Saturday, August 31, 2019

August Site Update

The month's reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main review site.


Monday, August 26, 2019

Way Station (Clifford D. Simak)

Way Station
Clifford D. Simak
Open Road Media
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: For over a hundred years, Civil War veteran Enoch Wallace has lived on a quiet plot of land alone... and neither he nor his old house have aged a single day. Even in the most remote backwoods, such a phenomenon can't help but inspire whispers among neighbors. Now the government is covertly poking around. None of them would understand the truth: Enoch's home was selected as a galactic way station for travelers across the stars. He regularly hosts beings that defy human intellect and imagination. When a neighbor girl discovers his secret, the government's meddling creates an interplanetary diplomatic crisis, and schisms in the galactic command structure threaten his station, Enoch must decide where, and for whom, he ultimately stands.

REVIEW: This classic holds up better than some older science fiction, though it can't help but show some age around the edges. Enoch, as an average man who inadvertently finds himself on the edge of either a major leap forward for the species or a stumble that could take down civilization, and the way station itself remain compelling, with some nice imagery and ideas. It takes some time to get going, meandering about the setup and slowly building to the climactic collision of crises. Without spoilers, I can't get into the parts that truly date it, but I will say that the emphasis on spirituality was a thing that many older science fiction authors seemed insistent on shoehorning in, and it doesn't always age well, especially when it becomes the deus ex machina (almost literally, in this case) that resolves the main problem. Themes could be a trifle heavy-handed, too. Still, it's a decent, if sometimes slow, tale.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Childhood's End (Arthur C. Clarke) - My Review
City (Clifford D. Simak) - My Review

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Seafire (Natalie C. Parker)

The Seafire trilogy, Book 1
Natalie C. Parker
Fiction, YA? Fantasy/Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: When she was fourteen years old, Caledonia Styx lost her family, most of her friends, and their rebel ship, the Ghost... and it was all her fault. She was ashore gathering food when she encountered a Bullet, one of the soldiers of the dreaded Aric Athair, scars aglow with the addictive Silt that compels their obedience - and, through his lies, she betrayed everyone and earned a knife to the gut. Left behind, Caledonia and her friend Pisces could only watch as their lives and hopes went up in flames.
Four years later, Caledonia commands the rebuilt Mors Navis with Pisces and a crew of over fifty women and girls, all victims of Aric's brutal reign, all of whom have sworn vengeance. They have one ironclad rule: no Bullets on board. But when a strike on a barge goes awry, Pisces brings back a wounded Bullet who saved her life. Caledonia's gut demands his death in the deep - but then he tells her that he's seen her brother, whom she thought lost with the Ghost. Can she trust a word he says? Can a Bullet ever be redeemed? And can she ever live down her own shame at her one moment of weakness, four long and bloody years ago?

REVIEW: Seafire wants to be a story of a determined young woman seeking revenge against a cruel oppressor. It wants Caledonia Styx and her crew to be strong and defiant and resourceful in the face of seemingly-impossible odds, underdogs fighting for justice in a world seemingly devoid of it. It wants to... but it keeps tripping itself up by forcing itself to be a boys-versus-girls story that can't seem to shake the stigma of the word "girl." One character, about two-thirds through the book, even calls out the use of "girl" as a means to demean women... yet the author started this on the first page and persisted through the entire story, always calling the crew girls, even the most mature of them. (Do I even want to get into the iffy symbolism and connotations of their sworn enemies, the Bullets, being sea men? Was this a deliberate extra layer on the gender war theme, or an unfortunate coincidence?) At every turn, it feels like the story is shoving its characters' genders in the reader's face, emphasizing how they defy traditional gender roles to the point that it flattens the tale and weakens the characters. Someone just can't be a good engineer or a brave fighter; they're a good girl engineer and a brave girl fighter. Romances are implied between crewmembers, again in ways that reduce them from rounded people to objects (not helped by an emphasis on appearances that borders on creepy at times.) When Pisces brings the Bullet defector aboard and demands he be given a chance, Caledonia can't believe the betrayal - a schism that comes across less like a difference of opinion and more like the schoolyard shock when one girl starts liking boys while her friend still thinks they have icky boy-germs. And, of course, it's a given that he'll challenge the relationship between the two (which is either sisterly or romantic; I got mixed vibes, as though the author couldn't quite commit to a romance here but couldn't quite not.) Meanwhile, Caledonia nurses her old shame in a way that makes it clear she's warped her entire life and command around being unable to accept having ever been attracted to a male, blaming that for everything that's gone wrong in her life. With the brutality of Aric and the multitude of cultures and realms encountered and the potential dynamics of the crew, that's not what the story needs to be about, but it's what the story is made to be about. Beyond that, there's a world that hovers somewhere between fantasy and science fiction (there's plenty of far-future technology, relics of a lost era, but the overall feel remains secondary world/fantasy and might be more likely to appeal to that audience, which is why I split the difference), with a decent amount of action and some decent battles, and even if some plot twists and character developments were blatantly telegraphed, it kept me turning pages. The ending, though, goes out of its way to not resolve an arc (because this is Book 1 in a trilogy), deliberately wasting the reader's time on a confrontation that goes nowhere and does nothing. This is what dropped Seafire just below the flat Okay rating, and is why I don't expect to read the second volume.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Rebel of the Sands (Alwyn Hamilton) - My Review
Piratica (Tanith Lee) - My Review
Steel (Carrie Vaughn) - My Review

