Tuesday, October 30, 2018

October Site Update

A day early again, but I updated the main Brightdreamer Books site, archiving the month's reviews. I'm also making more progress on my cross-linking efforts.


Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Secret Hour (Scott Westerfield)

The Secret Hour
The Midnighters trilogy, Book 1
Scott Westerfield
Fiction, YA Chiller/Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: After growing up in Chicago, the Oklahoma town of Bixby looks like the definition of nowhere to Jessica Day - if a nowhere with an aeronautics firm where Mom landed a design job. But there's something funny about this place, and not just the odd-tasting water. Every night, at midnight, time freezes... and monsters emerge. As a Midnighter, someone born at the exact right time, Jessica is one of the few teens in Bixby who experiences this secret hour - an hour that appears to exist only in and around the town - but none of the others provoke such a strong reaction from the darklings who lurk there. Is it just because she's new, or is there something special about her, something that may end the eons-old struggle between humanity and darkling once and for all?

REVIEW: The Secret Hour isn't bad, establishing a creepy premise and decent cast. Westerfield creates some nice monsters with the darklings and the lesser slithers, shapeshifting beings that embody humanity's oldest nightmares. The teens each develop distinct personalities, generally with a little more to them than is first apparent, and each with a particular talent that comes alive in the secret hour. The exception here is Jessica Day, the nominal lead. She comes across as the quintessential Teen Heroine, half a step (if that) removed from Mary Sue status, whose initial helplessness and naivete only ensures that she'll somehow be Extra Important later on (no specific spoiler, but come on - I think most readers know the earmarks by now.) There are hints of relationship potential, and some typical high school drama (plus the obligatory family drama and parental issues)... the usual trappings of the age category and genre. Even if the elements hit their marks competently, they're still laid out on a rather well-worn story path that I'm a little tired of treading.
Westerfield's imagery and concepts are fine, and the majority of the cast is intriguing. It just felt a little too familiar, with Jessica being a cookie cutter Special New Girl, for the fourth star in the ratings... especially as I felt no interest in pursuing the series, which appears to be a problem for the first book in a trilogy. (Not that I need another series to follow, but it seems that a first book that fails to sell the second isn't doing something quite right, at least for this reader.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
15 Minutes (Jill Cooper) - My Review
Roswell High: The Outsiders (Melinda Metz) - My Review
Others See Us (William Sleator) - My Review

Friday, October 26, 2018

Everything All At Once (Bill Nye)

Everything All At Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap Into Radical Curiosity, and Solve Any Problem
Bill Nye
Rodale Books
Nonfiction, Autobiography/Science
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: To be a nerd is to notice things - to ask questions and determine how to answer them, to see problems and decide how to fix them. Today, with our very future on Earth likely hinging on our ingenuity in facing major human-incited challenges that could change our planet irrevocably and unrecognizably in as little as two decades, we need our nerds more than ever, but too many people are turning their back on the very expertise we need the most. But quitting is not an option. CEO of The Planetary Society, host of popular educational shows, occasional comedy performer, and proud lifelong nerd Bill Nye explains the mindset that allows scientists to tackle problems from car safety to climate change, and how to harness that power yourself to create a better future.

REVIEW: Nye combines an autobiography with an examination of the scientific process and nerd mindset, which he explains isn't just for computer geeks or slide rule-toting men in lab coats: it's an ability everyone can develop, an ability everyone probably needs to develop if we're going to survive, let alone thrive, in the coming decades. He traces his own nerd roots back to his childhood, from his tinkerer father to years in the Boy Scouts and later in science classes, where he caught the "bug" after a massive pendulum experiment allowed him to see with his own eyes mathematics in action. He also discusses how he came to merge the art of comedy and entertainment with his love of science. (I remember him from his days on the local Seattle comedy show Almost Live!, so it was interesting to see how he came to be part of that, and how it helped him transition to the national stage.) From transportation to GMOs to power grids to the link between space exploration and improvement of quality of life here on Earth, even to improving our own sense of responsibility and civic pride, Nye turns his "everything all at once" mind to possible solutions. Naturally, our climate challenges form a central theme, a problem he still sees as surmountable if we start as soon as possible. With events just prior to and after this book's publication in 2017, and the rapidly-increasing rate with which science is being shut out of the conversation altogether in certain world powers, I fear he may be a trifle too optimistic in his claims that a dedicated "nerd" can use reason and logic to convince any regime to set aside tribalism and short-term gains in favor of the longer view... Still, his optimism gives me some (small) hope, and his explanation of how to be a nerd even outside of a science lab hopefully reaches ears who need to hear it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Unbound (Richard Currier) - My Review
Undeniable (Bill Nye) - My Review
Fool Me Twice (Shawn Lawrence Otto) - My Review

