bookaneer

bookaneer

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

Killing is my Business
Killing Is My Business (Ray Electromatic Mysteries) - Adam Christopher

As a huge fan of both hardboiled/noir and science fiction, Adam Christopher's Ray Electromatic series has been a guaranteed hit with me. Raymond (get it?) is the last of the robots from an aborted attempt to replace various public sector jobs with a silicon workforce. Still supposedly with the "Electromatic Detective Agency," his programming has been altered by the amoral supercomputer Ada (get it?) to transform him into a robotic killer-for-hire. Every twenty-four hours, his magnetic tapes run out and his entire memory is removed and wiped clean. Any book involving a robot running around in a trenchcoat and trying to solve a hardboiled mystery pastiche is bound to go over well with me, and Killing is my Business is no exception. This story, which involves a mafia boss, a mad scientist, government agents, and secret plots galore, is as entertaining as it is wacky and engrossing.

 

One of the things that makes this series so unique is the tension between Ray's hitman programming and his innate desire to be a good detective. He is simultaneously brutal and naive, and the longer he goes before his memory is erased, the more human he becomes. Then there's the tension and hope as his clock runs out, and the sudden shock of the newly-hard, cold, memory-erased Ray. it's a very unique take on the "tarnished knight" and chiaroscuro aspects of hardboiled detective fiction and noir. If any of this sounds intriguing, then the Ray Electromatic series is well worth a look.

 

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Tor Books, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
3.5 Stars
Perspective in Action
Perspective in Action: Creative Exercises for Depicting Spatial Representation from the Renaissance to the Digital Age - David Chelsea

As someone who dabbles in sketching and drawing, I'm always interested in improving my knowledge, especially in areas where I'm particularly weak such as figure drawing and perspective. I was therefore thrilled to have the opportunity to read David Chelsea's Perspective in Action. The most interesting aspect of the book, in my opinion, is the style. Almost the entire book is actually written in comic book style, with each frame helping to demonstrate various techniques and rules. Unfortunately, I think the book was a bit too advanced for me.

The author notes that this is the third in a series, and it does start with the assumption that the reader has mastered--or at least is cognizant of-- the techniques in the first two books. It begins with a review of one-point, two-point, and three-point perspective that were a bit too fast for me to follow, and it only gets more advanced from there. The book discusses advanced techniques and applications such as the camera obscura, anamorphosis, cabinets of wonder, and six-point and stereo perspectives. As a non comic book reader, I didn't have the easiest time following frame by frame, but I definitely enjoyed the read, and even got rather sidelined into watching videos of the Ames Illusion on youtube. If you're already knowledgeable about the basics of perspective and are looking for more advanced techniques, then this book is definitely worth a look.


~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Ten Speed Press/Watson-Guptill, in exchange for my honest review.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

The Perils of Typos

Every time I type "cross-posted at BookLikes" on a review, I get a bit worried that I'm going to miss the second "k." Anyone else ever worry about that?

Review
4.5 Stars
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eleven
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eleven - N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Joe Abercrombie, Jonathan Strahan

2016 may not have been a barrel of laughs, but it did produce some quality scifi and fantasy. As always, I found Jonathan Strahan's collection to be vivid, varied, and thought-provoking. In his introduction, Strahan comments on the absence of general themes, other than a preponderance of climate-change-related dystopias. I was initially struck by how free these stories are of themes of authoritarianism, populism, isolationism, and bubbles, but of course, most of them were written before Brexit, the US election, or the rising tide of populist movements around the world. Even so, I saw a few common themes: stretching the definition of humanity, irrevocability of change,  viewing ourselves as monsters, and feminism, as well as a series of folklore retellings whose themes are less easy to categorize.

 

I adore everything that Yoon Ha Lee writes, and "Foxfire, Foxfire" is no exception. Easily one of my favourite stories in the collection, the story is narrated by a gumiho who seeks to be human and is one death away from the one hundred murders he must commit to achieve his goal. It takes place in a rich world of endless mechanized warfare between a monarchy and rebel parliamentarians, complete with the giant war machines called Cataphracts, tiger sages, and the small gods whose energies power the world. The story explores the definition of humanity and uses the metaphor of the gumiho to express the sense of not quite fitting in either world and of seeking a form to fit one's soul.

 

Several other stories also stretched the definition of humanity. Paolo Bacigalupi's "Mika Model" is a short vignette in which a sexbot turns herself in for the murder of her owne. If she is a murderer rather than a defective machine, then she is also a person, and who is to be held responsible for her enslavement and torture? While I'm not normally a fan of Sherlock Holmes retellings, Delia Sherman's "The Great Detective" was an exception: I thoroughly enjoyed the steampunk worldbuilding, the Illogic Engines and Reasoning Machines, and even the sly mentions of beekeeping. "Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home" by Genevieve Valentine is a trippy story about the lasting effects of virtual reality, experimentation without consent, and a world that is literally what you make of it. "Terminal" by Lavie Tidhar deals with the titular word in two senses. It is about terminally-ill colonists making a one-way space voyage to a new world. Dreamy and philosophical, it explores what it means to be human through short vignettes of those who choose to make the voyage. The last of the stories exploring this theme, and by far the creepiest, is Carolyn Ives Gilman's "Touring with the Alien", where the protagonist finds herself acting as the bus driver to an alien and its once-human translator. I saw it as a horror story made all the creepier by the protagonist's inability to see it as such, and it definitely opens up questions about helper species and the definition of humanity and consciousness.

