Monday, May 31, 2021

May Site Update

Memorial Day Monday, and the last day of May, so the main Brightdreamer Books site has been updated with the month's new reviews.


Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Girl from Everywhere (Heidi Heilig)

The Girl from Everywhere
The Girl from Everywhere series, Book 1
Heidi Heilig
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Teenager Nixie Song is a girl without a home, and without a time. She was born in 19th century Honolulu, but her father Slate - a Navigator who can pass between times and places, even entering mythical realms, with the right maps - came from the late 20th century in New York City... and, for nearly as long as she's been alive, he has been singularly obsessed with returning to save her mother, who died in childbirth while he was away. Aboard their ship, the Temptation, crewed by people from around the world and across the timestream, Slate seeks the increasingly rare and elusive maps that will bring him back to 1860's Hawaii, imagined panaceas to spare his lover's life, and vast fortunes to pay to continue the search itself. With her uncanny intuition about the authenticity of maps, Nixie has always been an indispensable part of his quest, but she chafes under his control. For one thing, she's becoming a young woman, and has her own dreams. For another, if Slate succeeds in saving her mother, it may snuff out her own life as though she'd never been born. When they, at long last, find a passage back to Hawaii - albeit in the 1880's, rather than the 1860's - Slate finally has a chance to purchase the map that may save his true love, but at a great cost to the Hawaiian people, his crew, and Nixie herself. How far is Nixie willing to go to support her father's obsession? Does she even have a choice, or has fate already decided for her? Her dilemma only grows more urgent when she meets the boy Blake Hart and begins to imagine a life beyond the deck of the Temptation, a life lived for herself.

REVIEW: I wanted to like this story. With the imaginative concept of sailing to nearly any place that has had a map drawn of it - even places that turned out not to exist, but were fervently believed in by the mapmakers - and the promise of grand wonders and impossible lands, with the intriguing peripheral crew of the Temptation, I really, really wanted to like this story. But I just couldn't. The characters and the plot wouldn't let me. Mostly, it's the tale of Nixie's father Slate, an emotionally abusive opium addict who literally does not care whether his own daughter (or anyone else) lives or dies so long as he gets his next hit and can pursue the ghost of a woman who always seems more like an ephemeral ideal than anyone of flesh and blood. She and the rest of the crew are victims, trapped by a tyrant, none more so than Nixie; her entire life is serving a man who sees right through her when he bothers to look at her at all. At first, this lends some nice angst and tragedy to her tale, but soon it became irritating when she did nothing but be a victim, receiving nothing but indifference (at best) or outright threats and scorn for her troubles. She's just an object to most everyone in the story, seen as a prize to be won or fought over, a means to an end, and what little agency she manages to gather is almost immediately squandered on others or snatched away while she hesitates. The whole story is clouded by this toxic relationship, the wonders muted, the characters shunted to the side and reduced to tropes or outright stereotypes, to the point where I couldn't bother caring about anyone or their fates, which become entangled in the fall of the Hawaiian monarchy and a temporal paradox and a local boy who develops a possessive crush (that's passed off as love). Things do happen, setbacks occur, a manufactured crisis punctuates the ending, but I found myself not really giving a dang. What's the point of being able to go anywhere, if I have to go there with Nixie and Slate?

You Might Also Enjoy:
Piratica (Tanith Lee) - My Review
A Darker Shade of Magic (V. E. Schwab) - My Review
Steel (Carrie Vaughn) - My Review

Friday, May 28, 2021

The Echo Wife (Sarah Gailey)

The Echo Wife
Sarah Gailey
Tor Books
Fiction, Horror/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Dr. Evelyn Caldwell is at the top of her field, developing disposable, purpose-made adult clones for use as organ donors, body doubles, or experimentation, but her personal life is a disaster. Her husband Nathan left her... not just for another woman, but for an illegal clone of herself - one he made by stealing her own theories and works, to add insult to injury. "Martine" is everything Evelyn couldn't or wouldn't be: submissive, dedicated to his every need, and ecstatic about bearing his children - even though her very existence is a crime and her ability to conceive should be impossible. Evelyn does her best to ignore Nathan and his new, false wife... until Martine calls in a panic. The clone made the mistake of questioning her maker, and now Nathan lies dead on the floor. The doctor and the clone now share more than DNA and one unfaithful man. They share a very big problem, one that's only going to get worse.

