Sep 192016
 

ghostbrideThe Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

Synopsis: At the turn of the century, a young girl must marry the dead son of a rich family to save her father from ruin, but he’s a total jerk.

Book Review: An interesting animal! First, this book feels like an Urban Fantasy that’s set in an early 1900s Chinese colonial holding rather than in modern-day Chicago. It’s a neat blending of modern style and old setting.

The thing I most enjoyed about this book was its exploration of the afterlife mythology of this culture. It’s not exactly Chinese, and not exactly Malaysian, but kinda a blending of the two that happened in that time/place. I am almost entirely ignorant of that mythology, so seeing their afterlife beliefs coming to life in these pages was entirely fascinating. It’s very much the Bureaucratic Hell version of afterlife, except everyone goes there. Then they suffer through a century or so of paperwork and red tape and corrupt government officials until they die for real. Not the worst of tortures, but certainly not a pleasant afterlife. :) Almost every chapter had something new and fascinating that kept my interest. And the prose is basically well done, in some places slipping into cliché, in other places really shining.

The thing about this novel though… well, just a week or so before I read it I came across this essay about the Basic Girl Story (as compared to the Basic Boy Story), and I’m glad I did, because it put everything into perspective. (OK, tumblr post, but basically an informal essay)

The Basic Boy Story is “common boy is found to be Special, with Special Powers or Destiny or some such. He gets training under a mentor, pushes his abilities to new levels, and completes some difficult task. He returns to his home town as a much-lauded hero.”

The Basic Girl Story is “common girl is found to be Special, with Special Powers or Destiny or some such. She meets a Gruff Loner. She is put in danger several times, and in each case rescued because she is Precious and Worth Rescuing. In the end she and Gruff Loner fall in love, the danger passes, and the most significant change in her life is that now she’s happy.”

The essay itself compares The Matrix to Jupiter Ascending as the two Basic story examples, and it’s interesting and short. But the main point is that neither story is bad, they are just… basic. We’ve seen them both a hundred times. There’s no shame in enjoying them, they are so basic because they are widely enjoyable! But unless they incorporate some sort of radical twist or concept (like The Matrix had), they won’t cover new ground.

The Ghost Bride is the essence of a good Basic Girl Story. It hits every beat, and if you’ve read a few of these before, you can see everything coming from a mile away. I knew when the Gruff Loner was removed from the story that he wasn’t really gone for good – he had to come back for the declaration of love at the end. But I was hoping maybe, MAYBE our protagonist would solve at least one problem by herself now. Nope. He’s back before you know it to save her yet again. Ah well, I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. :)

If you like that sort of story, this really is a great execution of it! And the interesting world makes up for a lot. But it doesn’t really grab me, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: The book isn’t bad for book clubs. The exposure to a foreign mythology is really neat, and it’s a fast read, and not an unenjoyable one. There are a couple things to talk about, such as how much society has progressed since the time when it was hard to marry off a nearly-spinsterly 18-year-old girl.

I personally was bothered by how the book strongly pushed the narrative of “parents have an obligation to sacrifice everything for the child’s happiness.” I realize that parents sacrifice a lot, and this is generally good. But Choo seemed to speak very approvingly of a young mother who committed suicide so that her daughter could marry the guy she wanted to. That’s really overdoing it IMHO. You don’t have an obligation to kill yourself so your bratty 14 year old can run off with her True Love. These over-the-top sacrifices, and the entitlement of the children to them, really rubbed me the wrong way. That sparked a fair bit of conversation. However I think this was a peculiarity of my own, and most people wouldn’t think that much of it, and wouldn’t make it a talking point.

All things considered, it isn’t bad. No one disliked it. Most people weren’t significantly excited by it either though, so I can’t give an Enthusiastic Consent recommendation. Ultimately, Not Recommended.

Aug 252016
 

lightningToo Like The Lightning, by Ada Palmer

Synopsis: This book is about your reaction to it. Heed the trigger warnings. The plot is incidental.

Book Review: Wow, man, where do I begin? Ambitious is an understatement.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Yes, this book has trigger warnings. It needs them, which I’ll get into in tomorrow’s in-depth, spoileriffic post. It is impressive that Palmer got trigger warnings into her book, because that’s frowned upon in “serious literature.” The way she did this is by having the trigger warnings be integral to the story itself. This book takes place several hundred years in the future, and humanity has (re)embraced censorship for societal good. The conceit of this book is that it is a history written by a person in that era, so the book itself must first be approved by the censorship bodies. This provides your first dive into this world – where the approval and comments of various censorship boards preface the history itself. You learn right off the bat that not only does this world have censorship, it has strong anti-religious censorship, and it is controlled by a number of vying factions who have very unique ways of expressing themselves. One censorship body is an arm of the Mitsubishi corporation. Another writes only in Latin. It is incredibly effective world-building, and the tigger warnings themselves almost sneak by you! Which is why I felt the need to say “No, seriously, heed them.”

The novel is an INTENSE exercise in world building and character crafting. Almost every page reveals something new about the world, or how our protagonist exists within it. It builds itself up slowly, but with astounding richness. One member of our bookclub said “It’s like one of those Magic Eye pictures, and comes into focus as you read.”

I will say that I almost didn’t read past the first chapter, because I found it infuriating. The setting is a high-tech hard-SF future. The first chapter focuses almost entirely on a wishy-washy mealy-mouthed priest of the kind I get so damn frustrated with, because every single thing he says is “Well, SOME people say this, OTHERS say that.” Or “What do you think? Yes, that could be.” He’s saying all this to a pre-pubescent boy, who really could use some real fucking answers that we actually HAVE and could provide to him! The priest’s job is literally to encourage any hare-brained religious thought, even including something like “Well, do you think Thor creates lightning with his magic hammer? It could be! Some people say that.” The rage, it was like flames, at the side of my face. You learn later on in the book that there’s a very good reason that society is shaped this way, but I almost didn’t make it through it.

