Thursday, August 31, 2023

Book Review: A Memory Called Empire

book cover for A Memory Called EmpireAmbassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn't an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her station from Teixcalaan's unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

From the onset of A Memory Called Empire, intrigue piqued my curiosity. How did the Lsel Station ambassador die? And what is so terrible about the Teixalaanli Empire that a Councilor on the station longs for a potentially even more dangerous foe to step out of the shadows? And it continues throughout the story, answers leading to more questions, until the underlying issues of the moment are resolved at the end.

Mahit made for a good protagonist. I rooted for her and her budding cadre of allies as she sought out the answers to the questions that were linked to her survival and those of her home, Lsel Station. I liked her even though I didn't share her love for Teixcalaanli culture. That's not to say it wasn't interesting. The importance of poetry in their society from top to bottom (competitions at parties!) was intriguing without being too literary. Their naming conventions (a number coupled with an physical object) struck me as unique. And Mahit's need to point out the differences between her culture and Teixcalaanli, from facial expressions to vocal manners, revealed such subtle differences that I couldn't help but wonder if Martine was trying to draw Earthly comparisons. Anyway, I enjoyed Martine's world-building.

Action was limited, but the threat of violence was always present. In seeking answers into the death of her predecessor, she stuck her nose into places where it wasn't welcome. Were it not for the setting, one could easy mistake this story for a political thriller.

One element that made the book even better was the humor, dry as it was. In one instance, Mahit is attending a party for government functionaries where there was a poetry competition. Her liaison, Three Seagress, approaches her.
    "Are you going to finish the drink?" asked Three Seagrass when the noise had died away.
    "Yes. Why?"
    "Because I am going to have to talk about Fourteen Spire's use of assonance for the rest of the evening, and you're going to have to listen, and we should both be slightly more inebriated."
    "Oh," said Mahit. "When you put it like that..."

Mahit and Three Seagrass develop a friendship, but overhanging their relationship the whole time is the spectre of colonialism. Teixcalaanli citizens are taught to view everyone outside their borders as "barbarians", no matter their level of civilization. As Teixcalaan-phile Mahit constantly seeks out acceptance and camraderie among her contacts, she occasionally crashes into a wall that reminds her of this fact: She will never obtain what she seeks.

I really enjoyed this book. There was engaging world-building, dashes of humor, and enough intrigue and tension to ignore the lack of action. Looking forward to reading the next book.

4.5 stars


Friday, June 23, 2023

Book Review: Fugitive Telemetry

book cover for Fugitive TelemetryThere's been a murder on Preservation Station and Murderbot has been called in to solve the case!


Ok, so yeah, the murder happened, but our favorite SecBot is actually a suspect at the start of the investigation. But as Murderbot puts it:

No, I didn't kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn't dump the body in the station mall, for fuck's sake.

You can almost hear the eyeroll.

Murderbot is interested in the case as it wants to rule out that the murder was related to GrayCris, the nefarious corporation out to eliminate Murderbot's favorite human, Dr. Mensah. She recognizes that this is an opportunity for Murderbot to improve its relationship with Station Security. After Murderbot provides an alibi that Station Security accepts, it works with them to track down the suspect because murders just don't happen on Preservation Station.

The full station threat assessment for murder was at a baseline 7 percent. (To make it drop lower than that we'd have to be on an uninhabited planet.)

Station Security is still leery of Murderbot as it's a SecBot, which avid readers of this series know is a Security Robot, a machine capable of lethal violence second only to Combat Robots. Its chief also doubts Murderbot's investigative skills.

    "Yes, I've had experience with investigating suspicious fatalities in controlled circumstances."
    Indah's gaze wasn't exactly skeptical. "What controlled circumstances?"
    I said, "Isolated work installations."
    Her expression turned even more grim. "Corporate slave labor camps."
    I said, "Yes, but if we call them that, Marketing and Branding gets angry and we get a power surge through our brains that fries little pieces of our neural tissue."

Of course, Murderbot is leery of Station Security as well, since, you know, they're humans. And getting along with humans is not something Murderbot was programmed for.

I didn't make an expression because I knew Indah would be more annoyed by me not reacting than by me reacting.

But Murderbot and the Station Security personnel try to make the most of a situation that neither side wants to be involved with to solve the case.

