redheadedfemme: (wonder woman reading)
2017-10-12 07:46 pm

Giants in the Earth

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

4 of 5 stars

Occasionally I have to take a break from my usual SFF (science fiction/fantasy) kick to touch base with the real world. This has become exponentially more difficult since 11/9/2016. But for a good view of American politics, even in the face of the horror that is 45, you could do far worse than this book.

Here, Al Franken charts his unlikely rise from Saturday Night Live to the United States Senate. I own other books by him, and the first thing you notice is that his instinct for a quip is somewhat reined in here (except in the footnotes). This is something he has learned since coming to the Senate, where he realized that his Minnesotan constituents would want a hard-working plowhorse, not an artsy-fartsy show pony. This learning curve has served him well, since when he does let loose, he is deadlier than ever. (This is most notably on display in chapter 37, "Sophistry," wherein we learn that Ted Cruz is every bit the patronizing, smarmy asshole in private as he comes across in public. That chapter is worth the price of admission all by itself.) He tries hard to humanize his political opponents, not demonize them (with the justifiable exceptions of Cruz and 45), and the book is an absorbing look at how American political sausage is made. From the unavoidable necessity of constant fundraising, to his admitted dependence on his staff to rein in his comedic instincts, to the awful grind that was his first Senatorial campaign in 2006 (and the dirty, lying tricks the Republicans used against him), Franken's story of how he followed in the footsteps of his friend Paul Wellstone is fascinating reading.

It's also an uplifting tale of a fundamentally decent person and how he has made a difference. The people of Minnesota have been very fortunate to have Al Franken as their Senator. I wish he were mine.  
redheadedfemme: (Default)
2017-09-30 04:00 pm

"Bad Character is an Enemy of Great Talent"

Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

2 of 5 stars

This book almost met the wall a few times, especially in the first third, when both the plot and characters seemed to be flailing aimlessly. Finally, when the protagonist falls from the treetop settlements of the rainforest that is her home, the pace picked up a little. I did manage to finish it; the author is competent (although this is very much a first novel, with all the attendant problems), but I won't be picking up any sequels.
 
The reason for this is the main characer: Unar is the most vain, selfish, cocksure, arrogant, whining little twit I have had the misfortune to be around in a long time. She is sure she is destined for a special position and cannot understand why everyone around her doesn't see and acknowledge this. Her stupid decisions not only get her in trouble, but drag other people along in her wake. After a while, I kept reading mainly because I wondered when this little idiot would see what an ass she was being. She did, eventually, but by that time it was too late to salvage the book, at least for me. 
 
Which was unfortunate, as the setting was definitely the most interesting aspect of this book. We have what is apparently a planetary or at least a continent-sized rainforest, with trees hundreds of feet tall and wide. There are three levels of civilization to this forest--Canopy, Understory and Floor--with the Canopians harboring the gods/goddesses and the magic system that makes the civilization function. (They take the Understorians as slaves, and are convinced that they alone are the rightful keepers of magic--in fact, they killed the rival Old Gods of Floor--so I guess it's no wonder Unar is so arrogant and entitled.) The author has clearly done her research--her inventive names for the many plants, the complexity and alienness of the ecosystem, and her names for the Understorians (all the latter names are palindromes) are fascinating. 
 
I just wish she could've written some equally interesting characters to go with her world. As it is, I'm only giving this book two stars because of its setting. Personally, I never want to read about Unar again. 
redheadedfemme: (Sarah Connor badass)
2017-09-24 01:54 pm

The Winner Takes It All

Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill

5 of 5 stars

This book definitely falls into what I would define as High Concept. It can be summed up in one sentence: "What happens after Skynet/the Terminators/the Cylons win the war?" 
 
No, folks, there isn't a plucky band of humans who defeat the machines. When this book opens, the war has been over for thirty years, and humans have been extinct for fifteen. (Although that sounds a bit suspect to me--there's no one left in the heart of the Amazon jungle? In the Himalayas? In the far north of Siberia? Maybe if there's a sequel, we'll find out.) That's part of what makes this book so unique: all the characters (except in the flashbacks) are robots. They're built by humans, of course, programmed to serve humans, and thus have a great deal of human-like behavior. But in the end they are artificial intelligences--alien beings--and in many subtle ways, this book makes that clear. They have their own culture, history and world.
 
C. Robert Cargill is apparently also a screenwriter, and I can see a rough three-act structure in the way this novel is written. The first third of the book introduces the characters and begins the worldbuilding; the second act is a little quieter, allowing for quite a few philosophical debates about the nature of intelligence and free will; and the third act starts with a jaw-dropping reveal of backstory which turns everything our protagonists thought they understood about themselves and their world on its head. From there the tension and action is ramped up mercilessly, as our plucky, 'scuse me, grumpy and cynical band of robots faces off against one of two OWIs, "One World Intelligences" (just think of them as competing species of Borg, if you're into Star Trek) seeking to assimilate any remaining "freebots." Cargill's prose is clean and straightforward, and he damn sure knows his way around a firefight. (I don't know if this book has been optioned for film, but I wouldn't be surprised. Although the amount of CGI that would be required to film this story--since it would be kind of hard to use human actors, except for the sexbots--would be unimaginable.)
 
