Saturday, March 30, 2019

March Site Update

A day early, but I just posted the March update for the main Brightdreamer Books site. The month's reviews have been archived, and I managed some general maintenance - fixing bad links and such - for the A through I reviews.


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Skyward (Brandon Sanderson)

Brandon Sanderson
Delacorte Press
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: As a young girl, Spensa always looked up to her father, a heroic fighter pilot defending the remnants of the human race from alien Krell attackers. Even after he was branded a coward and shot down by his own wingman, turning her family into pariahs in the underground city of Igneous, she wanted to be just like him... but he always told her to reach for something higher than the debris-clouded skies over Detrius. He told her to reach for the stars - where their people came from generations ago, and to which they might return, but for the Krell.
Against all odds and prejudices, Spensa manages to make it into flight school. Here, at last, she can prove herself a warrior and restore her family's honor. But real combat is nothing like old Gran-Gran's ancient stories of warriors and heroism. Worse, she shows signs of a "defect" that may have contributed to her father's shameful final actions. But she'll do whatever it takes to get into a pilot's seat, and if the colony leaders try to ground her, a derelict discovered in an old cave near the base may be her ticket to the skies - if she can repair it on the sly. That is, unless the Krell's shifting new tactics don't spell the end of harrying attacks and the beginning of all-out annihilation...

REVIEW: Skyward starts out as a by-the-numbers young adult tale with sci-fi trappings, composed of parts that have become very familiar. There's the pariah heroine fighting an unjust system, the nasty admiral who seems to have a personal vendetta against her, the elder mentor with ties to her late father and who provides more clues about his hushed-up final flight, the supportive best friend, the enemy classmate who is not what he first seems, and so forth, all of whom feel a little flat when introduced. Even the world of Detrius and the conflict with the Krell, despite some nice ideas and the fighter pilot trappings, seem like shallow window dressing, as does the derelict spaceship and its peculiar onboard computer. This is a world so far in the future that humans have spread to distant planets, yet which still clings to stories and imagery of old Earth, among other cumulative anachronisms that kept me from immersing as I should have. It's not until past the halfway point, as Spensa slowly sheds her childish obsession with Beowulf (and her somewhat bratty attitude that does her no favors), that the tale starts to deepen, though it still feels a little shallow at times; it's an action-driven piece throughout, with many dogfights and physics-stretching maneuvers. Spensa even backslides on some important lessons to draw out tension even as her experiences in flight school mature her. By the finale, it's a decent ride, with a final twist that, while not entirely unexpected, sets up some interesting things for the inevitable next book... though even by then several peripheral characters remain fairly flat despite some effort to deepen them. Despite the reasonably strong finish, the earlier sense of flatness and overall predictability just barely held it back from a full four star rating. I might read on, though... in paperback or from the library, next time.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card) - My Review
Heroes of the Valley (Jonathan Stroud) - My Review
Dragon and Thief (Timothy Zahn) - My Review

Monday, March 25, 2019

All the Birds in the Sky (Charlie Jane Anders)

All the Birds in the Sky
Charlie Jane Anders
Fiction, Fantasy/Sci-Fi
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Patricia was an ordinary young girl until she spoke with a bird and learned she must be a witch. Laurence found plans online for a two-second time machine, beginning a lifelong love affair with technology. They met as fellow outcasts in school, bonding through misery, but their lives would soon veer in radically different directions... and, if one assassin's vision is correct, the two will one day bring about the end of the world in a cataclysmic confrontation between magic and science.