 

Another popular theme was the story that reveals the apparent protagonists as villain or monster. My favourite from this horror-tinged genre was, as usual, Alice Sola Kim. Her "Successor, Usurper, Replacement" is about a group of want-to-be writers writers who meet on a night where "the beast" has been sighted in their area. In the midst of a thunderstorm, a mysterious girl turns up at the door. It is deliciously creepy and comedic, made all the more vivid by her ironic, informal writing style. In Sam J. Miller's "Things with Beards," the monsters are both literal and figurative, from alien beasts trapped in ice to family members who casually spew hatred:

"The horror of human hatred-- how such marvelous people, whom he loves so dearly, contain such monstrosity inside of them."

I loved how he used the horror elements as a metaphor for social commentary:

"Maturity means making peace with how we are monsters."

Seth Dickinson's "Laws of Night and Silk" is radically different, a high-fantasy story about an endless war between rival countries, where each side sacrifices its children to stamp out the evil of the other. It is poignant and thought-provoking and begs the question of what war makes of us. "Spinning SIlver" by Naomi Novik tells the tale of a Jewish moneylender who gets caught up in fairy tale when her boast about turning silver into gold is taken literally. The most interesting aspect to me was the way that the protagonist floats between the protagonist and villain of the story. The narrator of Caitlin R. Kiernan's "Whisper Road (Murder Ballad No. 9)" is an unabashed villain, and the story is both colorful and gruesome. Similarly, Rich Larson's "You Make Pattaya" is an entertainingly twisty heist story that is told from the perspective of the thief and takes place in a near-future Thailand.

 

Strahan notes that many of the stories deal with the impact of global warming, but I saw a broader theme: the irrevocable consequences of our actions and the irreversibility of change. For me, the most memorable such story was "The Future is Blue" by Catherynne M. Valente. The story takes place on a world irrevocably changed by global warming, where survivors live on islands of garbage in a rising sea and want to bring back a past that lives on only in myth and folklore. It is gritty and vivid and twisted and entertaining, with Valente's trademark disturbing notes. Aliette de Botard's "A Salvaging of Ghosts" is a gorgeous, haunting story about a space crew who salvage the remnants of other voyagers, transmuted into precious strings of "gems" of memory and experience, in the weird expanses of deep space. The protagonist is on a quest to very literally recapture her lost daughter's memory through the gems that are all that remains of her. Paul McAuley's "Elves of Antarctica" is a far more straightforward take on the theme. It takes place on a nearly ice-free future antarctic where refugees from the drowned world come to eke out a living. The protagonist becomes fascinated with rune-inscribed "elf stones" and the idea of primacy, that the land will eventually return to its pre-human state when global warming is reversed. A story about change and permanence from a different angle is Alex Irvine's adventure story, "Number Nine Moon"where a group of scavengers are left stranded after the Earth turns from exploration to isolation and cuts support for the Mars base. Nina Allan's "The Art of Space Travel" also takes place in the near future, but the issues the protagonist faces feel very familiar. The protagonist works at a hotel where a group of astronauts are due to stay before heading off to Mars. It is about change, but also about parents, about irresponsible actions and responsibility for the consequences. "The Visitor from Taured" by Ian  R. MacLeod is told by a rare student of Analogue Literature--ie, physical books-- in a future where everything has been transmuted into the virtual. Testing the line between virtual and physical, it also explores the idea of alternate timelines, yet another way of changing the unchangeable past. Last, Ken Liu's "Seven Birthdays" is perhaps the most explicit story on this theme. Imaginative yet ponderous, it follows a girl's birthday in powers of seven, testing the boundaries of human and machine and exploring the long-term impact of easy solutions and the human desire to restore what is lost.

 

A surprising fraction of the stories took the theme of feminism head-on, executed with varying levels of skill. My favourite of the stories with this theme was "Seasons of Glass and Iron" by Amal El Mohtar", a lovely blending of several fairy tales, primarily "The Enchanted Pig," where a woman who betrays her shape-changing husband must wear out seven pairs of iron shoes to get him back, and "The Glass Hill," where a beautiful princess is placed upon the top of a glass mountain and the prince who scales the summit wins her hand in marriage. With lyrical writing and a rather beautiful little love story, El Mohtar explores the double standards and abuse that make the backbone of fairy tales:

"She recalls shoes her brothers have worn: a pair of seven-league boots, tooled leather; winged sandals; satin slippers that turned one invisible. How strange, she thinks, that her brothers had shoes that lightened the world, made it small and easy to explore, discover. [...] Perhaps, she thinks, what's strange is the shoes women are made to wear: shoes of glass; shoes of paper; shoes of iron heated red-hot; shoes to dance to death in.

How strange, she thinks, and walks."

