Sunday, June 16, 2019

Endling #2: The First (Katherine Applegate)

Endling #2: The First
The Endling series, Book 2
Katherine Applegate
Fiction, MG? Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Once the runt of her pack, Byx has become the endling - the last known living member - of her species, the doglike dairnes. The humans of Nedarra, under the warlike leader the Murdano, hunted them to extinction for their ability to tell truth from lies. Worse, not one of the other sentient species of the world acted to defend the peaceful dairnes. Old legends spoke of a floating island where some of her kind might survive... and now, at long last, she is almost there. But the land is still on the brink of war, and the Murdano isn't the only despot seeking power through wanton slaughter. Whether she wishes it or not, Byx is now caught up in greater problems - and, if she finds any more survivors of her species, they may be in greater danger than ever if revealed.

REVIEW: An excellent, fast-paced sequel, Endling #2: The First suffers mostly from being the middle book in a probable trilogy, beginning and ending partway through a greater arc. Things pick up almost exactly where they left off, with Byx and her companions - the would-be warrior queen Khara, the boy thief Renzo, the brave little wobbyx Tobble, and the great hunting felivet Gambler (and, of course, the dog named Dog) - journeying north to the realm of Dreyland in the hopes of finding the floating island they seek... but Dreyland proves at least as dangerous as the kingdom they just left, and the island does not prove to be the sanctuary Byx had dreamed of. Once more, the world in general and war in particular are shown in all their complicated shades of gray; even those acting for the best reasons find themselves unable to avoid the thorny realities of conflict. War means death, whatever one's intentions, though sometimes one has no choice but to fight back. (Of course, I expect no less from Katherine "Animorphs" Applegate; she has yet to write down to her audience in any of her works that I've read, even if some grown-ups would prefer blunted corners. The journey is not a bloodless one.) More wonders and dangers are revealed in Applegate's marvelously inventive fantasy world, and the friendship of the core cast only grows stronger through adversity. Byx in particular has come a very long way indeed from the insecure daydreaming pup she was at the start, though she still has a long ways to go if she means to save not only her species, but the world: one of the overall lessons of her journey and the story itself is how all lives and people are connected, and the loss of one will inevitably affect all, even if they deny it. I'm looking forward to the next installment. (There has to be another one, right? Applegate wouldn't just leave threads dangling like that...)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Endling #1: The Last (Katherine Applegate) - My Review
Dragon Rider (Cornelia Funke) - My Review
The Green Ember (S. D. Smith) - My Review

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Tiger's Daughter (K. Arsenault Rivera)

The Tiger's Daughter
The Ascendant series, Book 1
K. Arsenault Rivera
Fiction, YA? Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: When they were born, Imperial heiress O-Shizuka and Qorin nomad Shefali were marked by destiny to grow close as two pine needles, despite their different lineages. O-Shizuka's Hokkoran ancestors conquered half the world, and only Shefali's warrior queen mother kept them from slaughtering the Quorin of the steppes as they had so many others. Bad blood still flows thick between their people, not helped by the decadence of the current emperor and the resurgence of dark powers that were once contained by the Wall of Flowers in the north. The two girls, princess and warrior, may be all that stands between humankind and the darkness of the Traitor's blackblood minions - but destinies as grand as theirs are never without tragedy, and the price of victory may be higher than either wishes to pay.

REVIEW: The phrase "star-crossed lovers" is thrown around an awful lot, especially in romances. It seems any couple with even the slightest obstacle between them gets branded with the term until it loses its original meaning: two people who must fight the very heavens for their love, and may not succeed even then, but for whom walking away is simply not an option. Here, Rivera returns the meaning, the beauty, and the tragedy to the phrase in a truly epic love story literally touched by the gods.
Told largely in a letter from Shefali to O-Shizuka that recounts their adventures, from first meeting through later journeys and victories through defeats, the chemistry is tangible from the very first moments and lasts throughout. Both characters have flaws and strengths and personalities that occasionally clash, and more than once they hurt each other (mostly unintentionally), but beneath that is a bond that transcends mortal flesh, as unquestioned as the rising of the sun. As they grow up and grow together, a rich tale unfolds in a complex world inspired by Asian cultures, from the divine courts of Hokkoran through the nomads of the Silver Steppes and even the conquered yet proud jungle kingdom of Xian in the south, among others. It is a world of shamans and priests, of demons whose black blood infects any touched by it, of royal decadence and common poverty, of past grievances and current prejudices, of gods and legends and truths that bleed into myths even within one's own lifetime. The characters are equally rich and nuanced, with family and fate and love in its myriad forms driving much of the story, where even divine powers do not preclude great failures and tragic miscalculations; powerful as love may be, there are some futures it cannot change, some hearts that can never be together. (Does that include the leads? Sorry, I don't deal in spoilers, but I will say that this is not one of those romances where a happily-ever-after is an easy given.)
This is one of those books that keeps you coming back for more, where you're practically counting the minutes at work until you can get home and return to its pages. It's a beautifully told story in an excellent world that I'll happily revisit in the future; I've already added the sequel to my shopping list, and am debating adding the third title preemptively.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Range of Ghosts (Elizabeth Bear) - My Review
Rhapsody (Elizabeth Haydon) - My Review
The Black Tides of Heaven (JY Yang) - My Review

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Dragons vs. Drones (Wesley King)

Dragons vs. Drones
The Dragons vs. Drones series, Book 1
Wesley King
Fiction, MG Action/Fantasy/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When Marcus was four years old, his father, a specialist with the CIA, walked out the door into an Arlington thunderstorm... and never came home. Everyone said he must've been a traitor who stole secrets and fled to Russia, but the boy won't believe it. He's dedicated eight years to tracking down what really happened. Finally, he thinks he has the key: a series of violent storms on a predictable schedule, counting down to a tempest just like the one his father vanished in. Riding to the center, a lightning bolt carries Marcus to another world - him, and the five drones that were following him.
Dree was born to a family of dragon riders, the protectors of the land. She even had the rare ability to touch a dragon without needing special protection from their flame-hot scales. But it was a different world, and Dracone was a different city, back then. Now the new Prime Minister is pushing an industrial revolution, devouring resources and turning on the dragons that used to be humanity's allies. She had to drop out of school and work in a forge to help feed her family - and she even loses that after a mistake with an experimental metal toy. Only her forbidden friendship with the Nightwing dragon Lourdvang keeps her from giving in to despair. Then, just when things couldn't get any worse, a windburst drops a strange boy at her feet... and deadly metal flying machines start attacking her city.
At first, it seems like a simple, if tragic, accident: the drones must have been following Marcus and got pulled through the portal. But drones don't act without orders, and their strikes are too coordinated to be glitches. Someone seems to want both Dracone and the realm's dragons wiped out, and only Marcus and Dree, with the dragon Lourdvang, can stop them.