In addition to that, we are in a high-tech hard-SF future, and in chapter one we are introduce to a literal god-child. A kid who can create miracles. Any toy he touches comes to life. Not via holograms, or nano-fog, or any sort of “looks like magic” tech. Literal magic. Plastic soldiers turn into 2-inch tall flesh-and-blood humans who talk, think, have internal organs and blood, and can be killed in the ways you’d imagine. It drove me nuts, and I wanted to hurl the book across the room. (Again, I later came to appreciate this, which I’ll cover tomorrow)

The one thing that kept me going was the absolutely enthralling writing style. This novel is written in what I’m now thinking of as an “Enlightenment Style”, wherein the author directly addresses the reader. (Well, that and seeing lots of praise from authors I respect) It is the most unique and fascinating style I’ve ever read, and the lush (and bizarre!) world made me decide to give it another chapter. And the more I read, the more I was intrigued. The narrator not only addresses you directly, he later begins to speak FOR you, and you engage him in a dialog in the pages of the book! It’s fantastic! And he’s such a genuinely good person that you really start to care for him. I decided I would keep going until I got bored.

And then I hit That Scene. The Promised Reveal. I will not say what it is, because it would not be fair to spoil this book for you in that way. But every person who has read this book will know immediately what Scene I mean, and they will give me a knowing look and say “Yeah. Man. That fuckin’ Scene.” I still feel charges of emotion over a week later, typing about it. I literally had to put the book down, and walk away from it for several days. It made me think about myself. It made me think about what I want in fiction, and how I relate to an author. I was almost positive I’d come back to finish the book, but I needed some time. And maybe I wouldn’t come back after all.

Of course, I did. But the amount of introspection and emotional reaction I got from That Scene alone was amazing. I will remember this book for decades. And while it is the most powerful scene in the novel, it is not the only good one, there are several other brilliant moments throughout it. This novel just came out a few months ago, and I will be surprised if it doesn’t end up on a number of award lists.

That being said – this novel is slow. My summary was a little facetious – there is actually a plot. But you don’t really find out what it is until you’re about 80% of the way through the book. The rest of the time it is world-building, character-building, and laying groundwork. There are many times when I thought “Why do I care about these people? Who cares about that a popularity contest result was leaked a couple days early? What is my investment in any of this?” The majority of the action is dialog or conversation, much of it often deeply philosophical. You know the anime we grew up on, things like Akira or Ghost In the Shell, where characters will break into discussion about the purpose of consciousness and the underpinnings of the human psyche? And it’s a total trip, and you think “damn this is marvelous” and then it goes back to blowing shit up? Imagine that, without the blowing shit up part. Personally, I LOVE that sort of thing. It’s why I hated the first chapter so much (the priest is sooooo wrong and stupid!), but everyone else in the novel has much better and more interesting things to say than that priest. The entire society is based upon Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers, and they act the part.

What I’m saying is, this is a glorious work! It has what I would consider some flaws, but everyone will find different flaws in it, and that’s one of the signs of something that’s more than the sum of its parts. I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece. Maybe it is. But it is certainly unique and exciting.

Before I recommend it – this book is certainly not for everyone. I mean yes, some people will find it boring and dreary. But more importantly – if you are the type of person that is traumatized by the things described in the book’s trigger warnings, you really should stay away. For anyone who falls in that category – strongly not recommended! But since the conceit of my reviews is “What would I say to myself if I could tell the me of 15 days ago if this novel is a good use of their spare reading time over the next 2 weeks?” – Strongly Recommended.

Book Club Review: This is much harder to say. When I was driving in to my book club meeting, I was on edge in a way I haven’t been in years. I suspected some people would hate this. I was worried some people would be angry at me for recommending it.

In the Afterwards, Palmer says that one of her goals in writing this book was to join the Great Conversation. She has succeeded IN SPADES. There is so much to talk about within the pages of this book that I can’t even begin to summarize it all. Normally when I go to a book club meeting, I open my eReader and scroll through my highlighted passages to talk about what I liked. This time I had to take notes on my highlights before I went, because I had highlighted so damn much! You could run three different book club meetings off this one book if you wanted to, tackling different issues each time. It is that rich.

But on the other hand, a couple members felt it was too complex. A couple others stopped reading early-ish, because they grew bored with the slow pace and the low emotional stakes. And, again, if you have any members of your book club who will be triggered by the things presented in the warning, you shouldn’t ask them to read it (and/or make them feel excluded by basing a meeting around a book they can’t read). This is a book that I feel uncomfortable recommending en masse, please use your discretion. That being said, none of us knew what we were getting into when we started it, no one was traumatized or triggered, and we had one of the most exciting and interesting meetings that I’ve been a part of. That can be considered a tacit “Recommended With Cautions.”

Oh, also, the book is Part 1 of 2, and ends with (almost literally) “to be continued.”

Aug 112016
 

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman16085483

Synopsis: A half-dragon teenage living secretly as a human in a country that despises dragons must foil a plot to plunge the two races into renewed warfare.

Book Review: I have a well-known prejudice against YA, so I was initially extremely surprised when I showed up for book club and everyone referred to this as a YA novel. Because I loved it. After thinking on it for about five seconds I realized that yes, this is totally YA. But it is awesome!

The heart of this book is its characters. They pop in bold colors, and feel like real people. Interesting, expressive, often admirable, and always real. I fell in love with all of them.

Particularly interesting to people like me are the dragons, who are basically extremely-thoughtful, Aspergers-ish, geeks. They love math and applied game theory, and have trouble understanding emotions, and give off a bit of a Spock vibe. Seeing a society of such creatures, and the way they are hated by humans, warms my heart. Even moreso when Seraphina (the titular protagonist) starts to discover her own dragon-like tendencies. When she first enters a pub for dragonkind and finds other humans like her, who love to talk about math and are terrible at flirting and other social things, she finally feels like she’s found a home. She’s finding her geek family!! It’s YA for people like us! Sadly, this doesn’t get as much attention as maybe it should. The story focuses more on the Prince and Princess of the kingdom (well, queendom technically), who are very much the Popular Kid crowd. Yet I still related very strongly with the geekiness of Seraphina, and it was kinda gratifying seeing her find acceptance among the cool crowd too.