I've seen some people complaining about the flashback chapters, but I really liked them. Since this story turns the man vs. machine trope on its head, we need to know how we got here, and Cargill delivers. These chapters also illuminate our main character, Brittle, a caregiver bot struggling to survive, who is reduced to cannibalizing her fellow robots for parts. (Yeah, they think of themselves as male and female, mostly because they were assigned gender by their previous owners. This also highlights a limitation of the English language, as it would be hard to have a whole book of characters calling each other "it.") Brittle has a very nice character arc in this book, developing from a cynical, selfish scavenger to a badass willing to sacrifice her existence for a chance to defeat the OWIs. 
 
This is just a damn good story, and the philosophical and ethical underpinnings are the icing on the cake. 
redheadedfemme: (Default)
2017-09-24 01:42 pm

The Fire Next Time

Brimstone by Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest wrote one of my all-time favorite books in Maplecroft--the story of the infamous Lizzie Borden wielding her axe against slithery, slimy Lovecraftian horrors. Besides her real-life heroine, Priest wove an exquisite tapestry of real people and places. 
 
Now she's done it again with this book.
 
Brimstone is set in the real-life town of Cassadaga, Florida, the "Psychic Capital of the World," according to Wikipedia, and features its actual founding father, George Colby. (Although I doubt very much that gentleman really ran up against the hateful, witch-hunting, firestarting revenant pictured here.) The town is a character in itself, capturing the sights and smells and sticky subtropical heat of Florida wonderfully. (It sure doesn't make me want to live there, even before we get into the alligators and hurricanes.) Our two protagonists are Alice Dartle and Tomas Cordero, a budding medium and World War I veteran respectively. Alice heads to Cassadaga to liberate herself from her family, to stand on her own two feet and explore her psychic abilities:
 
I have some money, some education, and some very unusual skills--and I intend to learn more about them before I wear anybody's ring. If nothing else, I need to know how to explain myself. Any true love of mine would have questions. Why do I see other people's dreams? How do I listen to ghosts? By what means do I know which card will turn up next in a pack--which suit and which number will land faceup upon a table? How do I use those cards to read such precise and peculiar futures? And pasts?

I don't know, but I am determined to find out.
 
Tomas Cordero, on the other hand, is a damaged man, still trying to cope with his return from the war and the death of his wife. 
 
It never gets easier to say her name, but with practice and habit I can make it sound effortless. I can make it sound like I've fully recovered, scarcely a year since I came home from the front and they told me she was dead from the flu. She was buried in a grave with a dozen others, on the outside of town. Perhaps it was this grave, in this place--or maybe it was that grave, in some other quarter. No one was certain. So many graves had been dug, you see. So many bodies has filled them up, as fast as the shovels could dig. The whole world was crisscrossed with trenches and pits, at home and abroad. If the dead were not felled by guns, then they were swept away by illness.

It was just as well that I went to war. There was no safety in staying behind.
 
But when Tomas Cordero came back from the war, he brought something with him. Something dark and full of hate, that starts setting fires in the town where he lives. Something that Alice Dartle sees in her dreams. And when Tomas goes to Alice for help, he takes this something along with him, and unleashes it on Cassadaga. 
 
Tomas and Alice tell this story in alternating first-person viewpoint chapters. A writer has to have a good handle on her characters to pull this off, and Priest succeeds admirably. I particularly liked the fact that there was no romantic relationship between her two protagonists (though there is a hint of romance at the very end, between Alice and someone else). This allows both Tomas and Alice to have their own backstories, desires, and agency, and doesn't cast either one as dependent on the other or on their relationship for their presence in the narrative. Establishing both these people takes up a bit of space at the beginning of the book, which some readers might view as slow. I thought both characters were interesting enough that I didn't mind, and in any case when Tomas gets to Cassadaga the book picks up. 
 
In the end, this is a story about the power of love, and community, against the power of hate. It is a thoroughly delightful tale.
redheadedfemme: (cringeface)
2017-09-13 09:46 am

The Asses Below

The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

3 of 5 stars

There were a couple of times when this book nearly met the wall, especially in the earlier chapters. One of the characters (unfortunately, the main POV character) is such a vain, obnoxious, sexist ass that he made the book very hard to read. That is my main knock against this book: why, when you have such a wonderful protagonist as Josette Dupre, the first female combat airship captain, would you choose to tell her story through the eyes of the entitled male "fop" who is actively working to bring her down? 
 
This seems to me to be wrong authorial decision. And while said "fop" does grow and change a bit through the book, and eventually comes to respect and support Josette, the entire narration of this novel just feels like a sadly missed opportunity. I would much rather have spent more time in Josette's head. What caused her to join the air corps, disguising herself as a man? What obstacles did she face to get to where she is? The topic of sexual harassment is notably glossed over in this book; one would think that should have been a major plot point, given the ongoing problems of integrating real-world armies. (Indeed, this book's supporting characters are poorly drawn and almost indistinguishable.) Instead, we have such irritating bits as Bernat's wanting Josette to "smile more" (AAARRGH! I hate that in real life, and I hate it more in my books). This just comes back to the fact that he is entirely the wrong viewpoint character for this book, and he almost sinks it. 
 
Why then, you may ask, did I give the book three stars? Because of the fast pace, the tightly and carefully ratcheting suspense, and the thrilling battle scenes. I don't know if the author has ever been in the armed forces, but she certainly seems to know her way around a battlefield. The gore and the muck, the tedium and terror of war, are fully explored. The technology of a combat airship is well thought out, and there are exciting scenes of battles in cloud banks, and Josette's airship Mistral running silent like a submarine. Once we get into the actual fighting, the book picks up, and I raced through it to the end. 
 
