Category Archives: Books

Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

The Hexarchate is facing a catastrophic defeat. To stave off a crippling loss, Kel Cheris recommends using the tactical genius of Shuos Jedao, an infamous general who slaughtered his own troops to achieve victory centuries ago. Damn, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee is freaking awesome. Yoon Ha Lee has crafted an amazing blend of intellectual science fiction, military science fiction, space opera, and weird fiction.

The world building is excellent. And quite weird. Melded with real physics is a sort of consensus physics by which many exotic effects are achieved through adherence to various calendars. To rebel against the hegemonic calendar is to enact heresy, which threatens the entire fabric of the society of the Hexarchate. And many of these exotic technologies have become essential to the continued existence of galactic society.

Which explains why the Hexarchate is a very authoritarian, brutal culture to live in.

Several reviews I have read remarked upon the difficulty of following along with the weird/ exotic science Lee develops for Ninefox Gambit. But I do not agree. I find no problem understanding the science, even if it is weird.

In fact, I had no problem following along with the cultural world building either.

Ninefox Gambit is a relatively slim novel that packs quite a punch. Especially during the siege and battle that takes place over the last third of the novel. The Siege of the Fortress of Scattered Needles is one of the best science fiction battles I have ever read.

My one criticism, though, is that I wish the Neo Liozh Heresy had been more of a match for Jedao and Cheris. I wish more had been done with Vahenz (whose communications with Liozh Zai are delightfully hilarious) to make her a more credible antagonist.

The characterization is subtle and very well done. The reader feels for these characters. The readers rage at Kel Command with Cheris, feel for the soldiers fighting in the battle (and often dying), and come to recognize the ignored importance of the servitors. The characters, no matter how short their appearance, come across as multidimensional.

My one major criticism is that Ninefox Gambit is only 317 pages in the edition I have. I want more. I want to know what happens to Cheris after the end of the Siege. I want to see her next moves.

Review: The Night Ocean by Paul LaFarge

Did H.P. Lovecraft write the Erotonomicon, a diary of forbidden sexual desire and experience? Did R.H. Barlow fake his suicide in Mexico City to live a new life in Montreal? Who is L.C. Spinks? What drove Charlie Willett to suicide. That is what Charlie’s wife, Marina Willett is determined to find out. But will Marina’s quest drive her to the madness that claimed Charlie? If you want to find out, read The Nigh Ocean, Paul LaFarge’s own Lovecraftian pastiche. Or is it parody? In either case, I would urge a prospective reader to pull back before it is too late.

The Night Ocean is not a good novel.

The plot is ridiculous and convoluted, surviving on the audaciousness of the salacious implication that H.P. Lovecraft may or may not have been fond of teenage hustlers. And R.H. Barlow. Before readers jump to Lovecraft’s defense (and spoiler alert!), the Erotonomicon is revealed to be a forgery. Like the rest of the various narratives designed to evoke Lovecraftian paranoia and madness.

It is all a bunch of hot air that does not even capture the evocative power of Lovecraft, even at his worse.

The characters are all flat and unrealized. Especially as the novel is told second and third hand.

Are there any redeeming features of the novel?

Yes. There is one.

I did enjoy the scenes of Barlow’s life in Mexico City before his suicide. That is, for me, the sole interesting thing in the novel. Pity the novel is not about Barlow in Mexico City.

Otherwise, this is just a truly terrible novel.

 

2017 Book Haul Two

I’m late on this post. I intended on going to Golden’s Book Exchange the first week of March and picking up some books on sale. But circumstances prevented me from going. I’m hoping I can go in June (or earlier). We will see.

Anyway. While I did not go to Golden’s, I did accumulate quite a few books from Amazon and Alibris over the past few months.

Here they are.

From Alibris, I bought:

Brad by Ken Smith

The Black Halo by Sam Sykes

The Skybound Sea again by Sam Sykes

The Third God by Ricardo Pinto

Dragonfly Falling by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Hawkmoon by Michael Moorcock (an omnibus edition including The Jewel in the SkullMad God’s AmuletThe Sword of the Dawn, and The Runestaff)

The Black Unicorn by Tanith Lee

Starring Miss Marple by Agatha Christie (an omnibus edition including The Body in the LibraryA Murder is Announced, and They Do It With Mirrors)

Five Complete Poirot Novels by Agatha Christie (an omnibus edition including Murder on the Orient ExpressThirteen at DinnerThe ABC MurdersCards on the Table, and Death on the Nile)

From Amazon, I bought:

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu

The Mirrored Empire by Kameron Hurley

Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley

Almost Infamous by Matt Carter

Twelve Kings of Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Blood on the Sand  by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Kings of the Wild by Nicholas Eames

Sins of Empire by Brian McClellan

The Vagrant by Peter Newman

The Malice by Peter Newman

Amberlough   by Lara Elena Donelly

The Garden of Stones by Mark T. Barnes

The Obsidian Heart by Mark T. Barnes

The Pillars of Sand by Mark T. Barnes

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett

The Skull Throne by Peter V. Brett

The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks

An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows

A pretty impressive amount of books, I should think.