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Catherynne M. Valente)

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
The Fairyland series, Book 2
Catherynne M. Valente
Square Fish
Fiction, MG Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: It has been a year since Nebraska girl September met the Green Wind and rode the Leopard of Light Breezes to Fairyland, faced strange wonders and dark dangers, and defeated the evil Marquess. She's been reading up on mythology in the meantime to prepare herself to return (and help hide from the radio reports, for her father is still overseas fighting in someone else's war, while her mother still works long hours as a mechanic), but hasn't seen a speck of a green coat or flick of a spotted tail in all that time. September's starting to fear that her friends have forgotten about her, and she'll never leave the mundane world again. Then she sees a rowboat among the corn, as Fairy a thing as she's ever spied. Sure enough, she follows it straight into Fairyland... but things are not well here. Shadows have gone missing, draining away the world's magic, and there's talk of a new Hollow Queen in Fairyland-Below. A girl made of shadow herself, who draws all the lonely and neglected shadows to her. September's own missing shadow, left behind in her first adventure - now the greatest threat Fairyland has ever faced. Since she created the problem, September sets out to fix it, but quests invariably go awry, and even heroines can fail.

REVIEW: The first installment of Valente's Fairyland series was a pure delight, a perfect balance of whimsical phrase and solid storytelling and singular characters. Here, the author proves that, at least in Fairyland, lightning can indeed strike twice. September's not quite the same girl she was when the Green Wind came to her and offered her an adventure a year ago; as she grows up, Fairyland reveals more of its own darkness and complexity, and her new, wild heart adds extra problems as it compels her to care more deeply, even in instances where she might be better off not caring at all. Some of what she learned before helps her, but many of the challenges she faces are new, sometimes even complicated by what she knew (and who she met) last time: she finds the shadows of her Wyverary friend A-through-L and the Marid boy Saturday, but are shadows true reflections of their former owners, or something darker, with their own agendas? The story starts quickly and moves at a brisk pace, blending old faces and new, as September delves into the deeper magics and peculiar physicks of the magical realm... a realm that is not, as in some portal fantasies, just a figment of childish imagination. (Valente definitely earns extra points for this: even as a young child, it irked me when the wonderful, magical place couldn't really exist, and the "just a dream" ending has always struck me as literature's greatest cop-out/waste of a reader's time. But, I digress...) As before, the prose is beautiful, downright lyrical at times, and while the main arc wraps in this volume, sufficient stray threads remain to weave seamlessly into the third installment. A very enjoyable outing from an author who rarely disappoints.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Divide (Elizabeth Kay) - My Review
In an Absent Dream (Seanan McGuire) - My Review
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making (Catherynne M. Valente) - My Review

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Princeless: Find Yourself (Jeremy Whitley)

Princeless: Find Yourself
The Princeless series, Volume 7
Jeremy Whitley, illustrations by Emily Martin, Ainhoa Aramayo, Christine Hipp, and Brett Grunig
Action Lab Entertainment
Fiction, MG? Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Humor
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Princess Adrienne and her pink guardian dragon Sparky have been together since the start of their adventures... but, searching the desert for the tower of Princess Alize, and sorely missing their half-dwarf companion Bedelia, tempers flare and ways part. When Adrienne finally reaches the tower, she discovers wonders she never imagined, questions she never asked - and, at long last, a final confrontation with the mysterious Black Knight who has long haunted her footsteps.
Meanwhile, still tracking the missing queen, Princes Devin and Wilcome, the elf girl Tempest, and the wolf warrior Kira seek answers of their own, but find instead a burning village and a threat to all of Asheland. Even if they find a way to warn King Ashe, it may already be too late...