REVIEW: When a story threatens to end the world and kill the characters it has painstakingly created in my imagination, and my reaction as a reader is to cheer on the apocalypse, something has gone wrong.
Just when All the Birds in the Sky lost me is difficult to pin down, but tremors could be felt early. Both Laurence and Patricia come from miserable homes with parents whose sole goal seems to be thwarting their children's dreams and any chance they have to find happiness, misery that takes on a surreal air in a world that contains both impossible magic and near-future technology. At first, I wanted to like them, but soon Laurence and then Patricia devolve into self-described assholes, prone to terrible attitudes, weaselly actions, and general spinelessness, not to mention major bouts of amnesia that, I guess, were supposed to wipe my mind too of major developments; that's the only reason I could think of for the plot-extending lapses, unless the author wanted me to spend half the book shouting angrily at the characters (figuratively, of course - though I came close to actual outbursts a time or two when they stretched my already-thin suspension of disbelief too far.)
The world retains a dreamlike quality throughout, with the public world of technology being every bit as exaggerated and implausible as the hidden world of magic. Both are populated with swarms of characters I often couldn't keep straight, all of whom are broken and cold and manipulative in their own ways, not to mention swarming with red herrings that nibble up too much page time simply to drive home the fact that society is broken beyond all reasonable hope of repair. Even the birds are jerks, here. (How bad does a world have to be that I don't even care if the birds survive?)
In any event, the plot crawls and lurches between prolonged bouts of whining and self-destructive behavior by Laurence and Patricia as everything inches toward the prophesied apocalypse, reliant on forced circumstances and deliberately botched efforts at communication to ratchet up tension and stakes... though, as I mentioned earlier, the stakes failed to ratchet up that high for me owing to the fact that I would've been just as happy seeing the lot of them fall into a bottomless pit.
Skirting spoilers, by the end I was half-convinced that I was never really supposed to like or even believe in the world the characters inhabited as anything but a metaphor. Which is fine, if that's what one likes. There are some interesting images and nice ideas at play here that I haven't seen before, but the ideas alone couldn't make me care about it when I couldn't care about the characters or believe their situations. This just isn't the kind of story I enjoy reading, and not the kind I intend to read again if I can at all help it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Too Like the Lightning (Ada Palmer) - My Review
Mort(e) (Robert Repino) - My Review
A School for Sorcery (E. Rose Sabine) - My Review

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Breaking Cat News (Georgia Dunn)

Breaking Cat News: Cats Reporting on the News that Matters to Cats
A Breaking Cat News collection, Book 1
Georgia Dunn
Andrews McMeel Publishing
Fiction, Comics/Collection/Humor
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Politics, sports, the economy... boring human chatter isn't worth a cat's time. With anchor Lupin and field reporters Puck and Elvis, Cat News reports on the news that matters: mysterious red dots appearing on the walls, the vicious floor-eating vacuum, hidden wonders in the forbidden cabinets, and the perpetually odd behavior of the Man and Woman who share their home.

REVIEW: After a less-than-great day, I needed a quick pick-me-up, and Breaking Cat News came through. The concept is simple and fun, the humor light and clever, and the characters enjoyable. Cat owners will relate to the feline antics and perpetual curiosity as the kitties try to puzzle out bizarre human habits (standing in a wet room to get clean when they have a perfectly good tongue) and betrayals (such as buying the wrong brand of kibble.) It's a fun collection with clean humor for all ages.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Devious Guide for Cats: A Parody (Fluffy and Bonkers) - My Review
The Cat Manual (Michael Ray Taylor) - My Review

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Discount Armageddon (Seanan McGuire)

Discount Armageddon
The InCryptid series, Book 1
Seanan McGuire
Fiction, Fantasy/Humor
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Verity Price came to New York City to pursue a professional dancing career. Unfortunately, Prices have other obligations, namely keeping an eye on the local cryptid population and ensuring that their interactions with oblivious mundane humans don't get too messy... not to mention keeping her identity secret in case anyone from the Covenant of St. George, a secret sect that believes God charged them with killing any and all "unnatural" beings (plus a generations-long grudge against the "traitor" Price clan), comes around. Juggling two lives is tough under the best of circumstances, but lately it's grown a whole lot tougher. Cryptids are disappearing across the city, just as a Covenant soldier, Dominick De Luca, turns up. When he turns out not to be the cause, Verity has little choice but to accept his help in seeking the real culprit - a search that points to a monster more dangerous than anything she's dealt with before. For a girl raised hunting the deadliest beasts out of legend, that's a high bar.