This doesn't take away the clumsily written characterization, however. Unless "the fop" is gotten rid of, or at the very least sidelined in favor of Josette Dupre taking center stage, I won't be picking up the sequel.
redheadedfemme: (sorry you suck)
2017-09-06 09:00 am

Stinkers Ahoy

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 7 by G. Willow Wilson



3 of 5 stars

Any long-running series will have volumes of lesser quality. I own nearly all the Ms. Marvel paperback collections, and the last two, Super Famous and Civil War II, have been right up there in terms of quality, the latter less so than the former. The natural cycle of good/bad would dictate that we were due for a (relative) stinker...and unfortunately, this is it. 
 
That's not to say that this collection is all bad. Parts of it were interesting (especially the finale with Bruno in Wakanda) but it doesn't hang together to produced a focused whole. The "internet virus" storyline, in the middle, was particularly ho-hum, at least to me. There were some good points about compassion, and being true to yourself and standing up to bullies. Zoe's and Nakia's little side story was touching. But the villain, the malignant computer virus who tried to blackmail Kamala, was definitely underwhelming, and the result was that the entire story seemed to be spinning its wheels. I missed seeing Kamala's parents and brother; I've always thought that family dynamic was one of the cornerstones of the series. 
 
(Also, can we get rid of the "secret identity" thing already? It's straining my suspension of disbelief to continue to assert that Kamala's friends and family don't know who she is. Bring it out in the open and deal with it. That would seem to be a far better source of stories than this was.) 
 
I liked seeing how Bruno was adjusting to his disability and his life in Wakanda, and I can only trumpet over and over: MORE MIKE!! She deserves to be a full-blown sidekick, as far as I'm concerned. Hopefully the next volume will pick things up again, as this one simply missed the mark.
redheadedfemme: (aliens won't talk to us)
2017-09-04 07:13 pm

Kith and Kin In America

Kindred by Damian Duffy

4 of 5 stars

This is the graphic novel version of Octavia E. Butler's masterpiece. I read Kindred (the book) years ago; I need to read it again, as in a lot of ways I didn't really understand it. But I'm glad I picked this up, as this version of the story, condensed to its soul-shattering essence, shows the depth of Butler's enormous talent.

This is a story of slavery and oppression, and the psychology of both. The science-fiction, time-travel aspect is the most hand-wavey part of it, and I've seen other reviewers complain about how the mechanisms of both fell flat. Ignore these people, as the point is whooshing at skyscraper-like heights over their heads. Octavia Butler was not the least bit concerned with the how of Dana's arrival in 1815 Maryland. Her razor-sharp focus is on the characters, and what happens to them afterwards, and how the systems and mindset that made enslaving other human beings possible left its dark, ugly mark on everyone involved, a mark which echoes through this country's history down to the present day.

This story is also an examination of violence and abuse. Since the original storyline has been stripped down to fit in the graphic novel format, one can readily see the steady escalation in each successive chapter. In the beginning, Rufus is an innocent child, parroting the white supremacist mindset of his elders without understanding it. But as he grows, and continues to drag Dana back in time to save him, one can see the poison of antebellum society taking hold, despite Dana's best efforts to get him to see his slaves as people, not property. His obsession with Alice (and with controlling the slaves in general, as he's now the "Massa" after his father's death), who he rapes and fathers several children with (echoes of Thomas Jefferson), marks the point of his being past redemption, although Dana doesn't see this until the very end. She's remembering the child she rescued. But when Rufus states his intention to make Dana his sexual slave just as he did Alice, she resorts to what is, at that point, her only way out (since in that time and place she obviously can't expect help from the law or society in general)--she kills him.

By that time, the reader--or at least this reader--can't help but see the homicide as justifiable.

No doubt many people will feel the print book portrayed all this better. And this is, after all, pretty much an apples to oranges comparison, as a graphic novel necessarily takes a quite different tack. As I was reading, I thought at first that I didn't care much for the artwork. But after finishing the book and thinking about it some more, I find the art is growing on me. It's bright and harsh, all sharp lines and sometimes ugly sepia tones, but that's appropriate to the ugly story Butler is telling. Let's put it this way: it's about the furthest you can get from Marvel or DC Comics.

This book is tough to read, but don't let that stop you. And mourn that such a monumental talent as Octavia E. Butler was taken from us so soon.  
redheadedfemme: (Default)
2017-07-31 06:36 am

The Queen of Partially Good Books

The Queen of Swords by R.S. Belcher

3 of 5 stars

I had a rough time rating this book. Parts of it I liked, and parts of it I didn't care for. That may be because it's the third book in the series and I haven't read the other two. Copious references are made to previous events, but the author does a nice job of summing them up, so I don't think that's the problem. This book has two main characters and two timelines, and it seems to me what I'm having trouble with is the fact that one character and timeline resonated for me, and the other simply did not. 
 