(Seriously tho, one of the dragons is investigating love, which has been striking some of his comrades, so that he can better understand and combat this malady that has been infesting some of their brightest minds! And he’s willing to face lobotomy as a consequence, to help his people overcome this scourge. How can you not love that?)

It has some fantastic humor based off of this geeky stuff too. When one particular musical instrument is played FAR too loudly near her, Seraphina says “my appreciation increased with the square of the distance separating us”. :D

I also love that much of the conflict is informed by her constant need to lie to everyone about herself. The world of lies she wraps herself in feels very close to home for me. I never feel like I’m being honest with the world, everything is a dance performed so I am not shunned, and Seraphina has the same problem. Her fear of being found out comes with far worse consequences than mine, and that made the story all the more compelling.

Finally, while it ends in a traditional “love triangle” situation, the reader ends up loving all three of the people within it, and more importantly – all three of those people care deeply for each other, and are very close friends! I strongly suspect that this is setting up for a polyamorous triad situation, which would just be the best coup ever for a NYT Best-selling YA series! Yes!! Make it so!

The one downside of this book is that the ending goes on forever. The denouement is 2-3 times longer than a good denouement should be. The final three chapters should NOT have been in this book – they should have been the first three chapters of the sequel. Or just hinted at. It felt very much like the sequel was started at the end of this book, and that’s just clumsy. Yes, we know there are lots of complications that arise due to the events in this book, and much will still happen in this world. We understand not ever thread can be tied up when there’s so much left to do. Don’t go starting the NEXT story within this book! Just finish up the one you have, and start the next story at the beginning of the next novel.

Still, that’s a small drawback to a delightful novel. Recommended!

Book Club Review: In general, I think YA has less to say that can really get adults talking. That was borne out again. While we did talk quite a bit about the things we liked, there wasn’t any deeper conversation that was sparked. Nevertheless, just seeing a YA book that is aimed directly at the growing-up-geeky demographic was so refreshing that I have a hard time saying one shouldn’t read this. I’m glad I read it, and so was everyone else at the book club, it got very high ratings from all. If you’re willing to have a meeting that’s less about theme and more just chatting about a fun book with lots of heart, this is a good one. Recommended in that case, but otherwise the most warm-feeling Not Recommended I can give.

Aug 042016
 

cover_peter-and-the-starcatchersPeter and the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Synopsis: A Peter Pan origin story.

Book Review: This is straight-up very good fanfic. I guess not technically fanfic, since fanfic is fiction that you can’t legally sell, and Peter Pan is in the public domain now. But any reader of fanfic will recognize this in a heartbeat!

It’s a good story. It’s fun, it updates the story for modern audiences (ie: makes Peter Pan relatable, and removes the racism), and it creates a cool magic system that gives a neat alternate explanation for all the stuff we saw in the Disney animated movie. It’s full of witty humor and action. In fact, the entire second half of the book is basically one long, running, climax.

It’s also a very good portrayal of a newly-teenaged boy, if my memory of being 12-13 can be believed. I normally dislike YA, but this was well done. My only real complaint was that the introduction of Tinkerbell felt tacked on, like the authors didn’t want anything to do with her, but felt obligated to have her in there. She should have been left out if she wasn’t going to do anything (she literally just appeared for the span of a few paragraphs to be included in the origin story), and maybe introduced in some future novel where she’d have some reason to exist.

This book was a very quick, light read. That being said, it was a light read because there wasn’t anything of substance here. I had fun reading it, and I’ll probably never think of it again. Very good as a palette cleanser, or if you want to take a break after slogging through something overly-long and tiresome. But nothing to write home about. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: As mentioned above, this is very light. Normally I wouldn’t care for this sort of thing, but it really had impeccable timing for us, having come on the heels of SevenEves. We all needed a break, and this story was delightful and refreshing. It was nice to enjoy a simple thing together, and have a chat. I wouldn’t want to do this sort of thing often, but it’s good to do now and then. So, overall, Not Recommended, but consider Keeping It In Reserve for when your book club needs something like this to recharge. :)

Jul 212016
 

300x300xhugo-awards.jpg.pagespeed.ic.AsqaLzncTzMost years we read all the Hugo-nominated short stories and novelettes in our book club, as generally all (or nearly all) of them are available free online. This year, that is not the case. :( (yes, I blame Vox Day). So we were unable to read them as a group. However I still read them myself for voting reasons, and my impressions are below.

This is the last of the Hugo works I’ll be reviewing. If you have a Hugo membership and you haven’t voted yet, you should do so very soon, there’s less than two weeks left! And they warn that their serves often get hammered on the last day.

 

Best Novelette

And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed, Feb 2015)

I don’t really understand the love for this piece. It’s cyberpunk, and I grew up in cyberpunk. It is my home genre, I love everything about it. But “You Shall Know Her” doesn’t do anything new. This story has been covered a dozen times, from Ghost In The Shell to the starter adventure given in the CyberPunk 2020 Rulebook!

Nor does it fit quite right. It feels a little off, like someone trying to emulate a style that doesn’t come naturally to them, and they can’t exactly pull it off. It goes over the top in an attempt to imitate a form, and ends up feeling like a good B-movie. Those can be tons of fun, but they aren’t really award winning.

 

“Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)

This is a perfect example of “making the action scenes boring”, and it’s nothing but actions scenes. We see a bunch of stuff blowing up, but we don’t care who wins, because we were never given a reason to. There aren’t any characters or stakes we care about. And even the fights are yawn-inducing, because it’s a bunch of technobabble that doesn’t mean anything without a world built up around it to give it context.

 

Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, trans. Ken Liu (Uncanny Magazine, Jan-Feb 2015)

In this story, the Chinese government found a way to double (or triple?) the population density of Beijing by folding it up. This lets a lot more people live there, but in exchange they have to sleep a lot more. Instead of losing 1/3rd of your life to sleep, you have to lose (depending on how rich you are) either 1/2, 2/3rds, or 5/6ths. However this is apparently still a good deal, because millions of people jump at the chance, and compete for the opportunity.