What will I haul next? We shall see.

 

What I Read in April

My April reading has continued the general trend of my readings over the course of the year so far. But, there have been rays of light. I know what has been plaguing me. I’ve been forcing myself to read a lot of literary fiction. And I’m just not in the mood for those books. Instead, I am hungering for science fiction and fantasy. Also, I have cut down on the massive numbers of books I’ve checked out of the library at any one time. Not having so many books lessens the pressure on me to speed up my reading.

Any way, what did I read this last month?

The best two books I read in April, and contenders for the best books I’ve read this year, are Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente and The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard. Both books are awesome. And I posted reviews of both novels Monday.

I also finally read Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood and Burger’s Daughter to a disappointing end. I talked about my feelings for both books in a previous post as well, so I won’t spend much time on either of those.

The first book I read in April was The Miniature Wife and Other Stories by Manuel Gonzales. I can’t say much about this collection except that I was less than impressed with it. What is it about literary speculative fiction that so often falls flat?

The second book I read was Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. This novel is definitely not my cup of tea. I never connected with the characters or the writing.

Next up was Jump and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer. I really enjoyed “Jump” and a few other stories. But other stories were not terribly compelling.

I also read Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge. I didn’t care for it at all, I’m sad to say.

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift was boring. Why did I have it on my to be read list again?

I really liked The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. The story of the people who fell in love with octopuses is touching and well done. But I wish more attention had been paid to the octopuses.

Finally, I read Ismail Kadare’s Broken April. This novel is evocative and haunting. I enjoyed this story of early twentieth century Albania.

That is what I read in April. On to May’s readings!

Review: The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

In a shattered Paris ruled by fallen angel dominated houses, House Silverspire is fading, its past glories departed with its former master. A dark power rises, intent on shattering Silverspire’s very foundations. So begins The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Boddard.

I love this book.

The world building is amazing. The incorporation and realization of so much mythology into the world is extremely well done. The postapocalyptic look of Paris is stunning in its magically induced state of perpetual ruin. The magical systems on display are eclectic, differentiated, and well thought out.

The writing is lush and gorgeous. The narrative subtly differentiates itself depending on narrator, which is so rare to read.

The characters are especially strong. Each character is fully realized and amazing in their own right. The three lead protagonists particularly so.

Selene, the last apprentice of Morningstar, struggles in a role she was never intended for: head of Silverspire. She must balance her innate compassion and moderate nature and the ruthless demand of her position as she confronts the greatest test Silverspire has faced since Morningstar’s disappearance. Selene’s arc is amazing as it is frustrating, in a good way.

Madeleine, the alchemist of Sivlerspire, goes through the motions of killing herself through the abuse of a magical drug. On the run from Hawthorne, a rival house to Silverspire, Madeleine finds herself drawn into the threat facing Silverspire, only to find herself drawn inexorably back to Hawthorne.

Phillippe, a seemingly young man from Annam (the name of Vietnam in the text), is a mystery to those around him. Originally part of a gang and openly hostile to the Houses, Phillippe finds himself drawn into the fall of Silverspire when he becomes psychically connected to Isabelle, a recently manifested fallen angel.

Of the three protagonists, Phillippe is the most interesting. It would be so easy to romanticize Silverspire and the courtly politics and intrigue of the Houses. But Phillippe puts a cold stop to that. His rage and impotence is raw and clawing. His desire for home, for what he has lost, is powerful. And heart breaking.

But, Phillippe is a frustrating character in both good and bad ways. The reader struggles Phillippe, forced to think about losing one’s place in the world, colonialism, post colonialism, and the struggle to survive.

Phillipe is also frustrating because he is impotent. There are moments in the novel where I, personally, am screaming at the book for Phillippe to be more active, to fight back. Especially when he has the power to do so.