Well, let's start with the character/timeline that absolutely worked: Anne Bonney. I would LOVE more books about her. She was a real person, a female pirate in the 18th century, and as far as I can tell, the author pretty much stuck to the facts of her early life. The branch point into the author's alternate history and universe begins in 1721, when Anne goes on a quest for her last great treasure, and falls into a world of gods, magic and vaguely Lovecraftian monsters. This quest takes her into the heart of Africa, where she meets a priestess of an ancient society of women called the Daughters of Lilith, who are fighting another ancient society of monsters called the Sons of Typhon. This priestess, Raashida, convinces Anne she is destined to take on what is called Lilith's Load, and protect the world from the Sons of Typhon. Anne does this, and her bloodline now belongs to the Daughters.
 
(A lot of Anne's story takes place in Africa. Since the author is a white male, this is a rather sensitive and potentially problematic storyline. He seems to have done his research and handles the various tribal cultures and customs with respect, and also tackles the racism and colonialism of the era. But I don't know enough about the real history to comment.)
 
Cue a hundred and fifty years later, with Anne's multiple-greats granddaughter, Maude Stapleton. In one of the previous books, Maude released Typhon from his prison, and this comes back to bite her, big-time. As far as I was concerned, Maude's storyline bogged the book down, because it felt like the author was losing control of his world. As just one example, Anne Bonney is still around when Maude is a child, specifically nine years old and several years after that, since Anne is mentioned as having given Maude her initial training. Which would have made Anne Bonney about 140-150 years old? Of course this is a fantasy, and there's several hints given as to how this might have happened (ingesting the Blood of Lilith), but all the people who have no idea this underworld of gods and monsters exists go around ignoring the fact that they're talking about Maude's great-great-great-great-grandmother? Who was still alive till 20-odd years ago? Come on, people. 
 
Also, Maude is damn near as invulnerable as Superman (at least until she meets the Sons of Typhon), and there's no kryptonite to be found. Now, I like a badass female fighter as much as anyone, but the Daughters of Lilith take this rather over the top (their fighting techniques supposedly inspired all the martial arts in existence). There's also a convenient metaphysical place known as the Record which Maude discovers she can tap into (fifty years earlier than any other Daughter being able to do it), where she can converse with the spirits of the previous Daughters (and her own mother, apparently), and solve all her problems. I could go on, but you get the idea--it felt to me like the worldbuilding was coming apart, and my suspension of disbelief stretched to the breaking point. 
 
Which is sad, because Anne Bonney was wonderful. I would love reading the story of how she rescued the tree people and acquired her sentient warship, the Hecate. She was a realistic, flawed, human character. Unfortunately, at the end of the book we're left with Maude Stapleton teaching and nurturing the next generation of the Daughters of Lilith, and after her disappointing story in this book, I'm not inclined to go any further. 
redheadedfemme: (Default)
2017-07-29 08:01 pm

The Hell Hath No Refrigerator Club

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente

4 of 5 stars

In 1999, comics writer Gail Simone came up with "Women In Refrigerators," a comic book trope where female characters are injured or killed as a plot device to move the hero's story arc forward. I know she didn't expect Catherynne M. Valente to write a lovely little book about this idea eighteen years later, but this novella, or maybe short novel, both brings this repulsive idea to life and turns it inside out, to memorable effect.
 
I've been iffy about most things I've read from Valente so far. Sometimes her prose seems lush and lyrical, and simply purple and overwrought at other times. That is definitely not the case with this book: her writing here is tight and punchy, and the voices of the characters shine through. This is a series of six interlocking stories set in Valente's comic-book universe, where six (sometimes thinly disguised) wives and girlfriends of superheroes tell their stories. These women are all dead. Now they are members of the Hell Hath Club, and they meet in the Lethe Cafe in Deadtown to tell their stories, the deaths that provided fuel for the men left behind. As Valente puts it, in three scorching sentences that are the heart of this book:
 
I belong in the refrigerator. Because the truth is, I'm just food for a superhero. He'll eat up my death and get the energy he needs to become a legend.
 
(I'm trying to figure out which current or past characters these fictional women represent. Paige Embry seems to be Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man's dead girlfriend; in the second story, "The Heat Death of Julia Ash," by far the most unsettling story in the book, Julia Ash is apparently Jean Grey from the X-Men; Pauline Ketch, with her terrible dysfunctional relationship, is obviously Harley Quinn; Bayou is Mera, wife of Aquaman; Samantha Dane, in the last story in the book, is the stand-in for Alexandra Dewitt, the girlfriend of Green Lantern who was killed and stuffed in a refrigerator, thus starting this whole thing. The only one I'm not sure about is Daisy Green? From various comments I've read, her analogue is Karen Page, but I don't really know who that is.)
 
This is a powerful little book. It tears apart the idiotic "women in refrigerators" trope and shows it for the sad, sexist fail in storytelling it really is. (Yes, I know it's not restricted to superhero universes--vigilante tales often start with the deaths of the hero's wife and family to send him on a revenge quest to slaughter those responsible, although the recent film John Wick turned this on its head a bit by sending the retired assassin after the people who killed his puppy. Thus pointing out the stupidity of the entire idea.) It's the most tightly written story I've seen from Catherynne Valente, with the novella/short novel length being exactly right. It's well-thought-out and entertaining, but at the same time it gives you a lot to think about. Most likely you'll never look at a comic book story the same way again.
 
redheadedfemme: (Default)
2017-07-23 02:02 pm

The Art of TMI In the Rain

The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help



3 of 5 stars




This book constituted a break from my usual diet of SF and fantasy. I've never heard any of Amanda Palmer's music, or participated in her Kickstarters and Patreon, but I have followed her blog for years, after meeting her via Neil Gaiman (to whom she's married). This is a combination of a self-help book, an explanation of how she manages her free-for-all Internet business and musical presence, a discussion of Life and Art, and a memoir. The writing style is very freewheeling and stream-of-consciousness, so if you don't like that sort of thing, be warned.
 
