Monday, June 14, 2021

The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)

The Forever War
The Forever War series, Book 1
Joe Haldeman
St. Martins Griffin
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: William Mandella expected to become a physics professor when he got out of college. He didn't expect to be drafted. But the human interstellar colonization effort has made a startling, and terrifying, discovery: we are not alone in the universe, and the aliens - the Taurans - may well have just destroyed one of our ships. Wars in space require the best and brightest minds, capable of parsing the mind-bending physics of near-lightspeed travel and relativity, so William and other men and women found themselves in uniform, training for a war that will, thanks to time distortion from high speeds and the "collapsars" that allow near-instantaneous jumps across incalculable distances between stars, see them return to Earth decades, even centuries after departure... a planet they no longer recognize, even as war makes them half-unrecognizable to themselves.

REVIEW: Haldeman based this award-winning classic tale on his experiences in Vietnam, but the themes are (unfortunately) timeless. Modern civilization is warped around conflict and war and creating "others" to throw money and lives at, the war machine driving the economy. William's first commanders and trainers are veterans of Vietnam (the timeline has this war starting in the late 20th century; in a foreword, Haldeman says he had an opportunity to shift the dates when his "future" became obsolete, but chose to leave them, and in truth the year itself doesn't actually matter as the pattern repeats through human history), showing the clear through-line that war turns men and women into hammers, who will do everything it takes, even commandeer the reins of civilization, to ensure they never run out of nails to strike. As Mandella skips through time, he sees tactics change drastically, all in ways that seem designed to strip the "human" out of humanity. At the start, he and his fellow soldiers are motivated by implanted "hate" triggers, impossible scenarios of Taurans as baby-eating, raping butchers that are triggered when they head into combat: William knows it's impossible "soyashit", invented propaganda, but cannot stop himself from responding to it.
That summarizes the gist of his whole experience, forced to be a cog in a machine whose ultimate purpose is not victory, but the perpetuation of its own existence, feeding on lives and limbs. Along the way, the planet and species he's fighting to save become almost as alien as the Taurans, changes in language and technology and social mores leaving him feeling as lost as a Neanderthal in a modern city. At the start, women and men are treated as equals in uniform, though expected to regularly partner up in rotation for health and psychological reasons. Future generations, pressured by overpopulation, embrace the "homo lifestyle", and come to see William's heterosexuality as a deviation or outright perversion. (Haldeman, at least in this story, seems to consider sexual orientation a choice or social construct. Given the age of the work and the fact that it's intended to be part of William's growing disorientation as centuries pile up, portrayed as a character trait of William rather than a broader commentary on sexuality or gender, I decided to give this a qualified pass. This is, after all, a future in which brains are regularly wiped or reprogrammed, seemingly as casually as one reprograms a computer.) Though he hates killing and longs to be free, the war keeps pulling him back in, ultimately his only refuge as he drifts further out of touch with the rest of his species.
The story takes a while to get moving, wending through his training and the first disastrous encounter with the Taurans, and the meeting with fellow soldier Maryjay Potter - the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with, assuming either of them survive long enough to build a life, and don't end up separated by time dilation and the width of the galaxy. Once in a while it gets a bit thick with the physics and tactics, but overall it moves fairly decently. The Forever War remains a fairly solid read; one can still see the mark of this story in many modern works.

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Saturday, June 12, 2021

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (Nghi Vo)

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
The Singing Hills Cycle, Book 2
Nghi Vo
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Wandering cleric Chih has traveled far and wide, gathering tales and histories from local sources, but this trip may be their last. While traveling with a mammoth rider, they become trapped at a deserted outpost by three hungry tiger sisters. If the cleric and their guide can last until dawn, help may arrive, but until then Chih must distract the trio. They tell the tigers a story of the long-ago relationship between a mighty tigress and a young woman scholar... but the tigers, too, know the tale, and insist on correcting it.

REVIEW: Another freebie download from Tor's ebook-of-the-month club, I didn't realize that this was technically part of a series when I started it; it works fine as a standalone, but that would explain why I felt like there was much more to the world and characters than I was seeing here. The novella is set in an imaginative, Asian-inspired world of shapeshifting beasts and mischievous spirits and domesticated mammoths and more wonders and dangers. Though it's largely a story within a story, the plight of Chih and their guide (and the mammoth, who, though nonspeaking, is a character in its own right) is more than just a frame, with rising tension as the patience of the three tigers wears thin when confronted with human ignorance and their ever-empty stomachs. As for the tale of the tigress and the scholar, it demonstrates how stories diverge, different people telling different versions that skew it in their own favor. Ever the cleric, Chih dutifully records the corrections supplied by the tigers, even knowing that it may be the last thing they ever write if the tigers run out of patience before the dawn. I'll have to track down the first story in the series, as I'm definitely interested in exploring this world further.

