Friday, November 18, 2022

Book Review: The Doors of Eden

book cover for The Doors of EdenLee's best friend went missing on Bodmin Moor, four years ago. She and Mal were chasing rumours of monsters when they found something all too real. Now Mal is back, but where has she been, and who is she working for?

When government physicist Kay Amal Khan is attacked, the security services investigate. This leads MI5's Julian Sabreur deep into terrifying new territory, where he clashes with mysterious agents of an unknown power—who may or may not be human. And Julian's only clue is some grainy footage—showing a woman who supposedly died on Bodmin Moor.

Khan's extradimensional research was purely theoretical, until she found cracks between our world and countless others. Parallel Earths where monsters live. These cracks are getting wider every day, so who knows what might creep through? Or what will happen when those walls finally come crashing down...

This is my third Tchaikovsky novel, and the first one that fell short for me. It could be that the first two that I read, Children of Time and Spiderlight, were so good that the bar was set too high.

The main story had an interesting premise, but the execution didn't work for me. I felt that it dragged at times, too many scenes with people wondering what's going on or not believing what their eyes are telling them. What I really enjoyed were the interstitials: excerpts from other timelines where different species rose to prominence on alternative Earths. The world-building in these mini-documentaries really demonstrated Tchaikovsky's love for zoology. I wanted to read stories based in these worlds or their interaction with ours.

Which brings me to the characters. I really didn't care for them, well the humans anyway. The non-human characters were the interesting ones. Khan, the foul-mouthed, chain smoking physicist was the best of the humans. Lee and Mal were ok. Any scene with Julian was disappointing. The blurb makes it seem like he carries the story, but he was more of a passenger. He really couldn't handle anything outside a narrow British box of expectations. I couldn't wait for his scenes to be over with. His co-worker, Alison, was ok by the end but took a while to get there. Even the villain was dull, there to be the foil to the underlying message of inclusion.

There's a big reveal towards the last quarter of the book that explains how all of this came about. It got my hopes up for a strong finish, but then we got more navel gazing. The execution of the last part, well, I've seen Star Trek do it better. And the end left me like, "Oh, that's it?" If it wasn't for the world-building, I'd rate it lower.

3 stars


Monday, October 31, 2022

Book Review: Frankenstein

book cover for FrankensteinAt once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature's hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Even if one hasn't read the book or seen any of the numerous film adaptations, it would be difficult to believe that anyone in Western Civilization had not at least heard about Frankenstein in some fashion. It is a classic tale already two centuries old that will live on for centuries to come.

If you haven't read the book, it bears little resemblance to the majority of films that were inspired by it. Most films devote significant screen time to portraying how the monster was created and how Frankenstein is thrilled with his creation. Frankenstein tries to educate it, make it more human, but the process is frustratingly difficult. Said creation then runs amok, much to Frankenstein's chagrin. The films are typically a warning about the dangers of science run amok.

But the book spends scant time on the monster's creation. We're given Frankenstein's motivations for reanimating the dead (grief over his mother's death) and his research into the matter—primarily reading ancient, discredited tomes—but no mention of where he got body parts or what process provided that spark to reanimate the flesh. It's just handwaved onward, not important. And then when the monster is created, Frankenstein rejects it outright. It is so hideous an abomination that he can't stand to be in the same room with it and drives it away.

Shelley attacks the canard that beauty is good and ugliness is evil. The monster is attacked by all who gaze upon it for no reason other than it is so hideous it must be evil. The monster secretly provides firewood and game for a poor family of seemingly kind people, but they attack it on sight. Later, after the monster learns how to speak (No, not "Fire bad!"), it engages with Frankenstein in debate, slinging purple prose in his face, lamenting how lonely it is because of its wretched existence. But Frankenstein can't get past the ugly and rejects the monster again and again.

Naturally, all of this rejection is too much for the monster. It resorts to committing evil deeds which only incense Frankenstein's animosity towards the monster. Ultimately, the monster feels that negative attention is better than no attention and torments its creator further.

Sure, Frankenstein blames himself for creating the monster. He hides this fact from people for years, all the while crying out to the stars about his woe and misery and longing to be with his love and his wonderful family. But ultimately, he never accepts the blame for his true crime: rejecting his creation upon its birth. Think of it this way: If a parent rejects his/her child all of that child's life, never shows that child love, what sort of person will that child grow up to be? The rest of us would think that parent was a lousy human being. Frankenstein is no different. But instead, Captain Walton, who meets Frankenstein while he's out in pursuit of the monster, showers such slavish admiration upon the man that I swear he was smitten by him, regardless of what Frankenstein told him that he'd done.

Frankenstein is the true monster here, not his hideous creation. I'll take the Hollywood version of Dr. Frankenstein. At least his twisted heart was in the right place.

3 stars

By the way, Young Frankenstein was the best of them all.


Saturday, October 1, 2022

Book Review: Pharoni

book cover for PharoniWhen the body of Harry Injurides - playwright, provocateur and bodybuilder - washes up on a beach, his friends are shocked, but not altogether surprised. But when they meet to mourn Harry, he shows up and says he's been resurrected.

