bookaneer

bookaneer

Unabashedly unprofessional reviews in fantasy, scifi, and mystery.
Coming to terms with an addiction to bad puns.

Review
5 Stars
"Science fiction [texts] say something about the dreamer, the dream interpreter, and the audience."
Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation - Ken Liu

 

Invisible Planets

Edited and translated by Ken Liu

 

I haven't read all that much Chinese speculative fiction, so when I saw Invisible Planets on Netgalley, I jumped at the chance to read it. I'm always incredulous by any statements attempting to summarize the imaginations of an entire country, so I was relieved when Ken Liu explicitly stated in the forward that he had no illusions that the collection is somehow a full representation of all of Chinese scifi. As he says, this is a collection of stories from seven contemporary authors, and while the stories speak to the mood of the societies they write about,

"Science fiction is the literature of dreams, and texts concerning dreams always say something about the dreamer, the dream interpreter, and the audience."

Chen Qiufan, the first author of the collection, is also probably my favourite. His stories are an effortless mixture of humor and horror, absurdity and realism. "The Year of the Rat", which involves a dystopian society overrun by genetically-engineered Neorats™, is full of vivid characters and dramatic twists. "The Fish of Lijiang" is packed with dramatic metaphor, a cynical tale about time, ambition, and lost opportunities. My favourite quote:

"I have a car, a house--everything a man should have, including erectile dysfunction and insomnia. If happiness and time are the two axes of a graph, then I'm afraid the curve of my life has already passed the apex and is on its inexorable way down to the bottom."

"The Flower of Shazui" is equally forceful and gorgeous, and even more lyrical. My favourite quote:

"Sin is like wine. The more it is hidden from sunlight, the more it ferments, growing more potent."

Incisive and brilliant, I also loved his characterization of the literary role of scifi:

"In my view, 'what if' is at the heart of science fiction. Starting with reality itself, the writer applies plausible and logically consistent conditions to play out a thought experiment, pushing the characters and plot toward an imagined hyperreality that evokes a sense of wonder and estrangement."


As a contrast to Chen Qiufan's cynical eloquence, Xia Jia's stories feel more mythopoeic to me, rather in the style of Charles de Lint or Emma Bull. "A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight" felt particularly imbued with myth and folklore, to the point where I was quite sure I was missing most of the references. "Tongtong's Summer" was something of a contrast to the dreamlike "Ghosts," a sweet, optimistic (to the point of impracticality) story of home robots and the way technology could improve the lives of the elderly and infirm. "Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse" was probably my favourite story by Xia Jia, a gorgeous and haunting vision of a post-human world.


Only one story from Ma Boyong is included in the collection, but it's also one of the most unique. I found "The City of Silence" to be a pretty straightforward satire about oppression, but it's also eminently quotable. Some of my favourites:

"Only the bookmarks menu, which could not be edited, contained the addresses for a few Web sites. The reason for this was simple: all these Web sites were healthy and positive. If other Web sites had the same contents as these, then logically, having access to these Web sites alone was sufficient. On the other hand, if other sites had different content, then, logically, those other sites must be unhealthy and vulgar and should not be accessed."
"Shielded was a technical term. A shielded word was forbidden in writing or in speech. Ironically, shielded itself was a shielded word."
"Better and worse were variables, but his life was a constant, the value of which was repression."
All in all, "The City of Silence" is a worthy successor to 1984 with all the infuriatingly circular black comedy of Catch 22.


After "The City of Silence," the tone of the collection drifted more from incisive satire to lyrical metaphor and creative flights of fancy. Hao Jingfang's stories are wildly imaginative, from "Invisible Planets"' vivid vignettes of life on a series of bizarre planets to "Folding Beijing"'s portrait of a city that can fold and reform like origami. Hao Jingfang uses these gorgeously imaginative backdrops to explore themes such as prejudice, time, and identity, and truth:

"He didn't know what was the point of knowing the truth. If he could see some things clearly but was still powerless to change them, what good did that do?"

Tang Fei's "Call Girl" is a short tale, but memorable for its gorgeously poetic language, for example:

"Sunlight slices across her shoulders like a knife blade."

Unfortunately, I think I was missing the cultural background to truly understand Cheng Jingbo's "Grave of the Fireflies". The story is packed with symbolism and allusion, melding together imagery of magical castles, frontier pioneers, magical castles, deep space, red giants, and extinguished stars. The collection ends with two stories by the renowned Liu Cixin, but I found his stories a bit wanting. Almost the entire plot of "The Circle,", including the primary conceit of a CPU made out of humans, also appears in The Three Body Problem. I quite enjoyed the conceit of "Taking Care of God", where humans finally meet their makers, not as divine beings, but as elderly beings who need assistance. His nonfiction essay certainly contains no false modesty, as he pretty much claims that his book was singlehandedly responsible for the renaissance of Chinese scifi.

The collection finishes up with several of the authors' nonfiction essays. While I appreciate how Ken Liu refuses to try to characterize all of Chinese science fiction, there are some common themes woven throughout. As many of the essays note, the attitudes of science fiction can characterize overarching feelings about technology and society's future.One such theme, expressed by many of the authors in the nonfiction essays about scifi included at the end, is that of the "Chinese Dream," which Xia Jia defines as

"the revival of the Chinese nation in the modern era."

Chen Qiufan expresses its influence on society as follows:

"Between the feeling of individual failure and the conspicuous display of national prosperity lies an unbridgeable chasm. The result is a division of the population into two extremes: one side rebels against the government reflexively (sometimes without knowing what its 'cause' is) and trusts nothing it says; the other side retreats into nationalism to give itself the sense of mastering its own fate."

Overall, Invisible Cities is a gorgeous collection, well worth reading for anyone curious about Chinese scifi or just looking for some great new contemporary authors.

 

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, , in exchange for my honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the collection as a whole.~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Animals of a Bygone Era
If you're looking for a whimsical, beautifully illustrated, and just plain fun coffee-table book, Maja Säfström's Animals of a Bygone Era could be just the thing. The book is short but very sweet, with quaint drawings and mischievous comments that make it a thoroughly enjoyable read for kids or adults.
 
I wish I could show a few examples of the inside pages, but so far the publisher hasn't released any, so I'll do my best to describe the format. Each animal gets two pages, with one or more creatures, short handwritten comments pointing to the animal. Often the animal itself has a few comments; for example, the Eomanis, a predecessor of the modern pangolin, has some notes on the page saying that it started as a vegetarian but ended up eating insects.
The page has the following dialogue:
Pangolin: "Hi guys..."
Insects: "You're just gonna eat this leaf, right?"
Pangolin: "Well."
 
If you're in the mood for a whimsical picture book that will make for an enjoyable read for kids and adults, then Animals of a Bygone Era is well worth a look.
 
I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Ten Speed Press, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!
 