Fugitive Telemetry is another solid entry in a fantastic series. However, I don't expect a series of cozy mysteries involving Murderbot to become a thing. ;-)

4 stars


Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Book Review: The Light Brigade

book cover for The Light BrigadeThe Light Brigade: it's what soldiers fighting the war against Mars call the ones who come back... different. Grunts in the corporate corps get busted down into light to travel to and from interplanetary battlefronts. Everyone is changed by what the corps must do in order to break them down into light. Those who survive learn to stick to the mission brief—no matter what actually happens during combat.

Dietz, a fresh recruit in the infantry, begins to experience combat drops that don't sync up with the platoon's. And Dietz's bad drops tell a story of the war that's not at all what the corporate brass want the soldiers to think is going on.

Is Dietz really experiencing the war differently, or is it combat madness? Trying to untangle memory from mission brief and survive with sanity intact, Dietz is ready to become a hero—or maybe a villain; in war it's hard to tell the difference.

This was a hot mess.

Before I start, ignore the comparisons to Edge of Tomorrow. This is nothing like it. In that movie, Tom Cruise's character dies constantly only to loop back in time. Dietz, the main character and narrator in The Light Brigade, not only doesn't die all the time but moves forward and backward in time, which is more like Billy Pilgrim's experiences in Slaughterhouse-Five.

The story started out well. We're introduced to Dietz just before basic training, and we can tell that Dietz is a hothead, act-first-think-later kind of person with lots of baggage having grown up poor and lacking corporate citizenship. The basic training experience is brutal and puts the new recruits into awful situations. So it seems like this will be a grinder sci-fi novel focusing on the brutality of war and what it does to soldiers. Nope. Once Dietz experiences teleportation, we get a broken time travel story. For the record, if the transporter (the whole "busted down into light to travel" is totally reminiscent of Star Trek's transporter) ever broke down in Star Trek, you can bet that Scotty or O'Brien would be all over it, trying to get it repaired. Losing people in transporter accidents is horrible. But this is Bones' worst nightmare with people materializing in walls and with limbs misplaced. Here, it's just another day on the job. A lot of resources go into training soldiers; they're not disposable. And if you can teleport a soldier and all their gear, why not just teleport a nuke?

For a military sci-fi novel, there really isn't a whole lot of combat. Dietz's squad either teleports into a battlefield where they're slaughtered or they go into a police action against civilians where they vaporize them. Bodies explode with blood and viscera like a typical episode of Ash Vs. The Evil Dead.

Dietz's internal monologue and conversations with other soldiers are fairly insipid. A lot of dialogue is just repeated. You could make a drinking game out of the phrase "Stick to the brief", a reference to abiding by the mission brief and ignoring everything else. We're told that they're monitored all the time, so they have to watch what they say, but Dietz gets a watch with some kind of jamming device built into it and later corporate causalities have become so high that the corporation doesn't have enough people to monitor every conversation. I guess developing computer algorithms or AI was harder than teleportation. At the end of the novel Dietz suddenly figures things out and becomes all-knowing.

We're told that all of the world's governments have collapsed and been replaced by corporations. But there's nothing vaguely capitalistic about them. Sure they have CEOs, but corporations don't bomb markets and slaughter potential new customers (Mercenaries do, sure, I'll grant you that). Amazon has been accused of putting a lot of small businesses out to pasture, but Bezos did it by shrewdly taking advantage of new business models that the internet enabled. He didn't send a hitman to kill the owner of your local bookstore. In this book, these corporations are feudal empires controlled by kings and queens.

There are these interrogation transcripts that begin to pop up between chapters. Although neither Dietz nor the interrogator is identified, it's obvious it's them. We have to read this lame polemic which gradually turns into an argument which gets rehashed in each interrogation. This book was published in 2019, which means Hurley wrote this 2017-18. The whole interrogation reads like Hurley is taking her grievances with what was going on in the USA at the time and uses the space to rant. Maybe that's why people liked it so much. I think it's meant to be inspiring or make some people think, but while I'd agree with the points made, the way it was done reads like Dietz was just stating the obvious.