REVIEW: The Echo Wife re-imagines the moral dilemmas of Frankenstein with a dash of The Stepford Wives. The product of an abusive marriage, Evelyn vowed never to follow in her cruel father's footsteps or her mother's cringing shadow, even as she develops the detachment that lets her create and dispose of what are essentially living, breathing human beings with as little care as a farmer harvesting and cracking eggs... a detachment that Martine challenges in numerous ways. While she is the living embodiment of her failed marriage and everything Nathan wanted her to be - someone so fundamentally not who she is that it was clear their marriage was doomed from the start - she also upends nearly everything Evelyn has ever believed about her own cloning projects, as she grows beyond her programming. The tale wends and wanders (and I do mean wends and wanders; Gailey never says in a sentence what she could say in a paragraph or more, which often goes beyond merely adding atmosphere into numbingly over-descriptive navel gazing) down ever-darker paths, as Martine struggles with the limits of her existence and Evelyn struggles with her own shifting understanding of what she helped create (even though Nathan stole her research, the breakthroughs were hers), always warring with the inner voices of her abuser father and victim mother and her innate tendency to reduce human beings to clinical problems to be solved or simply ignored. It dropped in the ratings for the aforementioned wandering and an ending that offers no hope on any level whatsoever. The Echo Wife may be an intriguing exploration of identity and ethical conundrums and the long, inescapable shadows cast by abuse, but I ultimately found it far too meandering and wordy and just plain depressing.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Kiln People (David Brin) - My Review
Frankenstein (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly) - My Review
The Bone Shard Daughter (Andrea Stewart) - My Review

Finder (Suzanne Palmer)

The Finder Chronicles, Book 1
Suzanne Palmer
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Fergus Ferguson has spent his whole life running away, yet has a peculiar knack for finding things. This makes him an ideal seeker of stolen items across the galaxy; he can get in, grab the goods, and get out without any undue entanglements or regrets (at least, none he'll admit to). But this latest job - reclaiming the stolen AI-driven ship Venetia's Sword from a would-be tyrannical crime boss in the backwater collection of floating habitats called Cernekan - is nothing but undue entanglements, from the moment his interhabitat cable car is destroyed by the thief's thugs. The explosion leads to the death of the grandmotherly Vahn matriarch, a lichen farmer whose last act saves his life. Despite his personal rule about staying out of local troubles, the local troubles have found him - troubles inextricably entwined with a delicate power balance on the verge of collapse, the unexplained interference of a mysterious and dangerous alien race, and secrets long held by the old woman... and by Fergus Ferguson, whose past is catching up with him even as his future looks more uncertain than ever.

REVIEW: I went to the bookstore looking for something new and interesting... and, if I'm being honest, another book entirely, but the nearest surviving Barnes and Noble has gutted their genre section to near-uselessness. So I took a chance on an impulse buy from the "New Arrivals" section (which is larger now than their entire science fiction and fantasy area... and they wonder why people turn to internet options. But, I digress...). It was pitched by the staff recommendation as "Star Wars meets Indiana Jones", which isn't quite accurate. It's more of an homage to older space adventures, with reasonably hard science but also more than enough room for action, danger, and just a hint of the inexplicable and alien at the fringes. Things kick off fairly quickly; by the end of the first chapter we have a rough sketch of our story, our hero, and our setting, rounded out by our first explosion. The tale keeps moving fairly well from then on out, as Fergus keeps getting himself into more trouble and digging himself in deeper with the power play/open war that's just been sparked in Cernekan, in no small part due to his arrival (or, rather, the balance-tipping ship he was sent to repossess). This isn't his first dance with civil war, but the last one left scars and regrets he swore never to repeat... only the universe apparently doesn't care what he swore, and sometimes the only way out of danger is right through the heart of it. Around Fergus grows a network of allies and enemies (he tries not to entangle himself enough for true friends, just contacts, but ends up with friends anyway), which sometimes gets a bit tangled and convoluted. The mystery aliens insert themselves into the tale at a key moment. If anything feels off-step in this story, it's them, though I expect that's because their actions and reasoning will be further explained (insomuch as they can be) in future installments. The rest of the book, however, is solid adrenaline-rush old-school science fiction action, establishing a universe and main character more than sturdy enough to carry further adventures.
As a closing note, I read this with just a slight twist of sadness. This is the exact kind of book that, some years ago, I would've handed over to my father as soon as I'd finished; as an old-time science fiction fan, he would've eaten it up. Dementia is a cruel disease, indeed...