The rest of these feminist stories struck me as rather less well-executed, and most also failed the Bechdel test. "The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight" by E. Lily Yu starts as a rather generic fairy tale about a witch and a knight who brings her on his dragon-slaying quest. The themes were interesting, but I think the message was rather muddled by attempts to explain abusive sexism and by the femme-fatale characterization of the only other female character. I'm not a huge fan of Joe Abercrombie, and sadly, "Two's Company" was no exception. What with the Amazonian warrior traveling with another female until they meet up with a Conan-the-barbarian sort, it's a bawdy, comical tale of warrior-man-versus-warrior-woman, and I feel like that theme got beat to death in the 1960s. Easily my least favourite story in the collection was Geoff Ryman's superficially feminist story, "Those Shadows Laugh." In the story, the Taino women, aka Colinas, are asexual and reproduce through parthenogenesis. Of course, they are universally obsessed with babies--women, naturally!-- and are technologically backward and require the aid--and tourist dollars-- of the "normals." The story is supposedly narrated by a woman, but the possessive male gaze is so strong that I had to keep checking the narrator's supposed gender. I found his alternate history despicable: it is the lessening of a society where women had significant agency into a people he so clearly sees as inhuman, as though lack of sexual desire makes them something "other." But naturally, how would you get a matriarchal society unless you eliminate the men? (Eyeroll.) I admit this struck a nerve, and maybe it will work better for other readers.

 

Twisted fairy tales seemed to be a favourite this year. Like many of the stories already mentioned, Alyssa Wong's "You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay" is a wild fairytale retelling, in this case a bizarre spin on "Cinderella" that takes place in a dusty American Western town that becomes a battleground between the clash of cultures and demigods, life and death. As always, Wong's writing is gorgeously, vividly lyrical. "Red Dirt WItch" by N.K. Jemisin takes place in Alabama during the Civil Rights era, when a fairy queen comes after a local healer and her children. Jemisin turns the fairy kidnapping into a vivid portrait of everyday savage racism and a clear-eyed yet hopeful exploration of civil rights. Daryl Gregory's psychadelic "Even the Crumbs were Delicious" takes place in the world of Afterparty and as with the latter, there are a lot of drugs involved; in fact, the walls are papered with them. It is an odd, comedic, hallucinogenically twisted take on "Hansel and Gretel." "Red as Blood and White as Bone" by Theodora Gos is a story about stories, told by a maid who longs to be in a fairy tale. When a mysterious stranger falls through the door during a snowstorm, the narrator assumes a prince-meets-princess-at-the-ball ending, while the reader is conscious of a wholly different story at work. Possibly my favourite of the fairytale retellings was Charles Yu's "Fable", the last story in the collection. It is a sharp-edged, self-aware tale of a man asked by his therapist to tell his life story in the form of a fable. So he starts again and again, and his own story is slowly revealed in all its pathos and humanity:

"Once upon a time, there was an angry guy, who hated the story he was in."

Yet again, Strahan put together a wonderfully diverse collection. No matter your taste in stories, you're bound to find something of interest in his "Year's Best" collection, and as for the rest, speculative fiction is all about expanding your horizons. If you're looking for a new author or just a new viewpoint, his "Year's Best" collections are well worth a look.

 

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Rebellion/Solaris, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
Mightier than the Sword
Mightier than the Sword - Vincent Chong, K.J. Parker

"Do you have to make a lot of decisions like that? I suppose you must do."
"All the time," I said. "And each one is truly bad. All that can be said for them is that the alternatives are even worse."

K.J. Parker is at his best in the novella, and, as always, I was captivated by the sharp wit and darkly ironic humor as well as the satirical worldbuilding and characters and finished the novella in a single reading session. Parker reminds me a bit of Wodehouse in the way he builds sympathy with the narrator through a chattering first-person narration. In this case, our narrator is an officer in a Rome-like empire whose ruling faction is beset by murderous intrigue-- think the Julio-Claudian era -- while also squabbling with and/or conquering its neighbors. In recent years, the empire has fallen prey to attacks by a mysterious unknown enemy with unknown goals and desires, and this enemy's ships have been seen again.
Capitulating to the orders of the emperor's wife--who also happens to be his aunt--our narrator sets off to help the various abbeys and monasteries to help shore up their defenses against the mysterious invaders.

While I think Parker is very gifted in characterization, he's not big on character development, which is one reason I so prefer his short fiction. In this case, we get plenty of time to get to know the narrator and his compatriots, including his romantic interest, without feeling stifled by the characers' staticness. The most rounded character, partially because the story is told in his voice, is the narrator himself. I found him highly sympathetic, a realist yet an optimist who is fond of books and sees himself as a coward despite his insistence on leading from the front.

The only thing that really bothered me about him was how he seems to hold his wife's inability to have children against her, as if she should have provided a disclaimer before accepting his desperate proposal.

(show spoiler)



As always, the story is a satire, and chock-full of quotable quotes. For example:

"Does it say something about the nature of the beast called Empire? The idea is that Empire protects the towns and villages and little farms from the enemy, and in order to do so recruits soldiers, so that the towns and villages and little farms won’t be laid waste, and grass won’t grow in abandoned streets and good productive land won’t be smothered in weeds and briars. But if the act of protection brings about the destruction it was designed to prevent— well. I’m not a trained philosopher, so I’m not qualified to comment."