1.5 stars


Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Book Review: Number One Is Walking

book cover for Number One Is Walking
I picked this book up during my local Barnes & Noble's moving sale. I went on the last day, and there were several copies of this book present, more than any other of the remaining inventory. I should've taken that as a sign to skip it, but I'm a lifelong Steve Martin fan, so I couldn't resist.

This book is marketed as an illustrated memoir of Steve Martin's acting career. It doesn't come close to be worthy of being called a memoir. It is a collection of various anecdotes from a few selected films which were then boiled down to brief, one or two-page, illustrations. They leave you wondering, "And then what happened?" But rather than provide any sort of elaboration, the book moves on to the next anecdote.

And the anecdotes only make up one-third to two-fifths of the book—I was too annoyed to get any more precise than that as there are no page numbers, and that would require more math than this book was worth. The rest of the book is a collection of New Yorker cartoons that Martin collaborated with the illustrator, Harry Bliss, on. These were fine. They were cute, whimsical notes of satire, but printed one to a page (the back-side being left blank).

Despite this being illustrated, I was hoping for something more. Martin's memoir of his early years, Born Standing Up, was an excellent work detailing how he got his start in show business and ran through his early career as a stand-up comic, including why he gave it up. I was hoping that this would detail his career in film in the same way. It looks like we'll have to wait for that.

2 stars


Sunday, May 7, 2023

Book Review: Johannes Cabal The Necromancer

book cover for The NecromancerJohannes Cabal sold his soul years ago in order to learn the laws of necromancy. Now he wants it back. Amused and slightly bored, Satan proposes a little wager: Johannes has to persuade one hundred people to sign over their souls or he will be damned forever. This time for real. Accepting the bargain, Jonathan is given one calendar year and a traveling carnival to complete his task. With little time to waste, Johannes raises a motley crew from the dead and enlists his brother, Horst, a charismatic vampire to help him run his nefarious road show, resulting in mayhem at every turn.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It was fine. I was entertained. There were humorous quips and interesting bits of wordplay. The narrative was thought through and resolved neatly. But I wasn't eager to pick it back up each night when I sat down to read it, if I read it at all. However, I think it would work fine as a TV series as some of the gags require an audio or visual component to truly pull them off.

The book blurb covers the plot. There's a hint of Something Wicked This Way Comes in that an evil carnival roams the countryside causing mayhem. But while that was suspenseful, this story satirizes its horror. As the carnival proceeds via train through the English countryside, each stop presents a encounter with a potential soul to be taken or an obstacle to Johannes's progress. It's a very episodic format, which is fine and why it lends itself to a TV adaptation. It proceeds along at a measured pace until 70-75% of the way through when the carnival train makes its last stop and Cabal's deadline approaches.

At first, I rooted for Johannes in his quest to acquire 100 souls. His targets were people who were pretty lousy and seemingly deserved their fate. But the more I read of this anti-hero, the more I didn't care for him. His vampire brother, Horst, was the likable one who still retained any hint of conscience. By the end of the story, Johannes improves, but his path is muddy.

Maybe this book would've been a better match for me if I'd read it when I was much younger than I am today.

2.5 stars


Sunday, March 19, 2023

Book Review: Swords Against Death

book cover for Swords Against DeathIn the second installment of this rousing series, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser journey from the ancient city of Lankhmar, searching for a little adventure and debauchery to ease their broken hearts. When a stranger challenges them to find and fight Death on the Bleak Shore, they battle demonic birds, living mountains, and evil monks on the way to their heroic fate. Fritz Leiber’s witty prose, lively plots, and superb characterizations stand the test of time.

This collection of ten short stories picks up shortly after the events in Swords and Deviltry. Although written and published over a span of thirty years, the stories are arranged here in chronological order as per the characters' lives.

Yes, death is a common theme running through this collection. Whether it's dealing with the undead in the catacombs of the Thieves' Guild or battling Death himself, there's more than just combat mortality going on. There are beings long thought dead that have come back to life for revenge, and the dead haunting the living such that they'll do anything to be at peace. As great as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are in a sword fight, sometimes it takes wits to survive. Other times, the odds are so overwhelming that it's best to just run away.

In the first edition of D&D's Deities and Demigods, there was a section dedicated to the Nehwon Mythos. That was my first introduction to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and the beings that dwell there. The stories were an obvious inspiration to Gygax and company, and reading this collection of stories, one can't help but see it. Notable characters that show up here include the alien wizards Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ninguable of the Seven Eyes. There's an encounter with the goddess Tyaa and her fearsome flock of birds, Devourer, and, of course, Death.