Monday, October 22, 2018

Fairy Quest Volume 1: Outlaws (Paul Jenkins)

Fairy Quest Volume 1: Outlaws
The Fairy Quest series, Issues 1 - 2
Paul Jenkins, illustrated by Humberto Ramos
Boom! Studios
Fiction, MG? Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time...
Every fairy tale ever told lives on in Fablewood, where characters play out their stories again and again, daily, for all time. Failure to re-enact one's tale properly results in punishment or mind erasure by Fablewood's foul ruler, Grimm, and his horde of think police. But little Red defies her story by befriending gruff Mister Woof. When they're discovered, they flee in search of the legendary Realworld, where nobody's stories are written for them and Red and Woof can be free at last - but it's far, far away if it exists at all, and every friend could just as easily betray them to the think police as help them.

REVIEW: I've previously read the Outcasts issues of the Fairy Quest series; evidently, this is where the story starts. (There may even be another volume between this and Outcasts, but for some reason Hoopla doesn't seem to have them, and even lists these ones out of order. But, I digress...) In any event, while I picked up enough to follow the story in Outcasts, it was nice to see how things started for Red and Mister Woof. Grimm slowly squeezes the life (and the memories) out of the very stories he claims to protect with his draconian rule; there is no telling who is friend and who is foe, as centuries of retellings have warped the minds of (nominal) heroes and villains alike, leading to a furtive underground movement of rebels of all stripes and species. The mood can be grim (pun intended), though the art is lively and the story moves briskly. Enjoyable, though it's not strictly necessary to read these issues first.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wizard's Tale (Kurt Busiek) - My Review
Fairy Quest: Outcasts #1 (Paul Jenkins) - My Review
Fables: Legends in Exile Volume 1 (Bill Williamson) - My Review

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Jupiter Winds (C. J. Darlington)

Jupiter Winds
The Jupiter Winds series, Book 1
C. J. Darlington
Mountainview Books, LLC
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Grey Alexander and her kid sister Rin have been scraping a living from the wilds of a land that used to be called America, ever since their parents disappeared on a hunting trip. They get by through selling contraband salvage - such as books printed before the conquest - on the black market... and their luck may have just run out. When Grey gets captured, she is brought before Commander Yurkutz, who demands to know the whereabouts of her mother and father. It turns out the elder Alexanders are not only alive, but fugitives on the planet Jupiter - which, despite official word, is perfectly habitable. Grey and Rin both find themselves involved in an interplanetary struggle for control of the cloud-shrouded world, a fight between the forces of Good and Evil itself.

REVIEW: This got many good reviews on Amazon, and it was on sale, so I picked it up. It started decently enough, with Grey and Rin as competent survivors in a future dystopia. I could even almost convince myself to swallow a habitable Jupiter for the sake of a decent story; I've read more extreme conceits, such as plays on the old idea of "aether" in space. Indeed, it can be fun to play with the impossible, if one has a story that supports it and knows it's playing - if the internal logic holds up, in other words. Unfortunately, that internal logic suddenly jumped down a massive black hole when the book revealed itself to be a fundamentalist Christian story with strong Creationist leanings. None of the reviews I read mentioned this. Suddenly, it wasn't just a storytelling conceit that Jupiter had land - one really was not supposed to know, let alone think about, the impossibility of a gas giant being basically a big Earth, complete with one G of gravity and breathable air. One wasn't supposed to question the secret plan of the society to which Grey's parents belonged, a sort of latter-day Noah cult... where Earth species are supposed to just slip right into an alien ecosystem (that looks suspiciously like Earth's, 'cause God was in a rut when creating the solar system I guess.) One was especially not supposed to question the idea that the good guys wanted to start fresh on Jupiter without interference from Mazdaar (suspiciously from the Middle East...wasn't the evil anti-Christian Middle Eastern civilization getting old hat in C. S. Lewis's day?) - yet Mazdaar has already gained a major foothold while the good guys are sitting around twiddling their thumbs with unlaunched ships until pushed by a crisis. What's the holdup, guys? It's a little late when the enemy has armed bases up and running and regular flights to the planet. Don't think, don't question, don't even look at the internal logic inconsistencies: this is a Lesson about Faith, not really a science fiction story.
Setting aside those issues, Grey and Rin aren't terrible characters, even if they do tend to be led around a little overmuch, and only really achieve successes when they give up and pray to the same god that let the Mazdaar overtake Earth until it's considered too evil for goodly folk to inhabit. (Then He graciously gives them a new world to repeat the same technological mistakes that are currently leading to our climate collapse... but that's another one of those internal logic things I suppose I wasn't supposed to question, 'cause God again.) It also made for a certain predictability in the storyline; I knew the main characters were blessedly protected, and I could peg the good guys and the traitors at first glance based on their faith or lack thereof, draining a lot of the tension. The experience was frustrating more than anything, because Gray and Rin and the initial setup could've carried a decent story without constantly having to drop to their knees in praise.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Arabella of Mars (David D. Levine) - My Review
Larklight (Philip Reeve) - My Review
Quintessence (David Walton) - My Review