You Might Also Enjoy:
Starfire: A Red Peace (Spencer Ellsworth) - My Review
The Warrior Within (Angus McIntyre) - My Review
A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe (Alex White) - My Review

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Faithless Hawk (Margaret Owen)

The Faithless Hawk
The Merciful Crow series, Book 2
Margaret Owen
Henry Holt and Co.
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Life for the Crow caste in Sabor - the ones who, through their immunity, deal with victims of the Sinner's Plague, persecuted and even hunted - is always rough, but things seem to be going rather well for young chief Fie. By helping the crown prince Jasimir and his half-brother/bodyguard Tavin escape the would-be usurper tyrant Queen Rhusana's clutches, she secured a blood-sworn oath that would better the lot of the Crows in general, while the cross-caste love she found with Tavin will hopefully better her life in particular once this whole scuffle for power is resolved. It shouldn't be too long; Jasimir has the backing of Tavin's mother, the Hawk general, and Rhusana's base is an extremist minority who want to exterminate Crows even if the whole of Sabor burns to ash from unchecked plague.
They all underestimated their enemy.
With an army of skin-ghasts - nearly-indestructible boneless monstrosities created from the dead - and her Swan-witch power to manipulate those around her, coupled with the other castes' utter paralysis in the face of her sheer audacity, Queen Rhusana quickly regains the upper hand... even gaining control over Tavin, when Jasimir proves intractable. Soon, she will be properly coronated, the Crows will die, and all of Sabor will burn.
But Rhusana has also underestimated someone. Crows take care of their own, and Fie isn't about to let them fall without a fight.

REVIEW: Like the first book, The Faithless Hawk is almost compulsively readable. Fie and her companions remain strong characters, not prone to dithering or monologuing or pining or otherwise tripping up the plot with angst or stupidity. That's not to say they don't feel or make mistakes, but feelings are channeled into action rather than inaction, and mistakes recognized and corrected rather than stupidly ignored and magnified. Seeing Tavin turned tears the heart from Fie's chest; while he was raised on the poetic notion of sacrificing the world for the sake of love, she knows the world Rhusana wants won't be one in which any love can last. But she knows her duty, and still has allies, not to mention the teeth from which she draws the power of Sabor's other castes. (She also still has her cat, Barf, a good luck charm who helps her out of a few situations.) Likewise, Rhusana is no simple cackling evildoer, but a cunning and manipulative foe who maintains her grip on power as much by shocking the establishment as by her witchcraft. (One can very easily draw certain parallels with real world tyrants, particularly those who use pandemics and scapegoated minorities and flagrant norm-shattering to gain control and care not a whit if their own country burns so long as they rule the ashes.) The matter is further complicated when she learns the truth of one tale: the witches of Sabor, such as herself, are indeed the reincarnated souls of the dead gods who created the Covenant. In her case, that adds another layer of complication, as an unfulfilled blood-oath from a previous life is part of what's fouling things up so terribly in this one, not just for her but for the whole land. It ties into the deaths of the gods, the creation of the Covenant, the origins of the Sinner's Plague, and the stolen gift of the Crow caste... all of which could've easily tipped over into preaching, but which fits perfectly into the worldbuilding here and meshes with everything already established about Sabor. The whole builds to an intense climax. I came close to shaving a half-star for one revelation toward the end, but the characters pay a sufficient price, and the overall story is strong enough, that I wound up forgiving it. The whole is a solid tale with one of the strongest and most genuine heroines I've read in a while. I look forward to Owen's future works.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Glasswright's Apprentice (Mindy L. Klasky) - My Review
The Two Princesses of Bamarre (Gail Carson Levine) - My Review
The Merciful Crow (Margaret Owen) - My Review