If you're looking for a short, enjoyable novella with more than a tang of satire, then Mightier than the Sword is well worth a look.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Subterranean 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 novella as a whole.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads

Review
3 Stars
Origins of Totalitarianism
The Origins of Totalitarianism - Hannah Arendt

This wasn't what I'd hoped it would be, but I think the fault was probably my expectations rather than the book itself. I'm not much for philosophy; I much prefer history. I was hoping for a thorough, fact-driven analysis of the various totalitarian regimes throughout history, determining key characteristics and similarities. Instead, it's a philosophical treatise on Arendt's view of how the Jews became the scapegoats and how Nazi Germany gained power. Fully one-third of the book is taken up with Arendt's analysis of the rise of antisemitism in Europe. The rest involves grandiose oft-repeated axioms based entirely on Nazi Germany. It talks about the importance of a key central figure and an isolating ideology that includes a sense of exceptionalism, etc, etc, but I can't say I feel much more enlightened now that I've finally (finally!) finished it. And maybe there's a stylistic thing, too-- to me, it felt like her grand assertions were stated over and over, and despite the book's length, there was precious little hard evidence to back them up.

The most intriguing part of the story isn't even told in this book: for all of her stony detachment when talking about antisemitism and Hitler and the rise of the Nazis, Arendt was herself a German Jew who escaped to America. I think I would have found her philosophizing far more powerful if she'd allowed a bit of the human element to seep through.

All in all, while I'm relieved to have finished it, I'm glad I picked it up in the first place. While I found it a dry read, it was still an interesting one, such as her comparison of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes and her assertion that autocratic regimes seek to repress opposition while the core goal of totalitarian regimes is domination and control. While it wasn't a great fit for me, I'm sure it's a phenomenal book if you're a fan of philosophy and have an attention span that's a mile longer than mine.
 

Review
3.5 Stars
Foundations of Drawing
Foundations of Drawing: A Practical Guide to Art History, Tools, Techniques, and Styles - Al Gury

I picked up Foundations of Drawing because I've always enjoyed casual doodling and am always interested in opportunites to improve my techniques. Foundations is a gorgeous book, with carefully chosen illustrations at least every other page. However, don't go into the book looking to learn basic drawing skills or improve your techniques. At its core, I think this is more of an art history/ art appreciation book. Only the last twenty pages or so, which are very high-level "walkthroughs" of still lives, portraits, figure studies, etc, were much in the direction of artistic instruction. The majority of the book delves deeply into the history of different materials and techniques as well as discussing various artistic schools and styles. While I didn't really learn anything to improve my art, I did learn a lot, from new artistic terms such as sfumato to the effects of different papers and brush materials. If you're interested in the history and logistics of art, or if you want a coffee table book full of gorgeous and thoughtfully-chosen artwork, then Foundations of Drawing may be worth a look.

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook from the publisher, Ten Speed Press, in exchange for my honest review.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.
Review
5 Stars
"In what universe was keeping an insane undead general as an attack dog a good idea?"
Raven Stratagem - Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem

by Yoon Ha Lee

 

 

Ninefox Gambit was one of the best books I read in 2016. Raven Stratagem might be even better. This whole series is utterly, gloriously, astoundingly brilliant.

Welcome to the world of the hexarchate, where total participation in rigid ritual not only keeps control of the population; it also warps the topology of reality to create "exotic effects" that keeps the hexarchate in power. The hexarchate is ruled by six factions: the Rahal, who make the rules; the Vidona, who enforce them with torture; the Andan, who control the culture; the Nirai, who provide mathematical and scientific technology; the Shuos, who act as spies, assassins, and bureaucrats; and the Kel, who are the military wing of the hexarchate. All but the Shuos depend upon an exotic effect to remain in power, from Rahal scrying and mindreading to the Nirai spacefaring mothdrive to the overwhelmingly powerful Kel military formations. Heretics are therefore a tangible, literal threat to the hexarchate: not only do they threaten to disrupt the loyalty of the populus; they also weaken the hexarchate's exotic effects that drive the hexarchate's technology, military, and society.

Raven Stratagem starts where Ninefox Gambit leaves off. It introduces a cast of highly empathetic characters and explores the perspectives of several of the antagonists of the previous book. The story also expands its powerful exploration of gender fluidity. While the last book was told almost entirely from the Kel perspective, Raven Stratagem provides quite a bit more of the Shuos and even the Nirai perspectives. Our previous Shuos experience was almost entirely limited to the crazy undead mass-murdering General Shuos Jedao, who is occasionally let out of his immortal unrest in the Black Cradle to possess a Kel "volunteer" and use his scheming brain to win their wars. I adore the Shuos; it turns out they're not just assassins and spies; they're also the bureaucrats and administrators because

"A properly guided bureaucracy is deadlier than any bomb."

The Shuos are renowned for turning everything into a game and are charmingly unexpected; for instance, the leader of the Shuos faction has a tendency of knitting during scheming sessions.

As with Ninefox Gambit, one of the main themes of the novel was agency. Kel are imbued with "formation instinct" that irresistibly compels them to unquestioningly obey their superiors. The few "crashhawks" with weak formation instinct are constantly under suspicion by their superiors because they can choose not to obey. The hexarchs are increasingly out of touch, off planning new sadistic "remembrances" and chasing immortality even as their people are being invaded by the savage Hafn. As one character thinks:

"At some point you had to ask yourself how much legitimacy any government had that feared dissension within more than invasion without."

The world of the hexarchate is brutal and unfeeling, the people kept under martial law and in constant fear of the Vidona. But overthrowing the hexarch also means destroying all of the technology built upon its exotic effects, and what if it is replaced with something even worse? As one character says:

"You know what? It is a shitty system. We have a whole faction devoted to torturing people so the rest of us can pretend we're not involved. Too bad every other system of government out there is even worse. [...] If you have some working alternative for the world we're stuck in, by all means show it to us without spelling it in corpses."