Pharoni is the story of those friends. Tommy Pharoni tries to overcome his shock by writing about his friend's resurrection, and accidentally starts a religion. Roy Sudden starts a tech empire based on digital empathy and digital pain, drawing in billionaire investors, femme-fatale programmers, and tsunamis of capital. And, Roy's on-again, off-again girlfriend Maud works in secret to bring radical justice to the most neglected and abused corners of society.

As Tommy's religion grows, Roy and his backers try to take control of it. The battle, about more than doctrine, engulfs Tommy's marriage and threatens his life, leading to a conflict with strangely humane results that no one could predict.

Told in the first person, Pharoni has the feel of a memoir or a really long confession. Tommy Pharoni is a struggling screenplay writer who pays his bills and alimony by working a soulless marketing job. His closest friends were aspiring artists of different sorts in college. Now in their mid-thirties, they've set aside those aspirations to "adult" properly. All except for Harry, whose death opens the story. Harry struggled to fit into contemporary society, instead preferring to help the homeless while penning "words of wisdom" in his many notebooks. After his death and subsequent re-birth, those notebooks wound up in Tommy's possession. Ultimately, Tommy would collect them into a coherent manuscript and seek out a way to get them published.

As Tommy is a screenwriter, the format of the story periodically shifts into screenplay mode. This works particularly well for conversations as it affords opportunity to get to know the other characters through their dialogue rather than relying on Tommy's narrative. I wouldn't say Tommy is an unreliable narrator, but he does limit what we can learn about what's going on elsewhere with other characters. References to things that have been written elsewhere and NDAs force the reader to fill in the gaps.

After Harry's resurrection, the lives of Tommy and his friends change as described in the blurb, but there's so much more. The group of friends find themselves splattered by the seven deadly sins, fitting for a story where a religion is founded upon the philosophical musings of a character that has died and miraculously resurrected days later. At least Christianity didn't get partnered with a health and wellness brand. The corrupting influence of millions and billions of dollars seeps its way into their lives and rots them from within. What is friendship worth? Can you put a dollar amount on it?

If there's one overarching theme that I can take away from this tale, it's that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Keeping this spoiler free, I'll say that Tommy started out as a character that I could connect with to someone I didn't want anything to do with. But I stuck with him because act two opens with:
This is where I get unrelatable, maybe even unlikable. As the writer of failed screenplays, I know what a mortal sin unlikability can be.
That gave me hope for him in act three. But Tommy is far from the only person to be corrupted by power. It's everyone up to the very end of the story. And the only characters whose souls are left intact are those who never possess it.

Colin Dodds has crafted an excellent morality play with vivid characters. Pharoni offers modern day parallels to the founding of Christianity, right down to the Christmas star, but in an age of unbridled capitalism. If you're old enough, with all of the life experience that implies, it forces you to take a look at this fellowship of friends and how they sacrificed art and friendship for wealth and power and check to make sure that this isn't a mirror of your own life.

4 stars


Thursday, September 15, 2022

Book Review: Freeze Frame Revolution

book cover for Freeze Frame RevolutionHow do you stage a mutiny when you're only awake one day in a million? How do you conspire when your tiny handful of potential allies changes with each job shift? How do you engage an enemy that never sleeps, that sees through your eyes and hears through your ears, and relentlessly, honestly, only wants what's best for you? Trapped aboard the starship Eriophora, Sunday Ahzmundin is about to discover the components of any successful revolution: conspiracy, code—and unavoidable casualties.

Earth is dying, yet civilization has access to some amazing technology—almost de rigueur for Watts. In this case, the Eriophora, an asteroid turned generation starship of sorts, has been tasked with building jumpgates throughout the galaxy in hopes that humans, or their successors, will be able to make use of them and spread through the galaxy. While a noble cause, the UN doesn't expect everyday people to stick with the mission (Successive generations could rebel, arguing that they weren't given a choice and are forced to be slaves to someone else's dream). Instead, the crew of 30,000 are genetically engineered with the traits that make them perfectly suited for the never-ending job. Even so, the UN doesn't wholly trust them either. A limited AI (a full-powered AI would probably wind up just as unreliable as humans after a while) with less than half the synapses of a human brain (referred to by the crew as "Chimp") runs most of the operations, waking small groups of humans from cryosleep to lend a helping hand when Chimp stumbles across a problem that requires good old fashioned human ingenuity.

Tens of millions of years have passed. A hostile encounter shortly after the completion of a build triggers doubts about the mission. Chimp's abilities seem lacking, possibly degrading, and a grim discovery made by some of the crew sparks talk of rebellion. But as the book blurb points out, planning a mutiny against an all-seeing AI, even a limited one, over the span of millennia—while hopping in an out of the freezer—is a staggeringly difficult task. But plan they do.

The story is told from the POV of Sunday Ahzmundin. Sunday's backstory, along with that of the mission, is told in the short story, "Hotshot," which I strongly recommend that interested parties read first. Honestly, it should've been included with this book for those reasons. Watts makes the effort to properly develop her character there instead of here. Watts is amazing at grabbing cutting edge scientific ideas and mashing them together for some incredible world-building, but his protagonists (this is my third Watts' novel) are very similar. They've all had something done to them to set them apart, render them outsiders. Lenie (Starfish) is a sexual abuse survivor who undergoes an operation to enable her to run away and work on the ocean floor. Siri (Blindsight) suffered from epileptic seizures so he had an hemispherectomy that rendered him emotionally detached from humanity. Makes for a solid candidate to go on a first contact mission in the farthest reaches of the solar system. Sunday was genetically engineered to want to leave Earth behind with an insatiable galactic wanderlust.