REVIEW: I have to give this one credit for the most accurate title I've encountered in quite some time. It is, indeed, a story of dragons fighting drones. It is also a fairly devastating look at drone warfare, the utterly random and impersonal destruction rained down on a populace who cannot hope to fight back, and the hypocrisies of governments (such as, unfortunately, America) that talk about peace and stability while they wantonly torture civilians and raze the landscape for nothing more than simple greed, not to mention the empty promises of economic revolutions. Computer geek Marcus starts out as the average middle-grade underdog, down to his inability to talk to girls, but when need be he steps up his game. Dree struggles with her own past, including the loss of a father who still lives: a former dragon rider, he was crippled when forced to work the docks after the dragon purges began, and has been a meek shadow of the brave hero she grew up with ever since. Even the dragons have their own issues and personalities and cultures which sometimes interfere with the cooperation they'll need if they want to survive this devastating new war. Some elements of the plot require a certain suspension of disbelief - a prodigal programmer boy armed with only a laptop and a girl from a culture that has figured out welding but not gunpowder or microchips deconstructing and replicating drone technology, for instance - but, hey, that's what magic is for, and the action is quick enough that one generally doesn't have much time to overthink. The ending, unfortunately, fouls things up with a cliffhanger; this book does not announce that it's part of a larger series. Also, the belief suspension gets a trifle hard to maintain going into the finale, given a few revelations. Those issues aside, Dragons vs. Drones delivers exactly what it promises, a fast-paced action story where magic and science collide.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragonsdale: Skydancer (Salamanda Drake) - My Review
The Divide (Elizabeth Kay) - My Review
Skyward (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan)

Altered Carbon
The Takeshi Kovacs series, Book 1
Richard K. Morgan
Del Rey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a distant future, humanity has conquered not only the vast distances of interstellar space, but death itself. Implanted "stacks" record a person's memories, which can be backed up in memory banks, inserted into virtual simulations, locked away for centuries-long prison sentences, needlecast across the stars, or spun up into new "sleeves": living or synthetic bodies, with augmentations and implants available for those with sufficiently deep pockets. Over time, this has led to the rise of a new ruling caste, the Meths, whose lifespans could potentially dwarf that of the Biblical Methuselah for whom they are named. With unlimited power, however, comes unlimited corruption... but even Meths sometimes find themselves in need of assistance from the lesser classes.
Takeshi Kovacs, a ruthless native of the Harlan's World colony, is a U. N. Envoy with a reputation that stands out even among his peers, who are known for extreme tactics. On ice for various crimes back home, he finds himself needlecast to Earth, sleeved in the body of a Bay City police officer, at the behest of one Laurens Bancroft. The job: investigate Bancroft's death, an incident that destroyed his inhabited clone's stack. It looks like a straightforward case of sleeve suicide, one made moot by back-ups, but Bancroft won't believe he pulled the trigger on himself... and the more Kovacs digs, the more he comes to believe that there's far more to the case than meets the eye.

REVIEW: I watched the Netflix series based on this title, and was intrigued enough to read the book. There are significant differences, from smaller details to greater plot points and characters, but the overall atmosphere - a futuristic, interplanetary dystopia noir where even the equalizing promise of death yields to power - remains the same.
Kovacs is the familiar jaded antihero, a professional killer with the faintest nigglings of conscience that sets him apart, if sometimes marginally, from the bad guys, but with a nicely humanizing backstory to add complexity and justification to his dark gray morality. He navigates a dark and gritty Earth that has become a pale shadow of itself, a place that sent all its dreamers to the stars and has seemingly given up in its struggle for equality and come to accept the fickle, if unspoken, rule of the Meths, who quite literally get away with murder on a regular basis (though, of course, murder isn't the crime it used to be now that resleeving is an option - if not always an affordable or viable option.) Morgan explores the implications of stack technology, how it can be used and abused, and how it impacts one's sense of self - indeed, how much of oneself is what can be recorded and how much is embodied physically in chemical reactions, reflex memories, and other intangibles that make us who we are (or who we think we are.) The story also drops hints about the extinct Martian culture whose ruins have inspired endless speculation on their nature and demise, and bits of the violent past of Harlan's World that helped shape Kovacs, including the writings of legendary activist and freedom fighter Quellcrist Falconer. The plot veers through numerous characters, from Meths to street pushers, past people from Kovacs's past and the life left behind by the unstable cop whose body he wears (including, not insignificantly, the man's former personal and professional partner, Bay City Police Lieutenant Kristin Ortega), and from reality to virtual to flashback, much of the journey heavily steeped in drugs and blood. It culminates in a finale that brings some measure of justice, if at a high cost and with not-entirely-clean hands.
The character and location sprawl could get a little unwieldy at times, and once in a while the violence was more numbing than shocking, but overall it was a decent ride. I might read on in this series, especially if I find the sequels discounted.
(As a closing note, I admit that I somewhat prefer the Netflix iteration... which is still not available on DVD or Blu-Ray, despite having been released almost a year and a half ago. This is money I want to spend on top of my monthly subscription, Netflix: why do you not want more of my money? I know you release other Netflix Originals on DVD, so it's not like it's something you just don't do... but, I digress.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Kiln People (David Brin) - My Review
Jhereg (Steven Brust) - My Review
The Snow Queen (Joan D. Vinge) - My Review

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Priory of the Orange Tree (Samantha Shannon)

The Priory of the Orange Tree
Samantha Shannon
Fiction, Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: One thousand years ago, the unquiet fires in the womb of the world birthed the Nameless One, a great dragon of chaos. His minions, the High Westerns, spread armies of monsters - wyverns, cockatrices, and worse - through all the lands of men, carrying death and destruction and the plague of the red sickness, until the brave knight Galian struck the beast down with the mighty blade Ascalon. Taking to wife the lovely Cleolind, Galian then founded a new religion, Virtudom, based on the six virtues of knighthood and becoming the revered Saint. Their descendants of the line Berethnet have ruled from the Inysh capital of Ascalon ever since, mother to daughter down through the ages, and so long as their bloodline endures, the Nameless One can never return from where he was bound away beneath the earth... or so it is said in the West. In the South, Galian was a greedy deceiver who sought to usurp Cleolind's victory over the dragon for his own gains; she spurned him and fled to found a sect devoted to harnessing ancient powers to hunt the monsters created by the Nameless One. And in the East, where dragons are creatures of sea and starfire, they are honored companions and revered repositories of ancient wisdom.
In the reign of Sabran the Ninth, trouble seems to be stirring. Yscalin, long an ally in Virtudom, has cast off the religion to worship Draconic forces. Wyverns stir from their long slumber to prowl the countryside. And some even report sightings of the feared High Westerns, minions of the Nameless One. Many begin to fear that the ancient evil may return - and that a Berethnet on the throne may not be enough to stop the world from falling into chaos. A sheltered Western queen, a Southern sorceress on a secret mission to a hostile land, an exiled alchemist, an Eastern orphan who aspires to become a dragonrider despite her low birth, and others find themselves caught up in the coming chaos. The truths behind the myths of Galian and Cleolind and the very nature of dragons - East and West - must be discovered, a task that requires breaking ancient taboos and challenging traditions that have reigned for close to a thousand years.

