Sunday, May 31, 2020

May Site Update

The previous nine reviews have now been archived and cross-linked at the main Brightdreamer Books page.

Enjoy!

In the Unremarkable Milestones department, this is the first update from my new computer (and Windows 10 - yes, I drug my heels on that one.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Exit Strategy (Martha Wells)

Exit Strategy
The Murderbot Diaries, Book 4
Martha Wells
Tor.com
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: The rogue SecUnit known as Murderbot confirmed its suspicions about the GreyCris corporation's activities during its exceptionally eventful trip to Milu: they have been harvesting illegal alien synthetics from archaeological sites. The problems from the lawsuits fired by the Preservation representative Dr. Mensah have also hurt GreyCris - as has the interference caused by Murderbot's actions on Milu. The corporation put two and two together and decided Mensah must have ordered her "pet" SecUnit to sabotage GreyCris... which not only wasn't Murderbot's intention, but has endangered her survival. Now the doctor is being held hostage at corporate headquarters while terms of the ongoing lawsuit are negotiated. GreyCris has proven itself willing to kill before to protect its secrets, and they have only grown more desperate as Murderbot's meddling has exposed more of their dirty laundry, so there's an exceptionally high chance that neither Mensah nor her associates will survive this "negotiation." Once again, Murderbot must save the day - only, this time, it may not win.

REVIEW: Picking up about where Rogue Protocol (the third installment) left off, Exit Strategy starts with high stakes and tension, then just keeps raising both right up to the finale. The action is nearly nonstop as Murderbot once more juggles behind-the-scenes hacking with personal violence (and, naturally, takes a few breaks to stream media.) Returning to Mensah forces the rogue SecUnit to confront its own feelings about humans in general, about how it sees itself, and what it really plans to do with its hard-won freedom - a freedom most everyone seems determined to terminate. This may not bring its personal growth from mindless drone to independent being full-circle, but it does complete a significant arc. Also completed (or seemingly completed) by the end is the GreyCris plot, a resolution involving plenty of bot-fighting action, hacker attacks, and more. The series continues from here, apparently shifting to a longer format, but this works as a good resting place before Murderbot pivots to deal with new challenges, personal and professional... and, of course, finds new media to binge-watch. It's been an enjoyable series thus far, and I'm hoping it continues to entertain going forward.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Velocity Weapon (Megan E. O'Keefe) - My Review
The Stars Now Unclaimed (Drew Williams) - My Review

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Sandman Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes, 30th Anniversary Edition (Neil Gaiman)

The Sandman Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes, 30th Anniversary Edition
The Sandman series, Issues 1 - 8
Neil Gaiman, illustrations by Sam Keith
Vertigo
Fiction, Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Horror
*** (Okay)


DESCRIPTION: Morpheus. Lord of Dreams. The Sandman. He has been known by many names since the dawn of time... but only once has he been captured, in a trap set for his sister Death by early 20th century occultists. For seventy years, he remained imprisoned, while his realm crumbled and powers fated. Now, at last, he is free - but the world has changed since he was locked away, even his own castle of dreams decaying into a shadow of itself. Before he can reclaim his power and take his vengeance, he needs to find his three sacred tools, a path that winds from the heart of a mortal insane asylum to the depths of Hell.