I really enjoyed "Thieves' House", "The Bleak Shore", "The Sunken Land", "Claws from the Night", and "Bazaar of the Bizarre." I feel that these stories really exemplify Leiber at his best. Besides detailing the prowess of his heroes' swordsmanship, Leiber can set a scene, whether it be fantastic...
The lenses and brass tubes, some of the latter of which were as fantastically crooked as if they were periscopes for seeing over the walls and through the barred windows of other universes, showed at first only delightful jeweled patterns, but after a bit the Mouser was able to see through into all sorts of interesting places: the treasure rooms of dead kings, the bedchambers of living queens, council crypts of rebel angels, and the closets in which the gods hid plans for worlds too frighteningly fantastic to risk creating.
or forboding...
Only his eyes responded to his will, turning from side to side, drinking in details with fearful curiousity: the endless series of vague carvings, wherein sea monsters and unwholesome manlike figures and vaguely anthropomorphic giant skates or rays seemed to come alive and stir as the phosphorescence fluctuated...
My one complaint would be that the POV shifts within the stories were often sudden and jarring with no break to indicate the switch was coming. I don't know if that was a product of the times, but I was taught that that was bad form. But it's not like anyone is going to crucify Fritz Leiber for that.

I enjoyed this one more than the first book in the series. Leiber takes his characters—and the reader—on an adventurous ride through Nehwon, encountering strange and deadly beings, forcing them to use their wits when swords aren't enough. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser: It's like a buddy movie for the D&D crowd.

4.25 stars


Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Book Review: The Last Command

book cover for The Last CommandThe embattled Republic reels from the attacks of Grand Admiral Thrawn, who has marshaled the remnants of the Imperial forces and driven the Rebels back with an abominable technology recovered from the Emperor's secret fortress: clone soldiers. As Thrawn mounts his final siege, Han Solo and Chewbacca struggle to form a coalition of smugglers for a last-ditch attack, while Princess Leia holds the Alliance together and prepares for the birth of her Jedi twins.

The Republic has one last hope—sending a small force into the very stronghold that houses Thrawn's terrible cloning machines. There a final danger awaits, as the Dark Jedi C'baoth directs the battle against the Rebels and builds his strength to finish what he already started: the destruction of Luke Skywalker.

I'm struggling to write a proper review. Much of what I've written about the first two books can be applied here: the familiar characters from the movie are flat, Zahn's original characters are well-drawn, and the peril doesn't seem too perilous. Zahn brings the trilogy to a proper close and wraps up all of the plot lines. All that's really left is to figure out how many stars to give it.

I distinctly remember the way Han Solo uttered "sweetheart" in the movies. It wasn't a term of endearment. So every time he used the term on Leia in this book, I got a bad vibe. It gave me a negative view about his relationship with Leia, who is now his wife and the mother of his kids. Throughout the series, I've felt that Zahn got Han's character wrong, and it's no different here.

Another negative was the character of Joruus C'baoth. He was a windbag with an ego the size of a planet. Sure, he was powerful, but most of the time he was just full of hot air. Contrast him with Thrawn and the differences couldn't be more stark. Thrawn was the brilliant tactician who used a culture's art to gain strategic insight. Cold and calculating, he was the military mastermind that was always two moves ahead of his opponents, and when dealing with C'baoth, he always kept his emotions in check.

The other positives were the smuggler Talon Karrde and his associate Mara Jade. Despite what the book blurb would have you believe, Karrde was the one that struggled to form the smugglers' coalition. His storyline in this book was really good as he tried to outwit the nitwit that Thrawn sent to undermine his efforts. And Jade struggled with her compulsion to kill Luke while also doing the right thing by Leia. Meanwhile, the Alliance was split on whether or not she was an Imperial spy or Alliance ally. But I wasn't too keen on how her internal conflict was resolved. It involved something that I thought had been lost in one of the movies. My reaction being: "No way, you found that? How?"

So in the end, I'd say that this series was consistent. It had its good points and bad points. I was entertained, but in a beach read sort of way. Therefore, I'm going to stay consistent with my rating.

3.5 stars