REVIEW: Sometimes I wonder if it's just me. I pick up stories that look great, I read glowing praise from those with far greater knowledge, experience, and general intelligence, and I wonder if it's just me when the story I read fails to live up to more than the faintest glimmer of promise. Am I reading the same book? Am I not trying hard enough? Am I too stupid to see what others see? Am I utterly lacking in literary taste? (I probably don't want answers, here...)
The Priory of the Orange Tree has what should be a great premise, plus dragons. The dragons alone should've kept me turning pages... but I saw far too little of the Eastern ones, and the Western ones did too much monologuing. Characters were largely distant and unlikable, always too aware that they were in an epic fantasy and only rarely feeling like real people. (There was also an unsubtle subtext that the only way a woman can be both good and strong is to eschew men, either by not having romantic interests at all or being bisexual or lesbian... and, frankly, the sorceress Ead could've done a lot better than who she chooses - plus she should've figured out the attraction about two hundred pages earlier. I picked up some weird vibes on relationships all around, here... but, I digress) The writing style was tooth-grindingly aware of its genre; Shannon could not resist throwing around obsolete, medieval terms in the stiff narrative and dialog, often without sufficient context to define them, giving me the impression that the author was showing off research without concern over whether the reader could (or would) follow along. How hard is it to imply that a virginal is like a harpsichord? Why wait multiple pages and instances to bother mentioning that an attifet is a headdress? There's a glossary at the back of the book, but by then it felt like a condescending head-pat. As for the worldbuilding, when I'm over halfway through the book and characters and places are still mostly opaque name soup, something's not right - and I've read numerous epics, so I'm used to mentally juggling large casts spread across vast maps. I also couldn't help feeling that, for all the effort that went into building the Virtudom religion and other story elements, falling back on the old East/West labels for regions and dragons felt a bit lazy. A few elements never quite clicked together with the rest; the technology seems scattershot, and there's a character who is essentially a giant talking mongoose, but - not counting dragons, because dragons are their own thing in fantasy - there's no other hint of nonhuman cultures. ("'Cause magic" feels like an insufficient excuse, when it's implied there's a whole race of them... plus not much ultimately comes of him, so it feels like a waste anyway.) The plot takes some time to get moving, and never quite comes together like it feels it wants to, though the final battle is sufficiently epic (more or less; I still hadn't connected sufficiently with any of the characters to be truly invested in whether their world lived or died.) More than once, I felt the string-jerking of "Divine Forces" at work, twisting events and warping character intelligence and generally making many events feel more scripted than spontaneous. Though the story wraps up in this volume, there's every hint that sequels, spinoffs, or prequels could potentially be a thing (sales figures pending, I suppose.)
There were hints and gleams of promise in the intricacies of seemingly contradictory myths and traditions that ultimately have a similar root. I liked some of the imagery and ideas. And it really, really looked like a story I should've loved. Unfortunately, I was prevented from immersing by general lack of caring about anyone or anywhere in the book. But I suppose that's just me.

You Might Also Enjoy:
King's Dragon (Kate Elliott) - My Review
Rhapsody (Elizabeth Haydon) - My Review
The Grace of Kings (Ken Liu) - My Review

Friday, May 31, 2019

May Site Update

The previous ten reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main Brightdreamer Books website, and various minor errors have been dealt with as I found them.


Ocean Meets Sky (The Fan Brothers)

Ocean Meets Sky
Terry Fan and Eric Fan
Simon and Schuster
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Today, Finn's grandfather would have been 90 years old, and the boy misses him terribly. The old sailor always talked about a magical place far away across the horizon, where the ocean meets the sky, but of course they never went there. Building a small ship of his own, Finn dreams his way to a sea of wonders.

REVIEW: The story may seem simple, but the images are gorgeously imaginative. It almost could've been a wordless picture book (and is indeed wordless for a few stretches.) Finn and his guide, a familiar-looking great golden fish, visit islands of books and giant shells before taking flight toward the moon, amid a host of wild flying vessels from dirigibles to whales to dragons. One of those picture books that can be revisited just for the sense of wonder.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Drawn Together (Minh Le) - My Review
The Antlered Ship (Dashka Slater) - My Review
Teacup (Rebecca Young) - My Review

Monday, May 27, 2019

Coda Vol. 1 (Simon Spurrier)

Coda Vol. 1
The Coda series
Simon Spurrier, illustrations by Matias Bergara
BOOM! Studios
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time, in a land of enchanted castles and magical elves and immortal dragons... the forces of darkness won and destroyed everything.
The survivors wander a post-apocalyptic wasteland, bands of looters and thieves and the odd attempt at restarting civilization with little but the dregs of the magic that once flowed freely. Amid this ruin roves the nameless bard, astride a mutant (not to mention psychotic) "pentacorn." He seeks the means to rescue his true love from a terrible demonic curse... but he himself is the first to admit that quests and happy endings were always empty fairy tales, even before the world ended.

REVIEW: A post-apocalyptic Fairyland is an interesting concept. I wish I'd had more engaging characters (and maybe a less threadbare plot) to follow through it. The bard (known as "Hm", his only answer when asked for a name) tries to thread the antihero needle of cynicism and determination laced with sarcasm, but just comes across as a selfish jerk, making his dedication to his cursed wife feel out of character. At some point his pithy observations and commentary start sounding like adolescent nihilistic whining rather than the voice of an older and justifiably jaded man. At times, the story feels jerky. There are some nice (if grotesque) elements, but ultimately the parts just don't come together like they should.

You Might Also Enjoy:
King: The Graphic Novel (Joshua Hale Fialkov) - My Review
Fairy Quest Volume 1: Outlaws (Paul Jenkins) - My Review
Fables: Legends in Exile (Bill Willingham) - My Review

Bitter Seeds (Ian Tregillis)

Bitter Seeds
The Milkweed Triptych, Book 1
Ian Tregillis
Fiction, Fantasy/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: During the brutal Spanish Civil War, British agent Raybould Marsh is sent to collect a defector who claims to have information on a new German weapons program... a man who goes up in flames before his very eyes. Not long after, Marsh sees a dark woman with wires running to her skull, who winks as though she knows him. This is his first contact with the Reichsbehorde, humans brutally manipulated into manifesting unusual abilities such as immolation, telekinesis, invisibility, and more. With his mentor and superior Stephenson, Marsh becomes part of the Milkweed project, a top-secret military group charged with finding out more about these superhumans... and, more specifically, finding a weakness, as the drumbeats of war sound louder. But the only way for Britain to fight back seems to lie with the hidden community of warlocks in their borders, such as Marsh's college friend Will Beauclerk - and the price for such assistance is steep and bloody.
Klaus and his sister Gretel came to the farmhouse laboratory of Doctor von Westarp as starving children, and became among the handful to survive the man's cruel treatments and experiments. Now Klaus can temporarily render himself insubstantial, but it is Gretel and her precognition who becomes central to the growing Third Reich and its war effort. Soon Klaus starts to wonder just how trustworthy she is - and if she has any master other than herself.
As threat blooms into open warfare, Europe is rocked by the collision of two unnatural forces that could spell the death of whole nations, even humanity itself.

REVIEW: Bitter Seeds adds supernatural elements to the horrors of World War II, creating an unrelentingly dark and bleak tale filled with people who do terrible things, sometimes with the flimsiest of rationalizations. That, indeed, is war in a nutshell, but reading about it for pages on end, no breaks, no humor, knowing that any happiness is doomed to create an even greater despair... it wears on a reader, at least this reader. Nobody is particularly sympathetic (save maybe Klaus, in very brief snatches), nor are they supposed to be; war brings out the worst in everyone. The plot veers downright Lovecraftian at points, with "Eidolon" entities outside of space and time and reality as the source of warlock "magic" - in truth, merely a blood-soaked negotiation with inherently hostile things whose only true desire is the extinction of all life forms as abominations against the nature of the universe. The German superhumans, on the other hand, were created by nothing but the ingenuity and raw brutality of humankind, torturing numerous children to death for every success story - and even those successes tend to be broken or mentally unbalanced. Between the two sides, there can be no "good guys," no winners to root for, nobody who won't sell their own souls to the Devil - literal or figurative - in a heartbeat, then sell the souls of anyone who happens to be in sight to sweeten the deal. Tregillis presents some interesting ideas and truly horrific moments, capturing some aspect of the raw evil wrought by war, but overall I found it too depressing and, on a base level, too repelling to consider reading onward in the off chance of a less-than-horrific conclusion.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Gunslinger (Stephen King) - My Review
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Thursday, May 23, 2019

Lumberjanes Volume 6: Sink or Swim (Noelle Stevenson et al.)