Eventually the rebels make their move and stuff happens. I won't spoil the ending, but it felt unresolved. There are a couple more short stories, and Watts admitted on his blog that he was working on a sequel, so there's that. Despite the ending, I enjoyed this more than either Starfish or Blindsight, so I'm holding out hope that Watts gets around to writing a proper sequel.

4.5 stars


Sunday, August 7, 2022

Book Review: Heir to the Empire

book cover for Heir to the EmpireFive years ago, the Rebel Alliance destroyed the Death Star, defeated Darth Vader and the Emperor, and drove the remnants of the old Imperial Starfleet to a distant corner of the galaxy. Princess Leia and Han Solo are married and expecting twins. And Luke Skywalker has become the first in a long-awaited line of Jedi Knights.

But thousands of light-years away, the last of the Emperor's warlords, Grand Admiral Thrawn, has taken command of the shattered Imperial fleet, readied it for war, and pointed it at the fragile heart of the New Republic. For this dark warrior has made a vital discovery that could destroy everything the courageous men and women of the Rebel Alliance fought so hard to build.

I remember when this first came out. The glow from the original Star Wars trilogy had faded, but the franchise still had its rabid fans. As much as I loved the films, I didn't cross over into super-fan territory. I was content with story as it was and willing to let it go. So why am I reading it now? My son, a big Star Wars fan himself (at least before Disney got a hold of the franchise), bought me the (original) Thrawn trilogy for Christmas. How could I say no?

Zahn has had a long and prolific career penning stories set in the Star Wars universe. This was his first. I feel like he was somewhat handcuffed in how he handled the known characters from the films. They came across as flat, dull. Their quips seemed borrowed from the films. I didn't get the feeling that their characters grew.

Where Zahn excelled was with the new characters. Joruus C'baoth was an egotistical bore. Mara Jade's hatred for Luke was insufferable. Fortunately, we find out why she hates him so much near the end of the novel. Talon Karrde was a shrewd smuggler caught between the fledgling Republic and the remnants of the Empire. I grew to like him. Captain Pellaeon had my sympathies despite playing for the bad guys. He had the unenviable task of reporting to the sharpest tactician in the Empire. He knew that he was mentally outmatched by his boss, and constantly had to prove his competence to the man lest he find himself staring down the wrong end of a blaster. And Grand Admiral Thrawn was the sharpest tack in the galaxy. Someone on Goodreads compared him to Sherlock Holmes, and I cannot disagree. One of the finest villains that's ever been written for Star Wars.

I didn't get a proper sense of the internal strife among the Republic's ruling council, so I was caught off guard at the end. The peril that our intrepid heroes faced didn't seem too perilous, and yet they struggled. There was a climactic battle at the end of the novel that was entertaining, but it was far too early in the trilogy to be epic. Still, I was entertained, and I will be continuing with the series.

3.5 stars


Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Book Review: House of Leaves

book cover for House of LeavesJohnny Truant gets a call in the middle of the night from his friend Lude. Apparently, this weird old guy (Zampanò) died in his apartment building, and the landlord left the door unlocked for Goodwill to come and clean the place out the next morning. Johnny heads over and the two of them find this manuscript in a trunk. The manuscript is an analysis of a documentary, The Navidson Record. Skimming through it, Johnny notices that it is annotated with footnotes referencing other people who have either analyzed the film or interviewed the people who took part in it. The film concerns a house that is larger on the inside than the outside. Curious, Johnny takes it home with him.

What the reader holds in her hands is that manuscript with all of Zampanò's narration and analysis of the important aspects of the The Navidson Record; analysis of said film by others, including quotes and footnotes (Yes, footnotes); and Johnny's commentary on said notes plus tales of his experiences with the book and its negative impact on his life.

It's clear from the introduction that Johnny is going to be an unreliable narrator. It then becomes the task of the reader to decide what's real and what's the result of what appears to be schizophrenia. Considering Johnny and Lude seem to be characters out of a Bukowski novel (appropriately enough, even living in L.A.), the lines are easily blurred.

For me, it was all about the house. Any time the narrative strayed from that, my interest dropped. Johnny's story wasn't compelling. Zampanò's analysis with all of its quotes and references wasn't compelling. Dozens of pages of two sentences, two words, or even one word. Upside down text. Mirrored text. Footnotes of whole lists of every named architect, architectural style, and inventory of everything you can find in a HomeDepot smacks of OCD. None of that was compelling. I'll give Danielewski points for his ambitious experiment, but its obsession with documentation as a means of drawing attention to a descent into madness was tiresome for me.

Why Danielewski chose to go this convoluted route rather than telling a straightforward story about the house that the Navidsons lived in is beyond me. Was he successful in generating buzz about his work and compelling people to buy it? Absolutely. It could've been a solid selling haunted house story with elements of myth and cosmicism, but he went further down the proverbial rabbit hole and added extra layers of meta-analyis and tangential 90s fictionalized memoir. And he was successful, so good for him. But I suspect that this over the top experiment may have generated blowback in terms of building a long term audience of readers. On Goodreads right now, this book has 150,000 ratings for an average score of 4.07. That's excellent. But his next most populous book has 5,600 ratings, a 96% drop.

