book by an unknown author to get to that point. And more to the point – I actually never would have read Vellum, as most people don’t like it and I’ve never heard about from anyone but myself. And it’s the best thing I’ve ever read.

So I guess I’m willing to take shots in the dark from time to time, for the possibility of landing a hit like that. At least I get a blog post out of it! :)

Book Club Review: There are a few interesting things to talk about. It seems the author is asserting that creating a post-scarcity utopia on Earth is impossible, due to the legacy issues we have, and our population load. But setting up a new colony on an untouched planet with a thousand people and tech only a few decades further along than our own could be viable utopia. That is both hopeful (we’re so close!) and really depressing (we can only do it if almost everyone else is gone!).

The juxtaposition of the post-scarcity society and the literally hunter-gathering savage society is fascinating and heartbreaking. It really hit home for me when the savage boy asks “Do you live here because that’s where the food is?” Ouch.

That being said, all this was overshadowed by the truly awful ending, and the way nothing really held together. Not Recommended.


Feb 282017

Hugo AwardHerein I continue my tradition of pointing at stories that I think are really good, and will be getting my Hugo Nominations this year. Remember, you only have until March 17th to nominate, so don’t tarry too long!

Sadly, I only have so much time to read, and I know there are tons of things I haven’t read yet, many of which I would very likely enjoy quite a bit. This has been proven to me every year so far, and I don’t doubt this year will be the same. So these are the things I liked most out of what I read this year, which is a limited pool.



This year I didn’t read enough novelettes to feel like I can make any sort of recommendations. :/


Short Stories:

Mika Model, by Paolo Bacigalupi – I’ve loved Paolo’s work for a long time, and he delivers again with this fantastic story about Super Stimulus, and rights for Turing-Passing Beings who aren’t provably sapient. It does a fantastic job of really making both sides in the conflict emotionally and intellectually compelling, so at the end you don’t know which side you want to win. This is a thing I really love in the fiction I consume, and one of the things that I like most about RatFic. Plus, you know, sexbots, who doesn’t like those?

What You Need, by Van Aaron Hughes – A fairy-tale/fable about scrupulosity, which I don’t see written about very often. More importantly, it’s written well, and tells a fantastic little story. Very tidy, and short enough that I believe it qualifies as flash fiction. It’s one of those fast,  high-impact tales that just comes out of nowhere and lands a great blow.

Fall To Her, by Alexis A. Hunter – Another Super Stimulus story, because I apparently really like those. And I suppose this reveals what stimulus I find most interesting IRL as well? In 2015 I couldn’t stop telling everyone I knew about how great Kenneth: A User’s Manual was, so I suppose this has been a thing for a while. Anyway, gorgeous story, with good Other-Minds for aliens, and just soooo pretty to read. Also pretty darn short!

Daughter of the Drifting, by Jason Heller (not available online) – This story appeared in Swords v. Cthulhu with me, and I think it was my favorite from that collection (although I admit I haven’t finished reading it all yet, cuz I suck). You know how Lovecraftian Gods are supposed to be incomprehensible, in a universe that if one were to try to actually understand it would drive one insane? Yeah, Heller actually did that, and it’s fantastic. His universe is incomprehensible, and you shouldn’t try to make sense of it, because you will only fail. Our heroine serves as a living sheath for a sword, and is yanked back and forth through time-space whenever the Elder God who owns the sword needs to draw it and use it, which must be sorta a metaphor because what the fuck, but only partly, because you get the sense there’s actual cutting involved on some multi-dimensional quasi-physical time-rending level. Anyway, as the poor damned human stuck as a tool of a god beyond reckoning, our heroine’s understanding is neither needed nor bothered with. It is one of the first times I’ve truly felt a sense of Lovecraftian Otherness and Alien Incomprehensibility that I think Lovecraft himself was often shooting for but never really (for me) achieved. I believe this story will be my standard for Unknowable Nihilistic Universe for a long time.

Everyone Is Todd, by Marmoulman – Because I can’t go a year without a shout out to RatFic of some kind. :) A great little piece about slightly-imperfect alignment leading to a missed utopia. Probably should come with a content warning about legit existential horror. However not so bad that I couldn’t read it.



I won’t go into these in depth here, because I’ve already talked about them at some length in my reviews. But I’ll be nom’ing:

The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins (my review)

Too Like The Lightning, by Ada Palmer (my review)

All The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders (my review)

Crystal Society, by Max Harms (my review)

And despite how much I love the Broken Earth trilogy, I’m really on the fence about nominated Obelisk Gate. Not because it isn’t great (it is!), but because I’m not sure I should be going around nominating every book in a trilogy, and honestly, it’d probably be best to stick with nom’ing the ground-breaking first book, and (if it deserves it) the holy-shit-that-was-awesome last book, and leaving any Middle Books out of the process entirely.



My Eligibility

As one does, I’ll also mention my eligibility this year.

Of All Possible Worlds is eligible for Best Short Story

I (Eneasz Brodski) am eligible for the Joseph Campbell Award for Best New Writer (in my second and final year of eligibility)

The Methods of Rationality Podcast is eligible for Best Podcast.