This is where my big problem with The House of Shattered Wings comes in. I wanted Phillippe to be more active. I wanted him to fight back. I wanted him to leave Silverspire to its well deserved fate. But he doesn’t. Like so many other initially unhelpful antihero protagonists, Phillippe’s connection to Isabelle forces him to go back to Silverspire to attempt to save the day. Even if the narrative description of his internal struggle to help or not is not convincing.

Despite my criticism, The House of Shattered Wings is amazing and fun. The frustration is a good thing. It forces the reader to think about things that are so easily glossed over in most fantasy. And fantasy needs more of that.

Review: Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

In an alternate universe where every planet in the solar system is inhabitable, Severin Unck, documentary filmmaker, vanishes while filming in a mysteriously destroyed Venusian village. What follows is an amazing homage to old Hollywood and science that never was through the lens of the weird.

I adore Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente. But how do I write a glowing review?

The book is amazing, the best thing I’ve read so far this year bar none.

But talking about why I like it is so damn difficult. There is no one thing that I can point to. And many of the elements of the novel may be off putting to other readers.

Catherynne M. Valente is a difficult writer. She melds science fiction and fantasy with a highly experimental literary sensibility. She does not always succeed. But when she does, the work is amazing.

The writing for Radiance is gorgeous. It is baroque and ornate and fits the social milieu of the characters like a glove.

The structure is amazingly well crafted, telling the story through textual home movies, diary entries, film scripts, radio scripts, transcripts, and the ever changing novelization of a film that will never be made. All the narratives combine to create both a powerful homage to a lunar Hollywood that never was and a complicated narrative of grief and the search for solace.

The characters are amazingly realized even as the artificiality of the movie industry transforms the characters both physically and mentally.

My words cannot do this novel enough justice. Just know that if you want to read a novel that reaches the heights science fiction can achieve when it marries literary ambition and experimentation, Radiance might just be the novel for you.

 

 

Atwood and Gordimer

In January, I bemoaned the fact that I did not get into Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter. My failure bugged me in the following months. In April, I couldn’t take it any more and rechecked the two books from the library. I finally read them. And came away with the same opinions I had in January, which sucks. But, to be fair, no book is going to appeal to everyone. Atwood and Gordimer are great authors. One deserves her Nobel. And the other should have gotten a Nobel already.

I struggle with Margaret Atwood, to be honest. I first read Atwood’s The Robber Bride in my senior year of high school and reread the novel again about two or three years later. I enjoyed The Robber Bride greatly. Maybe it is the acceptance, at the end, of a minor character’s coming out. Maybe it is the fact that the three protagonists are amazing women struggling with an amazing antagonist. Maybe I was just in a phase of my life that favored literary novels over science fiction and fantasy. I don’t quite know. But, I haven’t reread The Robber Bride in over ten years.

Subsequently, I’ve read or attempted to read other works by Margaret Atwood. I read her 1991 collection Wilderness Tips and found it rather uneven. And I attempted to read The Blind Assassin while still in college. I did not like it and dropped it. Later I tried reading Cat’s Eye several times over the course of a few years. And recently, I have wanted to read The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace (for my historical novel reading challenge). As anyone who read my January reading post knows, I hated The Handmaid’s Tale.

On to my thoughts now that I finally finished Cat’s Eye. The novel is, for me, a dull affair that really doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do. It does have similar themes to The Robber Bride, but I don’t think Atwood quite captures the emotional power. I just really never connected to Elaine’s midlife identity crisis/ reformation or her obsession with Cordelia and her role in Elaine’s later character formation.

At least I’ve finally read Cat’s Eye. Sucks that I never got into it.

I am less familiar with Nadine Gordimer’s work, but I first read her novel The House Gun in my senior year of high school. And really enjoyed it. I just never really continued to read her work even as I bought her short story collection Jump. In January, I wanted to correct that oversight.

Burger’s Daughter is an experiment. Gordimer is transitioning from traditional dialogue to a more difficult and complicated, for author and read, technique for conveying conversation. In this regard, Burger’s Daughter is rather successful, but it does not work completely.

The key is characterization and maintaining each character’s individuality.

My problem with Burger’s Daughter is just that, Burger’s Daughter. Rosa Burger is defined by her father. And by her father’s struggle. She never quite comes into her own as a character. She is always defined in relation to her father. Even in the end, one must wonder how much her decisions are based on what she wants or what has been instilled in her to want.

The problem is that Rosa Burger is rather flat. Her characterization is, honestly, timid. Rosa Burger never quite emerges as a compelling character.