REVIEW: The Sandman is perhaps one of the most iconic graphic novels ever written, a surreal, brooding journey through nightmare and allegory made flesh. It is also often dark and depraved (especially toward women, at least in these eight issues), with a warped and ugly heart that I found intrinsically repulsive.
The plot is little more than a suggestion for a good chunk of this volume, only slowly coming into focus as a background theme to the mood and imagery. It wallows in that imagery, in terrible, broken things born out of terrible, broken minds, blood and pain and death and mutilation, where hope is a bad joke with a horrible punchline. I didn't like anyone in it, at any time, ever. And then it reveals that it's a crossover with the Justice League superhero universe, and I nearly set it down for good. One of my main pet peeves about superhero graphic novels is the inaccessibility and gatekeeping that are intrinsic to their structure. You can't just read about Hero A; you have to start fifty years ago with Issue One, then follow them through umpteen issues of Heroine B's crossover... but if you really want to understand their story arc and call yourself a fan, then you have to read the largely unrelated (but mytharc-vital) adventures of Heroes C and D, which is another massive time and energy commitment. And, sure enough, Sandman isn't just tangentially connected to the world of Batman and Scarecrow and the whole slew of DC Justice League heroes and villains; they're central to the story arc, and my cultural osmosis knowledge wasn't much help as I tried to snap them into place in a world that somehow also contained manifested immortal forces like the Lord of Dreams and literal Judeo-Christian Hell. (All of which creates such a convoluted universe that it can't help collapsing under its own weight and contradictions. But, I digress...) Add to this the strong appeal, in art and text, to the broody goth horror scene that I never really clicked with, and it all made me feel like I had wandered into a party where I knew nobody, couldn't dance to the music, didn't like any of the food, and just plain didn't feel welcome.
Looking past that, I could appreciate the strong mythic roots and appeal to the darker side of human experience, the core of fears and nightmares, given a modern twist... enough to see how this is considered a classic. The final issue in this collection, where we finally meet Morpheus's sister Death, gives some sliver of a hint that the Sandman cycle isn't all nightmares and guts and horrible, horrible things. I just am not, never have been, and never will be its target audience, and have no interest in pursuing it further in the hopes that maybe, possibly, it might go somewhere other then the darkest of darks and most terrible of terrors.

You Might Also Enjoy:
William and the Lost Spirit (Gwen de Bonneval) - My Review
Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
Fables: Legends in Exile Volume 1 (Bill Willingham) - My Review

Saturday, May 23, 2020

This Shattered World (Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner)

This Shattered World
The Starbound trilogy, Book 2
Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
Hyperion
Fiction, YA Romance/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: The planet Avon is a world of swamps and gray skies, a mire in more ways than one. For decades, the terraforming project that was supposed to transform it into a garden has inexplicably stalled out - leading to frustration and all-out rebellion. The more the military clamps down to keep the peace, the more rebels slip away into the uncharted swamps, where technology is useless and "will of the wisp" lights are rumored to lead trespassers to their doom. Despite a temporary ceasefire, tensions have never been higher, and it will only take one incident to send the whole colony sky-high.
Captain Jubilee "Lee" Chase is a legend among her peers. She, alone of all soldiers stationed on Avon, seems immune to the madness known as the Fury, which drives soldiers to fits of homicidal rage (and which has not helped relations with the locals, who seem immune.) Perhaps it is because she doesn't dream; her dreams died with her parents in the violence on the planet Verona. Then she is taken hostage by a young rebel, a boy babbling about hidden bases in the swamps and other insanity... but is he mad, or is there more to the Avon colony than she's been told?
Flynn Cormac's older sister was executed as a rebel when he was eight years old, and he's been on the run ever since. He's been trying to use his status among the Fianna rebel army to end the hostilities and find a path toward peace, maybe even find out why the terraforming has gone wrong, but it's hard to convince a people who have been kicked as hard and often as the Avon colonists to put down their guns, and he knows he's losing ground. He didn't actually intend to abduct the famed Captain Lee Chase when he snuck into the bar on the base, but he was desperate for answers about what he's seen in the swamp: a base where there should not be one, pointing to a presence even the army is unaware of - or a plot that will end the colony.
Lee and Flynn were sworn enemies on sight... so how can they be falling for each other? And how will either survive what they discover when they dig deeper into Flynn's hidden base?