For me, the book was most successful as a memoir: chronicling Palmer's marriage to Neil Gaiman and the illness of her dear friend and father figure, Anthony Martignetti. (Sadly, Martignetti has since died.) She reveals some pretty intimate details about her life and marriage, unusually so for a celebrity, but that is definitely Amanda Palmer--TMI is her middle name. Her writing has a coherence and an emotional punch in those sections that is not found, for the most part, in the more rambling sections about her music and art. That's not to say that the latter subjects are bad, just that they're not as interesting. The book does seem to get better and more focused as it goes along. 
 
All in all, this book was a pleasant enough diversion. It won't win any awards, but it's an engaging look at the life of one of the more unusual artists and musicians of our times. 
 
redheadedfemme: (reader thousand lives)
2017-07-04 06:21 pm

Review: The Gate to Alien Country (The Expanse, #3)

Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey

4 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Expanse series. I've been reading them haphazardly, due to availability issues at the library, and so missed book #2. I religiously watch the series, however, so I'm up-to-date on the overall storyline. 
 
(Having said that, if the third season of the TV series gets very far into this book, as I'm sure it will, it's going to be hellaciously expensive to film.)
 
In this book, at least for the first half, our familiar Rocinante characters don't make much of an appearance; three new POV characters are introduced. This was a bit of a drag at first, but the characterizations are done well enough that I came to care for all three new characters, even the sociopathic sister out for revenge. However, in this book the plot is very well done, the threads expertly braided to a slam-bang climax. The stakes are increased exponentially, and this is obviously a turning point for the series as a whole, greatly expanding the world and the potential for conflicts. 
 
(But damn, I miss Amos and Alex. And when are we going to get chapters from Naomi's point of view?)
 
This is a very solid entry in the series, and I can't wait to see the alien hub on the screen.
redheadedfemme: (read a book)
2017-06-25 06:44 pm

"Let us love winter, for it is the spring of genius"

The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire

4 of 5 stars

This is the eighth book in the October Daye series. I actually skipped ahead to this one because I'd heard so much about it, and despite my not having read some of the previous books in the series, it doesn't disappoint. Seanan McGuire has a nice, flowing prose style, with little to no infodumping, and does very well at revealing only what you need to know at any given moment. This avoids slowing the story down, and inspires trust in the reader. You know the twists are coming, but in the meantime, you've got a bang-up story to enjoy. 
 
What's outstanding here, however, is the worldbuilding, the characterizations, and the relationships. The world of Faerie existing concurrently with our modern world is a staple in urban fantasy, to the point of become cliche, unfortunately. However, few urban fantasy writers dive as deep into Faerie as McGuire. (I would say the only author to match her is Laurell K. Hamilton, but Hamilton's Faerie is much more pornified.) Toby's world is rigorously thought out and explored, with all its implications and potential (and real) nastiness. (Such as the racism exhibited towards changelings, for example.) This is a world that has left a deep mark on its protagonist, a world where Toby has suffered and has the scars to prove it. 
 
Toby herself, as the central character, is just lovely. She's deeply loyal to her friends, and if in the past she had a habit of charging off half-cocked, she's making a conscious effort to slow down and think. She's also working on accepting help from other people, in particular her boyfriend Tybalt. The foundations of her relationships and family--both her blood family and her found one--are dragged into the open and examined here, and like everything to do with family, the results are sometimes messy. Not all hurts can heal, and not all things can be forgiven. All of these little ins and outs of the people in this book are fascinating, and (as so many people have said) the Luidaeg is a delight. She can scare the piss out of Toby, and does, but Toby loves her anyway, and does something for her that will obviously have major repercussions going forward. 
 
This book is smartly plotted and paced, and very satisfying. Urban fantasy, as a genre, is not as popular as it used to be, and for good reason: in past years, the market was glutted with it, and a great deal of it was not so great. (I know, as I read quite a lot myself.) But this series is superior, and definitely a keeper.
redheadedfemme: (sparkle dragon)
2017-06-18 07:44 pm

The League of Extraordinary Dragons

League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

3 of 5 stars

This is the final book in the long-running and mostly worthy series. I've heard it referred to as "Patrick O'Brien with dragons." It takes place on an alternate Earth where there is a second sentient species--dragons--and said dragons are drafted to engage in aerial warfare, long before the airplane is a mote in anyone's eye. (Indeed, one wonders if air travel will even be invented in this universe.) Napoleon Bonaparte plays a huge role in this series, and in this last book he is finally defeated and exiled to the island of St. Helena, which is what happened on "our" Earth.
 
It's been evident for the last few books that the author is better writing her draconic characters than her human ones, and that pattern continues here. There is a surprising amount of humor in this story, especially in the chapter where Temeraire and Iskierka are arguing over which of their men will marry the peasant girl. We are introduced to a new character, the dragonet of Iskierka and Temeraire, Ning, who is a tart-tongued delight. Laurence is dealt with a little better in this book than some; at least he's gotten to the point where he'll refuse unlawful orders and stand up for dragonkind. (He also retires from the aerial service at the end of this book, which frankly he should have done at the beginning when he saw how Temeraire and dragons in general were treated by the British.) The overall running theme of this story is the dragons' fight to be recognized and treated as sentient beings, and the book ends with Temeraire planning to run for one of the twenty seats set aside for dragons in Parliament. 
 