I am disappointed that I didn’t like Burger’s Daughter. But I am glad I read it. It is inspirational, though perhaps not in ways Gordimer intends.

Will I continue to seek out Margaret Atwood and Nadine Gordimer’s work? Yes. I might not like some of their books, but I am willing to bet that there are several of their books I will enjoy.

The Books I Read in March 2017

My reading continued to be a disappointment in March, but I am enjoying more of the books I’m reading. So, not everything is doom and gloom.

I already reviewed Every Heart a Doorway and The Collapsing Empire, so I will just mention them here.

On to the rest of the books.

I started the month reading Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey. It is a retelling of The Tempest. I read the first chapter or two and set it aside. I am not a fan of Carey’s style.

I also didn’t care for Chris Colfer’s Stranger Than Fanfiction. Colfer isn’t a terrible writer, but he needs to rein in his camp and metafictional fanboy impulses. I genuinely hope he improves.

Wanting to read some classic science fiction, I tried Sherri S. Tepper’s Grass. The descriptions are lovely. The story is boring.

I finally read Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiesta. I enjoyed the collection very much. I especially liked “Nemecia” and “Mojave Rats.” I will keep my eye on Valdez Quade’s future work.

My success with Night at the Fiesta inspired me to seek out a number of short story collections (with much less success). Among these books are: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay, The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Tenth of December by George Saunders, Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke, The World to Come by Jim Sheppard, and Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh.

Keeping with George Saunders, I attempted Lincoln in the Bardo. Oh my, that book is weirdly structured.

After my success with Leviathan Wakes, I moved on to Abaddon’s Gate after Caliban’s War. I grow less impressed with The Expanse as the series progresses. A lot of my issues lie with the world building. But I also feel James S.A. Corey fall into the George R.R. Martin trap, too many point of view characters disrupt the narrative.

I’ve been wanting to read Brain Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades for years (ever since I listened to a podcast interview with Staveley). I finally got around to it. I feel a world building rant coming on. And I wanted to like this book. Damn it.

I had the most success this month, honestly, with several history books I read for research. These books are: Life and Society in the Hittite World by Trevor Bryce, Byzantium Greatness and Decline by Charles Diehl (translated by Naomi Walford), and Lords of the Horizon by Jason Goodwin. All of these are good. The best book is by far Life and Society in the Hittite WorldByzantium Greatness and Decline is outdated (but hey, it is what my local library has). And Lords of the Horizon is a good popular introduction to the Ottoman Empire.

I also had some success with the comics I read this month. Among those are: Scarlet Witch Volume 2 World of Witchcraft by James Robinson, The Mighty Thor Volume 1 Thunder in Her Veins by Jason Aaron, Batman Volume 1 I am Gotham by Tom King, Detective Comics Volume 1 Rise of the Batmen by James Tynion IV, and Wonder Woman Volume 1 The Lies by Greg Rucka. I really liked Scralet Witch. I enjoyed The Mighty Thor though I am tired of the Roxxon Malekith plot, disliked the handling of Loki, and have issues with Aaron’s world building. I am not a fan of either Batman comic I read. I would much prefer James Tynion IV writing a dedicated Tim Drake book. And the first volume of Wonder Woman Rebirth surprised me. But I am not a fan Rucka’s rewritting of Wonder Woman’s history so soon after the last rewritting of her history. I just really liked the handling of Cheetah. I feel a comic book rant coming on.

That is all I read in March.

On to April!

 

Review: The Collapsing Empire

The Flow, the sole means of traveling faster than light, is shifting away from the human occupied worlds of the Interdependency. Can the heroes wrangle competing factions to save humanity? The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi has the beginning of the answer. (What do you expect from the first book in a series?) A fast paced space opera, The Collapsing Empire is a fun read with some serious issues (mainly I have major nitpicks regarding the world building).

The Collapsing Empire is fast paced. Amazingly so. The reader zips through the story wanting more.

The plot is fun. Reading how the protagonists work their ways into position to start the process of saving humanity against entrenched political corruption, sociopathic ambition, and endemic structural weakness is, honestly, a joy.

The main protagonist is Cardenia Wu, or, as she is formally styled, Emperox Grayland II. The bastard daughter of the previous emperox, she finds herself thrust into saving humanity from a position of power she never wanted.