It may just be coincidence, but I'm wondering if Danielewski heard Soundgarden's "Room a Thousand Years Wide" and decided to include it among his fictional footnotes. Why? Well, there's a footnote attributed to a "Chris Thayil". Kim Thayil wrote the lyrics for the song, which appears on the Badmotorfinger album in 1991, during the time Danielewski wrote the book. "Chris Thayil" could be an amalgam of Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil. If that sounds crazy, then House of Leaves isn't for you because that is the sort of thing that permeates this book.

3 stars


Sunday, June 12, 2022

Book Review: The Theatre of Shadows

book cover for The Theatre of ShadowsSix months have passed since the events of The Silver Mask. Over the winter months, Vasini was plagued by Gareth Miller, the Winter Fayre Killer, who murdered 17 people before he was captured by Lieutenant David Locke. The city now waits for Miller to be hanged. But when Miller escapes gaol, ready to terrorise Vasini's streets once more, Locke must hunt the murderer again to stop him from claiming more lives.

As Miller flees into Vasini's streets, Joseph Bastin, ambassador to Vasini for the city-state of Laège, is assassinated in a brothel. With the threat of political repercussions for the death, it is up to Dr. Marcus Fox, newly appointed Commandant of Police, to find the ambassador's killer.

Fox's investigation soon leads to a suspect, someone who has been investigating links between the Laège embassy and the worship of the dead deities - his ally, Dr. Elizabeth Reid.

Now, Elizabeth and her friend, Catherine, must act quickly to clear her name before she is found by someone who doesn't believe her claims of innocence and she's forced to dance the hangman's jig.

This is the sequel to The Silver Mask, a terrific "flintlock and alchemy" novel. Unfortunately, The Theatre of Shadows wasn't as enjoyable for me due to the plot style and pacing. The story read more like a police procedural set in the 1700s, which isn't the sort of thing—regardless of time period—that I read. Investigating the ambassador's murder provided enough intrigue, but the serial killer plotline kept getting in the way, hogging the spotlight. Maybe the serial killer was fully developed in The Winter Fayre, a novella contained in The Divided River that preceded this novel, but here he's rather one-dimensional. He's always two steps ahead of the Inspectorate and the watchmen (police), rendering them seemingly incompetent as he murders people with impunity. It went on for far too long for me. It took roughly three-fifths of the novel before any sort of clue was given as to why the serial killer plotline even existed, and it wasn't resolved until much later.

The main characters from The Silver Mask—Fox, Locke, Elizabeth, and Catherine—are here. While fully developed before, they weren't neglected here. Fox and Locke are in pursuit of the ambassador's assassin and the serial killer. Elizabeth and Catherine spend their time searching for clues to clear Elizabeth's name of killing the ambassador. Ellingsen gives us each main character's POV—as well as those of a few key minor characters—as they investigate, thus enriching the depth of each one.

Ellingsen doesn't spend as much time world-building here as he did in The Silver Mask, but what he provides is top-notch. The city of Vasini feels authentic with Ellingsen's descriptions of the sights and scents of everyday life.

Ultimately, the protagonists' relentless pursuit of clues paid off. Ellingsen corraled the plot into a climax that resolved the current crises of random murder and calculated assassination. It was an effective ending, and so I feel better about the book as a whole. But for me, it was probably a hundred pages too long. However, I remain optimistic that the next installment in this series will have more intrigue and less procedure.

3 stars


Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Pros and Cons of the Publishing Industry

a fork in the roadI stumbled across this over at the Independent Publishing Magazine. Guest blogger Andrew Deen outlined the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing. Thorough yet succinct, it's a must read for every writer about to embark on the road to publishing their work. But if you're not a writer and you've wondered what's involved in publishing, then it's worth checking out.


Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Book Review: Medusa Uploaded

bbok cover for Medusa UploadedThe Executives control Oichi's senses, her voice, her life. Until the day they kill her.

An executive clan gives the order to shoot Oichi out of an airlock on suspicion of being an insurgent. A sentient AI, a Medusa unit, rescues Oichi and begins to teach her the truth—the Executives are not who they think they are. Oichi, officially dead and now bonded to the Medusa unit, sees a chance to make a better life for everyone on board.

As she sets things right one assassination at a time, Oichi becomes the very insurgent the Executives feared, and in the process uncovers the shocking truth behind the generation starship that is their home.

The Giger-esque cover and the book blurb did their job: I got hooked. But upon reading the story, it struck me as far less dark than it was made out to be. Oh sure, we had the nefarious dystopian aristocracy which gets to control servants through their cybernetic implants, overwrite security protocols seemingly at will, spy on everyone, and flush people out the airlock with impunity, but I found them to be caricatures ripped from some 18th century aristocratic drama like Dangerous Liasions.

Still, I wanted to find out how this civilization came to be on a kilometers-long generation ship. But as information is tightly controlled by the Executive class and Oichi was a worm—the derogatory term for the lowest class of workers who maintain life aboard the ship—it was a mystery for her to solve. We learn right away that this civilization has incredible cybernetic technology. Everyone seems to have a chip in their heads that they use to access communications and limited data. Some others have artificial eyes, voice boxes, and hearing (hence the Executives' ability to control their servants so that they don't disrupt their dinner parties). And Oichi has a chip in her skull that enables her to 'bond' with Medusa, the sentient AI.