~~Cross-posted on Goodreads.~~
Review
5 Stars
"I seriously need to hear that this can't happen."
The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred - Greg Egan

The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred

 

by Greg Egan

 

Egan is one of my go-to authors for thought-provoking stories. He has a gift for bringing "what-if" questions to life, and his novella The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred is no exception. The story alternates between the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. Centuries ago, when Vesta was colonized, the Sivadier syndicate brought only intellectual property rather than material goods. Members of the New Dispensation Movement see an injustice that they seek to redress by leveraging an increased tax on the descendants of the Sivadiers. No matter how insane Vestan resident Camille finds it, the NDM is gaining popularity:

"If the majority believe that they're the victims of injustice, it doesn't matter what the adjudicators say."

The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred is one of those stories that I found thought-provoking in ways that I'm not sure the author intended. The core issue for the NDM is reparations: they want the Sivadiers to pay for what their ancestors did. In an era where the subject is very much in the public consciousness, Egan circumvents the real issues of reparation to create a strawman where the aggrieved are clearly out of line, a world away from the questions of systemic inequality broached today.

"A tiny group of vexatious litigants, powered by nothing but their own limitless sense of entitlement."

Intentionally or not, this emphasizes what I believe to be the true role of reparations: to repair, to give new generations equal footing, to ensure that the injustices of the past do not continue to reverberate into the future.

The Sivadier descendants on Vesta are left with a terrible choice: pay the extortionate tax and accept a lessening of dignity, or fight. And if they fight, what actions can they take that will not contribute to an existential threat that will make them want to wipe us out ? If neither terrorism nor capitulation will help, what options are left? As both sides become increasingly angry, how can anyone prevent the escalation?

On Ceres, Anna is facing her own moral dilemma, a truly diabolical instance of the Trolley Problem, and that's where the story truly shines. As she puts it:

"We have a special name, here, for a certain kind of failure to defer to the greater good-- for putting a personal sense of doing right above any objective measure of the outcome. It's called 'moral vanity.' On Ceres, it's about the worst thing you can be accused of."

It is in this philosophical forced choice that the story truly shines. While The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred took me less than an hour to read, the questions it provoked stayed with me far longer, and what higher praise can there be?

I received this book through Netgalley from the publisherSubterranean Press, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and may not reflect the final phrasing.

~~Cross-posted on Goodreads.~~

Review
5 Stars
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies - Ben Macintyre

This book. Is. Amazing.

Do you know how many uncaptured German spies were operating in Britain during WWII?
Zero.
That's right.

Every single German spy was either captured or became part of MI5's XX System, aka "Double-Cross." And each one of them was... a character. As McIntyre puts it:

"They included a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a mercurial Frenchwoman a Serbian seducer, and a deeply eccentric Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming. Together, under Robertson's guidance, they delivered all of the little lies that together made up the big lie.
[...]
The Double Cross spies were, variously, courageous, treacherous, capricious, greedy, and inspired. They were not obvious heroes, and their organization was betrayed from within by a Soviet spy. One was so obsessed with her pet dog that she came close to derailing the entire invasion. All were, to some extent, fantasists, for that is the very essence of espionage. Two were of dubious moral character.One was a triple, and possibly a quadruple, agent."


The story of the Double Cross spies reads like a British farce, up to and including the fact that all of the spies were given punny names. One of the handlers thought of the entire war in times of cricket. One agent, codenamed Garbo, created an entirely imaginary network of sub-spies that comprised 27 hallucinated agents. Another nearly drove MI5 to send a warship to bring her dog over and avoid the sacrosanct quarantine laws. Yet another began his career in Portugal, making up fake reports for the Germans about Liverpudlians hanging out in wine bars and naval exercises in what turned out to be landlocked lakes. No matter how easily the British managed to defeat the Germans in the spying game, the Soviets' Cambridge Five had just as successfully infiltrated them. Yet the Cambridge Five were, if anything, too successful: knowing from their spies about Double Cross, the Soviets were convinced their own agents had also been doubled. Oh, the perils of paranoia.

Double Cross is occasionally poignant-- it is, after all, about WWII-- and often incredible, but above all, it is hands-down funny. My favourite quote:

One evening, in his safe house in Hinxton, near Cambridge, Caroli crept up behind his minder while he was playing solitaire and tried to throttle him with a piece of rope. When this failed, he apologized, tied the man to a chair, and ran off with a can of sardines, a pineapple, and a large canvas shoe. He then stole a motorcycle and motored, very slowly, toward the coast with the canoe balanced on his head. He intended to paddle to Holland. A roadman reported to police that a man with a canoe had fallen off his motorcycle on Pamisford road, and he had helped the man throw the canoe over a hedge.'


If you're looking for a crazy fun nonfiction book to read, then Double Cross is it.

Review
3 Stars
"The allure of the exotic"
An Import of Intrigue - Marshall Ryan Maresca

An Import of Intrigue

by Marshall Maresca

 

To say I enjoyed the first book in this series, A Murder of Mages, is an almost criminal understatement. As soon as I finished the book, I (a) went out and purchased the only other novel by Maresca I could get my hands on, and (b) reread the book. Given this highly atypical behavior on my part--I almost never buy books-- you can imagine my excitement when I received an arc of the sequel, An Import of Intrigue.

It's a bit hard to explain why these books work so well for me. Part of it is the genre: I absolutely adore detective novels crossed with speculative fiction, and police procedurals in this vein are particularly fun. I also have a deep fondness for urban-fantasy themes in high-fantasy worlds, and I thoroughly enjoyed Maresca's blend of clockpunk and steampunk. Last but not least, there were the characters: Satrine, the wife of an injured cop and a mother of two, with a history in spycraft and a goal of tricking her way into a decent-paying job, made for a highly sympathetic female protagonist. And then there is Minox, a member of a multigenerational clan of coppers with the not-so-secret disability of uncontrolled magic. I particularly liked Minox, who came across to me as fitting somewhere on the spectrum. In Import, we get to see a new side of the city: its foreign quarter. A mysterious murder has taken place that seems to involve every major foreign group in the city, and Satrine and Minox are taxed with finding the guilty party, hopefully without starting too many riots.

Given my feelings about the first book, you can imagine how much it breaks my heart to say it, but An Import of Intrigue really didn't work for me. I've always had some issues with the way that Maresca approaches race in his book, and this story merely exacerbates my issues. The Druth, who seem to me to be a vaguely British/European-based culture, create a white default, and all of the "exotic" foreign cultures the book deal with are varying shades of brown (and, in one case, grey). By the time we're in a fantasy world, why do authors insist upon basing so much upon skincolor? Why do they not understand the massive cultural baggage involved in having a character, say, go in blackface? Worse still, the imaginary cultures are clearly stereotyped shills for real-life cultures. The Kierans, for example, with their obsessions with bathing and art and trade and their general decadence, are based on the Romans.

The Lyranans are more problematic. Here is the opening description of them:

"They spoke in similar ways, with that tonal quality, and their faces had nearly no expression, at least none that Minox could properly understand. The only thing he could get out of it was haughtiness, but that might just be his own biases. Even the graceful, fluid way they moved their hands was odd, almost inhuman. More disturbing was the difficulty he had in identifying their differences. There was no sense of age he could place on any of them."