REVIEW: After the sag of Volume 5, the Princeless series has managed to stay on track for two installments now, with plot and characters both progressing nicely. Without Bedelia, Adrienne must cope on her own, and doesn't do a great job of it at first; her frustration boils over and drives away poor Sparky. Still, the lessons she's learned over the series are adding up, and if she's still somewhat impulsive, she is thinking more than she used to. Skirting spoilers (that aren't really spoilers if one's been following along), the "mystery" of the Black Knight's identity is finally disposed of, along with a good chunk of explanatory backstory: a welcome development, as there was only so long that could be drawn out after tipping the hand to the reader some time ago. How Adrienne reacts to this revelation, on top of what she learns at Alize's tower (where her sister is not the captive Adrienne imagined her to be), shows how far she still has to go in her personal journey.
From the looks of things, Volume 8 takes another plot break for backstory and side tales. I rather hope that Volume 9 (or, at most 10) brings things to a conclusion; as much as I'm enjoying the series (while it stays on track, at least), I'd prefer that it go out on a strong note rather than be strung out indefinitely.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Scales and Scoundrels: Into the Dragon's Maw (Sebastian Girner) - My Review
Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (Noelle Stevenson and Shannon Waters) - My Review
Princeless: Save Yourself (Jeremy Whitley) - My Review

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Velocity Weapon (Megan O'Keefe)

Velocity Weapon
The Protectorate series, Book 1
Megan O'Keefe
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Over three thousand years ago, humans reached out from a dying Earth to the stars through a vast technological leap known as Casimir gates... gates that still control the flow of information and commerce throughout the galaxy, still held in the iron grip of the Prime protectorate. Many may chafe under their control, but with absolute power comes absolute authority. Until the Icarions rebelled against the Keepers of the Ada Prime gate - a skirmish with potentially galaxy-wide repercussions.
Sanda has always been the protector of her kid brother Biren, even well into adulthood; she even joined the Ada Prime military to protect him and their fathers while "Little B" pursued an education, with an eye toward the exclusive Keepers. But while he navigates the shark-infested waters of the Keeper elite, she finds herself facing down a rebel enemy that destroys her gunship. Sanda wakes up alone aboard an empty Icarion vessel, the Light of Berossus, which delivers devastating news: two hundred years have passed, and the entire system - Ada and Icarion and the gate itself - has been destroyed by a devastating new weapon... a weapon that may still be out there, a threat to the future of humanity itself. But there are pieces that don't quite add up, and a danger that may make the Icarion threat look insignificant.

REVIEW: I can't always explain my choice of reading material through strict logic, or more specifically, how I pick which title to read next; some books linger in the pile for years, while others leap ahead. This book, a recent acquisition, jumped the line on perhaps the most subjective of all premises, even given my history of subjective premises: I liked what the author had to say in an online video when asked about the name of a group of dragons, a pure gut reaction that disregarded the fact that Velocity Weapon is science fiction and has no dragons in it. It may seem like a pointless thing to mention in a review, but I figured I'd get it out of the way... and also, tangentially, it brings up the importance of listening to gut reactions. They don't always pan out, but in instances like this, they strike gold.
The book starts at high velocity (as I suppose one might expect from the name), thrusting heroine Sanda into the strange and terrifying situation of waking up on an unknown vessel after an unknown length of time, and missing part of a leg to boot. Meanwhile, Biren, back on Ada, finds his graduation and rise to the status of Keeper marred by fallout from the very battle that destroyed Sanda's ship. Both have little time to catch their breath before the story rips ahead, though never too fast to keep up with. Each must navigate mazes of tricky situations and possible deceptions and whip-fast alterations in trajectory with each new plot revelation. On a seemingly-unrelated side story, a street rat in another system sets out to score a stolen crate of drugs and stumbles onto a conspiracy with roots deep in the galactic power structure, and other interlude chapters chart the origins of the gates and the Prime supremacy; while individually interesting, these two arcs don't tie into the events near Ada until much later, involving the greater Protectorate series more than this installment. (Yes, this is another Book 1 of a longer series of unknown length. It's almost a given these days.) Characters are generally intelligent and strong, able to keep up with the rapidly evolving events, if not without the odd misstep or slip, leaving things at a point of high tension for Book 2. The whole story crackles with wit and energy, making its five hundred pages fly by. I'm already looking forward to the next installment.
(In the meantime, if O'Keefe wants to write a fantasy with dragons, I, for one, would most definitely be interested...)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragons in the Stars (Jeffrey A. Carver) - My Review
Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
A Memory Called Empire (Arkady Martine) - My Review