But for all of their amazing tech, they abuse the hell out their airlocks. The Executives use them to murder and assassinate people all the time. They override the safety protocols (so what good are they) and flush out the bodies, sacrificing breathable air and biomass to the void. This is so stupid. I don't care how big the ship is. If you're going to flush out 800 cubic feet of air (sometimes more), the atmosphere on board your ship is getting that much thinner. And the 100 to 200 lbs of biomass is also wasted. Everything on a generation ship gets recycled. Everything. It's one less mouth to feed now, but all that calcium, water, and organic matter? You're not getting that back. Why not suffocate the victims in the airlock (since no one literally wants blood on their hands) and take the body to the waste reclamation unit where it can be ground up and anaerobically digested? Not as dramatic, perhaps, but after the airlock scene plays out several times, it loses its ability to shock the reader.

Another problem was with the voice of the narrator, Oichi. She flitted from "adolescent waitress" to "big sister" to "impressionable debutante" to "happy-go-lucky sociopath." She interrupted her own narrative constantly by name dropping classical music pieces whenever she had a moment of reflection or introspection or just for the hell of it. At times, the interactions between Oishi and some bots created by kids—and her interaction with one kid in particular—popped images of cutesy anime into my mind. It undercut the seriousness of the plot.

One last complaint: I couldn't get a sense of how much time passed. There were flashbacks and flash-forwards dictated to us by Oichi, but the way they were presented I wasn't always certain when "now" was. Late in the novel, she matter of factly states that several years had passed, but it seemed like only a few months.

To summarize, I loved the tech, the concept, the plot, and the mysteries, but the narrator's constantly shifting tone, 18th century aristocrats, anime cuteness, and wanton airlock abuse irritated me.

2.5 stars


Thursday, April 7, 2022

Book Review: Spiderlight

book cover for SpiderlightThe Church of Armes of the Light has battled the forces of Darkness for as long as anyone can remember. The great prophecy has foretold that a band of misfits, led by a high priestess will defeat the Dark Lord Darvezian, armed with their wits, the blessing of the Light and an artifact stolen from the merciless Spider Queen.

Their journey will be long, hard and fraught with danger. Allies will become enemies; enemies will become allies. And the Dark Lord will be waiting, always waiting…

The book blurb is misleading. It would have you believe that this is just a straight up high fantasy novel about a quest to defeat the typical evil overlord. While it certainly starts out that way, with the familiar collection of D&D characters fighting their way through a forest that is the home to the nest of a terrible spider queen, it's more than that. After that opening, we get to meet the characters and learn more about them. Rather than being the noble sort that one would get from Tolkien, we get a fractious lot prone to jealousy, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, sexism, vanity, and cruelty.

And these are the good guys!

Tchaikovsky, ever the arachnophile, serves up a spider character that is forced to join the group on its quest. I don't want to give too much away here, but the character, Enth, serves as a focal point for the group's ethical dilemmas. The way each character interacts with Enth reveals their true nature. Those with a conscience are forced to reconcile their actions and attitudes with the cause they claim to serve. Some succeed; others don't bother.

But it isn't all soul searching in the dark by candlelight. There are some lighter parts.
When Dion considered the world, her chief question was, Is this of Light or Dark? Penthos's main interest was usually, Is this flammable?
"Shut up, Penthos," Haranthes snapped at him, which would earn the man another week of impotence once they got back to civilization, not that he'd ever suspect who was behind his intermittent problem. Oh it's good to be a magus.
"Who would live at the top of a tower? Have you seen how many fucking stairs there are?"
Usually it's the thief, Lief, that delivers the satirical jabs, but he's also the one who's the most accepting of others who fail to live up to the lofty standards established by the self-righteous.
    Am I really about to rescue a monstrous servant of evil from the hands of the righteous?
    Enth whimpered. It was a human sound. Lief knew it: he himself had once or twice been beaten and broken just enough to make that sound.
    Fuck the righteous.
In the final confrontation with the Dark Lord, Tchaikovsky steers clear of the expected epic fantasy showdown. Sure there's a battle, but Darvezian's monologuing is more savage than his physical attacks, skewering the characters' belief system and self-worth and shredding them to bits.
"You go through life doing terrible, terrible things to each other, and to everything else, but you somehow still believe that you're right."
"Let me hear the sad little sound of your hearts breaking."
"My child, it doesn't matter if you do your best, if you don't get anywhere. It's just doubly pathetic that this, only this was your best."
Spiderlight sets aside the everyday tropes of the epic fantasy tale and opts instead to explore themes that are rarely discussed in the genre. The characters' ethical dilemmas easily translate to the real world: Misguided faith will make people do terrible things, and assuming that everyone of a certain demographic is inherently good/evil, despite actions to the contrary, is fallacy. I found Tchaikovsky's choice to be a refreshing take on the genre.

4.5 stars


Thursday, March 24, 2022

Book Review: A World Out of Time

book cover for A World Out of TimeJaybee Corbell awoke after more than 200 years as a corpsicle—in someone else's body, and under sentence of instant annihilation if he made a wrong move while they were training him for a one-way mission to the stars.