Supporting her are Kiva Lagos, from the wealthy Lagos Guild, and Marce Claremont, a flow physicist on the run who has key information on the Flow’s shift. A foul mouthed force of nature, Kiva comes close to stealing the book. All three major characters are fascinating, but standard space opera character types.

(The villains, again, are standard character types. And very obvious.)

The biggest problem with The Collapsing Empire is thinking too hard about the world building. And the scientific process.

The Collapsing Empire takes place, at the least, in the 3500s. The Flow has been the fundamental bedrock of human civilization for over a thousand years. The Flow has shifted at least twice, stranding two worlds (one of them Earth) from the rest of humanity. In all that time, and with the home world of humanity lost, the Flow is still little understood? Really? Come on. The Flow should be far more understood than it is within the context of the novel.

An added complication to the study, or lack thereof, of the Flow is the obvious problem with the scientific method and peer review presented in the novel. Peer review is mentioned twice in key moments. One character is criticized for not peer reviewing her findings. The chastising character even references the fact that he, himself, needed peer review to prevent himself from making the same mistakes. But, he is satisfied with his work being peer reviewed by only one other person and treats it as sufficient. Should not peer review be more extensive (and therefore alleviating some of the political problems that arise in the novel)? Then again, that would kill the plot.

(To be fair to Scalzi, a lot of space opera, and science fiction in general, have serious problems when it comes to actual science.)

Humans, again, are vastly more advanced in 3500 than they are in 2017. Even in the harshest environments, humanity should be either able to terraform their new home worlds or adapt themselves to their new environments. The fall of the Interdependency should not result in humanity eventually dying out except for those on End, the only world humanity occupies that is in any way similar to Earth.

These world building problems are necessary for the plot to work, however. The immediacy of the collapse of the Interdependency is lessened if the coming shift in the Flow is widely known about. And, again, the economic structure of the Interdependency makes it impossible for humans to survive on their own even if humans should be able to adapt to their new environments.

Clearly, the world building bugs me to no end. I wish it did not. But it does. And consequently, my enjoyment of the novel is lessened by asking these world building questions. The Collapsing Empire is a fun read. But can it escape the collapse of its world building? For me, it cannot.

 

Review: Every Heart a Doorway

We all know what a portal fantasy is, even if we’ve never heard the term. The Chronicles of NarniaAlice’s Adventures in WonderlandThe Wonderful Wizard of OzThe Magicians, etc. We all know the beginning of the adventure. We all know the adventure. But what about after?  What happens to the boys and girls who go on impossible quests and return, irrevocably changed?  That is story Seanan McGuire’s short novel Every Heart a Doorway seeks to answer.

Nancy Whitman is the newest student at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a school/ sanitarium for children who have disappeared and returned claiming to have been whisked away to another world. In Nancy’s case, she has returned from the Halls of the Dead where all but five strands of her hair have turned white. She is desperate to return, though return is a very rare thing. But the desperate often turn to extreme measures to get what they want. Even murder.

I want to like Every Heart a Doorway. I really do. But while the short novel has a good central idea, there are too many flaws that suck out any real enjoyment I have.

The writing is flowery and literary in a young adult style. It works for readers who like that style, but for readers who are not terribly fond of the young adult style, the writing can be off putting.

The biggest problem with Every Heart a Doorway is that McGuire tries to condense a significant amount of ideas into too small a narrative space. Part of the story is orienting Nancy to her new school. The majority of the story, however, deals with surviving a serial killer running loose in the school. Neither story thread gets the space it needs. The orientation provides only sketches of characters save for the eventual (spoiler alert) antagonists. The horror story is very predictable. Ultimately, everything falls flat.

(A part of the problem, I think, is that Every Heart a Doorway is trying to be a literary fantasy, which focuses primarily on explorations of character and character growth, but cannot escape the fact that it is a fantasy and must have a more exciting plot than portal fantasies being nothing more that living metaphors of the individual’s psyche).

Another major problem with the story lies with representation. The main character is asexual, although said asexuality had to told to the audience rather than shown in a very clumsy scene that also revealed one of the four boys in the school as being transgender (transforming the scene into the young adult equivalent of Jerry Springer after the fact).

Furthermore, the explanation as to why there are only four boys out of a school population of forty is deeply problematic. And I will leave it at that. (Though if any one wants to comment with their interpretation, please do so. Just remember to be respectful and not abusive or bullying).

In conclusion. I found the story to be deeply unsatisfying and poorly constructed despite the good ideas. Perhaps if the story had been split into two stories of nearly two hundred pages each, I might be writing a far different review.