There are a lot of thought-provoking themes in Raven Stratagem, but they don't get in the way of the character development or the action. I was utterly captivated by the story's twists and turns, and I'm only a little ashamed to admit that I fell for one of them.

[Initially, I'd assumed that Cheris was in charge and playing Jedao, bolstered by their obvious care for the servitors, but as the story proceeded and they did things like enslave the Kel and let the Mwennan die without blinking and use a program for simple mathematical calculations, I began to wonder if the Jedao part had eaten the Cheris part. At some point, I lost sight of the title--"Raven" stratagem clearly points to a scheming Cheris. I'm impressed that the book got me to lose faith while still making the big reveal feel utterly natural. Bravo!]

(show spoiler)

If you were a bit overwhelmed by Ninefox, then you'll be relieved to hear that Raven is much less math-heavy, focusing more on characters and worldbuilding. We get a view of the inner workings of the hexarch from Shuos Mikodez, we finally get a glimpse of the mysterious and somewhat horrifying Hafn, and the ending is utterly satisfying while leaving me desperate for more. I absolutely cannot wait to get back to the world of the hexarchate.

Yours in calendrical heresy,
Carly

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Rebellion/Solaris, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you! 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 novel as a whole.~~

Cross-posted on BookLikes.

Review
4 Stars
All Good Things
All Good Things - Emma Newman

I a stalwart fan of Emma Newman through her powerful work, Planetside. Although the tone and plot of the Split Worlds series are very different, I loved them all, devouring the previous four books in less than one week. After waiting for the final book for almost a year, I found it a satisfying conclusion to the series. As with the previous books in the series, All Good Things deals heavily with themes of feminism, environmentalism, agency, and responsibility.

 

This book is the completion of a long story arc, and I don't believe it should be read without the rest of the series. All of the characters from previous books have returned. As always, I wasn't quite sure if I actually liked Cathy, the major protagonist of the series and the is the driving force of the story. Cathy is a fierce feminist who wants to bring change to the changeless Nether world, but to me it feels like she is driven by a selfish, myopic ideology that often stops her from seeing the harm her actions inflict on others. This selfishness is examined in the novel: Cathy seeks to bring dramatic change, and this is bound to have negative impacts on others. What right does she have to make these types of decisions for so many others? As one character puts it:

"To create change, to disrupt a system of control, one must carry out radcal acts. One must be prepared to destroy so that something new can be created. Those in control will never give up the power afforded to them voluntarily. It must be taken. If that requires the deaths of a few to give freedom to the many-- and survival of the many--then so be it. This is not a gentle act."

But who has the right to decide to make that sacrifice? Does having the power to carry out the act give you the right to do so?

 

Fortunately, the other characters-- Sam, Lucy, Kay, and the gargoyle -- are more sympathetic. However, there's a big "anyone can die" and "anyone can betray" vibe in the novel. There is no easy division into protagonists and antagonists in the novel: everyone is driven by their own motivations and secret loyalties. Because of this, there have been many different antagonists in the story, with protagonists easily morphing into enemies. Sometimes, the changes felt too facile to me, the deaths of characters too superficial, the betrayals too unrooted. I particularly disliked how anticlimactic some of the dismissals of characters we've grown to care about throughout the series were, and how easily the characters were forgotten and set aside.

For all the strong feminist themes of the novels, if you look at who dies or is forgotten, you'll see an impressive number of women. Bea's death was simply pathetic. Kay got refrigeratored, something I find particularly hard to stomach from an overtly feminist series. But it's Lucy I found most troubling. She has been such a strong character throughout the series. To have her thrown away and forgotten because of an out-of-character and clumsy betrayal in which she became the pawn of a man? Not good. For me, the saving grace of the novel was that Will was revealed as the absolute villain of the piece. I was worried throughout that his rape and control would be seen as "extreme love" and that he would end up as the protagonist, as is so often the case in urban fantasy romance novels. As Cathy notes, rape is rape, and it should not be whitewashed.

(show spoiler)

At the same time, I loved some of the twists of All Good Things: one of my favourite aspects of the book is how antagonists morph into allies and how an abrupt twist brought the one true villain of the series into sharp relief.

 

At its core, the novel is all about control and ownership and responsibility, and however surprising the ending, I found All Good Things a satisfying end to the series. If you've read the other Split Worlds books, I don't need to tell you about this book because you're going to read it anyway. As for me, I can't wait to see what Emma Newman has in store for her readers next.

 

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Diversion Books, in exchange for my honest review.~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

"Why clutter a perfectly bad melodrama with logic and plausibility?"
Gun in Cheek - Bill Pronzini

Gun in Cheek

by Bill Pronzini

 

If you're a mystery reader and a fan of "so bad it's good," then Gun In Cheek is the book for you. It's pretty much MST3K (Mystery Science Theater 3000) for detective fiction. As any mystery reader knows, mysteries are extremely formulaic, with a special formula for each subgenre, from classic golden-age to cozy to gothic to hardboiled to spy fiction. With a good mystery, the formula is satisfying and any deviations are intriguing. With bad mysteries, the results can be utterly hilarious. Pronzini has coined a great term for these wonderfully terrible works: "alternative classic." Given that this book was first published before I was born, he invented the phrase long before "alternative facts" came along.