REVIEW: With a tough, snarky heroine, a hot yet shady love interest, and a host of oddball characters ranging from lizard-men and shapeshifters to talking mice with a fixation on their peculiar invented religion, Discount Armageddon delivers humor and action in more or less equal doses, plus a sizzling smatter of romance on the side. Verity may have been born to a clan of cryptozoologist monster hunters, but her true passion is ballroom dance... a passion she has to set aside while her friends in the cryptid community are under siege from an unknown threat. Dominick was raised by the Covenant, and never thought to question their teachings until he encounters Verity. They make an uneasy partnership at first (natural, considering how Dominick was raised hearing how her ancestors betrayed their oaths to the order), but tend to pull their own weight and fight their own battles. Things move fairly quickly from the start, wending through the hidden world of New York City's cryptid society, many of whom are little more dangerous than the average human despite Covenant propaganda. In keeping with the city's melting pot origins, the cryptids originate from all over the globe, without falling back on urban fantasy staples like zombies and vampires. They come across less as manifested angels or demons and more as part of a strange yet vital ecosystem, one that humans have (inevitably) mucked up without noticing or caring about the consequences. The whole makes for an amusing, interesting, and quick (if not entirely unexpected) read, in a series I might follow through a book or two more.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Invisible Prison (Mary Buckham) - My Review
Hounded (Kevin Hearne) - My Review
You Slay Me (Katie MacAlister) - My Review

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Mermaid's Sister (Carrie Anne Noble)

The Mermaid's Sister
Carrie Anne Noble
Fiction, YA Fantasy
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Sixteen years ago, baby Clara arrived at Aunt Verity's humble cottage on a Pennsylvania mountain, borne by a stork, and Maren arrived in an enchanted conch shell. They were raised together in the Appalachian countryside, helping Verity tend to the country folks' ills and pains, playing with Verity's pet wyvern Osbert, and anticipating the annual visit of the tinker Scarff and his adopted boy O'Neill. But the passing years have made it too clear that, however happy their childhood and loving their family, Maren could not stay. She was born of the sea, and has begun the slow but inevitable transformation into a mermaid. Soon, it will be time for her to leave forever, but she cannot make the journey alone. Shy, modest, sheltered Clara will have to travel with her, as much to escort Maren (who cannot walk on a mermaid's tail) as to protect her from too-curious humans - especially men, who often fall into helpless swoons at the sight of a mermaid. Even with the company of young O'Neill, the almost-brother for whom Clara has developed shamefully unsisterly feelings, the trip proves to be far more perilous than she could've imagined.

REVIEW: The Mermaid's Sister did not start out bad. The concept has a certain charm to it, spinning a rustic 19th-century fairy tale in backwoods America, where fairies and dragons are real but elusive. Sure, Maren was a trifle shallow and selfish and Clara (the narrator) seemed a bit too shy and spineless to carry a story, but it was early. Then Maren's change starts accelerating and the plot drifts into listless doldrums, as Clara finds herself torn over the impending loss of her adopted sister and being part of an evident love triangle: O'Neill seems utterly smitten by Maren, determined to find a "cure" for her condition, even as Clara realizes that what she feels for him isn't just almost-brotherly love. But, then, another mountain boy has already laid claim to Maren, regardless of Maren's refusal of him... and here is where my first red-flag issues with this story started, though it took me a while to notice - or, rather, to realize that it wasn't just one or two incidents, but an ongoing theme. Girls in this book are, by and large, helpless things to be ogled and owned (and, ideally, ashamed of their own feelings.) Maren in particular becomes, almost literally, a thing: as she loses her humanity, she becomes more selfish, more petty, and more cavalier about her attraction to all things male as she swims about unclothed (a fact that nearly paralyzes modest Clara with shame on her behalf.) At one point, she is physically stolen by an admirer, carried off as easily as one would a bauble and with as little apparent psychological impact; she is utterly and completely incapable of defending herself, as are the other women (save very brief moments of self-defense from Clara.) Maren's changes also shrink her to the size of a child and smaller, making the attraction she engenders in full-sized men that much more squirmworthy.
Not much actually happens for long stretches of the book; it takes far too long for the journey to the ocean to actually start, even when it's beyond clear that Maren's transformation is hastening and there is no other option if they want her to survive. Even once the trip is underway, things tend to drag, as Maren is toted around like a vaguely self-aware toy, Clara has the same internal arguments with herself innumerable times, and O'Neill obliviously fawns over a child-sized mermaid in a washtub. When complications foul things up - courtesy of villains who bring their own twisted evil, more squicky undercurrents, and more than a tinge of xenophobia - Clara continues to be pretty much powerless to do anything but fret, fend off untoward advances, and occasionally snap at O'Neill, who frankly doesn't deserve half of her attitude. Events occur that suggest the world consists of fewer than a dozen people - almost everyone they encounter in their long journey from mountain to sea, they've met already before on Verity's mountain - and more than one plot-convenient coincidence helps things along to the (eventual) ending, which makes a point of meandering through one of the most warped displays of "love" I've read in ages anywhere, let alone in a young adult title. To be honest, the only character I liked by then was Osbert the wyvern. As for the human cast... I think they need some intensive therapy, because they have some issues to work through.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Walk the Earth a Stranger (Rae Carson) - My Review
Half-Human (Bruce Coville, editor) - My Review
Tangled Tides (Karen Amanda Hooper) - My Review