This story also got a lot of positive attention, and I’m even MORE confused as to why. It’s an interesting premise, but it certainly isn’t ground-breaking. It’s message is dirt-simple: being poor sucks. Um, ok. Can you say something more about that? Or just make us feel it?

Because, worst of all, this story is poorly written. I’m just gonna come right out and say it. I don’t care if it’s a translation issue or a cultural variance or something. By every standard that I apply to prose, this is just plain bad writing. It is flat and emotionless. It tells rather than shows. It paints in broad, flat sweeps, rather than poignant details. The sentence structure is clunky. The POV jumps around at random, sometimes even within paragraphs. Even if this was an AMAZING new concept with message that made you go “Ohhhhhh… shit!!!” those would still be extreme sins. They’d have to be truly fantastic to make up for prose this crappy. But it doesn’t have any of those. It’s just plain “meh” in all respects, and crappy in writing. Heck, this is on the same level as last year’s “On A Spiritual Plain”. I have no idea how this made it on any award lists.

 

“Obits” by Stephen King (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Scribner)

Steven King takes the premise of Death Note, but doesn’t do anything with it. I suspect this is one of those nominations given out because when the author published his truly fantastic genre-defining work(s), he was somehow overlooked, and this is to make up for that. Fair enough, I guess? I see those sorts of nominations every now and then. Still, it feels like a disservice to whoever should have been in this slot instead.

It did get me to wondering how old this idea is. Obviously Death Note is the work that took the idea to its fullest/best exploration. But the concept of “being able to anonymously kill anyone in the world, instantly and unstoppably, without being a trace” has got to go a looooong way back, right? I bet there’s ancient myths using this idea.

 

“What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)

This one was actually pretty decent! It has the same basic premise as Vinge’s “The Cookie Monster,” but applied to a military setting.

As far as re-using mindwiped soldiers goes, this was done better in “The Immaculate Conception of Private Ritter,” but that’s a high bar to clear, not everyone can be Seth Dickinson. It did pretty well for itself.

All in all, I enjoyed myself. It did seem to try to force some angst in the end in a way that was completely unwarranted (“Isn’t it terrible that these people get to relive the most awesome two weeks of their lives endlessly, all just so they can save the human race?”). But, eh, I can let that slide.

 

In the end, I don’t think a single one of the Novelettes is actually award-worthy. VanDyke came closest, and I can see him making the grade fairly some day! :)

 

Best Short Story 

“Asymmetrical Warfare” by S. R. Algernon (Nature, Mar 2015)

Cute, and fun! Not award-material, but it’s clever. :)

 

Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, January 2015)

Also cute, and also fun! This story has some neat ideas, and explores them in a fun way! I don’t really know comedy, so I don’t know if it’s good. But the writing is well done, and it’s certainly the best of this year’s lot. In a normal year this would probably be near the bottom of my list, and I am saddened that I can’t see the stories it would have legitimately competed against. That being said, at least there’s something worth voting for in Short Story this year!

 

“If You Were an Award, My Love” by Juan Tabo and S. Harris (voxday.blogspot.com, Jun 2015)

This is not a short story, it’s a shit someone took on the internet, which Vox has splattered on the Hugo list to show his disdain. Disdain of the same award he’s trying so hard to win. Oh Vox.

 

“Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)

Hm. There’s… not really much story here? It’s basically “all humans are horrible, awful people, and we’d be better without them.” It’s literally just barbarity upon genocide upon cowardice. This is the sort of gloomfic that normally stays in high school notebooks. I really like grimdark, but this wasn’t even grimdark. It would do very nicely as the prologue of a post-apocalyptic novel, but it doesn’t work as a story in itself. The only good part is when it quotes a 400 year old poem, and you’re really better off just reading that poem instead.

 

Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle (Amazon Digital Services)

I loved it. See my previous comments here. :)

 

Don’t forget to vote!

Jul 142016
 

Seveneves_Book_CoverSevenEves, by Neal Stephenson

Synopsis: Present-day humanity has two years to evacuate as many people as possible before the Earth is destroyed.

Book Review: This isn’t really a story, insomuch as it is the fragmented pieces of a story buried within mounds of engineering. You will hear more about how chains and whips work in zero-gravity than you ever cared to. Unless you are of a very specific audience, you will skip over dozens of pages multiple times searching for some interesting event. Reading this book is like doing archeology – you have to spend a lot of time clearing away dirt and debris to get to the valuable stuff.

The frustrating part is, most of the good stuff really is good! When Stephenson bothers with plot or dialog, the story is interesting. But it’s so fragmented that you can’t even pull an entire story out of it. The archeology metaphor applies further in that it seems a lot of the valuable stuff has been lost over time, and you can guess at the pieces that are missing, but unfortunately they just aren’t there.

The only reason I got to the end of this book is because Stephenson has written really amazing things in the past, and he had a lot of my goodwill to ride on. This determination led me to see things I wouldn’t have if I’d just abandoned the book, which now I kinda wish I hadn’t seen.

Stephenson doesn’t seem to care about portraying other people realistically anymore. The characters that are engineers & scientists feel very similar (can you tell Dinah and Ivy apart? I can’t), and I suspect they have a lot in common with Stephenson himself. Everyone else is a monkey. The contempt for all non-engineers displayed in the book is surprising. Politicians are power-hunger moustache-twirlers happy to damn the human race to extinction if they can rule for a few years. The common people are blind sheep, easily falling for the most asinine and bald-faced lies, which only the engineers are impervious to. The entire book reeks of “You all deserve to be wiped out, because you were too damn stupid to put us engineers in charge!” As a fan of Atlas Shrugged, I recognize this bile. And sure, I’m a bit of an elitist jerk myself. But I at least do my best to understand why intelligent people could reasonably disagree with me, rather than portraying them all as fuckwits deserving of the fate they’ve brought upon themselves with their stupidity.

Also, Stephenson seems to have gotten very, very lazy. He tells us (via a character talking to the protagonist) that what we’re going to see is possibly the saddest thing we have ever seen. He then describes a scene which is, at best, a mild downer. Later on he tries to make us feel moral outrage by having every relatable character react with outrage and horror over an event… but the event itself is no big deal at all. Dude, you can’t just tell us we’re supposed to feel a certain way and call your job done. You must actually make us feel it!