So what makes a good "alternative classic"? Part of it is the writing. Some of my favourites, starting with one from the editor himself:

"When would this phantasmagoria that was all too real reality end? He asked himself."
Bill Pronzini, The Stalker

"Her hips were beautifully arched and her breasts were like proud flags waving triumphantly. She carried them high and mighty."
Ed Noon, The Case of the Violent Virgin

"A hint of excitement hovered around Miss Kane, looking well in an afternoon frock and explaining that she had obtained a weekend leave and was looking forward to the party."
R.A.J. Walling, The Corpse Without a Clue

"All in the same motion, he snap-kicked the man in the right armpit! The knife clattered to the floor as Mace finished the slob off with a mule-kick to his scrotum. Looking like a goof who had just discovered that ice-cream cones are hollow, the man sagged to the floor."
Joseph Rosenberger, Kung Fu: The Year of the Tiger

"The old woman's breasts were balanced over her folded hands like the loaded scales of justice waiting for her final judgment."
Leslie Paige, Queen of Hearts

"Hope flared in her dark eyes as she grabbed the rope I had tossed to her drowning brain."
Naked Villainy, Carl G. Hodges

And consider this eloquent bit of dialogue:

"'Dan Turner squalling,' I yeeped. 'Flag your diapers to Sylvia Hempstead's igloo. There's been a croaking.'"
Robert Leslie Bellem, "Come Die for Me"

Attempts at introspection are also a great way to achieve an alternative classic. Take this epic bit of impending doom:

"When it had settled itself, unperceived, in its lurking place--the Hand stole out again--closed the window-door, re-locked it.
Hand or claw? Hand of man or woman or paw of beast? In the name of God--whose hand?"
Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Bat

And how's this for the start of a gothic?

"I know now that there must have been a touch of madness in me that raw October night as I went to Cemetery Key and the house of horror known as Stormhaven."
Jennifer Hale, Stormhaven

And there's a special way for detective fiction to achieve Alternative Classic status: the mysteries themselves. Sometimes it's a convoluted, incoherent mystery with a climax disturbingly similar to:


From bugged belly-buttons to murder by fire-extinguisher-nozzle-foam-in-ear to murder by embarrassment, there is an impressive variety of ridiculous creativity in the collection. I can't decide whether I prefer the man who becomes an evil avenger because he's so upset he went bald or the archaeologist who went bald and now wanders around in gloopy mud. There are the Death Rays, and Giant V-Rays, and "Crime Rays," and probably a few other rays I forgot about. (And yes, here's the obligatory M&W sketch.)



There are "blood-sucking, man-eating" bushes, a man born with the head of a wolf, and a half-spider half-octopus monster called the Red Crawl which turns out (naturally) to be a man in a costume and a mask. There are vampires who, when unmasked, prove to be costumed people complete with a vampire bat that is actually a "tiny monoplane" whose engine is "fitted with a silencer" that flies around "with the wheels tucked up inside the fuselage." But my favourite has to be the octopi. There are actually multiple stories involving a death-pit of octopi, which, we are told, are

"The world's most awful bundle of awfulness, a writhing, squirming mass of hell-fury, attaching itself to its victim with four hundred vacuum cups on its eight snaky legs [...] in short, it is the monster-supreme of earth or sea or Hell."

Tom Roan, The Dragon Strikes Back


I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I will say that I'm not sure Pronzini necessarily gives the writers credit. While it made them no less entertaining to read, quite a few of the stories struck me as intentional parody, such as Joseph Rosenberger's confrontation in a warehouse filled with "Musical Panda Dolls" between the protagonist--named the Death Merchant--and a killer. I thoroughly enjoyed it all, but I did read it in small doses-- you can only take so much "alternative classic" at a time. If any of this sounded entertaining to you, I can promise that Gun in Cheek has more where it came from. Take the opportunity to savor, down to the last bugged belly-button and twenty-pound attack octopi.

 

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Dover Publications, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
Waking Gods
Waking Gods - Sylvain Neuvel

Like its predecessor, Sleeping Giants, Waking Gods is marked by an interesting style, where debriefings, news reports, and journal entries are pieced together to tell the story. The second book of the Themis Files has a markedly different tone than the first: while Sleeping Giants was somewhat contemplative and slow-moving, things really get going in Waking Gods. Despite the difference in tone, I don't think you can really enjoy Waking Gods to the full without reading its predecessor, as the story isn't dragged down by too much exposition of what happened before. The story picks up a few years after the first book, and all of the characters from the first story are back in force, along with a few new perspectives. I was a little disappointed in one of them, as their introduction makes another character's demise painfully obvious rather than a surprising twist or "anyone can die" vibe. However, I did like the new characters and I was happy to see the return of some of my favourites, such as the fiery Kara.

The plot and tone reminded me quite a bit of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. As with Welles’ famous story, the reader spends most of the story frustrated, helpless, and adrift, unable to determine what will happen next or why. Despite the crazy events, I think Neuven is quite successful in creating what I'd call, for want of a better term, a tone of realism. Part of achieving this is having atrocities and events can happen without any explanation or any leading plot arc. For me, this made it quite difficult to actually push my way through the book. I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did. As the story moves towards the climax, everything clicks into place with a reasonably satisfying and quite creative solution. As with the previous book, there’s a bit of a hook or cliffhanger for the next story arc, and I’ll be very interested to see where the story goes next.