The Lyranans have names like "Fao Nengtaj" and "Pra Yikenj"and their language includes words like "teungzhai". Characterized as being extremely formal and with an obsession with titles and propriety, they eat glass noodles with "strange utensils" and have one agent skilled in an exotic martial art. They speak with a "strange tonal quality", their writing is made up of complex symbols, and they value poetry, particularly in a specific complex form. Given all this, is it any wonder that the Lyranans came across as a shallow and ill-informed stereotype of generic Asian culture?

The Imachan culture was even more offensive. How sure am I that the Imach culture is ripped off of some of the worst stereotypes of Muslims? Well, they have names like"Nalassein Hajan," "Ghalad", "Kadabali," and "Assan Jabiudal". The men wear "thick beards" and women are forced to wear heavy fully-covering clothing and are generally considered "unclean." And their "Eht'shahala"-- way too close to "inshallah," isn't it? Oh, and they are religious zealots, run by "his High Holiness the Cehlat of Imachan", and the story involves two different sects who bitterly hate each other. How over-the-top offensive was the characterization? Well, here's an example quote:

"The presumption--an accepted convention--is that Imach men are enflamed by fair-haired Druth women, and even more so by my coloring."
"Surely they wouldn't attack you."
"Probably not."


Look, I get it. Maresca is trying to write a book about racism, tolerance, and clash of cultures. There are quite a few gratifying moments when Minox is called out for his thoughtless assumptions and biases. But here's my problem: if you're trying to write a book about racism, you better be really, really sure that you aren't thoughtlessly invoking biased stereotypes. And in my opinion, Maresca lost that one and lost it hard. If you want to write about foreign cultures, even in fantasy, then I believe that you have to do it right and do the research. It can be done; The Golem and the Jinni is a beautiful example of respectful multicultural fantasy. If other authors are daunted by the seven years of research that Wexler put in, then why not use their imaginations and create their own cultures? This is supposed to be fantasy.Why attempt to superficially mimic real cultures rather than create your own? I just don't get it.

Maybe it was because I was already in a bad mood, but this book also injured my view of the protagonists. In this book, we learned that Satrine didn't actually earn her skills in the spy trade; he got them via magic which required no effort on her part. Worse still, Maresca finally applied to what started out as an important main character some of the most standard objectifications against women.

He has reduced her to a walking womb. She has gone from a strong women with an ill husband to a girl shoved into a situation her smarts had nothing to do with, got pregnant, participated in a shotgun wedding, and hid away her kid. She's no longer a cop; she's a womb, the progenitor of a royal heir. 

(show spoiler)

And to top it all, the mystery was, sad to say, pretty lame, although at least the characters thought so as well.

As Satrine puts it, "a confession drops into our lap."  If Rup-Sed wanted to bring attention to what was going on, why didn't he try to tell the investigators what was going on?

(show spoiler)

 Whenever I could rip my thoughts away from fuming about the Imach and Lyranan cultures, I tried to enjoy the book. We get to see all of the fun characters of A Murder of Mages as well as some sly mentions of the other story arc taking place in the world.

Is this book worth a read? Well, it's definitely worth checking out A Murder of Mages first. If you've fallen in love with the world, and your rage triggers aren't the same as mine, then maybe this book could be a lot of fun. The book also puts a larger story arc into position that I'm interested to explore further. Even though I'm mourning the missed opportunities of this book, you can definitely count me in for the next.

~~I received an advanced reader copy from the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, in exchange for my (depressingly) honest review.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

 

Review
3.5 Stars
The Secret Language of Dogs
The Secret Language of Dogs: Unlocking the Canine Mind for a Happier Pet - Victoria Stilwell

The Secret Language of Dogs

 

by Victoria Stillwell

 

For the last few years, the dog-training world has been rife with conflict. One contingent, following the teachings of the likes of celebrity "dog-whisperer" Cesar Millan, believe that dogs and humans are in a constant struggle for dominance and that an integral part of training is teaching your dog that you're the alpha. Others, given voice by renowned animal behaviourists like Alexandra Horowitz and celebrity trainers like Victoria Stillwell, argue that positive reinforcement is the only sane, logical, and humane way to train. Full disclosure: I'm one hundred percent on the side of positive reinforcement. The old dominance chestnut stems mainly from flawed behaviour studies of captive wolves in fractured packs, overgeneralized not only to wild wolves but also to dogs. While I've read a lot of books by dog behaviorists, I haven't recently read all that many books by trainers, so I was interested to hear Stillwell's perspective.

 

The Secret Language of Dogs is a short, reasonably engaging treatise on basic dog training and behavior. I strongly suspect that I'm not the target audience-- I work one day a week in an animal shelter and this is far from my first dog book, so I wasn't overly impressed by the common-sense points that Stillwell presents. More problematically, it uses a tactic that I term "Proof by Expert": she presents a "fact" that she tells us was proved by scientific authorities rather than discussing the study itself. I think she is so focused on opposing Cesar Millan's abusive alpha-dog training style that she ends up sacrificing accuracy for simplicity and expediency. For example, Stillwell states that dogs aren't trying to dominate people because she says they are incapable of planning:

"A dog's cerebral cortex is not as intricate as a human's, so dogs can't strategize with such complexity."

This is specious reasoning in two ways. First, the statement she seeks to disprove says nothing about domination requiring equivalent brainpower to humans. Second, while it's at least a little better than the old weigh-the-brain chestnut that caused men to claim women were less intelligent for so many years, gross anatomical comparisons of brains aren't a great way to judge intelligence. A better argument would be to discuss the origin of the theory in the flawed captive wolf studies, or to examine some of the studies that compared training methods.

 

Like Horowitz, Stillwell also warns against personifying your dog. Again, I applaud her motivations; all too often, people expect dogs to behave like little humans and that's just not fair. However, I question some of her statements. Stillwell says that

"it is unlikely that dogs are truly aware of how their behavior affects others,"

despite the fact that there have been several studies indicating that dogs' emotional intelligence surpasses this level. She says that dogs are not "empathetic in the true sense of the word," when it's not even clear how you could objectively quantify such a characterization.

 

If you aren't in the habit of reading dog books, then I think this could be useful. It is engagingly written and--thankfully!-- pushes positive reinforcement rather than brutal "alpha" tactics. It is full of cute doggy pictures that are fun to flip through, and also has a quite a few fun facts. My personal favourite: the "zoomies," what we called "Bichon blitzes" with my dog, have the more formal name of "frenetic random activity periods," or FRAPs. While I think the book tends towards oversimplification, it also probably isn't intended to be a pop-science book in the vein of Horowitz. If you're looking for a fast and engaging starter book on dog behaviour, The Secret Language of Dogs is well worth a look.