He even gets lazy with technical aspects. At one point it looks like he decided to have a character up on the Space Station whom he previously hadn’t intended to have there. So he inserts the line “[he] had been sent up to Izzy a month before” with a one-line excuse for why, and then continues. Anyone with respect for their art would have taken the time to go back and write a scene in a previous timeframe where this actually happens. Simply deciding “oh, he should be here” and dropping him in with an excuse in the middle of the action is not how one does good writing.

SevenEves honestly just feels like someone trying to cash in on the success of The Martian, but without having any understanding of what made The Martian so amazing. Not Recommended.

2nd Book Review: There is another book included with SevenEves. It’s passed off as part of the novel, so it doesn’t have its own title or anything. SevenEves just continues with “Five Thousand Years Later.” However, it is a new book, with a different feel, new characters, etc. Again I think this is a case of Stephenson being lazy – he didn’t want to establish setting and introduce characters again. Which is unfortunate, because it means we get several hundred pages of text without characters we care about.

In fact, the second book doesn’t even have a plot. I wouldn’t even call it a book. It is a bunch of awesome concepts, that are in desperate want of characters and story to drive them somewhere.

Don’t get me wrong, the concepts really are amazing! I would have loved to read this if it had a storyline. The second book is of FAR more interest to me than the first book, because it’s actual science fiction! It has awesome speculative elements, strange cultural and social constructs, semi-alien characters. In contrast, the first book was basically EarthFic with a lot of techno-fetishism. It was barely SF, IMHO. Sadly, the second book isn’t a novel – it’s a RPG source book. Lots of cool setting ideas and concepts, no story. Again, Not Recommended.

An Aside: Does anyone else think it’s a terrible idea to name the book “SevenEves” and have a huge eye on the cover? It’s almost impossible not to see “SevenEyes” when you look at it.

Book Club Review: If you stick to just the first book, and don’t bother with “Five Thousand Years Later”, it’s actually not bad for a Book Club book. After the first couple technology wanks it becomes pretty easy to flip pages rapidly until things start happening again. The plot (when it’s present) proceeds quickly enough that one can skip over the simmering misanthropy without taking too much note of it. In the final pages of the book it does raise some interesting questions about how we should improve the human race, if it were possible to do so (but sadly, it doesn’t bother trying to address them, it just ends.)

In our meeting, a bit of time was spent discussing Stephenson’s views of humanity, and how radically unrealistic they felt. Speculation of that sort (“what would happen if everyone only had 2 years to live?”) is kinda interesting. But you don’t need to slog through a door-stopper of a book to ask them, and you can find unrealistic portrayals of humans in all sorts of novels.

If your book club isn’t specifically SF-focused, please avoid this. This is the sort of book that I hope people who don’t read SF never pick up. It plays directly to the stereotype of “Science fiction is just technology fetishists drooling over made-up tech, without care for characters, plot, or writing craft.”

If your book club is SF-focused… well… I still think you could do better. Get one of Stephenson’s earlier works, those are very good! Anathem was great (although, again, long). Snow Crash was fun as hell. I’ve heard great things about Cryptonomicon, and it’s on my list. But SevenEves… Not Recommended.

Jun 272016
 

Lilith_Third_ImpactThis post will have tons of spoilers for The Fifth Season. If you want to read this book (and again, I suggest you do!), it’s a good idea to skip this post for now, and maybe come back when you’re done.

OK, let’s continue.

There are a number of moments that really stick to me. When young Damaya is told the foundational myth of their culture, and is swelling with pride and excitement about how she’s going to be just like the hero, and then is told in no uncertain terms “You are the villain. You are the monster we are defending ourselves from. You are Other.” The punch of being forced into the role of the hated enemy is visceral. And it allows us to feel empathy for this culture, and the things it must do to survive. That will be handy, since our protagonists are the villains of this world, and we will have this touchstone of learning to fear and hate the villains to come back to, established from very early on in the story.

Honestly, starting out the story with Alabaster destroying the world and wiping out humanity was an equally genius move. It tells us right from the start that this culture’s fears are justified.

Of course what makes a Tragedy a Tragedy is that the Tragic Figure (in this case, the Sanzed Empire) brings about their own destruction. Fifth Season portrays this beautifully, showing us exactly how Damaya is turned from a normal, spirited child, to the very monster that their society so fears. Much of the book is dedicated to showing this process, so I won’t restate every case of it, but my favorite is when she and Alabaster are forced to breed more children. In the initial scene, she comes to the realization that Alabaster is more traumatized by this than she is. He fears it more, and hates it more, and that fear is partially reflected as fear of her. And she LIKES this. She’s no longer entirely a helpless victim, this gives her a measure of delicious control. She is more the aggressor in this rape than he is, and that is a comfort. That sort of “the abused comes to embrace dealing out abuse of her own” is the type of detail that makes this novel so moving. Not because Jemisin thought to include it (something to this effect is required in this sort of story), but because she made us feel it too. We felt that measure of joy and relief in getting to be the powerful one, this one time, even if it does make us monsters. That is good writing.

But what really sealed this for me, and why I found this book so effecting, is a scene very early on. After the mayor of her town helps her to quite an extant – and does so without hedges or questions or compulsions! He puts himself at some personal risk to use his power to help her, because he is a genuinely good person and believes that is the Just thing to do – she is forced to kill him (and at least a dozen other innocent people near her) in order to fuel the magic to defend herself. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. Because he is part of this society. She just saw her husband murder their son, out of fear and hatred. And:

“The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you.”

The internalized revulsion that leads a good man, a man she loved, to this sort of hate-murder of his own children, is not a flaw in a single man. It is not an incidence of mental illness. It is the well-known (and at least partially desired) result of this society. It cannot live in one man. It is the product of all of society, of everyone who participates in it, who accepts it, and does nothing to change anything about it. EVERYONE is complicit, and EVERYONE is equally deserving of condemnation for participating in and profiting from it. So when the complicit, even the friendly ones who smile and shake your hand, are caught up in the cycle of death they helped create, they are only getting exactly what they deserve. Very similarly to this excerpt from The Woman’s Room:

“Like a Jew just released from Dachau, I watch the handsome young Nazi soldier fall writhing to the ground with a bullet in his stomach and I look briefly and walk on. I don’t even need to shrug. I simply don’t care.”