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Persepolis Rising (James S. A. Corey)

Persepolis Rising
The Expanse series, Book 7
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: After a few decades of hard work, humanity finally seems to be pulling itself together after the setbacks created by the rogue Free Navy. With the Belters transitioned to operators of the Transport Union between colony worlds and Earth finally clawing back from ecological disaster, the future looks bright... which is, naturally, just when everything goes to Hell.
The Martian deserters on the isolated colony world Laconia have been busy over the past three decades, as well - busy unlocking the secrets of the lost civilization behind the protomolecule and leveraging them into the creation of a next-generation fleet of warships, among other discoveries and modifications. What comes through the gate from their world is nothing humans have ever seen, the flagship of a stated new Laconian empire that claims absolute authority over all inhabited worlds, starting with Medina Station in the ring hub.
James Holden and Naomi Nagata thought they'd finally get to retire from a too-eventful career aboard the aging gunship Rocinante, handing the ship and attendant responsibilities off to crewmate Bobbie Draper. When the Laconian vessel Gathering Storm arrives at Medina, they again find themselves in the thick of a battle for the future of humanity... a battle that may wake the very forces that once destroyed the protomolecule's own unimaginably advanced builders, beside which Homo sapiens barely rises to the level of ants.

REVIEW: In a series that always has been written on an epic scale, Persepolis Rising widens the scope even further, with echoes of historic empires transported to interstellar space. With protomolecule alterations promising immortality, High Consul Duarte sets out to fulfill a dream that has teased our species since the beginning: the creation of a truly lasting and stable rule, untroubled by transitions of power or complications of succession. The fact that doing so requires an iron fist and possible genocide of resistant systems seems to him a small price to pay when measuring his legacy in centuries and millennia - him and his devoted followers, who have expanded the old Martian vision of terraforming one dead world to rebuilding the whole species from the (metaphoric) ground up.
With now-President Camina Drummer spearheading resistance in the Sol system, Holden and the Rocinante crew inevitably become key to the scattered cells of defiance aboard Medina, rooted in cultural Belter resistance to authority - a tendency toward anarchy that can hurt as much as it helps the cause. The characters have aged over the course of the series, both on page and off; being older and more experienced gives them a perspective that their younger selves notably lacked, a combined weariness at having to fight the same battles over and over and a determination not to lose, that there are still some ideals worth fighting and dying for... and still ultimately enough good in humanity to make that fight worthwhile. Interpersonal relationships have shifted, too, with some new strains as Bobbie's rise to captaincy is often overshadowed by Holden's lingering celebrity and tendency to get himself into the middle of everything, not to mention tensions with Amos and the failing health of former-killer-turned-crewmate Clarissa Mao. Like the Rocinante itself, they may have many more miles on the odometer, but they're still a force to be reckoned with, especially when driven by bonds of loyalty, friendship, and love. The Laconians are a force to be reckoned with as well, and they generally do not oblige the heroes by making the same mistakes previous opponents have made. This is a new enemy, and Laconia changes everything in more ways than one.
Like the other books in the series, it starts fairly quickly and ratchets up the tension well. The authors manage to keep space battles fresh despite being seven books (and a few novellas) into the arc, bringing back old characters and creating new ones (not all of whom make it to the finale) without feeling too repetitive. It ends on something of a cliffhanger. Fortunately I have the eighth book on pre-order, due at the end of the month (March 2019.) Unfortunately, the series is supposed to be nine books long. At this rate, I'm fairly confident there's enough story to carry two more books, but it'll be a long wait for Book 9. Dang it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Red Rising (Peter Brown) - My Review
Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
Old Man's War (John Scalzi) - My Review

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Blacksad Volume 1: Somewhere Within the Shadows (Juan Diaz Canales)

Blacksad Volume 1: Somewhere Within the Shadows
The Blacksad series, Book 1
Juan Diaz Canales, illustrations by Juanjo Guarnido
Dark Horse Publishing
Fiction, Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Mystery
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Black cat detective John Blacksad hasn't been the luckiest of guys; his affair with actress Natalia was one of the few high points in a dark and bitter life, for all that it ended long ago. Looking down at her murdered body, he isn't about to let the killer walk away. The trail leads John from the darkest rat-infested gutter to the highest echelons of power, but a cat with nothing left to lose is a cat who won't give up.