Having said that, there were some serious pacing and plot problems with this book. Especially in the second half, the author developed the annoying habit of leading up to an action scene, coming to the end of a chapter, and in the next chapter skipping right ahead in time and completely depriving the reader of exactly how our crew got out of their predicament. I don't know if she thought she needed to wrap the book up right now or what, but I would rather have had a fatter book and those scenes left in. This is particularly exasperating in the final showdown with Napoleon and Lien--are we to believe Lien, Temeraire's primary antagonist throughout the series, wouldn't put up a hell of a fight at the last? I don't remember any of the previous books doing this, and I wish she hadn't written the book like this. 
 
Overall, this is an engaging series, and I do own all the volumes. Just be aware that the quality tails off at the end.  
redheadedfemme: (wonder woman reading)
2017-06-16 06:12 pm

"There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it"

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

4 of 5 stars

I'm a great fan of the TV series based on these books, The Expanse on SyFy. I watched the first two seasons without having read any of the books. Now that I'm getting into the books, I must admit it's been a bit of an education. I can see where this book's storyline was changed (although not all that much, fortunately) and compressed, and I applaud the producers' decision to bring in a character who actually isn't in the print series until the second book. The series has definitely captured the gritty, messy future described in this book, where humanity has spread within the solar system but still hasn't left behind its endless fighting. 
 
This series takes place about two hundred years in the future, when Mars, various moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and the asteroid belt have been settled, and Mars is in the process of being terraformed. The point is made that these new generations born and raised in space have already started to tweak human evolution, as Belters are taller and thinner than Earthborn humans, due to living in lower gravity. Mars is the golden child, with plenty of pretty military toys, technologically advanced; Earth is the aging mother, overcrowded (with a population of 30 billion--I cannot imagine this) but still supplying the colonies with food and air; and the Belt and its denizens are the orphans fighting to survive in the solar system's dregs. This tinderbox, and its very uneasy and delicate status quo, is upended by the discovery of an alien nanotech supervirus, launched at our solar system billions of years ago and kept from settling upon the infant Earth by a fortuitous accident (Saturn basically getting in the way). Unfortunately, an Earth corporation discovers this ancient invasion, and since Earth corporations are still assholes in search of endless profit even hundreds of years from now, it takes this virus (dubbed the "protomolecule") and promptly starts experimenting with it...on individuals and eventually a million and a half people inside a settled asteroid. 
 
Our two viewpoint characters in this system-spanning disaster are James Holden and Joe Miller, the XO of the ice freighter Canterbury and a cop working on the asteroid Ceres respectively. Holden is an idealistic do-gooder in way over his head, and Miller the weary, hard-bitten soul who is just trying to solve a mystery and gets dragged into a mess. Of the two, Miller was the better character to me; I wanted to slap Holden several times. This is a very long book (561 pages) but unlike the last doorstop I suffered through, the pacing was good and the story flowed nicely, and infodumps were kept to a minimum. (No pages upon pages explaining how the Epstein drive worked, for instance. It's there, it uses fuel pellets at extremely high efficiency, it enables travel at high enough gees that drugs are required to keep people from blowing their organs and blood vessels, and we go with it.)
 
I'm glad I watched the series first, as it made for an interesting comparison and I don't mind spoilers. This is a gritty, dirty, lived-in world, and the politics are as interesting as the protomolecule. It doesn't envision a particularly nice future humanity, with schisms and prejudices and tribalisms that endure beyond this planet and into the stars, but these many shades of gray make for fascinating reading.
redheadedfemme: (Default)
2017-06-11 04:21 pm

Review: The End of All Things

Death's End by Liu Cixin

1 of 5 stars

Oh, how the mighty have fallen, as least as far as I'm concerned.
 
The first book in this series, The Three-Body Problem, was released to considerable acclaim a few years ago, winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel. I didn't care much for it or the sequel, The Dark Forest, only giving them (barely) two stars each. Looking at those reviews now, I realize I was trying to be nice, for some incomprehensible reason. Well, that's enough of that. I have no problem saying that this book is a clunky, bloated, godawful mess. 
 
I do wonder if this might be due to the different culture and language. (This is not knocking the translator, by the way--Ken Liu, the translator for the first in the series and this book, has done a masterful job.) Liu Cixin is the equivalent of a rock star in China, far more famous than hard SF authors tend to be in the US. The most affecting part of any of the books is the first section of The Three-Body Problem, dealing with the Cultural Revolution. I believe the author is a great fan of Arthur C. Clarke, and some of the other Chinese SF I've read seems to be quaintly retro, written for an audience fifty years past. All this adds up to a great whopping doorstop of a book that not only sends the human race four hundred but billions of years into the future...and unfortunately, felt like it took every minute of the universe's seventeen-billion-year lifespan to read. 
 
Look, if you like your hard SF laden with physics to the point where it feels like a textbook--or maybe a dreadful, dull, droning lecture--instead of an actual novel; if you like books with characters that have no more life and personality than the flattened, two-dimensional state our solar system is reduced to (lovingly described in every excruciating detail over the course of 26 pages); if you like clunky prose that only comes to "life," such as it is, when the author is delving into yet another way-out-there theoretical scientific concept; if you like stories with such grimdark bleakness that there is no way out for the human race other than to sit in a mini-universe, outside the passage of time, until the main universe contracts and is reborn; then go for it with this book. I do not. This is by far the worst book of the series, and I am glad it has come to its end.