Friday, May 21, 2021

Long Way Down (Jason Reynolds)

Long Way Down
Jason Reynolds
Athenium/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Fiction, YA Chiller/Poetry
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: The night fifteen-year-old Will's brother Shawn is gunned down in the street, the boy knows just what to do with the grief tearing his heart out. There are Rules for this, taught to him by Shawn, who learned it from others: don't cry, don't snitch, and always take revenge. Will didn't see who pulled the trigger, but he's pretty sure he knows who, and he has the gun Shawn left behind in their shared room. Full of rage and fear and confusion, Will leaves his apartment and takes the elevator to the lobby, intent on following the Rules and exacting his revenge - only to find a dead uncle stepping aboard at the next floor, and another ghost on the one after... It's a long way down to the lobby, and even longer when the dead must have their say.

REVIEW: I listened to the audiobook (read by the author) at work, not quite sure what to expect from such a relatively short piece. The free-form verse tells a story of anger and fear and pain and a self-perpetuating cycle of ultimately pointless payback that destroys lives long after the original injustice (if indeed there was one) has been forgotten. Will has known pain since before he can remember, and known death on a personal level at least as long, as friends and family members have been claimed by the violence that poisons his world like smog. The only way he knows how to deal with grief is by following the Rules that led to the grief in the first place. The ghostly visitors show the scope of the horrors that have encompassed his life since childhood, horrors he never thinks to question until looking into the faces of death all around him. The nightmarish elevator ride has shades of Dickens, but only if all the ghosts were as grim as the Ghost of Christmas Future, with as little hope of salvation. Does Will understand what they're saying, by the end? Is it already too late for him by the time he steps into the elevator car with his brother's gun tucked into his waistband? Did he ever have a choice but to eventually join them, whether today or tomorrow or next year, as the Rules play out endlessly around him, claiming more lives that create more killers that claim more lives? The ending leaves Will's choice and fate unspecified, but there is no doubt that the visions have made him fundamentally reassess his world. It's a powerful, harrowing tale.
The audiobook I listened to included a brief interview with the author, wherein he describes the inspirations for the tale and mentions his own dislike of ebooks, where readers can change font sizes and such in ways that, to his mind, ruin the impact and flow of his verse in an unacceptable way. The ability to change font sizes and types is one of the benefits of ereader devices for people with visual impairments or other issues. For some reason, this broad-brush dismissal irked me subtly. Other than that, the interview (more of a monologue wherein he answered his own questions) was reasonably interesting, though, adding depth and background to the story.

You Might Also Enjoy:
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Thursday, May 20, 2021

Race the Sands (Sarah Beth Durst)