REVIEW: A noir story with an anthro cast of animals and near-humans, Blacksad is something I haven't quite seen the like of before, and I'm still not sure what I think of it on some levels. John Blacksad's the typical hard-boiled detective whose world consists not of black and white but rather cigarette ash gray and booze stain brown, beaten down by an unjust world yet still unable to let a wrong go unpunished when it strikes close to home. Surrounding him is a small cast of other genre staples: the police dog Smirnov (with an implied history of more-or-less cooperation, if not actual friendship), the damsel in distress (deceased, save in flashbacks), shady thugs (from pigs to rats to weasels, with rhinos and bears for when a curious cat needs a real smackdown), and an elusive, seemingly untouchable bad guy. Also typical of the genre is the sexism running through the tale; many of the women tend to be more human than animal (possibly for objectification purposes in the illustrations) and invariably weaker. Blacksad ends up on the wrong side of numerous fists (and nearly the wrong end of numerous bullets) as he wends his way toward the killer in a fairly tight plot with a dark climax. It's a decent story all in all, and the half-mark it nearly lost on the tiresome sexism was earned back for overall artistic originality, though I doubt I'll follow Blacksad further.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Autumnlands Volume 1: Tooth and Claw (Kurt Busiek) - My Review
Felidae (Akif Pirincci) - My Review
Mort(e) (Robert Repino) - My Review

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Sister Emily's Lightship and Other Stories (Jane Yolen)

Sister Emily's Lightship and Other Stories
Jane Yolen
Open Road Media
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: An Appalachian girl's wicked stepmother plots her downfall... a young fairy girl inadvertently curses a royal child... a reclusive poet has a life-altering encounter... a dying man imparts one last gift to an alien species... These and other stories by genre master Jane Yolen appear in this collection, including the award-winning tales "Sister Emily's Lightship" and "Lost Girls."

REVIEW: Considering my iffy anthology luck, this is a decent collection, though - as usual - the stories themselves were a mixed bag. Some felt fragmentary, like prequels or filler taken from longer works (or which were intended to expand into novels, but never took off), or simply written more for imagery and mood than story. Others came together decently. There's an overall bias toward dark (or at least ambiguous) endings, and a few seem to strike similar themes. They're all well written, of course, even the ones that weren't my cup of cocoa.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight (Cat Rambo) - My Review
Book of Enchantments (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review
Here, There Be Dragons (Jane Yolen) - My Review

Friday, March 1, 2019

Birthright Volume 7: Blood Brothers (Joshua Williamson)

Birthright Volume 7: Blood Brothers
The Birthright series, Book 7
Joshua Williamson, illustrations by Andrei Bressan and Adriano Lucas
Image Comics
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: At long last, Mikey has been freed from the influence of the Nevermind and reunited with his gideon wife, his newborn child, and his family... but the faun Kallista stole his brother Brennan. She means to train him as a mage, using him to subjugate both Terranos and Earth - and only Mikey can stop him. But to do so will mean using the magic that already corrupted him once and destroyed many lives, including his own.

REVIEW: As the series continues after the changes of the sixth installment, Brennan is drawn deeper into the forces of magic and the ongoing conflicts that brought down Terranos and could destroy Earth - forces that tap into the pain he still feels from Mikey's disappearance and the collapse of his family. From the older brother to the faithful sidekick, Brennan now becomes a potential nemesis... just as Mikey, still reeling from the horrors he unleashed while in the Nevermind's control, vows never to use magic again. Like the previous volumes, it reads quickly and has plenty of action (and more than a little gore), calling back to young Mikey's formative traumas in Terranos and his first taste of magic and the pain it requires. I'm not sure how much longer the series can continue - frankly, I think there's only one or two volumes left in the arc before it risks repetition or filler - but it's still a nice, dark twist on portal fantasies.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Dark World (Henry Kuttner) - My Review
A Darker Shade of Magic (V. E. Schwab) - My Review
Birthright Volume 1: Homecoming (Joshua Williamson) - My Review