Friday, August 9, 2019

It's Not Rocket Science (Ben Miller)

It's Not Rocket Science
Ben Miller
Nonfiction, Humorous Nonfiction/Science
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Science. It's all over the news, from climate change to DNA to space exploration to Higgs bosons, but how many of us really understand that stuff? Let's be honest; somewhere on the path between basic arithmetic and quantum physics, many of us got lost in the brush. Fear not: British comedian Ben Miller is here to help. By cutting out several years' worth of tedium and background equations and experimentation, he offers the edited, exciting-bits-only reel of modern science.

REVIEW: Miller presents a spread of science dishes, from evolution to relativity, even including rocket science, made palatable for the average reader who may have an interest in science but feels intimidated by it. Naturally, many details are necessarily glossed over, but this book states at the outset that it's just offering an introduction, a way to make sense of some of the terms that float through the news feeds these days, and perhaps spark curiosity for further personal exploration. Once in a while, I got the sense that some of what was cut out altered the topic under discussion in a subtle yet fundamental way, but - being an undereducated idiot myself, and a product of American public schools to boot - this isn't something I can quantify, just a sense I had that some subjects felt a trifle skewed or bubble-wrapped, though never overtly warped. Miller being a British comedian, his references sometimes slid just to the side of my American background, though the overall humor comes through. (Also, being from 2012, it has a sense of optimism about the future of science in Britain and America that looks almost quaint when viewed in 2019, given alterations in trajectories for both nations - particularly the latter.) Still, it delivers precisely what the cover promises, complete with a bibliography for further reading.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Everything All At Once (Bill Nye) - My Review
Fool Me Twice (Shawn Lawrence Otto) - My Review
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (Neil deGrasse Tyson) - My Review

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Self / Made (Mat Groom)

Self / Made
Issues 1 - 6
Mat Groom, illustrations by Eudardo Ferigato and Marcelo Costa
Image Comics
Fiction, YA? Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: After one thousand years of exile, an ancient enemy ravages the peaceful kingdom of Arcadia. Amala fought with the city guard to defend her people... but the city fell, and she alone was left alive when a brave (if arrogant) warrior Brycemere arrived to defeat the enemy once and for all.
Or so he claimed.
On the brink of victory, she realizes he is not who he claims to be. She turns her blade against him - with consequences she cannot imagine.
Because Amala was just supposed to be a minor non-player character in a virtual game. She was never supposed to ask questions... and she was never supposed to escape into the world that created her.

REVIEW: It looked like an interesting concept (if one that has been done a time or two before), blurring the lines between games and reality and questioning the nature and purpose of life itself. Amala is at first confused, then frustrated and angered when she meets her creator, Rebecca, an obsessive computer engineer who didn't bother thinking through the consequences of her project. Bryce, a quality tester for the gaming company behind Arcadia, starts and remains a fairly flat villain whose main motivation appears to be rampant misogyny - as flat as Rebecca turns out to be. Indeed, despite the promise, the story deflates by the end into an inquiry about the nature of reality, the importance of free will, and the futility of seeking a definitive meaning to life from external sources. (I get very, very tired of Meaning of the Universe messages...) It ends a little unsure of itself, as though part of it wants to finish in one volume and another wants to set up sequels. While not a terrible story, and with some nice ideas and visuals, I just didn't feel Self / Made lived up to its potential.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Swordquest: Realworld (Chad Bowers) - My Review
Caverns of Socrates (Dennis L. McKiernan) - My Review
The Thirteenth Floor - Amazon DVD link