But Corbell picked his time and made his own move. Once he was outbound, where the Society that ruled Earth could not reach him, he headed his starship toward the galactic core, where the unimaginable energies of the Universe wrenched the fabric of time and space and promised final escape from his captors.

Then he returned to an Earth eons older than the one he'd left...a planet that had had 3,000,000 years to develop perils he had never dreamed of—perils that became nightmares that he had to escape...somehow!

I found this book last summer at the annual Newtown Library book sale. Having enjoyed Niven's Ringworld series, I thought that I'd give it a try. I didn't notice that cat-snake thing on the cover right away. I think my mind blocked out the head because you look at that thing and think, "WTF?"

The book blurb covers the events that transpire over the first third of the book. The remaining two-thirds deals with Corbell alternating between figuring out how to stay alive—he's well over a century old and not long for the world—and figuring out how the hell Earth got so screwed up while he was away.

Published in 1976, it has a lot of the literary elements common to sci-fi during this period (New Wave): sex, the end of civilization, alienation, social isolation, and class discrimination. Throw in a dose of libertarian distrust of the state and you're good to go. Niven also spends a good deal of time playing with physics puzzles to convince the reader that this is hard sci-fi and not space fantasy. I don't think it was necessary, but maybe he felt the need to placate that crowd.

It was an entertaining story despite the warts: The sex scenes were totally male fantasy, and women were reduced to the maiden/mother/crone trope. Corbell isn't the best person to be a protagonist—he could be annoying at times—but he occasionally shows promise. Ultimately, he's all we've got. We have to root for him so that we can find out why things got to be the way they are. The explanation was worth the ride, though I wouldn't blame women for disagreeing.

3 stars


Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Book Review: No-Waste Kitchen Gardening

book cover for No-Waste Kitchen GardeningI don't think that it's controversial to say that too much food gets wasted around the world. Scientific American published an article in their October 2021 issue whereupon it was stated that "40% of food produced is lost across the supply chain from farm to table." At the current pace of population growth and economic development, the world will need to convert an area the size of India to farmland over the next thirty years to keep up with demand, and this was before Russia invaded Ukraine—two very important agricultural producers.

And that's not even getting into landfill issues.

What this book aims to do is offer people some ideas on how they can cut down on their fruit and vegetable waste. Some people with the means to do so already have compost piles wherein they can take this waste and convert it into topsoil. But this book offers a means to eke out more edible produce from one's leftover produce.

It is by no means a magic method to regrow everything. Some of the food we eat doesn't get a second chance to produce more food. Broccoli, for instance, is a flower. Once we eat it, the leftover stalk is only good for compost. Some of the food we eat won't re-grow in the form we want, but will get a second life as something else. Root vegetables like carrots will not become carrots again. Instead, the leaves can be nurtured to grow and then consumed as salad greens.

But that still leaves plenty of produce that can be re-rooted, re-grown from existing roots, or grown from seed taken from the fruit itself. Onions, potatoes, celery, scallions, lettuce, pumpkin, garlic, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes are just some of the produce bought from the store (or farmer's market) that can be granted an extended or new life.

Before this book had been gifted to me, I had experimented on my own with food scraps. Using similar methods, I successfully grew onion and potatoes. My favorite variety of tomatoes are Roma, but the only tomato seeds or plants I ever see in stores are for the large varieties. So I salvaged the seeds from one particularly delicious specimen, and I was able to successfully grow fifteen plants all of which bore fruit! All this is to stay that while I haven't tried the author's methods per se, I know that it's possible. In fact, I just started trying to re-grow some lettuce.

So whether you're looking to do something for the planet, start a victory garden, want to educate kids on where our food comes from, or you're a hobbyist gardener looking to experiment, this book is worth checking out.

4 stars.


lettuce growning in waterSo this was my first attempt to re-grow some lettuce shortly after finishing this book. It got off to a good start but then some aphid-like bugs found it and ate it from inside out, leaving behind a sticky residue. Kinda bummed about that.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Book Review: The Haunting of Tram Car 015

Book cover for The Haunting of Tram Car 015Cairo, 1912: The case started as a simple one for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities — handling a possessed tram car.

Soon, however, Agent Hamed Nasr and his new partner Agent Onsi Youssef are exposed to a new side of Cairo stirring with suffragettes, secret societies, and sentient automatons in a race against time to protect the city from an encroaching danger that crosses the line between the magical and the mundane.

This story takes place several months after the events in A Dead Djinn in Cairo, but it involves different characters. We're introduced to Inspector Hamed Nasr who is training a new recruit, Agent Onsi, to the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural. As is apparent from the title, one of Cairo's tram cars is haunted, and it is up to Hamed and Onsi to solve it.

Hamed and Onsi make for a great detective pair. Hamed is the grizzled veteran while Onsi is the Oxford educated fresh face who's memorized chapter and verse of the paranormal criminal code. Hamed's instincts and Onsi's enthusiasm for the job serve each other well. There's enough humor in it, too, that it could be an alternate history buddy cop movie.