Perhaps we’re bothered by this scene, occurring as it does very early in the novel. This scene is letting us know where we’re headed. Because the thing that this novel does is take us from the point of being just another average reader, to embracing that the world must be destroyed.

I spoke of this in Episode 7 of The Bayesian Conspiracy (“Kill All Humans?”), but if you haven’t heard it – when I was in college, I was pro-annihilation-of-mankind. Because all life is suffering. On net, existence is more pain than joy, and the most moral thing to do is end it all as quickly as possible.

I feel a lot better about life now, and no longer hold these views.

But a part of me still feels that. A part of me looks at the sealed box of Neon Genesis Evangelion DVDs on my shelf and thinks “Maybe I should watch that again…” A part of me suspects maybe I’m just in a local-maximum in my life right now, and eventually things will revert to misery, and that’s the natural and inevitable state of all human life.
This novel guides the reader to that place. It takes an entire novel to do it, because you can’t do it in less words than that. But it shows anyone who is willing to read it how one can come to that conclusion. No, not just shows – it makes the reader feel it as well. It brings understanding of that emotional state, on an emotional level. It allows others who read it to be, however briefly, Broken in the same way that I am/was Broken. And I appreciate that deeply.

I assume not everyone will get quite there. And I’m not sure people who have never felt that state in their past will feel as strongly about this book as I do. But to me, it was absolute perfection. That’s why I loved it so much. I hope others do too.

[EDIT: prediction time – since Alabaster has already doomed humanity to extinction, but *still* wants Essun to make it worse, his ultimate goal isn’t just the destruction of humanity. I’m thinking he has a plan for restoring/recreating a moon, which requires this level of destruction to make it happen, and he can’t do it alone. So even in this, he’s still trying to heal the world. :) ]

Jun 232016
 

5th SeasonThe Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

Synopsis: This is a story of how the world ends.

Book Review: Holy shit guys.

Holy.

Shit.

I’ve read a number of Jemisin’s works. 100,000 Kingdoms was good. Killing Moon was great! Fifth Season is phenomenal. She just keeps. Getting. Better. This is what mastery of the art of written storytelling looks like. This is the sort of book that awards were created to celebrate.

2/3rds of the story lead up to an apocalyptic event. 1/3rd of it takes place after (not a spoiler, you find that out almost immediately, as the book jumps around in time), and has a very The Road feel. Grey ash coats everything, the protagonist is literally traveling on a road with a young boy in tow, bandits are starting raiding, etc. But this story takes place in a world were apocalypses are not uncommon. Every few hundred years, most of humanity is wiped out. So the entirety of their religious and civic culture is focused on how to survive an apocalypse.

This is embedded all the way down to how people identify themselves. Everyone has a Personal Name (Eneasz), a Community Name (Denver), and a Use Name (Accountant). Your very name tells everyone else what you are useful for, in case of apocalypse. Everyone is always evaluated (and evaluating others) on how useful they are to society. Your usefulness decides if you live or die. This is a culture whose most fundamental value is that people must be treated a Tools Of Survival. As Things rather than People. It is the only way humanity can survive.

It is very Grim Dark.

Also, our protagonists belong to a class of magic users who can accidentally kill everyone around them if they aren’t very careful. Constantly. They can never rest. As they grow in power, they can accidentally (or intentionally!) wipe out entire cities. This causes the muggles of their society to put them under extremely strict controls, because the magic users are SO useful for preserving society and preventing apocalypses, that they can’t just wipe them all out. This is a familiar theme for Dragon Age players, but it is done far better in Jemisin’s book. The sadistic-yet-loving control that the Guardians exert is deliciously creepy.

But more than anything, I love how angry the protagonists are. Because I love angry characters. I love when their anger is justified, and I love seeing what it drives them to do. I love it even more when those who are abusing our characters actually have a damn good reason to do so! (“We don’t want you to explode the world, tyvm”) This book is an exploration of slavery, and systemic oppression, sure. But it’s not about that, per se. It is about what drives a person(s) to extremes, and it immerses you completely in that journey.

This is the best book I’ve read in many years. It rocketed directly to #2 on my “Best Books I’ve Ever Read” list. The reasons for this are full of spoilers, so I’ll get into them in a separate post, because everyone should have a chance to read this book fresh. I know not everyone will have the same reaction I did, because this novel is for exactly the sort of person I am. Our protagonists are broken in the same way that I am broken. Do you know how good it feels to see that sort of broken portrayed? To see your rage, and hurt, and doubt, mirrored by an author you’ve never met, but who obviously feels all those things too? This story reached directly into my soul, grabbed hold, and squeezed. It left me breathless.

The wordcraft is masterful. The plotting—slowly revealing the layers of mystery by exploring them in the story, and adding new layers as old ones are uncovered—is flawless. The characters are deep, and true. I literally cannot say enough good things about this novel. Go, read it!!

Be advised it’s the first book in a trilogy.

Highly Recommended!

An Aside: If you liked Neon Genesis Evangelion, you will probably like this book.

Book Club Review: To get things rolling in our book club, we start by having everyone say a handful of things they liked about a book (in turn, going clockwise). Then everyone says a few things they disliked about a book. Discussion is allowed between points, of course.

The “What I loved” went as usual. But when we came to the “What we dislike about the book” part, everyone had one small quibble or annoyance they mentioned. Then they went right back into talking about more things they loved about the book. No one intended this, but there was just so much to love, and so many things to talk about, that even mentioning the one thing that irritated you just reminded you of more amazing stuff you had to mention.

Everyone liked this book, most people loved it. There is an overflowing bounty of things to discuss. You will not lack for conversation topics, or for enthusiasm. Again – Highly Recommended.