Lumberjanes Vol. 6: Sink or Swim
The Lumberjanes series, Issues 21 - 25
Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen, illustrations by Carey Pietsch
BOOM! Studios
Fiction, MG? Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Humor
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: As their summer at Lumberjanes camp continues, none of the girls at Roanoke cabin - April, Mal, Jo, Molly, and Riley - can complain of boredom; between dimensional portals, were-bears, mermaid bands, godlings, and the odd dinosaur encounter, there's never a dull moment at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types. When April sets out to earn a group badge for knot tying, they meet the camp's newest counselor, Seafarin' Karen - an encounter which, once more, pulls the Roanoke girls into an adventure full of magic, danger, and friendship to the max.

REVIEW: The series remains a light, fun, and quick read, never short on humor or adventure. There are greater arcs - the secrets hidden by the former camp counselor/were-bear, the unknown forces at work in the forest (beyond the dimensional portal "issue" it seems to be experiencing), the possible fates of the girls after camp - and some incremental character development, but for the most part each volume works as a standalone. Like the previous adventures, I found it enjoyable, with fun characters new and old.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Bloody Jack (L. A. Meyer) - My Review
The Tea Dragon Society (Katie O'Neill) - My Review
Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (Noelle Stevenson and Shannon Watters) - My Review

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Only Harmless Great Thing (Brooke Bolander)

The Only Harmless Great Thing
Brooke Bolander
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: In the early 1900's, the job of painting radium watch dials belonged to girls... but they sickened and began to die. Even as the companies tried to discredit their tales of radiation poisoning, they sought alternate workers. They turned to elephants, who were still considered animals despite their trunk sign language having been known since the 1800's. But, though elephants can absorb more radiation before sickening, they still eventually die of it - until one elephant, Topsy, has had enough.
Generations in the future, a scientist struggles to convince an elephant matriarch to cooperate with a plan that will, if it succeeds, potentially outlive the human race - and save at least some elephants forever.

REVIEW: Winner of the 2019 Nebula award for Best Novelette, The Only Harmless Great Thing translates the plight of the Radium Girls (real-life victims of corporate greed and misogyny, hired to paint glowing watch dials and exposed to lethal levels of radiation licking the radium paintbrushes to keep the points fine, after which the company owners tried to blame syphilis for their deaths) to an alternate history where humans have learned that elephants are self-aware and can speak - but are still considered animals to be exploited. It also taps into the generational power of storytelling to preserve (or distort) truths, and creates an elephant culture centered around tales shared from mother to daughter and aunt to niece, based around how actual herds work. (In fact, elephant matriarchs are the evident keepers of migration memories at the very least, and herds do visit the remains of their dead. For all we know, there may be more truth to this tale than we yet realize - or will ever realize.) Topsy and the radiation-poisoned girl Regan bond over their common exploitation at the hands of men, while in our time the scientist Kat struggles to solve a riddle that even now vexes us: what to do about radioactive waste that will outlast our civilization at least, and quite likely our species. It's a soul-twisting tragedy on multiple levels, a story of inhumanity and sacrifice and how our short-sighted species creates far more evil and sorrow than we can ever realize, both of which will linger long past our own time on this world.

You Might Also Enjoy:
River of Teeth (Sarah Gailey) - My Review
Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight (Cat Rambo) - My Review

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Collapsing Empire (John Scalzi)

The Collapsing Empire
The Interdependency series, Book 1
John Scalzi
Fiction, Humor/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In time almost lost to record and memory, humans reached out from their insignificant homeworld and discovered the Flow, a "current" enabling faster-than-light travel... but, like a river of sorts, ships can only get "on" or "off" at certain "shoal" points. Though the Flow connections to and from Earth were lost generations ago, the human Interdependency thrives, a network of worlds spread across hundreds of light years ruled by the emperox, the church, and the merchant guild monopolies that keep each colony dependent on the others for survival. For all that rides on the Flow, however, few have bothered to study and understand it. It's always been there for humans to exploit, after all, and surely it always will be.
Recent disruptions in Flow transit have created shipboard rumors, but nobody in the upper echelons seems to be listening. Too many people in power have too much money riding on the status quo remaining status quo. But the rise of a new and unprepared emperox, a power grab by the Nohamapaten guild, a rebellion on the far-flung world of End, and a secret researcher's chilling conclusions will force the Interdependency to face the one thing it never wanted to see: the unstoppable collapse of the Flow network, leading to humanity's inevitable extinction.

REVIEW: In part, I admit that this book is a victim of timing. I read it as my nation and our world are facing down apparent inevitable collapses which have been coming, warned about and ignored for years, decades, generations even... and I'm watching as, like the people running the Interdependency, those in charge (and arguably most responsible for us standing on the brink) choose a profitable extinction over costly survival. (In the afterword, Scalzi claims that his choice of title, The Collapsing Empire, was not intended as a deliberate commentary on current affairs, but one has to wonder if there wasn't some subconscious nudging at work.) So, despite this being a humorous (if somewhat blackly humorous) take on empire building gone mad and ignorance/wishful thinking trampling science and fact until it's quite literally too late, at times I had to force myself to laugh. It didn't necessarily help that I never connected with most of the characters, or a world that was blatantly built to profit the few at the expense of the many (and the now at the expense of the future.) There's also a minor flaw in the overall plot, in that this is clearly just a lead-in to a larger series; the ending feels incomplete and a trifle dissatisfying, without much of an in-book arc to conclude. There's some sharp commentary and clever (occasionally curse-heavy and crude) humor, but ultimately I felt no compulsion to read onward. The whole just struck a little too close to my reality, I fear.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (Grant Naylor) - My Review
The Android's Dream (Jon Scalzi) - My Review

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The True Meaning of Smekday (Adam Rex)

The True Meaning of Smekday
The Smek Smeries series, Book 1
Adam Rex
Fiction, MG Humor/Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Gratuity "Tip" Tucci needs to write an essay for a school contest about Smekday, the day the alien Boov first came to Earth... but there's more to write than five pages can possibly hold, and more to say than she wants to reveal.
She was eleven when the Boov arrived, and she knew they were trouble before anyone else, as the first thing they did was abduct her mother. Then they relocated the entire population of America to Florida, claiming the rest for themselves... but Tip doesn't trust their rocket ships, opting instead to drive herself and her pet cat Pig from Pennsylvania. (It's okay - she had to teach herself to drive a while ago, as her flighty mother couldn't always be trusted to run errands, and she only had that one mishap on a sidewalk.) When she reluctantly picks up a mechanic Boov who calls himself J.Lo (and who modifies her hatchback for hoverflight), what started as a simple road trip becomes a cross-country quest to find her mother and save the world - not from the Boov, but from the monstrous aliens who followed the Boov to Smekland (formerly Earth.)