The worldbuilding builds on Dead Djinn and fills in more details here and there. We get more elements of magic-powered steampunk mixing with Middle Eastern culture as Cairo struggles with growing pains: trying to throw off a past of superstition and embrace its future as a modern city. There's a vote on women's suffrage that runs parallel to the investigation. The detectives find themselves interacting with women that are involved with the movement as they seek help with exorcising the tram car of its foul occupant. In the hands of a clumsy author, this could've come across as agenda-driven, instead, it just enriches the story.

4 stars


Monday, February 21, 2022

Book Review: Babylon's Ashes

book cover for Babylon's AshesBook six in The Expanse series. If you haven't read book five, some of this review might be spoilerish.

A revolution brewing for generations has begun in fire. It will end in blood.

The Free Navy - a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships - has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them.

James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the
Rocinante for a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network.

But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun. As the chaos grows, an alien mystery deepens. Pirate fleets, mutiny and betrayal may be the least of the
Rocinante's problems. And in the uncanny spaces past the ring gates, the choices of a few damaged and desperate people may determine the fate of more than just humanity.

Basically, this is "life in war time," solar system edition. The book isn't focused on military engagements so much as how people are dealing with the war. Nineteen different people get at least one chapter. Besides the POVs of the Rocinante crew, we get chapters representing Marcos Inaros, the megalomaniac leader of The Free Navy; his son Filip; a few Belters working on Medina Station; biologist Prax Meng, whom you might recall from Caliban's War; Michio Pa, whom you might recall from Abaddon's Gate; the delightfully foul-mouthed Chrisjen Avasarala, and more.

I enjoyed the diverse assembly of viewpoints. It kept me engaged, which might've been difficult to do considering what little actually transpires during this 544-page behemoth. There's a lot of waiting around for things to happen, but from what I've read elsewhere, that's often what happens in war.

With the exception of Marcos, no one is really painted as evil. The authors try to show how there are good people on all sides, that the circumstances of one's life leads one to make choices, join a team that makes empty promises. There are obvious parallels to life in Axis-occupied Europe during WW2 or even the Soviet Union: propaganda everywhere, dissenters disappearing in the night, secret police interrogations, everyday people just trying to keep their heads down to avoid suspicion and sometimes failing. There's hope that everything will be alright until something happens that affirms that things are actually very wrong.

I particularly enjoyed Alex's two chapters which dealt with the importance of finding an emotional connection, someone to share your downtime with before you ship out again—and might very well die. Alex is out at a bar with his crewmates from the Roci and sharing stories with Fred Johnson's crew, deflating the tension from battle. He finds himself exchanging flirtations with one of them.
He didn't know if the way her eyes were locked on his was a sign of how drunk she'd gotten, the beginning of an erotic invitation, or a little bit of both. Either way, he found himself smiling back.

Her knee pressed against Alex's in a way that was absolutely innocent. Unless it wasn't, in which case it
absolutely wasn't.
And later...
Maybe it was only that he knew how much the war might take from them all, and she was his chance to refill some cistern of his heart and body that there wasn't going to be time for later. A place of gentleness and affection and pleasure like a hurrican eye.
Now if only the ending hadn't been so Deus ex Machina, I probably would've really enjoyed it. Enough hints had been dropped, from the end of Nemesis Games right up through a certain investigation in this one, to know that the way it's going to end. Still, the resolution of this middle trilogy wasn't satisfying. But I guess it's ok because I still have three more books to go.

4 stars. Quite possibly lower for some people.


Sunday, January 16, 2022

Book Review: 2034 - A Novel of the Next World War

book cover for 2034I read an excerpt of this in Wired magazine and was intrigued. It helped that the authors are Admiral James Stavridis and Marine veteran Elliot Ackerman.

While patrolling the South China Sea, a small flotilla makes a surprising discovery after coming to the aid of a fishing trawler in distress. Over in the Persian Gulf, a test of new stealth technology mounted on an F-35 goes awry. A cyberattack upon D.C. briefly knocks out the power at the White House. Events spiral out of control from there.

The premise that makes this all possible is a technological leap made by China, granting them superior cyberespionage skills, strong enough to incapacitate the American military. Given the lack of cybersecurity infrastructure and the growing prevalence of ransomware attacks plaguing America over the last few years, it does at least seem plausible.

But there are other assumptions that take away from the scenario presented. Iran is struggling too much right now to suddenly become a successful expansionist state. As much as I'd like India to succeed as a nation, the authors envision it making leaps and bounds in infrastructure and military strength in too short a time, particularly for a country that has issues providing sufficient potable water to its cities. NATO is notably absent, albeit still intact. The impact of Covid-19 on the world seems to be largely ignored, granted the manuscript was probably at the publisher.

The story is told from the viewpoint of five characters: US Navy Commodore Sarah Hunt, Chinese Admiral Lin Bao, US Marine pilot Major Chris "Wedge" Mitchell, Iranian Brigadier General Qassem Farshad, and US Deputy National Security Advisor Sandeep Chowdhury. The authors provide them with enough backstory to have a sense of who they are, but there was never quite enough for them to leap off the page. They were like made-for-TV characters—functional but not memorable.

I think a major reason for that is, with maybe with one or two exceptions, that most of the action and decision-making takes place off-screen. We get a character's perspective just before something happens and then switch to a different character's viewpoint as they react to the news of the event that just took place. End result: All telling and very little showing. That's a major mistake.