Jun 092016
 

windlassThe Aeronaut’s Windlass, by Jim Butcher

Synopsis: Exactly what you’d expect if Jim Butcher switched to writing steampunk.

Book Review: Jim Butcher is most famous for his Dresden series, a popular urban fantasy series focusing on the secret magical underworld of modern-day Chicago. (I reviewed one last year) Fans of that series will find a lot to love here, because this is exactly more of that, except in a steampunk setting.

Butcher’s greatest strength as a writer is his fantastic world-building. The world he’s weaving here is engrossing. It is complex, and fantastical, with tons of details that really bring it to life, and what seems like an infinite amount of compelling story hooks! I want to read stories set in this world! I want to know what broke it, and observe how these island-societies function, and find out what’s lurking down in the surface mists. Which is why I really wish Jim Butcher would license his worlds to other authors. This world is extremely fertile fan-fiction material, just begging for a good author to till it.

Because Butcher has two big flaws, as I see it.

The first is that he doesn’t do character development. For me, this is a killer.

Every character in this novel is a stock character, ripped directly from TVTropes. The aristocratic heiress, the rugged sea captain, the kooky inventor, the working class hero, etc. You can call them stereotypes or archetypes, depending on how charitable you wish to be. However the thing you can’t call them is REAL PEOPLE. They are pre-rendered personalities.

Now, Jim Butcher is good at the craft of writing. And his world-building skill serves him well when he slots these characters into it. They are beautifully depicted. You will never find a more exquisitely-painted rendition of the rugged sea captain – he will play that role to its fullest until you are bursting with rugged sea captain flavor!

But that still doesn’t make him a person. That’s a problem for people like me, who read to see characters displayed, and to see characters develop. The dialog doesn’t much matter, because it will never reveal an aspect of the character you didn’t already know about. It will always simply confirm “Yup, rugged sea captain!” For this reason, almost all the dialog boils down to adolescent one-up’s-manship. Lacking anything else to do, it can merely entertain us by being “witty” and “snappy.” Butcher does this well, but it feels empty. How many words of that sort of thing can you really read?

Likewise, the action never serves to expose hidden depths of a character, because we already know everything there is to know. It simply reinforces “Yup, she reacted exactly like an aristocratic heiress would!” The characters will never change. They’re all unique and likable, and cartoonish in that way.

Butcher also manages to make all his action boring because of this. None of the characters ever feel like they have much at stake in anything. They’re rushing from set piece to set piece, participating in highly-cinematic action scenes, and I’m bored because they’re meaningless. Just a few days ago I linked to a video on why the actions scenes are often the most boring parts of modern action movies. The same applies here. Butcher doesn’t give me any reason to care about his cartoon people.

Butcher’s second major flaw (again, IMO) is that he doesn’t know what NOT to write. This book is massive – well over 600 pages. Nothing compelling happens in it. I started skimming very early on, and I don’t think I missed anything. A few books back I praised Novik’s Uprooted because it told a novel-length story in the space of a novel. It couldn’t be shorter. And it wasn’t padded out. Butcher is famous for churning out 15 (16 now?) Dresden novels of a planned 20-novel arc, many of which are pretty long. And yet he hasn’t told even ONE novel-length story in all those pages! I strongly suspect that by the time he’s done, a better author could have told that same story in the course of a novella. I do not have that much of my life to waste on someone who can’t tell a succinct story. Aeronaut’s Windlass is written with the same strategy. Every page feels like it’s preparing me to sit down and grind through 20 years of daytime soap opera with nothing to say.

And ultimately, that’s my problem with Jim Butcher. He provides endless pages of word-based entertainment product, but there is no substance to it. It’s popcorn. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Honestly, I couldn’t finish the book. Even skimming it. I could not justify sinking that many hours of my life into something so meh.

Butcher’s very popular of course, so there are clearly a lot of people who love this sort of thing. Good world building, vibrant stock characters, witty quips, and lots of running around and fighting for the heck of it. If that’s your thing, I’m not here to say it’s bad or stupid. Hell, I love Chuck Tingle, which is just stupid gay erotica satire. But this is a recommendation blog for people like me, and for people like me: Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: It’s really not a bad book for book clubs, I suppose. The nice thing about light fare is that it can entertain a broad cross section of the population. The main thrust of the discussion at our meeting was the world building. It can be a lot of fun to discuss just what is going on, and how we see things. Most people picked up on the “this is far-future Earth after an apocalypse, with people using technology they don’t really understand and therefore thinking it’s magic” aspect, which was cool. So I cannot say this is a bad book for book clubs.

Honestly, if you want to give Butcher a try but you don’t want to start 15 books behind in a series whose first couple books even die-hard fans admit are pretty subpar, THIS is the book to start with. And it’s just like every other Butcher book, so you know you won’t be missing anything. ;) But that said, there’s a reason I go with a Recommended or Not dichotomy. As much as this book ain’t bad, I can’t say “Yes, you should read this!” I cannot actually recommend it, so… Not Recommended.

May 262016
 

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckieancillary mercy

Synopsis: An AI in a human body navigates the tangled bureaucracy of administrating a space station.

Book Review: This book was devastatingly disappointing. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie’s first novel in this trilogy, was a masterpiece. It broke new ground in the SF genre, and tackled complex themes of vengeance, means/ends justification, and whether a person’s nature can change. The second novel, Ancillary Sword, wasn’t as good as the first, but it was a middle-book, and it did class-warfare very well. This novel has no unifying theme or idea. It seems very confused, stating that strong, central governments are bad, and then demonstrating that a loose coalition of free agents falls into anarchy and back-stabbing very quickly, and can’t be relied on to do anything. It hints for about one paragraph that Libertarian Free Markets are the solution to this. That was innovative back when Heinlein first introduced it… 50 years ago. But Ancillary Mercy doesn’t even bother to explore the idea or do ANYTHING with it, aside from that brief, one-paragraph mention.

Let me walk that back slightly – it does kinda have a theme of “enslaving sentient beings is bad.” This is very far from new ground. The very first story about robots, the one that introduced the word “robot”, had this theme nearly 100 years ago! Yes, we know slavery is bad. Please say something new on the theme, or make us feel it, or something.