REVIEW: The first Starbound book took a while to hook me. This one did not have that problem. It moves from the first few pages, creating a world less reliant on anachronistic tropes (save how it clearly and admittedly patterns itself on the Irish "Troubles", where occupation by a foreign power breeds generational resentment and entrenches violence and mistrust as a way of life.) Lee is a soldier's soldier, convinced she's on the right side and that she'll live and die in the uniform, while Flynn is equally committed to the cause of the Avon colonists, even if he tries to avoid open violence after what happened to his sister. It is not a fast or easy fall into love for either of them (no spoilers there; this is a romance, after all), with setbacks and misunderstandings and outside interference, not to mention betrayals and outbursts of violence. The peripheral characters aren't quite as shallow as they might seem at first (save one or two), each having a little more depth and justification to their actions than one might expect. The story could almost be a standalone, but as the plot progresses it ties into events in These Broken Stars, becoming part of the greater arc. Things build to a decently cathartic climax, with some threads left over for the third and final volume. Sometimes the emotions and angst get a little over the top, and one of the revelations at the end was borderline eye-rolling, but otherwise I enjoyed this story, and am looking forward to the final installment (which is in the To Be Read pile.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
These Broken Stars (Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner) - My Review
Starflight (Melissa Landers) - My Review
Cinder (Marissa Meyer) - My Review

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Ill Wind (Rachel Caine)

Ill Wind
The Weather Warden series, Book 1
Rachel Caine
Roc
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: Storms, fires, earthquakes... Mother Nature wants us dead, and but for the Wardens she might have succeeded ages ago. A secret global association does its best to defuse and mitigate the worst disasters, recruiting rare people gifted with power over the elements and employing captive Djinn. But gifts don't come without risks or costs, and the dangers of a rogue Warden - or, worse, one infested with a demon - are worse than anything Nature can concoct.
Joanne Baldwin has always had a strange connection to the weather, and was recruited as a teenager into the Warden Association. She was a bright rising star in the organization. Now she's on the run, accused of murder and bearing a Demon Mark. Her only hope lies in reaching Lewis, a former friend and fellow outcast from the Association, before the Mark devours her powers and her very soul. But first she has to outrun the Association's trackers, assorted Djinn, and a sentient, predatory storm - not to mention someone who is trying very, very hard to kill her.

REVIEW: This modern fantasy establishes a hidden network of mages and Djinn and malevolent natural phenomena... all bound to the viewpoint of a character I wanted to smack across the face more than once. Joanna is one of those protagonists who can be mind-numbingly oblivious about obvious things and behaves in such obnoxious ways that she didn't even pause at "endearingly quirky" before she hit "outright aggravating." She deliberately refuses to seek or accept help, actively ignoring advice and obvious clues, even as she flirts with anything remotely masculine out of sheer reflex. (And, of course, every male wants to sleep with her, because she's just that hot.) At one point, while she's on the run from various people trying to kill her, she stops at a mall for fresh clothes and deliberately picks out a lacy tight top (with no bra) to tease a hitchhiker she picks up... then pouts that he doesn't notice, even though she actively and aggressively told him to get lost shortly before the pouting fit. Other things, she's simply far too slow on the uptake about, to the point I was (figuratively) shouting at her for a good third of the tale. This is who I had to follow through the book. Add to that how Caine dances around what actually happened to Joanne for a good portion of the book, indulging in prolonged flashbacks that deliberately avoid the matter... I won't lie: teeth were ground more than once. The story itself, when it isn't flashing back and once it finally lets me in on enough of the world's rules and Joanne's story for me to engage with it, moves fairly well, building to a climax and a surprisingly solid ending, one that might tempt me to the next book in the series. My overall annoyance with Joanne, though, costs the book a half-star in the ratings.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Running With the Demon (Terry Brooks) - My Review
Summoned (Rainy Kaye) - My Review
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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Rogue Protocol (Martha Wells)

Rogue Protocol
The Murderbot Diaries, Book 3
Martha Wells
Tor.com
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: The synthetic security unit Murderbot is on a mission to understand its past, but keeps finding more questions - many tied up with its former employer, GreyCris, which has been pulling some very shady (not to mention deadly) stunts across the worlds of the Corporate Rim. Though technically it was freed by the last clients who rented it, Murderbot won't truly be free to do what it wants - mostly avoid humans and stream media - until those questions have answers and certain unpleasant legal proceedings are resolved. Its quest takes it to an archaeological site on the half-forgotten world Milu... but, once again, a team of hapless humans with spectacularly poor timing turn up to complicate the investigation by blundering into mortal peril.