 
 
redheadedfemme: (St. Bastard)
2017-06-04 02:48 pm

Review: Read 'Em the Riot Act

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

2 of 5 stars

This is the first book in the "Rivers of London" series, and based on this one, I have no desire to dive into any of the others. I suppose you could summarize it as "Harry Potter grows up and becomes an irritating, sexist London constable," but that would create a far better main character than this smarmy little twit. 
 
(I do not like Peter Grant. Can I repeat how much I do not like Peter Grant?)
 
Having said that, what good exists in this book is the secondary characters (especially Peter's boss, the wizard Thomas Nightingale, who I really wish this book had focused on), the worldbuilding, and the city of London itself. London and its culture was as much a protagonist as Peter Grant, and a far more interesting one. There was a competent murder mystery/police procedural at this book's heart, if the damned main character would just get out of the way. 
 
Bah. Fortunately, it didn't take me long to read this book, as that's a few days of my life I'll never get back.
 
redheadedfemme: (Default)
2017-05-29 02:29 pm

Review: I Will Not Go Quietly

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

4 of 5 stars

This is the first book I've read in the Vorkosigan Saga, and somehow it feels appropriate to be coming in on the tail end of the series. I'm meeting the characters for the first time in their maturity, and in some cases the twilight of their lives (although Cordelia, at seventy-six, says she will live to be at least a hundred and twenty). There is a great deal of history here. These characters have weight and depth, and Bujold does a tremendous job of showing this, mostly through dialogue, as Cordelia Vorkosigan, her son Miles, and Cordelia's former paramour Oliver Jole (with her now dead husband, Aral Vorkosigan), reconnect, reestablish old relationships, and begin new ones. 
 
This is a mature book, written by an adult for adults. There are themes of aging, acceptance, moving into a new period in one's life (retirement, which means something far different in this universe and to Cordelia; for one thing, due to uterine replicator technology, she is going to be starting a brand-new family at the age of seventy-six, using previously frozen eggs and sperm from herself and Aral), and reconciling the past with the future (mainly in the person of Miles, who had no idea of the nature of his father's poly marriage). Cordelia is the kind of woman I want to be when I grow up: completely at home in her own skin, content with her life, and needing no one. She is delighted by the new turn in her and Oliver Jole's relationship, but she will not go with him to what once was her home planet, Barrayar, if he takes an offered promotion there, and she is not shy about telling him so. (This conflict is resolved at the end of the book; Oliver turns down the promotion, retires from the military, and finds a new career and purpose of his own, with Cordelia on Sergyar.)
 
There's nothing earth-shattering in this book. The fate of Sergyar and Barrayar does not rest on Cordelia's decisions, and no one dies. (Aral died three years before, but Cordelia and Oliver talk about him so much, he's basically a third protagonist. This is all done in a healthy way, however, as the fond reminiscences the two principals have about someone who was vastly important to both of them, while they have nevertheless moved on with their lives.) The tone is quiet and restrained, but there is a great deal of wry humor, all character-based, and I laughed out loud several times. One passage in particular made me chuckle, when the truth about Cordelia and Oliver is finally revealed to her son (p. 214): 
 
Cordelia perked up in the hope that this might lead into some more personal revelations, but instead Oliver went off into an enthusiastic description of the Serena lake life as observed through the crystal canoe. The flash of self-forgetfulness brought his considerable charm to the fore, and Ekaterin [Miles' wife] smiled.

"But you can't be planning development out that way," said Miles. "Mother is trying to get people to move away from the local tectonics." 

Cordelia abandoned patience as unrewarding. "Actually, Oliver and I are dating."

Miles stared. The silence stretched just a little too long, though Ekaterin raised her eyebrows, looked back and forth between Cordelia and Jole, and ventured, "Congratulations!" Miles closed his mouth.

In another moment, he opened it again. "Er...what exactly do you mean by dating? In this context." 

"Screwing, dear," Cordelia replied, in her flattest Betan tones.
 
Cordelia Vorkosigan is a badass, and everyone in this book knows it. 
 
These are, by far, some of the most fully-realized characters I've read recently, and it was a pleasure to eavesdrop on these pivotal moments in their lives. Now I'll have to go back to the beginning of the saga, and see how they got to where they are today. Given the author's obvious skill, I'm sure I'll enjoy the earlier books as much as I did this one.  
redheadedfemme: (one more chapter)
2017-05-28 07:32 pm

Review: A Sea-Change Into Something Rich and Strange

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

4 of 5 stars
 
This is the second book I've read in the Craft Sequence, and I liked it better than the first. Maybe that's because I'm more familiar with Gladstone's world (and an inventive, layered, complex world it is), and maybe it's because the setting for this book--an island, with the appropriate isolationist economy and worldview that the villain will repeatedly murder to defend--has a laserlike focus that the first book seemed to lack. In any event, I can see the improvement in the author's (heh) craft: the pacing and plotting are tighter (perhaps a touch slow in the first half, but necessary to set up and advance the storylines of the two protagonists), the characterizations better, and the ending is nicely landed.