 

~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Ten Speed Press, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
"Everybody is on a leash. Some are more obvious than others."
After Atlas (Planetfall Novel, A) - Emma Newman

After Atlas

by Emma Newman

 

After Atlas proves that, yes indeed, Emma Newman can do cyberpunk. Good news: although it takes place in the same world as Newman's earlier novel, After Atlas can be read without Planetfall, and if the idea of a discussion of agency wrapped around a police procedural taking place in a world remade by gov-corps sounds appealing while an exploration of OCD on an alien planet does not, then I'd definitely recommend jumping straight ahead to After Atlas. You'll miss a certain amount of dramatic irony, but the worldbuilding and plot points should be entirely intelligible. The narrator of After Atlas is Carlos, a police inspector for the Noropean Ministry of Justice. Carlos is also an indentured slave with few rights and little hope of freedom. After "the transition from pseudo-democracy into neoliberty," the new gov-corps tried their hands at solving the issues of poverty and homelessness in the most economical way they could think of: "nonpersons" are scooped off the streets and locked into "hot-houses," where their brains are crammed with skills so they can be sold to the highest bidder.

 

Carlos is luckier than most, for the MoJ is a comparatively kindly master. He may not have the right to own property or be in a relationship or "cohabitate" or even take his own life, but he has one of the most advanced artificial personal assistants on the market and he truly loves solving problems. His newest case, however, takes him to a place he has no desire to explore: his own past, including the technology-shunning cult he grew up in and fled from. I thoroughly enjoyed the vivid, gritty cyberpunk world that Newman created. People wander the streets of London gesticulating to thin air as they engage in virtual conversations with friends hundreds of miles away; others use their APAs to play augmented reality games or watch an endless stream of advertisements. Except for the very wealthy, almost all food is made-to-order from food printers. Resources are scarce, attention even scarcer. In such a world, Carlos's questions about agency are all too apt. As he puts it,

"Everybody is on a leash. Some are more obvious than others."

Like its predecessor, After Atlas is a compelling story. Approached as a mystery, it is perhaps rather lacking, both in terms of twists and in an ultimately satisfactory explanation.

As a reader, I thought it looked like suicide plus postmortem damage, but it was such an obvious solution that I assumed something far more intricate. Even the final reasons felt rather lacking. I never really felt I understood Alejandro, and many of the apparent clues remained odd and unresolved. Why did Alejandro embrace an extravagant lifestyle? Why did a man so vehemently against suicide end up killing himself? Why did he so badly want to be chipped, particularly since he planned to commit suicide? I know the mission of the cult changed, but even so, that seems like too radical and unexplained a shift in perspective. Where did Klein get the bruises?

(show spoiler)

The story shines most in its examination of agency and choice, particularly coming from the perspective of a character who has so little of either. As an elite inspector, Carlos is fully of the disparity between the privileged world he appears to be a part of and his actual state of disempowerment:

"It was the constant cognitive dissonance of being so desperate to get out yet too scared to leave. Of being so afraid to fail yet wishing I did so it would all stop. Of being told I was lucky when I was being abused. Of hearing I was a valuable asset when I was being treated like a fucking object."

I don't know what exactly Emma Newman does to make her books so addictive, but I do know that I'm thoroughly hooked. It's not just that I love the worldbuilding; there's something about her stories and her style that I find utterly beguiling. Whether the next book takes place on Earth or on the world of Planetfall, count me in.

 

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final version, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
5 Stars
“Any measures are justified in the name of civilization.”
Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice

by Ann Leckie

“If you’re going to make a desperate, hopeless act of defiance you should make it a good one.”

Given its many accolades, I thought it would be impossible for Ancillary Justice to live up to its reputation. It surpassed it.

It's a little hard to describe Ancillary Justice. I've seen it called a space opera, and I suppose it is. I've seen it called a dystopia, and I suppose it is that as well. But to me, it came across primarily as a love story. Not a romance, mind you, but a love story, a tale of devotion and perseverance and friendship and heartache. Or maybe two love stories, and unusual ones at that. Love stories packed into a complex and imaginative far-future world and imperialistic alien culture.

This book is perhaps most notorious for its use of pronouns. Esk, the narrator and an ancillary body of a ship's artificial intelligence, comes from a culture that doesn't have a concept of gender. She simplifies matters by speaking of everyone with female pronouns, even when she is speaking of cultures who do care about gender, although she occasionally makes a blind guess when speaking to others:

Since we weren’t speaking Radchaai I had to take gender into account—Strigan’s language required it. The society she lived in professed at the same time to believe gender was insignificant. Males and females dressed, spoke, acted indistinguishably. And yet no one I’d met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did hesitate or guess wrong.

It is disorienting at first, and is as good as an implicit bias test at demonstrating our many preconceptions about gender. Then it just becomes part of the story. The issues of identity experienced by the main antagonist are equally pointed, but no less effective for it.

 

 

I had real trouble keeping track of which Mianaai was which, but I think that was the point. As Esk 19 points out,

"How are we supposed to tell them apart when they’re all the same person?”

As she also says:

“It doesn’t matter whose side anyone is on. It doesn’t matter who wins, because either way it will be you and nothing will really change.”

 

(show spoiler)

I think your experience with the book will depend on how well you deal with the pronouns, whether you like flashbacks, and how much you warm to the characters. Personally, I found myself empathising deeply with Esk; apart from anything else, she has a subtle sense of humor I thoroughly enjoyed. But the core of this book is its ideas.

Apart from gender, the story explores dehumanization, and civilization, and righteous certainty. Esk's world is made up of people who believe they are doing the right thing, even if perhaps this is because they don't look too closely at the ramifications of their actions. The Radchaai are an imperialistic culture; they invade to bring civilization--the very word "Radchaai" means civilization-- to other worlds.

“Any measures are justified in the name of civilization.”

And, of course, the Radchaai are so invested in their culture that they cannot see the inherent injustices in the system.

"Here's the truth: luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish."

I don't think anyone would call the story subtle, but the way it explores these issues is multifaceted and nuanced.

Ancillary Justice is a beautiful book. For me, at least, it fully deserved every last bit of the hype. On to Ancillary Sword.

Review
5 Stars
"Each of us is more than the worst thing we've done."
Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy

by Bryan Stevenson

 

The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering.

I need to come back and write a proper review for this, but in the meantime, I just wanted to say that this is without doubt the most powerful, emotional, heartbreaking, and uplifting book I've read this year.

Not only is the material as agonizing as it is inspiring, but Stevenson is also an extremely gifted writer, and the story he tells is captivating. The only reason I took so long to read it is that I had to keep putting it down whenever I started crying because I was in the gym and it was embarrassing. I could only make it through a chapter or two at a time.

If you live in the US, this is really a book worth reading. I'll leave you with an excerpt from one of my favourite moments in the book:

We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt.
[...]
Being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.
We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.
[...]
We’ve allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others. We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. But simply punishing the broken—walking away from them or hiding them from sight—only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.
[...]
I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness create a need and a desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can't otherwise see; you hear things you can't otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.