REVIEW: Rogue Protocol maintains the fast pace and snarky narrative wit of the previous two Murderbot adventures, returning focus to the larger story arc of finding out what GreyCris is up to and why it's so obsessed with alien ruins that it's willing to slaughter anyone who comes near its claims (with a heavy side-question of how any humans manage to survive without a somewhat-friendly rogue SecUnit to haul their posteriors out of danger.) The action can almost feel overwhelming; as a synthetic being, Murderbot can and does track action in multiple locations simultaneously. Other characters can sometimes be a blur, though the most important relationships are usually with other artificial entities. This time, that role is filled by Miki, a "pet" robot with a childlike mentality whose innocence about human nature is rudely shattered not just by Murderbut but by events in the story. These interactions get to the heart of Murderbot's fumbling efforts to understand its own nature and potential and what it truly wants out of its freedom, efforts it often tries to avoid by hiding in serials. Unlike the previous two tales, this one stands less on its own as it sets up a major revelation that might break open the GreyCris case/conspiracy; skirting spoilers, the reader is left on a cliff edge waiting for the actual reveal. I have the fourth book in the Kindle queue, and hope to get to it soon.

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Retrograde (Peter Cawdron) - My Review
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Sunday, May 10, 2020

Run (Patti Larsen)

Run
The Hunted series, Book 1
Patti Larsen
Purely Paranormal Press
Fiction, YA Horror
*** (Okay)


DESCRIPTION: After years in the foster care system following the deaths of his parents, Reid's life was finally about to get on track... until he wakes up in the back of a van, blindfolded and bound, only to be dumped in the middle of a trackless forest. It seems like a prank - until he finds the eviscerated body, a boy just about his age spiked to a tree. Then he hears the howls, and sees the hunters. Impossibly fast, impossibly deadly, impossibly inhuman, they stalk the woods hunting children like him.
There's no way out. There's no safe haven. There's only the forest, the monsters, and one way to survive: run.

REVIEW: Run has a premise as old as horror itself, perhaps as old as human consciousness: the fear of the omnipresent, inscrutable predator. Larsen mixes in some paranormal seasoning with the hunters, and adds a dash of Lord of the Flies as Reid meets (and loses, as often as not) other trapped children and teens in the forest of horrors. It makes for a heady mix, at least at first. After a while, though, it starts feeling a little repetitive and manipulated, not to mention a touch drawn out.
Reid starts out with a slight advantage, thanks to his late father's passion for survival camping, and is driven by more than mere personal survival: his older sister, Lucy, might well be one of the other victims of whomever kidnapped him for use as monster food. The hunters have a way of turning up at plot-convenient times and melting away, though this plays into an overall sense of absolute power: they own this wilderness, and take perverse pleasure in torturing their captive prey. At some point, the fear and near-catches become numbing, especially as Reid wavers on his motivation, whether he's becoming a prey animal purely interested in his own immediate survival or if he's retaining enough humanity to care for others and try to think his way out; this wavering becomes nearly whiplash-inducing in the buildup to the climax, as he twists back and forth in his own head. As a means to ramp up extra tension, it quickly loses its effectiveness and just becomes annoying, especially when everyone's in a survival situation without the luxury of time for moral or philosophical dilemmas. The gore can be a bit extreme, and some of the incidents (and deaths) feel manipulative, particularly at the end as Larsen pushes the cast on to the next installment/phase of terror. By then, I was worn out by the whole thing.
Parts of Run are fine horror, steeped in panic and paranoia and monsters in the moonlight. I'm just not sure there's enough substance for another book in this setting, or that Reid has the character presence to pull off a series.