Most of all, the author avoids dragging his story down with infodumps, despite this being an extremely complicated and unique universe. (I mean, hell, in Gladstone's world, gods and goddesses are literal beings that live by and through the numbers and fervency of their worshipers, and they can die. In fact, the death of an idol, which here is an artificially created deity that doesn't quite have the worshipers to attain full sentience, kicks off the book.) He reveals just what you need to know at any given moment while getting on with the story, which inspires trust in the reader. I assumed I would be able to figure everything out by the end, and I did. It was also and absorbing and rewarding ride getting to that end, thanks to the sparkling characterizations of Kai and Izza, the protagonists.

In addition, there's a nicely plotted mystery involved, which ties in with themes of change and the acceptance of the fact that your small, isolated piece of real estate and culture cannot, and will not, remain static forever. The villain wants to hold back that metaphorical tide, and does some terrible things in service to his goal. (He also has a seriously creepy police force in the Penitents, living stone statues that swallow people whole and infect their minds in an attempt to brainwash them.) In the end, he is defeated by Kai and Izza, in a hard-fought and very much earned victory. The book ends on a bittersweet but hopeful note: change is coming to the island of Kavekana, but thanks to the efforts of these two, the people are far better prepared to meet it.

One of the front blurbs on this book mentions it as belonging to the "urban fantasy" genre. This is a misnomer, as it is no such thing. Humans populate this world, but it does not reflect our continents and cities, and culture- and history-wise it is very much its own thing. Max Gladstone's excellent worldbuilding is just one of the attractions of this series, which I wholeheartedly recommend.
 
redheadedfemme: (couch poodle)
2017-05-16 08:49 pm

Review: Warm and Fuzzy Makes the Grade (kind of)

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky  Chambers

3 of 5 stars

This book is the quintessential comfort food. It's science fiction, but not especially hard science (a couple of things are pretty handwavey, but just enough to be passable), and space opera, but not the system-spanning, fate-of-humanity kind. It features one main character that is an artificial intelligence, downloaded into an android body, who wants to co-exist with humans rather than kill them, and another character that's one of a genetically engineered, cloned slave class, bred to do the nasty work that other humans (presumably natural-born ones) don't want to do. There are many directions the author could have taken this story, some of which would, frankly, have been more interesting, which is why I haven't given the book more stars. In particular Jane 23/Pepper's character is a bit of a disappointment. She's one of the cloned kids who sort, clean, and restore the planet's industrial scrap, and die very young due to heavy metal/radiation poisoning. Yet she has no interest in helping the girls left behind at her factory, and the next generation of clones to come, even after she escapes offplanet. The author dismisses this idea with a few sentences and some shreds of hastily-forgotten guilt, which do not ring true, and seem to me to be very much a missed opportunity. 
 
However, it's plain this wasn't the angle the author was interested in. She wanted to write a tightly focused, character-based story of acceptance and finding where you belong, and misfits making a home and family for themselves. This is not to say said story is bad. For what it is, it's well done, particularly the characterization of the two main protagonists, and the prose is breezy and flows well. But in the effort to make the book warm and fuzzy, the potential weight of the story is discarded. It's warm-hearted, and cute, and feel-good...and utterly lightweight and forgettable. This book will have its fans, and rightly so, but I prefer to have a little more grit and shades of grey in my space operas. 
redheadedfemme: (Default)
2017-05-11 08:19 pm

Review: And Death Shall Have No Dominion

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

4 of 5 stars

By all rights, this book should be a jumbled mess, as Max Gladstone seemingly threw everything into it except the kitchen sink. It's an urban fantasy, a courtroom drama, and a murder mystery; it's a coming-of-age story with three young protagonists struggling to find their place in the world; it's an examination of faith, in this case in a very literal way, as the "gods" in this book gain their life, sentience and energy from the devotion and fervency of their worshipers; and it's an alternate-world setting, as humans are (for the most part) the main characters, but this is very much not our Earth. 
 
I wouldn't have thought such a mishmash could work. But it does, wonderfully. 
 
There's some excellent worldbuilding here, the best kind--the reader is given the impression that we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg, that ten percent or so above the waterline. There's a dark, complex, ancient and not-so-ancient history that threatens to rear its ugly head at any time. This is embodied in our two main characters; first, Abelard the priest of the fire-god Kos Everburning. Abelard is a very engaging character, as he is young and unformed and has a poignant crisis of faith through the book. The other main character is Tara Abernathy, a woman of color (and no whitewashed cover! Hallelujah!) who wields the Craft, a magic system that draws upon starlight and moonlight, among other things. (It also extracts a pretty hefty price, as the author makes clear. This is a side element of the story I wish had been explored further, although admittedly there wasn't time for it: why people choose to study the Craft despite knowing what it will eventually do to them.) There are several other viewpoint characters, including Tara's boss, Elayne Kevarian; her former professor, Alexander Denovo, the villain (like all great villains, he is given a believable backstory and motivation, and in the very last scene of the book he gets a delicious comeuppance); Shale, a gargoyle; the vampire Raz Pelham, captain of the Kell's Bounty; and Catherine Elle, a vampire addict who moonlights as a Blacksuit, an avatar for the goddess Justice. 
 
There's a complicated plot here, with each of these characters having a crucial part, and it was a pleasure to watch everything come together. But the star of this show is this world and its history, and I look forward to following Max Gladstone as he further explores it.