Review
4 Stars
"Society is not going to change under your sledgehammer, Cathy."
A Little Knowledge: The Split Worlds - Book Four - Emma Newman

A Little Knowledge

by Emma Newman

I genuinely can't explain what this book did or how it did it, but the day I finished A Little Knowledge, I purchased the first book in the series and promptly started reading it. And when I finished the first book, I bought the second. And then the third. I finished the entire series in sequence, one after the other. For those of you who don't know me, it's hard to explain just how out-of-character this is for me: I basically never buy books, and I have absolutely terrible series staying power. Yet without doubt, Emma Newman has gotten more of my money than any other author this year. And I don't really know why.

 

Because here's the thing about the Split Worlds series: it's insidious. When I read A Little Knowledge, I thought I felt lukewarm about it. As an inveterate and unashamed out-of-order series reader, when I tell you that this is not a good book to start the series with, please take my word for it. Newman may have a gift for worldbuilding and characters, but she has not yet mastered the gentle art of the recap. The Split Worlds is pretty complex and I had no idea what was going on most of the time. Yet I think that was part of the series' appeal. Basically, a long time ago, a cadre of sorcerers split the magic part of the world from the mundane. The fey were banished to Exilium, but they subvert and steal mortals and bring them into the Nether, an intermediate zone between the two worlds where time does not exist. These fey-touched act as puppets for their faerie lords, and their actions are patrolled by the Arbiters, mortals whose souls were dislocated from their bodies to prevent subversion by the fey. The world of the Nether is frozen in semi-Victorian English state, an endless stream of parties and dances and dinners, with women given no more agency than a pet dog.

 

Into this grim situation blunders Cathy, a child of the fey-touched who ran away to the mundane world and started going to college before she was dragged back to the Nether. As even she realizes:

"Cathy had the delicacy and insight of a cat with its head stuck in a box moving backwards to try and escape it, and she knew it."

Cathy may not have chosen her circumstances, but she's determined to make the best of them, and, more importantly, to change them, both for herself and the other women of the Nether. Even as her efforts heighten tensions between herself and everyone she loves, Cathy remains steadfast:

"But how will things ever change if I don't force them to?"

When I first read the book, I found the circumstances unpleasant and in some ways pointlessly unpleasant, much in the manner of YA dystopians: the setup is so extreme that it doesn't correlate with the world that its readers would inhabit. It's about feminism and agency and self-determinism, but the level of inequality the characters experience is so utterly extreme that I see it as rather a waste of the reader's outrage and disgust. The women of the Nether are constantly prey to rape and violence, and if they don't obey their masters, they can be magically "Dolled, cursed, and Charmed into obedience."

I found Will utterly creepy, and was mystified about how they had gotten together. As he thinks himself:

"He wanted to claim her, possess her and take her fire into himself."

The fact that it is a charmed choker is all too appropriate. As she says to him,

"You want me to be someone I'm not. You want me to play the game, don't you? That's what you mean when you say you want me to work with you. You want me to stop being such a pain in the arse. But what you're really saying is that you want me to stop being who I am."
(show spoiler)

 

Suffice it to say that A Little Knowledge is a difficult read, and much of the moral outrage it generated felt anything but constructive. But perhaps the goal is to use extremes to highlight the problems found in a more nuanced way in our world. Apart from sexism, the book also confronts racism and rampant consumerism. Even leavened with Newman's sly wit, it wasn't precisely an easy or pleasant read, yet I was sucked in all the same. I was so driven to understand how the world worked and how the characters got to where they were that I promptly turned around and binge-read the previous three books. In some sense, A Little Knowledge is also a game-changer for the series, putting events into motion that are sure to have serious impact on the Split Worlds. I may still be perplexed as to why I found these books so compulsively readable, but definitely count me in for the next one.

 

~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Diversion Publishing, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
3 Stars
"Fear of choking on hard-to-swallow knowledge."
Everfair - Nisi Shawl

Everfair

by Nisi Shawl

 

The premise of Everfair is utterly fascinating: an alternate history that takes place in the Congo starting under the reign of the tyrannical Belgian King Leopold II and ending several decades later. As Shawl notes in the forward:

"At least half the populace disappeared in the period from 1895 to 1908. The area thus devastated was about a quarter of the size of the current continental United States. Millions of people died."

It's a story not often told, and all the more important for it. The story centers around a colony set up by a mixed bag of colonists, each who come to Africa with different aims from religious freedom to a socialist utopia. The story mixes everything from a few steampunk elements such as the mechanical replacements for the hands chopped off during Leopold's tyrannical reign to mystical elements such as interactions with gods and mind-riding of animals.

 

While I was captivated by the concept, my feelings about the story itself are unfortunately rather more mixed. Writing a book that spans multiple decades and dozens of characters is a tricky art, and unfortunately, at least for me, Shawl didn't quite manage it. Given that the preface provides a list of "Some Notable Characters," well over a dozen of which turn out to be perspective characters, apparently even Shawl realized her cast was overwhelming. Not only that, but given that the short character descriptions in the preface turn out to be serious plot spoilers, it's clear that Shawl expects confused readers to flip back and refresh their memories with her list. To me, that expectation already indicates a serious problem in execution.

 

When I got to the story itself, I was even more perplexed. Each short chapter is effectively a vignette told through the perspective of a whole host of third-person-limited narrators and spaced evenly across the four decades that the book encompasses. We are given short glimpses of the characters' lives in turn, but most of the major events of the story--the crises, the character development--happen offpage. The multi-month and multi-year time jumps don't help, either. It seemed to me that the book was stuck in a constant state of exposition, always stuck summarizing all the dramatic events that occurred since the last vignette. My inability to actually experience the events that shaped the characters gave a distant, detached feeling to the story. I heard what the characters of the previous section did, but not how they felt or why. I never felt like I knew or understood any of them, and their choices and described emotions were a perennial surprise. The characters' actions seemed to me to be driven by narrative expediency-- or to put it more generously, by whim.

For example, take Martha, who marries a teenage boy she scorns out of expediency to get him to act for her. She appears to find his love letters embarrassing and tedious. And yet the next time we see her, she's apparently passionately, almost obsessively devoted to him and jealous over every woman he talks to. When did that happen?

Or take Daisy. We only get Daisy's perspective again years after her daughter's death, when she thinks: "In truth, nothing did much matter, since Lily's death." What, not her other kids? Sure, her pain is described, but nothing about her perspective makes me feel her grief. And Jackie and the other son just wander off the page, never to return. Plus, why is Daisy apparently so devoted to a cause she doesn't really believe in, to the point of sacrificing her children? She seems mostly passive, yet she stays in Everfair, despite all of the problems she encounters. Given her own rather extreme racism and deep fear of miscegenation, I really just don't understand what motivates her.

Or what were Lisette's motivations that brought her so far, and why did she suddenly decide to quit, only to be blackmailed back into the fold? What is with these people and these whims? I don't feel like I know any of the characters, if there is indeed anything there to know.