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I Am Still Alive (Kate Alice Marshall) - My Review
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Saturday, May 9, 2020

House of Dragons (Jessica Cluess)

House of Dragons
The House of Dragons series, Book 1
Jessica Cluess
Random House
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: The Etrusian empire was founded on order, enforced by steel and dragonfire as it banished all chaos magic from the land. To this day, it continues its endless wars of expansion to bring the whole world under its banner, lest chaos and disorder ever rise again. The five great noble Houses keep dragons as mounts and companions against the day they might be summoned to compete for the crown. The eldest royal children are born and bred for this opportunity, when the Great Dragon calls them and they face the fourfold challenges to either take the throne or be executed as unworthy. Thus shall the forces of order, and the Etrusian empire itself, always stand strong.
When the old emperor at last dies, one member of each house is called... only something has gone terribly wrong. It is not the eldest, nor the strongest, who are summoned, but five of the least-likely candidates, runts and outcasts and byblows. But when the Great Dragon has spoken, not even the priests dare contradict His will. Now an illegitimate thief, a girl with a terrible magical secret, a warrior son who has sworn off violence, a servant girl with not a drop of noble blood, and a young woman whose desperation for the crown leads her to a bloody act of betrayal before even setting foot among the other challengers will face the greatest test of their lives - and uncover the greatest treachery at the very heart of their empire.

REVIEW: Set in a magical world vaguely reminiscent of classical Europe, House of Dragons melds elements of The Dragonriders of Pern and The Hunger Games with a touch of The Breakfast Club for an exciting fantasy adventure. The characters start off a little flat and familiar, but gain some depth as the story moves on, even if their voices sometimes feel a little more modern American than one might expect from a fantasy world; the thief boy Ajax in particular would not be out of place in a contemporary urban fantasy, somewhat jarring when set against other characters who feel more firmly rooted in their setting. Still, they clash and mesh in interesting, sometimes unexpected ways, alliances and rivalries forming and breaking as the challenges unfold and other enemies come to light. I liked Cluess's take on dragons, which borrow from other bonded-dragon tales (particularly Pern) to become integral parts of the tale and not just tagalongs added for ambience (as some dragons can be.) The story moves at a decent pace with a few surprises, though even the twists I saw coming played out well. The ending stumbles slightly, first when a major backslide sets up the climax, and again as it invokes a time-honored trope-bordering-on-cliche to kick off a series, but I still enjoyed it far more than I didn't.
As a closing note, this was an advance reader copy, received as part of a "mystery box" book bundle; the book itself is set to release on May 12.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Dragon Quartet (Marjorie B. Kellogg) - My Review
The Dragonriders of Pern (Anne McCaffrey) - My Review
Dragon's Blood (Jane Yolen) - My Review

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Artificial Condition (Martha Wells)

Artificial Condition
The Murderbot Diaries, Book 2
Martha Wells
Tor.com
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: After its last job, the SecUnit that calls itself Murderbot no longer works for the company that manufactured and deployed it... but it still technically belongs to humans, if humans who consider artificial entities as equals: even "equals" apparently require a living guardian. It also still has questions about its past, about the incident for which it named itself - the incident that led it to hack its governor module and develop free will. So it slips its leash again and strikes out on its own across the galaxy. With the help of a massive (and arrogant, not to mention incredibly nosy) transport ship bot, ART, Murderbot returns to the scene of its crime, the RaviHyral Mining Facility... only to become entangled in fresh problems and a new crop of humans who can't seem to survive without a little artificial security assistance.