Race the Sands
Sarah Beth Durst
Harper Voyager
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the desert empire of Becar, death is never the end; one is reborn in a new form, anything from a bug to a person, influenced by the choices one makes and the life one lives. For the worst of the worst, however, there is only the doom of becoming a kehok, a monster birthed full-grown from the earth and imbued with rage at its own existence, driven to hunt and kill and destroy. Once a soul has fallen to the level of a kehok, there is no escape, just life after life as a kehok, eternal torment in bodies that defy nature and minds that can no longer even conceive they were anything but a monster. At least, there's almost no hope. The people of Becar hunt kehoks, but not simply for defense: they're captured and trained (as much as they can be, with their inborn bloodlust) for the races that are the high point of the empire's year. The annual grand champion rider earns wealth and fame to last a lifetime, while the winning racer - thanks to a charm created by the augur priests - is given the chance to break the cycle and be reborn as a human.
Tamra used to be a top kehok rider until a disaster on the track left her too injured to ride. Then she was a top trainer, until an accident left her rider (and others) dead and herself blamed. Now she gets paid a meager sum to teach the arrogant children of arrogant nobles how to race kehoks, but none of them will ever be anything but dabblers. They don't really understand what it takes to be a winner, the iron will needed to dominate a kehok's mind and the bone-deep thirst for victory. They don't even understand the kehoks, that every moment in a monster's presence could be their last in this life if their focus fails. She hates it, but she has to eat... plus the augur temple needs their money to train her daughter Shalla, who was chosen to join their ranks due to the purity of her soul; if Tamra can't pay the ever-increasing fees, they'll take the girl away and Tamra won't see her little girl again until she's a grown woman and a stranger.
After another training incident costs Tamra her students, her eccentric patron gives her one last chance to produce a winning racer. Which is how she winds up with the black-scaled lion kehok deemed utterly untrainable by everyone else... and the teen girl Raia, a runaway desperate to escape the clutches of parents who would sell her off to an abuser in order to line their own pockets. It's also how Tamra and Raia found themselves up to their scalps in a plot that extends to the very heart of Becar, trapped between courtly schemes, hidden corruption, and a foreign army on the march ready to strike the empire as it teeters on the brink of collapse - all of which seems to connect to this year's races, and to the black lion.

REVIEW: Another audiobook to kill time at work, Race the Sands presents an interesting world, where reincarnation is a real and studied thing. Augur priests help people make better choices to improve their odds of a better rebirth, and kehoks present a tangible reminder of the stakes. If you think that would make a people behave better, though, literally seeing monstrous manifestations of their own tortured futures, though, think again. Whether through rationalization, ignorance, selfishness, or simply not caring (after all, one only rarely retains memories of one's previous life, so it's not like they'll be plagued by regrets), people end up being just as terrible to each other as they are in our own world, with levels of corruption increasing in proportion to power and wealth. Durst manages to mostly avoid the expected here, in worldbuilding or characters, even though the rough sketch here is obviously based countless tales of underdog racehorses (and their riders and trainers and other associates) making good cross-pollinated with the fantasy staple of an empire facing both internal and external threats as an untested royal struggles to claim the crown he never wanted. The plot moves fairly well, with some nice twists and a few setbacks and some nicely intense training and racing sequences, all culminating in a powerful climax. Along the way, the characters have to deal with many personal issues about love and faith and family and loyalty, and how the line between right and wrong, sin and virtue, that seems so clear in theory is blurred to near nonexistence in the real world. There are a few points where the tale feels a touch drawn out, plus some character clutter (especially characters who fall off the tale's radar by the end), not to mention a few instances where Raia's insecurities and young Shalla's naive optimism feel forced, but otherwise this is a solid story, with a premise and characters and world that could almost support a sequel.

You Might Also Enjoy:
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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Chaos Vector (Megan E. O'Keefe)

Chaos Vector
The Protectorate series, Book 2
Megan E. O'Keefe
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The prototype AI vessel Light of Berossus is gone, fleeing the system rather than being used as a devastating weapon in the ongoing conflict between Ada Prime - loyal subject of the star-spanning Prime civilization - and the breakaway faction on Icarion, which rejects the stifling rules of the Prime Keepers and their terrifyingly effective guardcore enforcers. Major Sanda Greeve of Ada has been returned to her family, alive and well (if sans one leg)... but a fugitive, framed for the death of rogue Keeper Laveaux. During her time in captivity, someone stuck a Keeper chip into her head containing coordinates that Laveaux was desperate to obtain. Now, those coordinates are her only clue to the vast conspiracy she inadvertently unearthed, but to reach them she'll need a ship and an unorthodox crew. Fortunately, one of her fathers still has contacts in some very out-of-the-way places, and she still has the trust and support of her Keeper brother Biran. Unfortunately, the danger she discovered will spare no one, and the truth she finds will upend everything she ever thought she knew about Prime and the Casimir Gates that connect humanity across the stars.