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Spinning Silver (Naomi Novik)

Spinning Silver
Naomi Novik
Del Rey
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Miryam's grandfather is one of the wealthiest moneylenders in the land, but her own father is too softhearted to pursue his accounts... until Miryam tires of living on scraps while those who claim no coin to repay them feast grandly and parade new clothes in the market. As she sets out to turn the family business around, an idle boast that she can spin silver into gold draws the attention of the Staryk, dark fairies of ice whose hunters plunder at will and whose winters linger longer every year. The Staryk king himself demands she change his silver into gold - or pay with her own life. When she is pulled into his world, her life entangles with the lives of Ilena, plain-faced daughter of an ambitious duke who would see her crowned tsarina, and Wanda, whose debtor father only sees her as a thing to be traded... and also with a dreadful demon who wears the skin of a tsar, and whose endless hunger may destroy the worlds of man and fairy alike.

REVIEW: Technically, this is a companion novel to Novik's Uprooted, another fairy tale retelling with Polish roots, though the only tangible connection I found is hints of Baba Yaga around the edges; the two read fine as standalone works. Once again, Novik spins a complex tale onto the bones of an older story, introducing shades of gray into the black-and-white world of fairy tales. The prices paid for power, the lingering ugliness of antisemitism, the bonds of family, and the need to honor one's debts and strike fair bargains give the story plenty of body, and the setting is rich with Eastern European details and magical flourishes. The Staryk echo older visions of the Fae, powerful inhuman beings who view mortals as little more than ephemeral playthings at best (or prey at worst), with their own morality and codes of honor; if one must deal with them, one must deal quite carefully, and even then they may well strip your soul and your life before they're through. Characters, however, sometimes feel jumbled; Novik jumps between many different first-person viewpoints, which could make for occasional times of confusion as I tried to work out who I was "visiting" and where they were, and by the end I wasn't sure they all fully justified their inclusion. Once in a while the reading felt a bit like a slog, in part because of the many character storylines I was supposed to be keeping straight. It ultimately builds to a good climax, proving that everyone - even the haughty Staryk - has things to learn from one another once they take the time to listen and bargain in good faith. The conclusion mostly satisfies, even if - as with Uprooted - some few notes late in the tale, particularly related to the romantic relationships, felt a trifle forced. I enjoyed it for the most part, even if it muddled itself a little too much to rise above a still-respectable Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Unhandsome Prince (John Moore) - My Review
Uprooted (Naomi Novik) - My Review
Shadowmarch (Tad Williams) - My Review

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Descender Volume 6: The Machine War (Jeff Lemire)

Descender Volume 6: The Machine War
The Descender series, Issues 27 - 32
Jeff Lemire, illustrations by David Nguyen
Image Comics
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The United Galactic Council, the rogue robot faction Hardwire, and the fanatically anti-machine Gnishian fleet bear down on the ocean world Mata, where time to prevent a galaxy-wide catastrophe is fast running out. As the childlike robot Tim-21 discovers the secret of his origins, he might hold the only key to peace... if anyone will listen to him.