(show spoiler)

 

What I loved about the book was the way it tackled the clash of cultures and all of the wide-reaching ramifications of colonialization. The Fabian Society, a bunch of well-meaning Westerners with a socialist slant, decide to start a colony in the Congo. They purchase land and provide refuge to escaped slaves from Leopold's brutal reign, but while they speak of equality, it's not something they can really even comprehend. They impose their language, their names, and much of their culture upon the Africans they build their society with, and cannot even understand the insidious racism that colors their actions. They may call the Africans "equals," but they still find miscegenation unthinkable. They may believe they respect the languages and cultures they interact with, but of course English and Western custom must be the standard for the colony. 

 

The perspective characters include everyone from a local king and his queen to workers who escape Leopold's vicious regime to an engineer from Macau. Much of the book deals with the rising tensions caused by the Europeans' lack of comprehension, but it also portrays characters who escape this mindset and become shaped by the world they inhabit. Overall, it's a fascinating and thought-provoking look at the inherent problems of colonialisation: even the definition of utopia is shaped by the colonists. As one character thinks:

"That was the problem. The settlers of Everfair had come here naively at best, arrogantly at worst. [...] By their very presence they poisoned what they sought to save. How could they not? Assuming they knew the best about so many things-- not even realizing they had made such assumptions-- they acted without considering other viewpoints and remained in ignorance in spite of the broadest hints."

Daisy's insistence on creating a national holiday for Jackie Owen's death is utterly jaw-clenchingly awful. Even Matty's Wendi-La is still a white man telling the story. His admission that he never even considered the possibility of Fwendi refusing him is wince-inducing. More interesting to me was Thomas, who finds himself the converted rather than the converter.

(show spoiler)

Everfair definitely made me think. I just wish it had also made me feel. For me, the series of vignettes gave the book a stilted, disjointed feeling that in turn hindered my ability to relate to the characters. Most of the big events and character emotions happened offpage and were summarized via exposition. However, if the structure appeals to you more than it did to me, Everfair is well worth a look.

 

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Macmillan-Tor/Forge, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
"Comparative cognition, written by the dogs."
Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell - Alexandra Horowitz

Being a Dog

by Alexandra Horowitz

 

As a fan of Alexandra Horowitz's pop-animal-behavior-science book, Inside of a Dog, the contents of Being a Dog were something of a surprise. More reminiscent of Mary Roach'sGulp than its behavioral-science-heavy predecessor, Being a Dog is at least as much about the author's quest to experience the world through a dog's perceptions as it is about dogs themselves. Horowitz puts it best: just as books on animal comparative cognition tend to focus mostly on how the animals stack up against human perception and intelligence,Being a Dog is effectively a book about "Seeing if we can do what dogs do.... [human] comparative cognition, written by the dogs." As part of Horowitz's quest to experience the world through her nose in order to better understand her dogs, she does everything from taking the dogs on sniff-walks to sniff where they sniff, signing up for descriptive scent studies, visiting schools for detection dogs to see how they learn, and joining excursions to track wildlife by the smells they leave behind. She explores the extent to which humans focus on vision over scent, to the point that our vocabulary is effectively unable to even describe smells past much more than simple good/bad polarities. "Smelly," "odorous," "noisome"... despite their nonjudgemental root words, these adjectives don't just mean a strong smell, but also an unpleasant one.

Dogs, on the other hand, are masters of scent processing. They have hundreds of millions of receptor cells, compared to our six million. If spread out flat, their olfactory epithelia would completely cover their entire bodies. Ours would cover the surface area of a single mole. Their noses actually create tiny wind currents, called "schlieren," that help bring the smells closer to them. As one might expect, the sense of smell guides doggy behavior in the same way that vision guides our own. While dogs fail the standard animal cognition "mirror mark" test--identifying a change to their image-- they do pass an equivalent "sniff mirror" test. Dog owners are vastly familiar with their companions' tendency to sniff at strangers, but I, at least, was unaware that even behaviors such as tail-wagging and pawing may be about spreading the dog's scents to others. Anyone who has ever walked a dog knows all about marking and can easily distinguish it from "real" peeing. But according to studies that Horowitz cites, dog marking and countermarking seems to be informational rather than territorial. When doggy walk behavior is analyzed, it turns out that sniffing far outpaces marking: dogs "read" far more "pee-mail" than they compose.

While the opening of the book discusses the mechanics of dog noses, the latter part of the book describes Horowitz's quest to attempt to smell like a dog: she goes to sensory labs, dog training centers for everything from drug-sniffing dogs to dogs trained to detect hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia to joining a truffle hunt. If dogs experience the world primarily through smell, then the task to see the world through a dog's nose is almost incomprehensible to humans. Our world is ruled by vision-- the very expression to "see the world" expresses our dependency on sight. We have dozens of common color words, yet we pretty much only describe odors only in terms of the things that create them--skunky, flowery-- or by their taste--sweet, salty. And there is a good reason for this: our sense of smell may be nothing close to a dog's, but it's actually not that bad. The major distinction is that our sense of smell focuses on the vomoronasal component, allowing us to experience a much richer taste than is actually available through our tastebuds.

Being a Dog seeks to open the world of smell to our uncomprehending noses. While reading it, I was amazed at how little attention I pay to smell. I started consciously experiencing and trying to describe and categorize the smells I experienced on my daily bike rides and was amazed at how distinctive each location was: the sharp marshiness as I rode particularly close to a slough, the undertones of sunwarmed timber as I rode over a bridge, the tang of exhaust as the wind shifted from the direction of the highway. If you're looking for a guide to doggy behavioral cues, then you're better off checking out Horowitz's earlier book, Inside of a Dog. However, if you're interested in joining Horowitz's quest to experience the world through a dog's nose, then Being a Dog is definitely worth checking out. Through Horowitz's tale of her sensory journey, you may find yourself getting a glimpse of your dog's world.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Scribner, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
"You gotta save the world for the right reasons, Paul."
Fix ('Mancer) - Ferrett Steinmetz

Fix ('Mancer #3)

by Ferrett Steinmetz

 

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Ferrett Steinmetz's Flex series is one of the most imaginative and unique urban fantasies I've encountered. The trilogy takes place in a world where passionate, obsessive belief actually has the ability to warp reality to match their internal vision. As the book puts it:

"If you believed with a diamond-hard conviction the universe should act in a certain way, sometimes it did. You didn't mean to make it do anything, it just… shuffled out of the way.

Someone with an unhealthy obsession with gaming might become a videogamemancer, causing bullets to bounce off skin or magicking portal guns out of thin air or causing people around them to patrol in repeated loops. An edumancer might actually be able to teach anything to anyone and make them remember every word. But 'mancy comes at a cost. When the universe is bent into an alternate system, it rebounds with flux: concentrated bad luck that targets the 'mancer and causes their greatest fears to come true. And when 'mancy stands off against 'mancy, as happened in Europe, reality can be so horrifically distorted that it can breach, opening a door for creatures from the Lovecraftian Dungeon Dimensions.

 

If any of this sounds interesting to you, check out Flex, the first book in the trilogy. From here on out, there may be spoilers for the previous books.