The novel also lacks emotion. The first two books ran on rage. Justice was a straight-up vengeance crusade. Sword was class-uprising. Both made me feel delicious anger. Ancillary Mercy falls flat. I stopped caring about the story by the time I was halfway through it. I couldn’t even care about Seivarden’s kef addiction anymore, which is the sign of a massive fumble on Leckie’s part, because fighting that addiction was a hugely satisfying portion of the first book. How did she make it so boring by the third? When it was briefly reintroduced it felt like an attempt to get the reader to care by saying “Hey, remember this really intense and touching plot line from the first book? Wasn’t that great? Feel those feelings again!” And yes, it was great back then. But trotting it out to evoke sympathetic emotions just doesn’t work. It’s like putting a CGI Arnold Schwarzenegger in your new Terminator movie.  Yes, we remember how awesome the first two Terminator movies were. Stuffing a CGI Arnold in there only reminds us of that, and makes yours look even worse in comparison.

The books also kept getting progressively smaller and less important. The first book culminated in an assassination attempt on the Emperor, and resulted in a galaxy-spanning civil war! It was epic! The second book shuffles our protagonist off to an out-of-the-way system where NONE of the war is taking place. But hey – it’s a middle book. There’s still a lot of local conflict, a slave-uprising, and some tension. In the third book the conflict is reduced to bureaucratic squabbling. One of the major conflicts in the book is about whether or not a long line of people are allowed to hold a peaceful protest. Seriously, it’s about whether or not people are allowed to silently stand in a queue. Goddammit Leckie, there is a galactic civil war going on just around the corner! Entire star systems are being destroyed, planets are being obliterated, and you’re boring us with local ordinances?? W.T.F??

The book isn’t painful to read. It’s written well. And there are dazzling moments, where Leckie’s genius flashes through. The replacement Presgar translator is a DELIGHT! She’s every genki anime girl ever, absolutely niave and hilarious! :) And there are scenes that take place between bursts of action, where the characters are wired up and waiting for action but have nothing to do but wait. They pass the time talking to each other, and these dialogs are brilliant. They feel extremely Tarantino-esqu, I could see them happening in one of his movies, as the characters stand in a room filled with bodies, holding guns, trying to kill some time by talking about cheeseburgers in France. It’s a delight. And, of course, the two scenes were Leckie returns to her frantic POV-jumping, which our protagonist can do by way of her implants that let her see and hear anything that’s happening to her crew. When there is a lot of action in a lot of different locations, these frantic smash-cuts back and forth are used to great effect, and make for extremely energetic story telling! But sadly, they are only used twice, and not for very long. Look, I appreciate that they must be exhausting to write. Every one of those scenes must have taken ages to put together, and tons of labor. But that’s what makes them impressive! You are a highly-acclaimed, multi-award-winning author. Act like it! Put in the effort!

There are, again, simple technical errors in understanding FTL. I don’t expect anyone to know all the minutia of how FTL implies time-travel, or anything. But I do expect that any ship that travels faster than light, actually travels faster than light. When a captain drops out of hyperspace to get her bearings, then jumps back in to approach her target, she should NEVER worry that she may have been seen in that brief instant. She will get to get target before they will have the ability to see her, because she’s traveling faster than that light! Such a basic, mechanistic failure of understanding in an SF author really bothers me.

But by far the worst part of this book is that the climax removes all agency from the protagonist, the antagonist, and basically all of humanity. It is a giant Deus Ex Machina that makes everything that’s come before irrelevant. And it does it in the most paternalistic way ever. The protagonist appeals to the god-aliens of the galaxy, pointing out that how her race is being treated isn’t fair. Seriously, that’s it. It’s a giant appeal to one’s parents. It is the most disappointing ending I’ve ever read. Then, to really cement how bad this book is, the denouement chapter is literally just a bunch of committee meetings. No no – literally.

This is the worst waste of talent I’ve seen in ages. We know Leckie can do better. Did she just get lazy? She simply reneged on so many promises she made (the alien-god-race basically never appeared. The Ghost System, which was mysterious and cool-as-hell sounding, was just an abandoned, empty system. We saw none of the civil war. etc) The first 90% of this book should have been discarded, and the story started with the alien intervention. Can you imagine what this story would have been like if the protagonist had to personally seek out an alliance with the alien-gods? Had to travel to bizarre sections of the galaxy and work her way through a completely alien culture? A culture so different from ours that they need to breed a translator race just to act as an intermediary for concepts that our two species cannot share, like individuality of consciousness? Their thought process is literally inconceivable, and yet she has to somehow convince them to take HER side? And doing so under severe time pressure, knowing that every day the overwhelming murder-fleet of the emperor is that much closer to genociding her adopted home-system? With all the misunderstandings and/or sabotage by the Emperor’s shadowy agents that this would entail? That could be an actual interesting story! Instead we got to read about how much manpower it will take to repair the Undergarden Sector, and which families will get to live there afterwards. /sigh

Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: This book had a suppressed turn-out, despite being a Hugo nominee, because it’s the third book in a trilogy. Those who’ve been at the book club for three years had read the first two, of course. But those who hadn’t either had to read three novels in two weeks(!), or jump into this one cold. For those who did the latter, it was very difficult for them to stick through the book to the end. Mostly, people were non-plussed by it. We did have one member who absolutely adored it, but she was sick for our meeting and couldn’t tell us the reasons why. :( Maybe she’ll let us know next meeting. I suspect that if your group ends up containing at least one person who really enjoyed this book a lot, it could make for some great conversation! As it is… the conversation wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t inspiring either.

It’s hard to put a rating on this. If it was a stand-alone book, I could justify a mild recommendation. The shining moments of brilliance really are great, and you can skim most of the rest without missing much. Plus the speculation on what the book could have been is stimulating as well. But, seeing as this is the third book in a trilogy, the buy-in to get here is just too high, especially with better options around. Ultimately, a mild Not Recommended.

[added 5/27] – See Quixote’s comment below for a much more favorable perspective. I find their analysis valuable, even if I disagree in some respects.