REVIEW: This is a bit of a dip in the ratings, though it is still a pretty good story. A lengthy flashback reveals the original Descenders, the artificial species behind the massive Harvester robots and the root inspiration for all modern robotics in the UGC... but they are not necessarily the benevolent race they present themselves as. Meanwhile, the grown boy Andy must come to terms with his own conflicted feelings, whether he sees Tim-21 as the brother he used to be or as a lifeless hunk of metal, as he's treated so many scrapped robots over the years. Telsa must also reconcile doing what is right with following orders (and pleasing her remote father), even as the inventor Guon must face what he inadvertently set in motion by stealing Tim-21's template from his mentor in the first place. Driller even makes a brief appearance, captive of the Gnishians. The story maintained much of the same pace and tone as the previous Descender volumes, but I found parts of it stretched. When I reached the ending and realized it was largely a setup for the next series, Ascender, I couldn't help feeling a little miffed, having been deprived of a truly satisfying wrap-up; some storylines were cut off abruptly to facilitate this. Still, I expect I'll read on when the new series appears next year, if it comes to Hoopla. For all the minor things that I feel went wrong with this one, there's still a lot more Descender does right.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wild Robot (Peter Brown) - My Review
Descender: The Deluxe Edition Volume 1 (Jeff Lemire) - My Review
All Systems Red (Martha Wells) - My Review

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Armored Saint (Myke Cole)

The Armored Saint
The Sacred Throne series, Book 1
Myke Cole
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Heloise was with her father when she first saw Brother Tone and the Pilgrims of the Order. The fanatical followers of the Sacred Throne wield the holy Writ's text as they wield their iron flails, scouring the land in pursuit of demonic wizardry and other heresies against the Emperor - and Tone sees heresy everywhere. On the brink of womanhood, she begins to chafe at the Writ-forged bonds on her future, as somewhere deep within sparks a burning certainty that their ways are not the right ways. When she acts on her rebellious feelings, she inadvertently endangers her family and her entire village, but what is started is not so easily stopped - especially not when the dangers of wizardry appear on her very doorstep.

REVIEW: This was an impulse buy during a recent bookstore binge, admittedly purchased because the sequel looked intriguing and I hate reading out of sequence when I can help it. (This paperback novella was also cheaper than the hardcover sequel at the time - so sue me, I'm on a budget.) Heloise isn't the by-now-standard tomboy heroine one might expect, and even if she can't imagine herself becoming a meek wife like her mother, constricted by the whims of a husband, she doesn't set out to upend her life or anyone else's. Seeing atrocities committed in the name of her god, seeing the fear and doubt in her steadfast father's eyes, not to mention feeling the pull of her own heart leading her against the Writ's basic tenets, ultimately make her incapable of tolerating the hypocrisies around her, but even then she must struggle to find the courage to face what she helped start. Her grim and brutal world, crushed under the heel of religion, finds many echoes in history; the people obey not so much out of piety as out of fear and survival instinct, enforced by repetition of religious propaganda (and, failing that, the utterly random strikes of the Order's minions, more plunderers than priests.) Beneath that corrupted crust, though, the heart of the religion hides secrets that even the Order has likely forgotten, making for a bit of a twist on the corrupted church trope. Another twist comes with the "tinker engines," traces of steampunk robots and mecha suits filtered through a gritty fantasy lens. These, plus Heloise's realistic struggles over following her heart versus doing what's expected, helped lift it over a few rough spots to a solid Good rating, even if it ultimately felt more like a prequel than a complete tale on its own.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Traitor's Blade (Sebastian de Castell) - My Review
Sheepfarmer's Daughter (Elizabeth Moon) - My Review
Quintessence (David Walton) - My Review

Monday, October 8, 2018

My Diary from the Edge of the World (Jodi Lynn Anderson)

My Diary from the Edge of the World
Jodi Lynn Anderson
Fiction, MG Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Gracie Lockwood's an ordinary - if boisterous - girl living an ordinary American life, going to school and annoying her siblings and tuning out lessons on math and science and the sasquatches that helped end the American Civil War. Then the Dark Cloud appears... and it soon becomes clear that the death omen has come for someone in her family: her sickly kid brother Sam. Nothing can stop a Cloud once it's come, but Dad has a plan. He, like a scant handful of mostly-crackpot believers, is convinced that another world, the Extraordinary World, lies beyond the icebound southern edge of the flat Earth. It'll be a one-way trip, but if he's right, the Cloud couldn't possibly follow them that far. Soon Gracie, Mom, Dad, Sam, teen sister Millie, and orphaned neighbor boy Oliver (who tags along at the last minute, for his own reasons) are piled into an old Winnebago, on the road trip of a lifetime... but can anyone ever outrun Death itself?