REVIEW: This award-winning title still gets decent circulation at the library where I work, so I figured it was worth a read (or a listen; this is the first audiobook I've reviewed.) From the title and cover blurb, I expected something lightweight, silly even. What I got certainly had plenty of silliness, but with a tooth underneath that occasionally reminded me of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, only geared for a younger audience. The Boov have bubble-based writing and some outwardly ridiculous trappings, but their history mirrors humanity in some sobering ways, and not just their tendency to treat the "noble savage" humans as inferior entities to be swept away into the corner of lands that now "rightfully" belong to them; to paraphrase Tip, the Boov are too smart and too stupid to be anything but regular people like humans. Tip is a resourceful girl - she's had to be, with a mother prone to blowing savings on vacuums or forgetting to buy food - but she has her limits, and is pushed to them more than once on a trying road trip with her alien companion... an alien she initially hates, for what his kind did to her mother and her species, but whom she slowly comes to understand. She also has to come to understand the strengths and weaknesses of other people she encounters, from a group of "lost boys" hiding in an abandoned theme park to self-deluded UFOlogists camped out in Roswell. Several lines had me snickering out loud as I listened, though the silliness (almost) never overstayed its welcome, and there were some moments of gut-sluggingly deep emotion. Aside from an occasional sense of meandering and Tip taking a little too long to figure out one element leading to the climax, I enjoyed the ride, not to mention the audio presentation (by Bahni Turpin.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Galaxy Quest (Terry Bisson) - My Review
Bad Unicorn (Platte F. Clarke) - My Review
Only You Can Save Mankind (Terry Pratchett) - My Review

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Dragon's Path (Daniel Abraham)

The Dragon's Path
The Dagger and the Coin series, Book 1
Daniel Abraham
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a world of thirteen human races, from the common Firstbloods through the bronze-scaled Jasuru and enigmatic Drowned and more, unrest is normal. There's always a crown in contention or a trade route threatened or a treaty violated. But the latest squabblings over the future of the Severed Throne at the heart of Antea may inadvertently be the trigger of an age-ending event, the return of a goddess who may be older than the long-extinct dragons themselves. All it will take is the right people in the right places... or the wrong people in the wrong places.
Half-Cinnae girl Cithrin was raised by bankers after her parents died, learning the trade inside and out, but she's never been entrusted with any business - until the bank's wealth needs to be smuggled out of the ancient city of Vanai before foreign troops invade, and Cithrin's the only one available for the job. She's determined to earn the trust of the man she's come to see as her father, but the journey will bring dangers she could never have anticipated... and opportunities beyond her dreams.
Captain Marcus Wester was once a legend on the battlefield, but now manages a small, nondescript group of mercenaries on minor contracts. At least, he used to, until his underlings were locked up, set to be forced into defending a city doomed to fall. Unless Marcus and his second, the Treglu priest-turned-soldier Yardem, want the same fate, he needs bodies to fill out his contract - and a chance encounter with a troupe of actors just may offer the answer. Only what started as a simple job guarding a small caravan quickly becomes much more complicated, and one of the actors is more than he first appears.
Dawson Kalliam used to be best friends with King Simeon of the Severed Throne, but relations have grown strained of late. The world is changing in ways Dawson can't accept, and new forces are rising in the courts - forces that may spell the doom of Simeon and his young heir. With his influence fading, he must take desperate measures - but even those may not be enough to save Antea from war.
Minor lordling Geder Palliako never expected to amount to much, and never really cared. So long as he can chase ideas through old books, he's content enough... but he has obligations to his betters, which send him out on campaign as the laughingstock of his peers. Tricked, humiliated, reminded at every turn of his inadequacies, he will soon find himself utterly destroyed by machinations he doesn't understand - or remade into an unpredictable new power who might shake the very world to its foundations.

REVIEW: There's something decadently comforting about a good epic fantasy: the feeling of falling into a bright new world full of magic and wonder and danger, immersing in larger-than-life characters and events where good still has an outside chance of triumphing ultimately over evil (unlike reality, too often.) They're the warm-blanket-and-hot-cocoa-by-the-fire equivalent of stories, a sensory indulgence to be savored. I've been in a mood for that comfort, and this book has been lurking in my reading pile for a while.
Did it give me that nice, warm feeling?
Yes and no.
On the plus side, Abraham presents some nice, shiny epic fantasy ideas, both familiar (myriad cities and kingdoms and races, deep history riddled with mysteries, royal courts split by infighting factions under a weakening king, hints of magic and danger) and unique (a goddess whose worshipers have literal spiders in their blood, a world and races engineered by extinct dragons.) He also presents the sort of characters that don't often get the limelight in epics, notably a banker and an awkwardly bookish noble ill at ease with courtly intrigues (at least, one who does not suddenly emerge as a savvy player in games - martial or otherwise - after a few missteps, or becomes a disposable subplot.) Battles exist on the fringes, but aren't the main story drivers.
On the minus side... I never came to truly enjoy spending time with the characters, and thus had a somewhat dimmed view of the wider world they inhabited. Cithrin's banking angle may be different, but underneath that she's yet another underage girl who often needs men to get her out of self-inflicted problems. Marcus is forever rescuing her from herself, with a growing sense of attachment that can't seem to decide if it's fatherly or... not fatherly, made even more uncomfortable by Cithrin's younger-than-advertised appearance that heightens the existing age and experience gap between them. (Am I the only one tired of that little trope/cliche?) And the nobles were just plain unpleasant to be around more often than not; while I understood where they were coming from (in their in-world contexts), I didn't particularly enjoy my time with them. Prologue aside, the story also takes its own sweet time baiting the hook for the greater series arc, the threat that will ultimately (in theory) drive the narrative on a course that only multiple books can contain.
After finishing, I was left with distinctly mixed feelings. Parts of The Dragon's Path definitely intrigued, but I don't foresee myself returning to this series, save finding sequels at steep, steep discounts - and a book that fails to hook me into a sequel is a book that has, on some level, failed, in my opinion. There are other epic fantasies waiting in the pile, other chances to wrap myself in their familiar comforts and unfamiliar worlds; I'm not sure if I need to come back to this one.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Wizard's First Rule (Terry Goodkind) - My Review
Assassin's Apprentice (Robin Hobb) - My Review
A Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin) - My Review

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Whispering Skull (Jonathan Stroud)

The Whispering Skull
The Lockwood and Co. series, Book 2
Jonathan Stroud
Fiction, MG Fantasy/Horror
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After the incident of the Screaming Staircase, small-time ghost hunting agency Lockwood and Co. - run by preteens Anthony Lockwood, George, and new recruit Lucy - became famous... temporarily, at least. They still struggle to compete with larger, better-funded outfits of ghost-sensitive children fighting the "Problems", the deadly spirits stalking London's nights for over fifty years. A botched case solved by their rivals in the Fittes agency leads to an informal bet: the next time they go head-to-head on the same haunting, whoever fails to crack it first must take out a public ad praising the other. But that was before they found themselves involved with the mysterious corpse of one Mr. Bickerstaff, a Victorian eccentric whose unwholesome obsession with ghosts led to the creation of an artifact so deadly one glimpse of it can be maddening, even lethal - an artifact that kills one of the thieves who steal it shortly after its discovery. Worse, the haunted skull Lockwood keeps in the agency cellar has become "talkative" again, telling Lucy all sorts of half-truths and tantalizing hints that it might know something about Bickerstaff. If she listens to it, they might crack the case before anyone else dies... or the skull's twisted words might kill them all.