This is no military thriller—Tom Clancy will not be dethroned here. This is meant to be a cautionary tale, a war game scenario turned into a novel. While a U.S. - China confrontation over the South China Sea or Taiwan is always a possibility, particularly if jingoistic factions take control, it seemed as though everyone made the wrong choice whenever possible. While the characters were mere pawns, hubris seems to be a large part of the decision makers' choices. A lesson in Pride goeth before the fall. Maybe that was the authors' intent as the novel was written during the Trump administration. But whatever their reasons, it just didn't work for me as a novel.

2 1/2 stars.


Monday, January 3, 2022

Book Review: Binti

book cover for BintiHer name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti's stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself—but first she has to make it there, alive.

I found a copy of this book in a little used bookstore up on the Cape this summer. Recalling that it had won several awards, and only being a novella in length, I picked it up.

We follow 16-year-old Binti as she steals away in the night to embark on a trip to Oomza University. Instead of being proud of Binti's acceptance at such a prestigious university, her family forbids her to go. They say that Binti's place, like all Himba, is at home with family. The narration and theme makes this seem like either middle grade or young adult fare, but I can still appreciate it.

As Binti makes her way to the spaceport, she has to deal with the Khoush, fellow humans of an unknown ethnicity. They scrutinize Binti's appearance as if she were an insect under a magnifying glass with all the poise of middle school biology class.
  “It smells like jasmine flowers,” she said to the woman on her left, surprised.
  “No shit?” one woman said. “I hear it smells like shit because it is shit.”
  “No, definitely jasmine flowers. It is thick like shit, though.”
  “Is her hair even real?” another woman asked the woman rubbing her fingers.
  “I don’t know.”
  “These ‘dirt bathers’ are a filthy people,” the first woman muttered.
On the trip to Oomza University, Binti gradually makes inroads with her fellow students, apparently all Khoush. I thought that the story was going to be about Binti winning over her fellow students, but instead, the plot takes a sharp turn. A Meduse boarding party arrives out of nowhere—it's never explained how—and mercilessly attacks the passengers. Her survival appears to be a bit of deus ex machina, but the story would be over if she died right there.

I was hoping that Okarafor was going to have Binti rally her fellow Khoush students to repel the invaders, but no. Everyone was killed, all 500 passengers, except Binti and the never-seen pilot. So then I was hoping Binti was going to use her wits to work with the pilot to repel the invaders. Nope. Instead, Binti parleys with the Medusae, in particular one named Okwu, in an effort to think of a way out of this mess.

While I enjoyed learning about this future version of the Himba, I'm left wondering why a people who never travel have a need for an astrolabe, much less build them. But it's clear from the text that Okorafor has changed the definition of the device to be something much more.

Who are the Khoush? Initially, they were described as being lighter in skin color than Binti, but towards the end of the story, she encounters a dark-skinned Khoush. It's said at one point that the Himba don't like outsiders. Since no other types of humans are mentioned in the story, does that mean that everyone who isn't Himba is a Khoush to these isolationist xenophobes? The adult Khoush certainly have their attitude issues, the younger ones are more curious and open to new ideas than their parents, but we never see how the Himba act toward them. Might the rudeness of adults go both ways?

Another thing that nagged at me was Biniti's response to landing on Oomza. I was given the impression that there was artificial gravity on the spaceship. At no point is anyone or anything just floating about. But when the ship lands, she falls to the floor upon encountering the planet's gravity. The world is described as "a small planet compared to Earth" so smaller size means less mass (unless the world's density is somehow greater than your typical terrestrial world) which means less gravity. An editor should've caught that.

While I won't spoil the ending, I have to say that I find it troubling. If you want a spoiler, highlight this next section of text.——> The Medusae are angry at the university because they stole the chief's stinger. How this was accomplished is never explained. The chief is fine by the way. He just feels emasculated. Regardless, this is the Medusae's justification for killing all of the students on the spaceship. It's a matter of honor, never mind that the students had nothing to do with it, nor knowledge of it. After some debate, the university agrees to give the stinger back and they give the Medusae named Okwu what amounts to a full scholarship at the university. No demands from the university to atone for the 500 dead students, nor are there complaints from the crowd in attendance. No apologies or remorse from the Medusae; they leave completely satisfied. The terrorists win.

On top of this, Okwu and Binti become friends despite the fact that she witnessed it kill a fellow student right in front of her, splattering blood on her face, and it was going to kill her, too, were it not for her magic pet rock. Does Binti have Stockholm Syndrome? She does care that these people, although they were Khoush, were brutally slaughtered, right? We're given a sentence or two where she's upset by what happened, but the narrative's focus is on Binti making a fresh batch of otjize. Yes, I get that it's her cultural tie with home, but I wish more had been written about Binti dealing with her traumatic experience instead of just focusing on her being homesick.

I've learned that Binti's PTSD for this experience is addressed in Sacred Fire, a short story that was written after the series concluded and inserted into a special trilogy collection, officially book 1.5 in the series. The cynic in me says, "Damage control."

Overall, I enjoyed Okarafor's world-building and learning about these future Himba, even though Binti seemed a bit obsessed with her otjize. Setting aside my nitpicking over some details and the childish behavior of the Medusae, I would've been fine with the story, but that ending ruined it for me.

2 stars