REVIEW: I was attracted by the interesting alternate world (though it pushes the logic line, even for a middle-grade title, for a world so different from ours that poltergeists shut down World War I before it could even begin to have the same named celebrities and other identical cultural features), and admittedly by the fact that the dragon silhouetted against the moon on the cover reminded me of Toothless. The story, though, doesn't quite pull together like it seems it should. Gracie starts out immature, impatient, and more than a touch selfish (as one might expect for her age), and while her experiences teach her much about the importance of family and appreciating the wonders, ordinary and extraordinary, all around us, she never contributes much more to the book than recording events in her diary. Most everyone else steps up at some point, but Gracie's one tangible contribution is, literally, a tantrum. I don't know why this started bugging me, but it did, especially given how much growth other characters underwent - not to mention how it ended (no specific spoilers, sorry, but suffice it to say it seemed like an awful long way to go given where they wound up.)
Gracie's world is an interesting place to visit, with wonders and terrors and moments of whimsy, but I don't miss it now that I've left. I should not be thinking that about a world where dragon migrations drive the population underground for weeks at a time, but I do, and that's another part of how this book lost its full fourth star in the ratings. That, and the letdown of an ending...

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Julie Andrews Edwards) - My Review
Claws (Mike and Rachel Grinti) - My Review
Thirteenth Child (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Vital Abyss (James S. A. Corey)

The Vital Abyss
An Expanse novella
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: As a boy on an overpopulated Earth, Paolo Cortazar could only watch helplessly as his mother withered and died of an incurable disease. The experience drove him to push past the limits of the masses subsisting on basic income in search of answers medicine had yet to discover. Somewhere along the way, he stopped being that boy and became the man currently imprisoned deep in space, a man who sacrificed more than he ever intended, but who stands on the forefront of humanity's greatest discovery... a man who will stop at nothing to continue his work.
Part of the Expanse series, these events occur chronologically between Book 3, Abaddon's Gate, and Book 4, Cibola Burn. (Note: some would place it between Book 5, Nemesis Games, and Book 6, Babylon's Ashes.)

REVIEW: Shuffling of characters in the TV series adaptation of The Expanse introduced me to Cortazar before I got around to reading this novella, so I had some inkling of what he had gone through. Still, this standalone tale functions as a glimpse into one of the many lives forever altered by the discovery of the alien protomolecule at the heart of the series, not to mention the lengths some went to in order to understand and exploit it. Not as action-oriented as other tales in the series, it's more of a psychological study of how far a boy's grief and desperation take him and how one wrong turn tragically invalidates much of what drove him, the core of his own humanity - a sacrifice he is too dazzled to truly appreciate even when the full cost becomes clear. It made for an enjoyable read, filling in background information and teasing developments to come.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Star Dragon (Mike Brotherton) - My Review
The Churn (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
Binti (Nnedi Okorafor) - My Review

Friday, October 5, 2018

The Flaw in All Magic (Ben S. Dobson)

The Flaw in All Magic
The Magebreakers series, Book 1
Ben S. Dobson
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Fantasy/Mystery
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: The human Tane Carver is a university-trained expert on all things magical, yet hasn't a single drop of magic in his blood. His graduation thesis - that non-magical people should be allowed to study the forces that power so much of their modern world, as proven by his own ability to sneak through classes by outsmarting detection spells and teachers alike - got him expelled and disgraced. So it was a surprise when a dean called him back to campus to help with a problem that has baffled the mages and guards on staff: an impossible murder.
An old friend of Tane's was working on an experimental magical airship when she was attacked. That airship is only days away from its grand debut, part of the Lady Protector's plans to promote peace with neighboring nations who distrust magic. Nothing, not even murder, must delay its maiden voyage, putting a tight deadline on the investigation. With help from a persistent half-orc woman and an old elven lover, now a constable, Tane sets off on the trail of a killer. But this case may best even his talents, endangering the airship, the city, and the lives of himself and the few friends Tane has left.