REVIEW: Like the first volume in this middle-grade horror series, The Whispering Skull offers a nice blend of eccentric characters, humor, and spooky ghost-hunting action that doesn't water down terror or blunt corners; though there is no graphic violence or gore, some of the hauntings are downright scary, and there are actual deaths involved. Lucy's Talent of hearing ghosts makes her the only conduit for the titular skull's advice and warnings; even as she knows they can't be taken at face value, given the questionable nature of their source, she can't help but be swayed by them. Scholarly George, meanwhile, develops an obsession of his own as they research Bickerstaff and his "bone glass" mirror, which may answer questions about the Problems and about the nature of death itself. As for Lockwood, his tendency to remain inscrutable, particularly about his past, creates problems that could fracture their agency just when they need each other most. Though ghost-hunting has grown them all up faster than ordinary kids, they do remain children at heart in some ways, not quite as mature as grown-ups might be in similar situations... though, in this world, with maturity often comes obsolescence, as spirit-sensing Talents fade with age (even as the touch of a ghost remains lethal; aged-out ghost hunters often remain on as handlers for younger agents, but can do little to protect or help their charges on the job.) Aside from some moments of plot-extending obliviousness (not quite rising to the level of stupidity, given circumstances, but still subtly aggravating at times), the story moves at a fair clip toward a conclusion that, while not entirely unexpected, nevertheless delivers decent thrills and a nice wrap-up, segueing (naturally) into the hook for the next volume. It made for a good read, all in all, and I expect I'll continue with this series through at least one more book.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ghost in the Third Row (Bruce Coville) - My Review
Carnacki, the Ghost Finder (William Hope Hodgson) - My Review
The Screaming Staircase (Jonathan Stroud) - My Review

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

You've Got Dragons (Kathryn Cave)

You've Got Dragons
Kathryn Cave, illustrations by Nick Maland
Peachtree Pub Co Inc.
Fiction, CH Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Dragons can happen to anyone, at any time. One day, out of the blue, there they are... and they won't go away on their own. Learn how to manage the dragons in your life.

REVIEW: Work was a bit slow today, so I skimmed this off the top of a tote. At the outset, I admit I almost shaved a half-star from the rating; despite the illustrations featuring numerous dragons, it quickly becomes clear that the "dragons" here are being used as a metaphor for anxiety, fear, or other issues that are hard to tackle in a tangible way, especially for children. (When I pick up a book touting dragons, I want actual dragons, dang it!) The boy Ben worries that having a dragon in his life means he's a bad person, until he finds out anyone can find themselves beset by them, including grown-ups - and everyone has trouble coping with them. Ignoring it doesn't help, and it's hard to talk to others, who often don't listen. In the process, he learns how to deal with his dragon, and helps others deal with theirs, with some bits of humor along the way. I wound up forgiving it its use of dragon as metaphor, because this is a book I can see being useful to kids struggling with fears or other issues - useful in a way that doesn't insist one enthusiastically embrace one's "dragons" as opportunities in disguise, when sometimes it's all one can do to endure their existence. At the very least, it's a way to start a discussion with a child who may be having trouble articulating a worry.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragon (Jody Bergsma) - My Review
The Dragon Machine (Helen Ward) - My Review
What Do You Do With A Problem? (Kobi Yamada) - My Review

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

April Site Update

The previous ten reviews have been archived on the main Brightdreamer Books site.

I also finished my maintenance sweep (for now.)


Saturday, April 27, 2019

Thieving Forest (Martha Conway)

Thieving Forest
Martha Conway
Noontime Books
Fiction, Historical Fiction
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since their parents died, the five Quiner sisters have faced a dilemma: try to make a go of their struggling store in the frontier town of Severne, or sell out and return to family in Philadelphia. The choice is taken from them when Indians come to loot their cabin and steal four of them - Penelope, Beatrice, Naomi, and Aurelia - away into the impenetrable depths of Thieving Forest... somehow missing Susanna, who hid during the raid. She runs to a neighbor for help, but when he proves reluctant to act, she sets out with a guide of her own. Thus begins a journey through the untamed Ohio wilderness for all the Quiner sisters, through fair luck and foul, even to the brink of death.

REVIEW: This title lingered in the Kindle queue long enough that I can't completely remember why I downloaded it, save that I make a conscious effort to read outside my science fiction/fantasy comfort zone now and again. It turns out to be more than the stock Western tale it could've been. The Ohio frontier is not a wilderness begging to be tamed by white hands, but a complex web of cultures, a mesh of wonders and dangers natural and man-made, a proving ground that weeds out those weak in body, mind, and spirit and remakes those who dare its depths. Each Quiner sister faces the challenges before them in their own ways, finding themselves (literally and figuratively) in unexpected places. The people encountered are more than just stock stereotypes, being neither universally good or evil (save a couple exceptions), and the natives come across as distinct people in distinct cultures rather than simple pop culture caricatures. It's a harsh world, often overwhelming, but not without room for love and friendship, beauty and hope. A few elements of the ending were subtly unsatisfying, nearly shaving a half-star off the rating, but overall Thieving Forest is an interesting coming-of-age tale that brings the lost world of America's frontier to life in a fresh way.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Walk the Earth a Stranger (Rae Carson) - My Review
Ghost Hawk (Susan Cooper) - My Review
Boston Jane: An Adventure (Jennifer L. Holm) - My Review

Friday, April 26, 2019

A Couch for Llama (Leah Gilbert)

A Couch for Llama
Leah Gilbert
Sterling Children's Books
Fiction, CH Humor/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After years of love, the Lago family's old couch needs replacing... but, on the way home from the furniture store, the new couch falls off the car and into a llama pasture. As the family searches for their lost sofa, the llama wonders what to make of its strange new companion.

REVIEW: We had some down time at work, so I gave this a read. The silly concept and illustrations had me chuckling, as the llama first tries to befriend, then eat, then ignore the intruder before figuring out how to live with it. A fast and fun book.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Crankee Doodle (Tom Angleberger) - My Review
The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors (Drew Daywalt) - My Review
This Is Not My Hat (Jon Klassen) - My Review

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Skyfarer (Joseph Brassey)

The Drifting Lands series, Book 1
Joseph Brassey
Angry Robot
Fiction, Fantasy
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: The day she left the Academy of Mystic Sciences and set foot upon the skycraft Elysium was the day Aimee de Laurent's life would truly begin. After a childhood of stifling aristocratic education and years studying magic, she leapt at the apprenticeship offer from her former teacher Harkon Bright, a chance to use her portal magic and to explore the countless floating realms of the Drifting Lands. This is the freedom she's been dreaming of her whole life. But the first portal she opens is almost her last, when a misfiring spell sends them into the middle of a firefight with the notorious knights of the Eternal Order.
The black-clad knight Lord Azrael has plundered, torched, and murdered his way across a broad swath of the Drifting Lands in service to the Eternal Order. Now his master, Lord Roland, has sent him to the small kingdom of Port Providence in search of an ancient artifact: the Axiom Diamond, hidden away for centuries, which - it is said - will reveal truths and treasures to any who possess it. It seemed a simple enough task... but something about this mission has been bothering him, some nagging hint of a deeper destiny, and memories of an impossible past.

REVIEW: It looked like a quick, fun fantasy adventure, set in a world of skyships and floating islands and wonder. Of that list of possibilities, "quick" is about the only adjective that actually came to pass.
Brassey takes what could have - and should have - been a thrilling setup and overloads it with genre cliches, tiresome characters, clunky worldbuilding, and writing that, frankly, had me grinding my teeth more often than not, with overused descriptors and improbable dialog tags. (How does one nod dialog? Snarling and sneering words is hard enough, but nodding them? And if I'm to the point of nitpicking said-bookisms, I am not properly immersed in the story.) Fresh young mage Aimee is the blonde and blue-eyed Mary Sue, her mentor Harkon is one step (at most) removed from Obi-Wan Kenobi in many respects, the crew of the Elysium is straight out of the stock bin of "eccentric yet reliable ship crew," Lord Azrael is a mashup of anime-inspired angsty villains and Darth Vader, the bad guys are so over-the-top evil they're almost hilarious... and that's not even touching the Highlander-level beheadings. I quickly lost track of how many people, extras and otherwise, who were beheaded or bodily bisected (always effortlessly) by the Eternal Order knights; there are other ways to kill people with a sword, believe it or not, and it quickly lost its shock value to become somewhat boring wallpaper. Not a single element in this book could not be obviously traced to another book, series, or franchise, to the point where I started to wonder if it was intentional homage or if Brassey simply hadn't read enough of the genre to realize how derivative it appeared, how overused the ideas and "twists." The whole comes together like one of those B-grade knock-offs of Star Wars or Final Fantasy, with the serial numbers hardly even scratched off. The action even plays out like it wants to be filmed (or animated), not written, full of flashy shows of power and Jedi-esque maneuvers (sans light sabers, though there is an enchanted sword that's fairly similar.)
Skyfarer reads fast, and now and again it tries to rise above its overbaked elements, but just can't get airborne and winds up plummeting into the abyss.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Sword of Shannara (Terry Brooks) - My Review
Airborn (Kenneth Oppel) - My Review
Dragon Wing (Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman) - My Review