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Del Ray, in exchange for my honest review.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
5 Stars
"A world has ended, and only tomorrow remains.”

The End of the Day

by Claire North

 

I cannot decide if this was the perfect book at the perfect time or the worst possible book at the worst possible time. And I don't know if it really matters. All I know is that as I watch the world I thought I knew fall apart, The End of the Day was a difficult and emotional but also an oddly cathartic read. It is an anguished, strident call to see the value of humanity, to see all people, even those who devalue others, as people. And if there's one thing we all need to remember right now, I think it is the maybe broken, maybe imperfect, but ultimately precious humanity that we all share.

The End of the Day is one of those books I think of as "stealth literature." Like basically all of the books written under the Claire North nom de plume, the story takes place in the real world, but with one fantastical element added: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and their Harbingers, are acknowledged and visible figures within the world. Death has an office in Milton Keynes from which he hires Charlie to be his Harbinger of Death. Superficially, the premise sounds like a cross between Mort and Good Omens, but the whimsical setup allows North to examine death and change and above all, what it means to be human. Charlie's job is to travel around the world, to talk to those chosen by Death, to bring them a gift, and to honour life:

"When you’re the Harbinger of Death, the thing that matters more than anything else, is seeing people. Not corpses, not killers or victims or soldiers or criminals or presidents or anything like that. You have to see…people. People who are afraid. People who have lived their lives, in their ways. You are the bridge. Death stands behind you, but you look forward, always forward, and humanity looks straight back at you."

I admit I was underwhelmed at first. I miss the lighthearted absurd fanciful creativity of the Matthew Swift series, but this crept up on me, slowly, gradually, ponderously, until I found myself with tears in my eyes. The story is episodic, almost picaresque, a meandering tune that slowly builds into a powerful crescendo.

I read this book with a lump in my throat as the news broke about America's decision to bomb Syria while refusing to take its refugees, as the US deported its first DREAMer, as America's climate change policy began to be dismantled, as budget slashes to arts and culture and history and science were declared, as the US dropped the "mother of all bombs" on Afghanistan, as Trump and Kim Jong-un posture and threaten their way towards possible annihilation. I read this book as I feared the end of democracy in my country, as I wondered if perhaps the idea of democracy had merely been a shared delusion, now shattered. As I read about war in Syria and warmongering in America and racism and hatred and genocide and death, death, death, about the ending of one world after another, I felt, as one character puts it:

"I look and all I hear is the beating of the drums and all I see is a world in which not to be one of us is to be something else. The scientist was right, reason is dead; the dream is dead; humanity has changed into something new and it is brutal."


But that hopelessness, that depression, that dehumanization, brought on as it is by compassion fatigue or news fatigue or bitterness with a world that deviates from our expectations-- that is not the point of the book. Despite all the death and misery, despite the failed battles and broken people, I think, at its core, this story is about seeing the humanity in each of us, even in those of us who do not see the humanity in others. Sure, there are a few missteps, a few tone-deaf moments. But at its core, the book is a celebration of a humanity, a desperate cry to all of us to see the humanity in one another and to build a more compassionate future.

"This is my city, my country, my home, this is my life, my battle, my war. This is my struggle to be seen as a person, to be human, this is my human body, this is my human life, this is my everything, this is my all, this is … [...] One day we will build Jerusalem."


Who would I recommend this book to? I'm honestly not sure. Don't go into it looking for an adrenaline rush, an amusing romp, or a tidy plot. But I found it poignant and cathartic and deeply meaningful. I don't know what it will be for you, but for me, it was a reminder of all the worlds that end, for good and ill, and that while I feel powerless, I am part of endings and beginnings,
big and small, and have the power to change them, if only the smallest bit.

"The world … no … a world is ending, and I was called to witness, yes? I was called to witness because I am part of the ending. My actions … I am the change. I am the future, and it is fitting, I think, that I should see the past too, yes?"

So for me, this book was about remembering the past, remembering the humanity in all of us, remembering to see people as people, not as something other. I don't know what it will mean for you, but there's only one way to find out.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Redhook Books, 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 novel as a whole.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
3.5 Stars
Proof of Concept
Proof of Concept - Gwyneth Jones

For such a short novella, Proof of Concept is packed to bursting with plot threads, thematic questions, and worldbuilding elements. The story takes place in a fascinating dystopian world where pollution and global warming have pushed the world's population into giant "hives" separated by toxic "Dead Zones" where impoverished non-citizens try to eke out their short existences. MegaCorps have a chokehold on culture and politic, and even scientific endeavor must be turned into pop-culture and seek the approval of the GAM (Global Audience Mediation AI). The issue of extreme population control is hotly contested, as is the future of the human race. The quest for hyperspatial travel is seen as humanity's last hope. To get funding, the serious scientists have partnered with the popular reality-show stars to live underground in isolation to create a proof of concept for hyperspatial travel.