REVIEW: This fantasy/mystery hybrid (with a hint of steampunk around the edges, with the airship) has many elements that would make for an interesting tale, but doesn't quite click together like it should. The characters are decent enough, if somewhat expected for the genre; Tane is the somewhat-cocky lead detective working outside the system and driven by a tragic past, Kadka the half-orc is the loyal sidekick contributing her brawn to balance his brains, the elven constable Indree is the inside contact with the law (who still clearly harbors feelings for her human ex-lover despite a bad breakup years ago), and so forth. The culprit is also somewhat obvious, not to mention prone to explaining their evil plot like a cheap Bond villain at the climax, but I could've overlooked this. The real drag on the rating is Dobson's tendency to overexplain his world, its history, its many races, and its magic. Even when it's one character explaining things to another (Kadka comes from a part of the world without much magic, a convenient set of ears for Tane to fill with worldbuilding details for the sake of the eavesdropping reader), it interrupts the flow of the story. It also ventures into overkill territory, particularly when dealing with other nations that were only ever involved as mere names. Some of the scenes also feel overlong, fluffed by the aforementioned tendency to wander into infodumps. I frankly started skimming those parts of the tale, which ultimately had little to do with the mystery itself. While not a bad fantasy/mystery hybrid, set in a decently constructed (if overexplained) world, I just didn't enjoy it enough in the end for a solid fourth star in the ratings, and don't expect I'll read on.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Scriber (Ben S. Dobson) - My Review
Fanuilh (Daniel Hood) - My Review
Arcana Universalis: Terminus (Chris J. Randolph) - My Review

Thursday, October 4, 2018

She Persisted Around the World (Chelsea Clinton)

She Persisted Around the World: 13 Women Who Changed History
Chelsea Clinton, illustrations by Alexandra Boiger
Philomel Books
Nonfiction, CH Biography/History/Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Throughout history and around the world, societies have placed limits on girls... but some persisted against the odds. Thirteen profiles in courage and determination show what women can do.

REVIEW: Given recent national events (and their less-than-subtle message to my gender, that we are to shut up and not make waves because we will not be believed even when we cry out in rage and pain), this is both a timely and timeless reminder that obstructions can be overcome and barriers broken down. Here, Clinton offers an international selection of brave girls and women, along with inspiring quotes. It's both absurd and depressing that the message must be repeated over and over again about women being human beings capable of the same levels of greatness as men, but apparently it must be, because those in power (and the powerless masses) seem to forget at the earliest convenient opportunity. I can only hope that, for all the efforts to repress (even here in the "Land of Opportunity"), strong women persist in breaking through.

You Might Also Enjoy:
She Persisted (Chelsea Clinton) - My Review
Meet the Dullards (Sara Pennypacker) - My Review
I Am a Story (Dan Yaccarino) - My Review

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Artemis (Andy Weir)

Andy Weir
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: To tourists from Earth, Artemis is the pinnacle of science, humanity's first permanent colony on the moon, but to Jazz it's just home - the only one she's known, having left Saudi Arabia with her father when she was just six. Despite the exotic location, it's not so different from small towns everywhere, not even big enough to warrant a full police force. As a porter running a smuggling business on the side, this suits Jazz just fine. She's never done much more illegal than importing the odd box of cigars for wealthy clients - but when one of those clients approaches her about a major caper, with a proportionately major fee, she decides to stretch her skill set a bit.
Big mistake.
What looked like a fairly simple, if risky, task soon has her on the run from a hired killer, part of a tangled scheme that reaches into the highest echelons of power. If she's going to get out of this alive, she has to figure out just what she's stumbled into before it endangers all of Artemis. If they thought she'd disappear quietly, though, they picked the wrong smuggler; Jazz may have burned many bridges in her life, even with her own father, but one thing she won't do is turn her back on her home.