 

In some ways, Fix was a satisfying book. I love series that end, that resolve their plot arcs rather than dragging out character development and conflicts infinitely. As Steinmetz notes in the afterward, Fix is indeed the end of the trilogy, and I appreciated the sense of closure. However, at the same time, Fix was extremely difficult to finish. The previous books may have been dark, but Fix repeatedly verges on utter despondency. I believe that pacing is a delicate feat of acrobatics: if everything's too safe and easy and achievable, there's no suspense. However, when things are too hard and hopeless, where all of the protagonists' moves just make everything worse and worse, then there's nothing to keep the reader engaged and it's all too easy to give up and put the book down. Unfortunately, I think the first 75% of Fix falls neatly into the latter category. The protagonists--the people I've rooted for, admittedly with mixed emotions, for two previous books-- push so far past the moral event horizon that I felt alienated from them and just wanted it all to end. I kept putting down the book, coming up with any excuse to read something else. I had to force myself to take it up again again and again.

 

One of the things I've loved about these books is the protagonist. Paul is a bureaucromancer. He believes in laws and rules and order with so much passion that his faith actually bends reality. Needless to say, he's a bit on the OCD side. As someone who is compelled to turn the doorknob repeatedly in multiples of five when leaving the house to make sure it's really locked (not kidding about multiples of five, sadly), this makes Paul a very empathetic and relatable character for me. An example of why I love him:

Back in the days before Paul had fallen hopelessly in love with Imani, he would find himself seized by shameful urges in his dates' apartments [...] college dorms so cramped they were practically spooning; Paul laced his fingers together to avoid temptation. His dates always smiled when they noticed his discomfort.

"Whatcha thinking?" they'd ask.

"Can I…"

"Yes?" They'd tilt their chins, all but begging to be kissed.

"Can I rearrange your bookshelves? They're out of alphabetical order."

The dates ended shortly after that.

Paul's singlemindedness has always made him something of an antihero; after all, in the initial book, he's willing to sell drugs to gangsters to save his daughter and in the second book, his actions against the villain left me horrified. However, in this book, his descent is so abrupt that it wasn't possible for me to empathize or even comprehend his actions. Instead, I was left feeling disconnected, unable to empathise with Paul or see him as anything other than a villain.

 

'Mancers were always set up to be antiheroes. Their steadfast certainty means that they see the world in an inherently rigid and inaccurate way; after all, that's how they do magic. In this book, Steinmetz really examines the consequences of this rigidity. In some ways, I loved this introspective aspect and the ways it explored Paul's motivations and the repercussions of his actions, but it was also heartbreaking to watch him do some truly terrible things.

I was already feeling alienated by his lack of concern for the other 'mancers; burning down the home was the last straw. And that left his mass murder spree for me to suffer through. Even apart from the whole Unimancer thing, it really bothered me that he cared only for his daughter's life, not for the scores of 'mancers in his safehouses who were put into danger and subsequently captured by his recklessness. He didn't even spare them a guilty thought.

(show spoiler)

 

I forced myself again and again to pick up the book, and I'm glad I did. I love how the book continued to develop Imani and Aliyah's characters. I love that we finally get to see breach-torn Europe. I love that we learn more about the Unimancers and their system. And I also love the way Valentine's romance develops through the story. Without any spoilers, I found the ending profoundly satisfying and also sweet.* If you've read the other books in the series, then I don't need to recommend Fix to you--you're going to pick it up anyway. If you haven't, and the idea of an OCD paperwork-loving 'mancer protagonist sounds like fun, you should definitely take a look at Flex. As for me, I'm excited to find out what Steinmetz has in store for his readers next.

 

~~ I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publishers, Angry Robot Books, in exchange for my honest review. (Thank you!) Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

 

*If you think that's spoilery, bear in mind that my definition of "completion" is apparently somewhat unusual, so don't necessarily assume a picture-perfect HEA with every plot thread wrapped up.

Review
4 Stars
"There is little in the world that is God's will, but a lot that is the angels'."
The Ghoul King: A Story of the Dreaming Cities - Guy Haley

The Ghoul King

by Guy Haley

 

For those of you who know me, the TL;DR version is this: I finished The Ghoul King in one sitting, and immediately turned around and purchased The Emperor's Railroad (I almost never buy books.) And now it's at the top of my to-read list.

 

The Ghoul King is short, but potent. Don't look for character development when reading this: it's pure nonstop action and captivating worldbuilding. The story takes place in a far-future America, after the collapse of society as we know it. The fallen world has become a theocracy, the rule of God pinned together by Dreaming Cities and ruled by the angels. Living dead and ghouls wander the earth, byproducts of a terrible plague that strikes at the whim of the angels. While the reader can recognize the power of the angels as some sort of advanced technology lingering in a fallen world, the characters themselves have no idea, and no way of distinguishing science from magic or from the power of God. As one character puts it:

"There is little in the world that is God's will, but a lot that is the angels'."

There is so much to love about the worldbuilding. While I have a suspicion the setup may be more familiar to gamers, I got a huge kick out of the cross between western and magical theocracy. I loved mentions of "The Monastery of Sainted Electrics" or "Angel Makers" or radiation counters carried as common course.

 

My biggest issue with the book comes from a few throwaway lines in the book:

"I've been told back in the Gone Before there were many colors of men in the world, and they all fought and warred and ruined everything, so after God's wrath cleansed the Earth he mixed up all those left so there's only a few shades of skin. I have never seen so pale a man, almost white as a fish's belly. I didn't know such men still existed."

So it turns out that our ubermensch protagonist is white, and the only white man the narrator has ever seen, come to save everyone with his incredible mind and talent. Sigh.

Other than a few mentions of our white and blue-eyed protagonist that left a bad taste in my mouth, the rest of the book left racial issues alone, allowing me at least to pretend the whole "white saviour" thing wasn't happening. And as long as I could ignore that, I was utterly engrossed.

 

I love the idea of the Angels and the Dreaming Cities, and I can't wait to find out what makes them tick and what Quinn's actual mission is. In terms of series ordering, I read Ghoul King without The Emperor's Railroad and found it thoroughly comprehensible: Haley's style is to throw the reader directly into an initially bewildering world, slowly feeding them tiny pieces of backhistory and mechanics. I absolutely loved it. If you're looking for a short, wild ride with plenty of twists and captivating worldbuilding, The Ghoul King is definitely worth a look. Count me in for Knight Quinn's next adventure!

 

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Macmillan-Tor/Forge, in exchange for my honest review.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
“I can wait for the galaxy outside to get a little kinder.”
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is easily one of the most feel-good books I've read in a while. Put it this way: I think if Kaylee decided to rewrite a cross between Firefly and TNG, this book might be the result. There really aren't any bad guys; just people with problems, each of which is bound to find a solution. It may not be so good for general YA--lots of of profanity, and given that one of the species involved is prone to orgies, there's also quite a bit of sexual content-- which is unfortunate, since in all other aspects, I think it would have been good for a younger audience as well.

As in most space-opera-style scifi, there's lots of political and social commentary, mostly in a positive social-uplifting way. Mind you; I think a lot of the scenes and the characters' actions imply a much more problematic perspective, which may be one reason I couldn't totally jump onboard with the story.