REVIEW: The second installment of the Protectorate (probable) trilogy starts almost right where the first one left off, with Sanda and Biran still up to their necks, or rather well over their heads, in danger. O'Keefe does not bother to recap, but jumps right back into the action; given that it's been a while since I read Velocity Weapon, it took me some time to get back up to speed, but the writing is fun and characters distinctive enough to keep me turning pages even when I was still scrounging the gray matter for memories of who was who and what was what. There are almost no lulls in the plot as Sanda, Biran, and the other core characters race to uncover a long-lost secret, scramble to determine friend from foe, and try to stop a disaster in the making, all while facing an essentially immortal enemy with many faces (or many versions of the same face) and who has had centuries to study humanity and plot its destruction. There are few backslides in character intelligence, and while characters do make mistakes, they're mistakes made honestly and not because of an author deliberately turning their brains to gelatin for the sake of extending a plot. Most find their sense of morality pushed from sharp black and white into increasingly dark shades of gray, forced to weigh options where there is no pure or bloodless or oath-honoring solution, some being pushed to extremes they never imagined. Throughout it all, there's a nice sense of humanity underlying the character interactions, making the devastation all the more stark. The ending sets up a third book that looks like an even bigger thrill ride... one which I don't intend to wait quite so long to read, once it's released this summer. (I will be fully vaccinated by then, and am already plotting a major bookstore binge to honor the occasion... future global or national disasters permitting, of course.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
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Friday, May 7, 2021

The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas)

The Hate U Give
The Hate U Give series, Book 1
Angie Thomas
Balzer + Bray
Fiction, YA General Fiction
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Teenager Starr Carter has never been much of anyone. Around Garden Heights, the sometimes-rough neighborhood where she lives, she's just known as her father's daughter, who sometimes helps at his store. At the private school she attends, she's just one of the very few nonwhite students. Between the two worlds, she doesn't seem to actually belong anywhere. She didn't even feel she belonged at the neighborhood party she was drug to, until she bumped into Khalil. The two were raised together. He was her first crush as a kid. But now, they haven't talked in months. They may live in the same part of town, but they've fallen into different worlds.
He was giving her a ride home from the party, two friends catching up, when the cop pulled them over.
Minutes later, Khalil is dead, shot in the back - and Starr is the only witness.
The killing sends shock waves through Garden Heights and the whole city, and soon becomes a national story. The media tries to paint Khalil as a gang-banger, the sort of person who would probably end up dead anyway. Only Starr can set the record straight... but is she brave enough to use her voice when it's needed most?

REVIEW: This award-winning story hits straight at the heart of headlines that are far too common, showing the turmoil police shootings cause in communities and individual lives and the tragedy of every lost life. The characters are, with few exceptions, well rounded and complex, dealing with lives that are often messy but are also full of hope and love and potential - potential all too often quashed by a society that still refuses to acknowledge its biases and the untenable positions it drives many people into only to punish them for failing at games rigged from the start. It's almost inevitable that people get pulled into the maelstrom of gangs and drugs and other problems plaguing Garden Heights, but broad-brush judgments make poor excuses for cold-blooded murder. Everyone has to grapple with what race and racism mean, how far they're willing to go to be heard and attempt to change things, each taking different paths and different role models. Along the way, Starr learns that there are many forms of bravery. Her family provides support and a solid foundation of love, even when they squabble among themselves, but ultimately she has to stand on her own and make her own choices. It narrowly lost a half-star due to some slow spots, particularly when Thomas meandered through the Carter family dynamics (which were well written, but didn't particularly advance the plot), but overall it's a very good examination of some thorny issues that have no easy answers, using some great characters that feel real.

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