REVIEW: Like Weir's debut novel, The Martian, this tale is riddled with deep science. Much of the story depends on it, from the chemical process of smelting aluminum to the trick of welding in a vacuum. Unlike The Martian, however, I didn't enjoy spending my time with the novel's main character. Jazz is admittedly a screw-up and a slacker who has brought many of her problems down on her own head through sheer petty stubbornness, but I'm never given much of a reason to understand her or sympathize with her; she's just a largely unpleasant human who annoys and uses the people who think to call her friend, deliberately wasting her life because nobody's going to tell her what to do. Her main motivation is greed, pure and simple; I didn't get much sense of humanity underneath her tough exterior, despite some later lip service to learning a lesson about taking people for granted. For that matter, the other characters tend to come across as fairly flat, if generally more relatable; this may be a side effect of being forced to view things through Jazz's frankly bratty point of view. The smart aleck attitude that worked for Mark Watney is less successful here; that may be because Mark was largely talking to himself, while Jazz unloads several of her barbs on other people, so what was a somewhat-endearing reaction to extreme stress in one event comes across as deliberately hurtful in the other.
Anyway, this story has been described as a lunar heist novel. That's generally the gist of the plot, though it's interrupted frequently with science lessons. These are generally too short to qualify as infodumps, though the cumulative effect is similar (especially when, as noted, I wasn't that fond of the main character/narrator.) An excess of side characters, pulled into the unfolding fiasco to various degrees, tangle the plot at times. Jazz messes up, more often than not through a failure to account for the human factor of the equation (not surprising, given her evident inability to form a normal relationship), eventually having to assemble a team of misfits (a genre prerequisite) to strike back. It moves decently, though once in a while the tale clunks on certain plot points - there's a tendency to monologuing by more than one player in this game - and the team doesn't mesh quite as well as a good heist team ought to. (This isn't helped by Jazz, who keeps picking on the scabs of old wounds with the people who are risking their necks to help her.)
Ultimately, it's not a bad story. Fans of hard science fiction will enjoy the many little details of lunar living and the capers involved, and there are some nice, intense moments of lunar peril. It's the human side where this one fell down (as I lack the general intelligence for deep science to be interesting on its own.) Had Jazz been a little less snarky (or had given me a reason to really understand how she became that way, other than having been a teenager at some point in her life - it really is like she got mentally and emotionally stuck at sixteen), I think I would've enjoyed it more.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Retrograde (Peter Cawdron) - My Review
The Android's Dream (John Scalzi) - My Review
The Martian (Andy Weir) - My Review

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Black God's Drums (P. Djeli Clark)

The Black God's Drums
P. Djeli Clark
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Thirteen-year-old Creeper was born in the middle of a New Orleans storm; perhaps that was why the Afrikan goddess of the winds, Oya, took such a shine to her. For all the girl's life, Oya has been with her, though only a fool would consider such a powerful force a true friend. She has her own mind, Oya, and sometimes the visions she sends are too powerful for Creeper to handle - but goddesses will not be ignored.
While prowling the airship landings for pockets to pick and purses to snatch, Creeper comes across a group of Confederate soldiers looking to buy a devastating weapon from a Haitian scientist: the Black God's Drums, the force that destroyed Napoleon's forces and won Haiti's freedom, at the cost of hundred of Haitian lives when the unnaturally powerful storm it unleashed turned back on the land. Even today, echoes of it haunt the Gulf regions, black storms that threaten even as far away as New Orleans. With a weapon like this, the South could end its long stalemate with the North, and would likely reclaim the neutral city of New Orleans while it's at it. Creeper planned to bargain with this information for passage aboard an airship out of the city - but fate has other plans for her, as do the old Afrikan deities.

REVIEW: The Black God's Drums has roots running deep into the multicultural history of New Orleans, through local magic and religions, clear back to Africa. Clark creates a colorful setting in an alternate Earth where the Civil War ended in a stalemate (the South now drugging its slaves to prevent escape), the Caribbean Islands won freedom via weaponry tinged with old magic, and New Orleans broke bonds with the rest of the nation, not to mention where airships rule the skies and old gods walk the land in unusual guises. Creeper's a clever and gutsy main character, narrating the tale in colloquial dialect that only occasionally tripped me up. Her reluctant companion and protector, the Free Isles airship captain Anne-Marie, has her own goddess (Oshun of the waters, sister goddess to Oya), though she's spent her life pushing the force away instead of accepting it as Creeper has. As for Oya, she's never quite human, nor does she speak in words, but she is nevertheless a very present character and shaper of events, as much a force of nature as anything else. It's a nicely original milieu, featuring a diverse and unique cast, though it seems a little short in some ways; I'm not necessarily sure it needs a sequel, for all that I'd read more in this world, but something feels like it wants to lead into a longer work. In any event, I enjoyed this visit to a New Orleans that never was.

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