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Fated Sky (Mary Robinette Kowal)

The Fated Sky
A Lady Astronaut novel, Book 2
Mary Robinette Kowal
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Dr. Elma York broke barriers when she became the first woman to fly to the Moon, the famed "Lady Astronaut" face of the International Aerospace Coalition. Now, she lives there several months out of the year, flying shuttles between the fledgling lunar colony and the orbital station Lunette. It's a dream job - but not the challenge it used to be. Worse, the world still reels from the escalating climate shifts caused by the Meteor. Plagued by Earth First activists and skeptics, many nations are starting to question the need for expensive space colonization programs when they have mounting problems in their own back yards... problems that might derail the first expedition to Mars and humanity's best - and possibly only - hope of interplanetary expansion before total climate collapse.
The IAC needs an infusion of good publicity to keep the ax from falling on an already frayed budget. They need their Lady Astronaut to go to Mars. But it's not as easy as shuffling a few names on a roster, and there are still barriers within the IAC that threaten to hold her and many other astronauts back... problems that will only become magnified once the expedition is underway and fourteen men and women are stuck with each other for the three-year round trip.

REVIEW: Building on the "punchcard-punk" alternate history of Kowal's first Lady Astronaut novel, which posited an accelerated space race triggered by a massive meteor strike in the 1950's, this book raises the tension and the stakes on a manned Mars expedition where the only mechanized computers are buggy vacuum-tube behemoths far slower than the human (mostly women) computers behind the Apollo program and other real-life pioneering space missions. But it's not just about the science and the numbers and the innumerable dangers of deep space, where the slightest miscalculation means the difference between life and death. Elma had already had her eyes forcibly opened to the systemic racism that runs just as deep as, possibly even deeper than, the sexism in the world in general and the IAC in particular, but must come to terms with her own place in that system... and with the fact that this is a problem she can't fix, where her best intentions only make things that much worse. She also must deal with problems that numerous drills could not have prepared her for, not to mention the psychological issues that cold science could not anticipate (such as Mission Control's methods for the hypothetical handling of a deceased astronaut in space, which prove disastrous on multiple levels in practice.) Several of the characters are familiar from the first book, with a few newcomers, but all reveal new aspects during the trip out to Mars, as adversity tests them all in unexpected ways. Human drama mingles with solid science to produce a tale that's relatable even to an an undereducated idiot like myself, proving that one doesn't need hyperdrives or laser cannons to craft good fiction out of space travel. (Also, like the first one, it can't help make me a little sad: we could've been so much further ahead than we are, in so many areas, if we'd kept that fire that drove us to the Moon and turned it outward to the solar system, instead of dithering and budget-cutting and science-denying our way to a possible point of no return.) It's a fast and enjoyable read in a setting that could easily support more installments or spinoffs.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Retrograde (Peter Cawdron) - My Review
The Calculating Stars (Mary Robinette Kowal) - My Review
Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson) - My Review

Saturday, April 20, 2019

For a Muse of Fire (Heidi Heilig)

For a Muse of Fire
Heidi Heilig
Greenwillow Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In Chakrana, a land squeezed between occupying Aquitan foreigners and violent rebels, Jetta would have more than enough to contend with. But she is doubly plagued by her malheur - wild swings between near-suicidal catatonia and uncontrollable mania - and a forbidden secret: she can see the spirits of the dead, and bind them into physical objects with her blood. Though her mother instructed her never to reveal this secret, only her spirit-infused shadow puppet fantouches keep the family's fortunes from complete ruin... and offer hope of escape in the distant capital. But when their path crosses that of Leo, half-foreign bastard son of famed and feared General Legarde, Jetta becomes pulled into yet more secrets and plots - plots that could bring her the cure she has longed for, or see her family and the world she knows go up in flames.

REVIEW: If that description sounds a bit jumbled, that's because it is. The story starts in a tangle of ideas and people and names and, to a certain extent, remains that way through most of its length. It doesn't help that Jetta starts (and generally remains) a little clueless and a lot boneheaded, traits that exist independently of her mental illness (though she sometimes tries to blame it for them.) She can invariably be counted on to do the stupidest thing in any given situation; when sneaking up on armed guards, she blurts out exclamations to ruin cover, and later she decides she wants something so she violently pushes it away - just 'cause, I guess. I can't care about a character I don't like, and if I don't like the character, I'm less inclined to like the world she inhabits. Perhaps this is why I never quite bought Chakrana; Heilig admittedly mashes up several Earth regions (and inventions) in creating the landscape, but something about it felt less like a deliberate conceit and more like slapdash worldbuilding, as lemurs rub metaphoric shoulders with hummingbirds and water buffaloes. The rest of the setting, unfortunately, is often all too vivid: a land awash in violence, sadism, and a sea of gore lit by the firefly spirits of the dead... a land that was already ailing under the reign of a mad necromancer monk long before the pale-skinned Aquitans came to turn rice paddies into sugar plantations. I know that unrest and rebellion bring out the worst in many people, but at some point it went beyond color to numbing revulsion... and just kept going. As for the plot, as mentioned earlier, it starts out tangled, proceeds a bit roughly (not helped by Jetta or other characters, who tend to withhold vital information until it's too late and also are not immune to boneheaded moments), and ends on an uncertain note that practically demands a sequel, though there is no other indication that this is a multi-part story. Intercuts present other points of view in scriptlike notation, letter and telegram excerpts, and occasional snatches of song, a conceit that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Heilig presents some interesting ideas and a world with potential, but at some point I realized I just could not care about it or the people who lived there.
(As a closing note, I will say that the cover art is one of the coolest things I've seen in a while.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Black God's Drums (P. Djeli Clark) - My Review
Monstress Volume 1: Awakening (Marjorie Liu) - My Review
Shadowshaper (Daniel Jose Older) - My Review

Friday, April 19, 2019

Swords in the Mist (Fritz Leiber)

Swords in the Mist
The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, Book 3
Fritz Leiber
Open Road Media
Fiction, Adventure/Collection/Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: From a malevolent mist prowling the streets of Lankhmar to a mysterious rendezvous on the floor of the wild sea, from the mythic lands of Nehwon to ancient classical Earth, northern swordsman Fafhrd and his little thief companion the Gray Mouser write new chapters in their ongoing legend.