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Thursday, June 10, 2021

Deadline (Mira Grant)

The Newsflesh trilogy, Book 2
Mira Grant
Fiction, Horror/Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: If Shaun Mason ever had a chance at a normal life, it ended when he was too young to remember, victim of the first Rising: the accidental collision of two artificial viruses, one intended to end cancer and another the cure for the common cold, that created a cocktail capable of resurrecting the dead. Orphaned in the initial outbreak and adopted by the media-hungry Masons with the girl who would be his sister and more, Georgia "George" Mason, the two went on to become top names among the new generation of journalists, the bloggers who rose to the challenge when traditional media stumbled. Their site, After the End Times, broke some of the hottest news in the country, even the world. Shaun and George knew their jobs came with great risks, but the truth deserves it. Besides, Shaun always figured George would outlast him; she, after all, didn't go out in the field to poke zombies for ratings.
When George was turned, victim of a high-reaching conspiracy threatening a senator with presidential aspirations, Shaun was the one who had to pull the trigger.
While his sister may be dead, she's not entirely gone; she lives on as a voice in his head, manifestation of his shattered psyche. The only thing keeping him going anymore is the thought of bringing justice to the doorstep of her killers, the still-faceless people behind the conspiracy that brought her down. Once that's done, maybe they both can rest.
Then a doctor from the CDC turns up at the Oakland After the End Times headquarters... one who was just reported dead. She faked her own death and fled when she stumbled onto information her superiors didn't want seen, a disturbing pattern of deaths and an even more disturbing cover-up. What Shaun and the others are about to unearth will change everything they thought they knew about the zombie apocalypse, and challenge everything they thought they could trust.
Shaun could never imagine living in a world without George. He might well be joining her soon enough... him, and the rest of the population of Earth.

REVIEW: Like the first installment in the Newsflesh trilogy, Deadline starts fast and hits hard. Shaun is a wreck after the death of George, clinging to her ghost as a voice in his head (which can manifest in full-fledged hallucinatory embodiments as his sanity continues to crack), barely functioning as he focuses solely on the only story that has any meaning to him anymore. He has people around him who care for him, but none can reach him like George could, and his upbringing - he and his sister essentially being living props for the Masons, every emotion faked for the cameras - left his ability to form normal human bonds damaged. The fugitive CDC doctor, a side character from the previous book, snaps him from the lethargy he's been sinking into, even as she provides a new lead to track and a dangerous new twist. Along with a core crew of fellow journalists, he delves into the dark world of outcast scientists who have been studying the zombie pandemic and coming to vastly different conclusions than the official party line from the CDC and WHO, who clearly have come to embody the old saying about absolute power corrupting absolutely. This is not a writer or a series that pulls punches, indulges in cheap bait-and-switch tricks, or short-changes characters or plot for the sake of thrills. Once again, it reads eerily prescient in light of the COVID pandemic, in no small part because Grant did sufficient research to ground the zombie virus cocktail in plausible-sounding science, and work out what society would have to do in order to survive: airlocks to get in and out of buildings, bleach showers, blood tests as a matter of course, and so on. (I have read that the author claims that, had she known then what she knew now after seeing the response to an actual pandemic, that she couldn't have written this series at all; it relies too much on people being willing to make some sacrifices for the greater good, and the vocal, occasionally violent anti-mask and anti-vax pushes have put paid to that good-faith assumption.) This is a solid, if dark, adrenaline rush of a story, pitting Shaun and his increasingly-small band of allies against forces with global reach and incredible power who do not like their methods being questioned or exposed. It's a great gut-punch, ending with two hooks that all but require the reader to grab the third installment. (I have it on the Nook, but I think I need a somewhat lighter read or two before I dive in.)

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Sunday, June 6, 2021

Nine Perfect Strangers (Liane Moriarty)

Nine Perfect Strangers
Liane Moriarty
Flatiron Books
Fiction, Suspense
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A romance novelist whose career may be over, a divorce lawyer whose relationship may end over the matter of starting a family of his own, a single mother obsessed with weight, a past-prime footballer coming to grips with his mortality, a young couple whose lottery win has driven a wedge between them, and a family struggling to deal with a teen son's suicide. These nine strangers have all come to Tranquillum House, a health resort deep in the Australian countryside, for a ten-day program that promises complete transformation and renewal. The treatments are supposed to be revolutionary... and possibly on the fringe of legality and sanity, as the resort's owner teeters on the edge of a breakdown.