[A few examples:
- The whole thing with Corbin. The others despise him and cold-shoulder him throughout the entire story, never giving him benefit of the doubt, going silent when he comes into the room, etc, etc. Chambers clearly intends us to dislike him too. He's the straw intolerant, there to be shut down again and again. To me, he came across as on the spectrum, which made the others' treatment of him simply unkind. Of course he's a loner; the others treat him like crap whenever he's around and pretty much pressure him to leave.
- I find the subplot with Lovey sickening. The equivalent, to my mind, is a woman who is pressured by her man to get breast implants. No, it's not her choice; she's doing it to make him happy. Or to put it a different way, it's the enslaved being seeking to be molded in the shape of her master and to emulate his form and his desires. Which makes all his speechifying utterly disgusting.
- I hated the Ohan subplot. To me, the correct issue was never actually expressed: while killing the virus could save them, it would also stop them from being them. Death or annihilation of identity: what a choice. The analogue here is someone with a mental illness being forced to take meds. Sure, the outside world may find them weird, but if they want to be who they are and they're not harming anyone else, how does anyone have the right to force them to destroy their own identity? It's not saving your life if you have to lose who you are, and Chambers does her reader and her story a disservice by never even really digging into that aspect.]

(show spoiler)

Whatever my feelings about certain subplots, I was extremely impressed by the way Chambers managed to keep everything fluffy and positive without ever drifting into the saccharine. If you want a low-key heartwarming read,The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is definitely worth a look.

Review
4 Stars
"As long as there are different classes of people, there will be different classes of dogs."
Pit Bull - Bronwen Dickey

Pit Bull: Battle over an American Icon

by Bronwen Dickey

 

Pit bulls have to be the most demonized dog breed of all time.

Oh, wait:
"Pit bull" is not actually a breed of dog. It's a type of dog which includes a bevy of different breeds-- American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT), Staffordshire Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Bull Terrier, American Bully... well, you get the point.

I've been volunteering in animal shelters since high school. In most shelters in the US, pit bull mixes make up a majority of shelter dogs, so I've met (and loved) quite a few. The first pitt I met was named Punkin the Three Legged Pittie. While fighting dogs are rare--more on that later-- by his scars and injuries, he showed every sign of having been used in a fighting ring. His leg had been also chopped off with some sort of blade, apparently without anaesthetics. He hatedhumans with an undying and quite understandable passion. Every time anyone walked anywhere near his enclosure, he would throw himself again and again at the fence, growling, teeth bared, often biting at the fence. Then he'd back off and glare as he chewed meaningfully on a bone. In the years since, I occasionally looked him up on the shelter site; no one ever adopted him. Punkin gave me a healthy fear of pitt bulls that it took me a while to get over. (I'll admit to a few Punkin-fueled nightmares.) This wasn't helped by the inaccurate statistics about pits that I heard at every turn.

Over time, and as I spent more time at different shelters, I grew to love pit bulls and pit mixes. I love their open expressions and eager smiles and the way their lips actually turn up at the corners just like a human's. I love their boundless energy and their general derpy joie-de-vivre. I was trying to decide on my favourite pit and I realized I can't. I still love Ginger, a beautiful, happy girl who loved long walks and sprawling on my lap, and who had been so badly abused by a man that she went catatonic if any male came near her. Or Maui, who so loved the sun that she lay down like a sack whenever her walk was over and volunteers had to pick her up and carry all 70 pounds of passively protesting dead-weight dog back into her room. And then there was Jitterbug, who, like many shelter pits, ended up with a bad case of Happy Tail, where she so furiously wagged her tail at passerby that she gave herself huge bloody scrapes. (Once her tail was bandaged, I was the one with whip marks and bruises from being battered by her tail.) And so many more. I'm going to visit one of my current favourites, a year-old happy-go-lucky puppy, this weekend.

One ubiquitous "fact" about pits is that while they make up only 2% of the US dog population, they are responsible for about 70% of the deaths. As Dickey explains, this is a problematic factoid on two counts: first, the 2% comes from people who have registered their pits with the American Kennel Club and similar, so it doesn't account for mixes, breeds not acknowledged by the AKC, or dogs owned by people who don't care about purebred registries. Second, we also have to deal with cognitive biases: people believe that pits are monstrous Un-Dogs, so when dog-on-human violence happens, other breeds are routinely misidentified as pits. It's a vicious cycle: pit stories make good press; people believe pits are killer dogs; people misidentify a killer dog as a pit bull.

So where did all the maligning start? After all, at one point, the pit was the All-American Dog. Dickey makes a good case that the hatred of pits actually stems from racism, and that's one aspect that continues to fuel the stigma to this day. Pits are seen as vicious and thus their owners must be equally vicious; pits are also seen as "thug" or "gangster" dogs. As Dickey puts it, people are able to express racist views about the owners of pits by "using the dogs as proxies." Now add in the cities yanking dogs away from families, sticking them in shelters, and either euthanizing them or adopting them out to white suburban families and it puts even shelter work in a whole new light.

Dickey explores a wide range of viewpoints and current uses of pits. If you're looking for an utterly unbiased examination of bully breeds and their history, this is not the book for you. Dickey absolutely is on the side of pits and against breed-specific legislation (BSL), and she pushes her viewpoint via her characterization of her interview subjects and her impassioned rhetoric. Personally, I'm in full agreement that pits are maligned and BSL is awful. BSL is incredibly arbitrary, we have plenty of statistics that show it doesn't work. The people who are really affected by it are the socioeconomically disadvantaged, who aren't allowed to keep their dog because someone somewhere thinks it might be a pit mix.

However, I also believe that Dickey is doing her book and the pit a disservice. To me, she seemed to insist throughout that dogs are dogs are dogs, and that pits are effectively the same as golden retrievers or poodles. I just don't think that's true-- bully breeds, like guardian breeds, are wonderful dogs, but they have their own special needs. Pits have a strong prey drive, they often have lots of energy, and they need to learn socialization, as they have a tendency to be a bit clueless and in-your-face with other dogs. Pits are very powerful dogs, and they learn to take special care in "handicapping" themselves when playing with tiny dogs and weakling humans. (Personally, I avoid tug-of-war-style games because I don't want an overexcited dog to forget that I'm comparatively fragile.) With guardian breeds, sometimes you need to work on the dog's territorial or protection instinct as well. Personally, I'm more wary of mastiffs, rottweilers, and dobermans than I am of german shepherds, huskies, or pits because I can read the latter better, but I do believe all of those breeds have characteristics that should be considered when matching to a home.

Dickey is passionate about her subject and has plenty of interesting and novel material. Not only did I learn a lot about pit history; I also found a new charity to support: The Coalition to Unchain Dogs, Inc, a fascinating organization that improves the welfare of dogs while empowering owners instead of taking their dogs from them. All in all, if you're interested in US history over the last few centuries viewed through the lens of a notorious dog, Pit Bull is well worth a look.

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