REVIEW: Like previous installments, Leiber weaves tales of wild imagination and grand adventure, the stuff on which sword and sorcery fantasy was built, all overlaid with more than a little humor, both between the characters and in an overall sense of winking at the grandiose nature of the subgenre. (It also, like a lot of classic sword and sorcery, has broad swathes of sexism and some racism worked into its DNA, which do not age particularly well.) Unlike the last two collections, though, these - with one exception - aren't really standalones, but become a somewhat drawn out single tale that meanders here and there and everywhere, even bringing the heroes to a fantastical version of Earth's own ancient history as the characters (despite themselves) take further steps on the road from ordinary adventurers to immortalized archetypes of song and story. It really doesn't help when this particular tale grinds in the sexism and objectification of women. There's still a sense of fun, particularly in their ill-fated adventure on Lankhmar's fiercely competitive Street of the Gods, but the characters are just plain more enjoyable in shorter adventurers (and smaller doses) than in longer works - especially longer works with as thin a backbone as the one they clamber along in this outing.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Swords and Deviltry (Fritz Leiber) - My Review
The Mercenary Volume 1: The Cult of the Sacred Fire (Vicente Segrelles) - My Review
The Copper Promise (Jen Williams) - My Review

Monday, April 15, 2019

Tiamat's Wrath (James S. A. Corey)

Tiamat's Wrath
The Expanse series, Book 8
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The unthinkable has become reality: the Sol system, birthplace of humanity, now kneels at the boots of Laconian High Consul Duarte, whose protomolecule-derived warships cut through the combined fleets of Earth, Mars, and the formerly-Belter Transport Union like a hot knife through butter. With their stranglehold on ring gate traffic secure, they set about building their empire virtually unopposed. While James Holden endures Duarte's hospitality as Laconia's highest-ranked political prisoner, Naomi Nagata and the rest of the former Rocinante crew struggle to organize an effective resistance before Laconian propaganda erases the last memories of freedom. But even as humanity is distracted by age-old power games and politics, the entities, seemingly unbound by physical space, that once wiped out the protomolecule's creators seem to finally be aware of the upstart primates using their former enemies' lost toys... and they are not pleased.

REVIEW: On my budget, it takes a fair bit of convincing for me to pre-order a book, especially a hardcover, but The Expanse has risen to that level. This volume did not let me down. As one might expect from the penultimate installment of an interplanetary epic, stakes start high and keep ratcheting up, yet the core of the story remains very much at the human level, as the bonds of family forged on the former Martian warship Rocinante only grow stronger through separation and adversity; as in previous volumes, even when they aren't physically together, they each draw on memories of each other to help them navigate the seemingly impossible world they've been thrust into. As they have aged, they have each been tested and honed, acquiring the strength and flexibility required to face the greatest threats and most unimaginable wonders humanity has encountered, and even as some reach the ends of their arcs, the payoffs for their journeys continue to echo forward.
As for the rest of the plot, it maintains the pace and feel of previous titles. New mysteries are added to the protomolecule and the unknown, unnamed enemy, which becomes more active after High Consul Duarte's ill-conceived plan to force a response from them. Events from the novella "Strange Dogs" come into play, tied into Duarte's transformations from "tamed" protomolecule and the scientist Cortazar's ambitions to apply those lessons elsewhere, no matter the human cost... not to mention Duarte's teenaged daughter Teresa, whose carefully choreographed reality is shattered as she learns more about her father's empire and plans. Some of the new characters took a bit to grow on me, but every one of them pulled their weight in the plot, and - some expected immaturity from Teresa aside - none behaved with any outright stupidity, even if their choices are colored and restricted by their roles in (or out) of Laconian society. One can't help seeing shades of current struggles against rising authoritarianism in the power conflicts ranging across the stars. By the end, there are tears both happy and sad; though the losses are grim and the stakes never higher, there's nevertheless a sense of hope going forward. As I predicted after the seventh volume, it's going to be a long wait for the final ninth volume, in addition to the long wait for the fourth season of the show on Amazon Prime. (That's a lot of cumulative waiting... but it's a good wait.)

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Saturday, April 13, 2019

One Trick Pony (Nathan Hale)

One Trick Pony
Nathan Hale
Harry N. Abrams
Fiction, CH Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When the Pipers came to Earth, devouring metals and technology, civilization effectively ended overnight. Most humans have reverted to Stone Age existences, but a few - such as the caravan where young Strata and her family live - struggle to find and protect what remains. She, her older brother Augur, and their friend Inby were searching old ruins when they found the hidden chamber with Kleidi, the robot pony which only responds to the girl's commands. Can Kleidi help stop the Pipers, or will Strata's devotion to the metal toy doom her family, the caravan, and humanity's last hope?

REVIEW: Hale presents a visually interesting graphic novel with a nice story setup, yet fills it with characters and situations that feel a little flat even for a children's title. Strata's a decent enough heroine, and Kleidi the pony can be fun, but much of the rest of the cast are too simple or sketchy to add much to the story, making them feel like clutter. (Inby in particular is annoying long past any comic relief could be had from his cluelessness.) Things go from bad to worse as the technology stash that held Kleidi whips the Pipers into a fresh frenzy, yet Strata persists in protecting the pony even when being so near the robot endangers everyone and everything - a bond that ultimately comes into play at the climax as she discovers the purpose behind the alien invasion. At some point, people threatening to smash Kleidi while Strata protests, and Strata riding off recklessly alone to lure away Pipers, becomes borderline repetitive (more than borderline for the smashing threats.) Beyond that, it's a decent story, though the ending feels abrupt. I expect younger readers would enjoy it more.

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Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Cuckoo's Calling (Robert Galbraith)

The Cuckoo's Calling
A Cormoran Strike novel, Book 1
Robert Galbraith
Mulholland Books
Fiction, Mystery
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When supermodel Lula Landry plunged to her death from her London balcony one snowy night, it capped a life of hardship and tragedy. The police quickly ruled it a suicide, the press got their exclusive tell-all stories from family and friends and associates, and her final photo shoot for a popular fashion designer made a lucrative end to her all-too-brief career, then the world moved on... for most people.
Veteran turned private investigator Cormoran Strike can't seem to catch a break these days, culminating in his fiancee throwing him out of their shared home. He can't even afford a proper secretary, forced to use temps like the fresh-faced girl Robin. The arrival of lawyer John Bristow, willing to pay an exorbitant fee to investigate the death of his adopted sister Lula Landry, brings a needed infusion of cash to his failing business, even if it's unlikely to turn up anything the detectives and the reporters haven't already discovered. But the more he digs, the more the pieces don't quite seem to fit. Before long, Cormoran begins to share his client's belief that Lula Landry didn't jump to her death, but was pushed - and that the killer won't stop at just one murder.

REVIEW: The first in the popular Cormoran Strike series reads like a pilot episode, establishing the core cast (rough-edged detective Strike, his secretary-turned-sidekick Robin, the obligatory police detective ally, and so forth) while the story builds almost as an afterthought for a fair stretch of the book. "Galbraith" (famously outed as a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling) creates distinctive characters in a London that incongruously contains both the broken and downtrodden poverty of Landry's birth and Strike's childhood and the paparazzi-plagued elite world of the supermodel's final days, the latter being a fiercer, more predatory jungle than the meanest streets. There are, however, just a few too many characters to keep straight as the investigation wends through various spheres: Landry's world of temperamental celebrity relationships, the moneyed realm of Bristow, and the grungy connections of the supermodel's lost birth mother and her stints in rehab before being discovered (and chewed up) by fame, not to mention Strike's own broad web of connections from his fiancee's world through his military service (where he lost part of a leg) and back to a drifting childhood as the illegitimate son of a groupie and a pop star father. It doesn't help that several of these people, like the (many) details of the case itself, are first encountered via monologues and the reading of reports, not by personal interaction. This was a lot to mentally juggle, especially before it became clear how to organize these details and what to focus on; Galbraith's tendency to shift points of view without warning didn't help, here. Ultimately, slowly, it all comes together, though the earlier sprawl and a lingering sense of meandering (bordering on dithering) kept it down a half-star. I freely admit that written mysteries aren't my usual genre, so perhaps I just don't have the brain muscles to properly assess it; part of me thinks I'd have had an easier time if I'd seen the televised version.

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