REVIEW: Yes, I do read books beyond my genre comfort zone. Usually, when I hit an iffy streak, it's a sign I need to branch out and shake up the reading (or listening, this being an audiobook) list. This promised to be a decent suspense novel from a popular author, with a great setup and lots of promise. Unfortunately, I think it was misbilled when it was pitched as "suspense". Or maybe my impression of the word has been skewed by my tendency to read more genre fiction than general novels. This was much more an exploration of characters than what I would consider a true suspense tale; for a very long time, there are only mild and vague hints of something being wrong (a key part of suspense, or so I figured, the idea that the normal has become abnormal, the expected about to be subverted in unsettling and potentially terrifying ways). Very little that I would consider truly thrilling or suspenseful happens until past the halfway point. Before then, things meander wordily though the various guests and staff members, setting up backstories and establishing (borderline overestablishing) their personalities and the problems that brought them to Tranquillum House, and what they hope to accomplish while there. The characters sometimes feel more like tropes, with toes poking over the cliche line, than rounded, grounded people, with some themes becoming repetitive across the ostensibly-different characters. The actual suspense portion of the story feels short-changed, and I found myself irked by what felt like bait-and-switch and deux ex machina resolutions at the climax, followed by a meandering tail end as the characters cope with the aftermath of what happened, and what they learned about themselves. The descriptions could be decent, some moments and scenes were very solid and effective, and the characters (tropes notwithstanding) had potential, as did the setup of an isolated health spa run by an unstable guru, but I mostly found myself frustrated that there wasn't more actual escalating suspense in what I'd been told was a suspense novel, seeing chance after chance to build up the tension or unsettle the characters pass by or be brushed off uneventfully. Maybe I would've been less disappointed had it just been billed as general fiction, but even then I think I'd have hoped for a little more tooth, because that's just the kind of reader I am.

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Thursday, June 3, 2021

Shadow and Bone (Leigh Bardugo)

Shadow and Bone
The Grishaverse: The Shadow and Bone trilogy, Book 1
Leigh Bardugo
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Long ago, the nation of Ravka was split in two by a great darkness, the Shadow Fold, creation of a Grisha witch with the power of shadows. Cut off from its coast to the west and hemmed in by sheer mountains and hostile nations, the eastern fragment of Ravka began to wither, and many began to speak ill of the Grishas who brought such horrors, though they still enjoy the protection of the King and the Grisha general of the Second Army, the Darkling, a master of shadows descended from the Fold's creator. He still works to undo his ancestor's creation, but to destroy the Shadow Fold will taken an entirely different kind of power: a Sun Summoner, bringer of light. Only no such Grisha has ever been discovered.
Alina and Malkyen were war orphans, bonding over the shared trauma of their past, a bond that Alina once thought would take them through the rest of their lives. Now they seem to be growing apart. A soldier now, Mal makes many friends and attracts the favors of many more attractive girls, while Alina, a cartographer in training, slips into the background, too plain to be noticed even by her peers. When they're sent across the Shadow Fold for needed supplies from West Ravka, they don't even make it halfway before they're attacked by the monsters of the dead, dark place, the shrieking volcra, who swarm in unprecedented numbers to attack their landskiff... until a great burst of light drives the beasts back. A burst of light that comes from Alina, when she saw Mal attacked by a volcra. The light of the prophesied Sun Summoner.
Whisked away by the Darkling's personal guards and plunged into the isolated domain of the Grishas, Alina is caught up in a whirlwind of politics and expectations, dropped into a world where she feels even more out of place and with a gift she can barely seem to grasp. Suddenly, the forgettable war orphan is the hope of all Ravka and the future of the Grishas... but will she save the nation, or be used to destroy it?

REVIEW: In the interest of full disclosure, I saw the Netflix series before I read this. The series was decent, but I had the distinct feeling that a lot was being compressed and trimmed from the source material, so I picked up the first installment of one of the source books (the other being Six of Crows, set in a different time and with different characters but in the same "Grishaverse") in the hopes that it would fill in some of those rushed holes.
Unfortunately, I think I picked the wrong book.
The world here, loosely inspired by Eastern European influences, isn't that much better drawn than the series, with a lot hinted at but only loosely sketched out and glossed over; the various branches of the Grisha remain maddeningly interchangeable and vague on the page, as do many of the peripheral characters and locations. It doesn't help that Alina is among the most helpless main characters I've read in some time. She exhibits almost no agency or independence, mired in her own stubborn uselessness/helplessness, constantly led around and stumbling and failing and stumbling again, too often being saved by others despite theoretically being one of the most potentially powerful Grishas with a once-in-a-generation power to rival the Darkling. Some lip service is given to her stepping up to her power, but I didn't really feel it, didn't feel the struggle or the fight, didn't experience her growth, but rather was just told about it, if that makes sense. An expected love triangle develops (one of several expected tropes that plays out in expected ways), which does nothing to enhance her agency. (One thing the show definitely got right was switching points of view to include the perspectives of other characters; by being stuck with Alina, who was rather hopelessly over her head the vast majority of the time, I, too, felt lost and helpless and forced to fill in blanks around the edges on my own.) Skirting spoilers, the climax has some unpleasant undertones, though eventually it finally has her stand up (somewhat) and fight back (sort of) on her own, with mixed results.
While I may take a crack at Six of Crows (and will likely watch the next season of the Netflix iteration), I'm not sure I'll follow the rest of Alina's trilogy unless I find credible reports of her growing more interesting, or at least somewhat less helpless as a heroine. She was by far the weakest element of this book, undermining what could have been a decent story and setting.

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