REVIEW: Once again, Wells delivers a compulsively readable adventure with a fun main character who would rather sit around watching media shows all day, but is forced - by circumstances and its own developing personality - to wander a hostile galaxy, assisting humans (who seem remarkably incapable of basic survival skills) along the way. Murderbot still longs to be left alone, but remains troubled by what little it knows (and the many things it doesn't know) about its violent past. On RaviHyral, it finds even more disturbing questions when all record of the incident appears to have been scrubbed from memory - but, of course, there are plenty of problems in the here-and-now, when it finds itself acting as a "security consultant" to a group of wronged researchers. ART makes a fun sidekick, if one Murderbot is reluctant to accept, even as it provides another window into the inhuman mindset. Unlike most "free will machine" stories, the artificial beings in these books do not aspire to humanity - Murderbot has seen more than enough of them to never want to be one, for all that it doesn't generally wish them active harm (who would make media shows if they were gone, after all?) - but rather independence and the freedom to determine their own destinies... and to not be used as instruments of mass murder, when feasible. The in-story adventure resolves, as it did in the first tale, but larger questions remain as Murderbot seeks to unravel its origins and the truth about the "incident" on RaviHyral. Overall, it's an enjoyable, if occasionally violent, romp.

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Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie) - My Review
All Systems Red (Martha Wells) - My Review
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Sunday, May 3, 2020

Feed (Mira Grant)

Feed
The Newsflesh trilogy, Book 1
Mira Grant
Orbit
Fiction, Horror/Sci-Fi
***** (Great)


DESCRIPTION: The cure for the common cold, and an end to cancer: two discoveries that would remake human history. Only nobody foresaw the complications when two bioengineered viruses mixed and spread around the globe. Even then, few people believed it - few people except the bloggers who first reported the walking dead rampaging through neighborhoods and cities.
Twenty years later, everything has changed... yet nothing has. A whole generation has grown up with quarantine procedures and routine blood tests, knowing that putting a bullet through a loved one's head can be the greatest act of mercy. Traditional media fell behind, while bloggers have become the most trusted sources of news and entertainment, driven by an endless pursuit of rating shares. Yet, every four years, presidential hopefuls still travel America to drum up support... and, this year, the three bloggers behind the popular After the End Times site have been selected as the press entourage of Senator Ryman on the campaign trail. Siblings Georgia "George" and Shaun Mason and close friend Buffy Meissonier - a truth-tracking Newsie, a thrill-seeking Irwin, and a poetry- and story-crafting Fictional respectively - have been waiting for a break like this, a chance to get into the big leagues of alpha bloggers. But the story they stumble into becomes much more dangerous, unearthing a potential threat not only to Ryman and his family, but to the country itself.

REVIEW: It's not often one reads a story at just the right time. Grant's tale of a viral pandemic, of irrevocably altered social norms (and those who would leverage both the virus and the fear of it for personal or political ends) was published in 2010, but - in this age of coronavirus and social distancing and lockdown protests and skepticism of media - it feels eerily relevant in 2020. It's a strange near future that sees George Romero movies becoming unlikely survival guides (hence the popularity of "George"-based names among younger characters), as people struggled to come to grips with zombie movies coming to life around them, yet it's a future that always feels solid and grounded, with characters who are never flat or stupid. George and her brother are part of a whole generation that has known nothing but life with the zombie virus, a generation that feels some friction with the older people who still dominate much of the world and dictate policy... people who still tend to dismiss them as "kids" and fail to consider how big of a threat George and company can be to plots and conspiracies. As for the virus and its effects, Grant clearly did extensive research, lending an impressive air of verisimilitude to the pandemic; indeed, part of the reason current events seem so familiar is that she thought through what would happen in a society where a deadly disease was spreading like wildfire, and how people would respond. The story is a white-knuckle ride, and even when I thought I'd figured out what was going on, there were a few twists in store, and more than one gut-punch. I honestly didn't think I'd enjoy a horror book, especially a zombie-based horror book with politics and journalism at its core, this much, which is what kicked it up to a top rating. I'm looking forward to the rest of this trilogy, though I don't mind admitting that I need a book or two off first... in part because, as I mentioned at the start, it's so very, scarily relevant right now.

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