The story is as packed with genre elements as it is with worldbuilding concepts: a Vernesque journey to the center of the earth, a coming-of-age story, a romance, and even a strong tang of mystery. There are so many ideas packed into this little novella; I just wish there had been a little more room for character development. The timespan of the story is so wide, the cast so large, and the worldbuilding is so broad that I think in some ways, the characterization and driving urgency of the plot got a little lost. I never got a real sense of the different characters, and while I think this contributed to the shock factor of the ending, I found it also rather unsatisfying. In particular, and quite at odds with the rest of the story, I felt that the end expected me to unquestioningly accept the author's definition of "good guys" and "bad guys" and accept that the "good guys" can do absolutely terrible things and yet remain the "good guys" by definition alone… more time spent on characterization of both the faceless antagonists and the tarnished protagonists would have helped greatly, I think.

One of the most interesting themes in the story involves Kir, a child "saved" from the Dead Zones to act as the "wetware" for an artificial superintelligence quantum computer. Is she a captive or a willing participant? Is she deluding herself when she believes the woman who cut her head open and installed an ASI inside sees her as a person rather than a tool? Is the thing who shares her head a being with its own identity or merely a sophisticated calculator, and despite the supposed firewalls, what influence does it have on her behaviour?

"You're going to put a supercomputer in my head. It's going to share my brain. Okay, I can't stop you. But what if he goes wrong and starts eating me?"


Overall, Proof of Concept is itself an interesting proof of concept for a world and idea that I think fully deserves a longer novel. If you're looking for a fascinating little novella, Proof of Concept is worth a look.


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

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
5 Stars
Get Well Soon
"The purpose of this book is not to scare you. Instead, like all good books, it is intended to distract you from the screaming baby one aisle over from the airplane where you are currently trapped for the next five hours."

This book was a blast. The history is fun and engaging and crazy. (Did you know that the crazy anti-plague beak doctor costumes kind of worked? I didn't.) And the author's commentary is brash and opinionated and purely entertaining.

The Antonine plague: apparently Galen was a pretentious coward, and despite his tendency to throw Christians to the lions, Marc Antony was a terrific organiser who at least temporarily saved his empire.

The bubonic plague: well apart from the beak doctor costumes, which are awesome, there's this quote:

"Shakespeare's brothers and sisters and his son died of the bubonic plague. Theaters were closed due to the plague during his lifetime. Hans Holbein and Titian painted great works before their deaths from the plague.
Would they have preferred to live in a time without the Black Death? Yes. (This is not speculative.
I called them all and asked.) But life went on in the face of death. Even the Roman Empire was able to endure for a few hundred years after the Antonine plague. Commodus was able to dither around killing ostriches."


The Dancing plague: a mysterious illness intriguing with any narration and spiced up by the side commentary on Paracelsus's impressive level of sexism.

Smallpox: snarky commentary about how it was feared by men for its mortality and by women for its detriment to appearance, a diatribe about anti-vaxxers, and a "Guns, Germs, and Steel"-type portrayal of the destruction of the Aztecs and Incans.

"The devastation of smallpox in the Americas was not due to a vengeful God or a mysterious man bearing an evil box, but rather to the fact that the Amerindians did not spend as much quality time with their domesticated llamas as Europeans did with their cows.
Now maybe you are reading these tales of destruction and thinking, Oh, God, I myself do not have a cattle farm, or I am a proud llama farmer (there's got to be one somewhere), and are therefore convinced that you would die if you contracted smallpox because of your sad immune system--and what if terrorists purposefully incubate smallpox and come in a suicidal pact and spread it to us, and we all die and our civilization perishes and everything is very bad? I am with you, citizen! [...] Fortunately..."


Syphilis: the amazing lengths to which biographers will go to avoid admitting their subject had the disease, plus the "No-Nose Club."

TB: a tirade against the romanticism of the disease.

Cholera: a character assassination of John Snow (personally, I think he sounds a bit spectrum and I'd like to have a conversation with him, if only to know how he came up with the idea of veganism about a century before it was a fad). Points gained for never using the phrase, "You know nothing," when describing the cholera detective.

Leprosy: the truly lovely story of Father Damien, the Leper Priest of Molokai.

Typhoid: the rather insane story of Typhoid Mary, the government's attempt to lock her up, and her determination to make ice cream despite it all.

The Spanish Flu: apparently it wasn't actually Spanish in origin, but:

"An all-American plague hailing from Haskell, Kansas. There is still research that attempts to pin the biggest plague in the twentieth century on anyplace else (guesses range from China to Great Britain), probably because "America's bread-basket" is a much nicer way to refer to the Midwest than "the planet's flu-bin."

The most amazing aspect of this particular plague is the incredible lengths the US and UK went to to pretend it wasn't happening, including threatening journalists with jail and/or death.

Encephalitis Lethargica: scary scary scary, with the interesting collateral that it may be the disease responsible for a lot of our endless-sleep fairy tales.

Lobotomies: not actually a plague, unless you'd consider "hysteria" in women to be a plague, but I think Wright just really wanted to talk about Walter Jackson Freeman II and his penis ring (seriously) and the time he put two ice picks in both eye sockets and hammered them in simultaneously... actually probably the most horrifying chapter.

"Feel free to start using Walter Jackson Freeman II as an insult directed towards people you hate. Almost no one will get the reference, but if I am in the room we'll high-five and it will be awesome."



Polio: coming after the lobotomy chapter, a rather heartwarming and life-affirming take on FDR, March of Dimes, Jonas Salk's polio vaccine, and the biggest human trial in history.

HIV/AIDS: the really depressing state of this current epidemic, our return to demonising the victims and treating the disease as a "judgement" and a consequence of "bad behaviour," as with syphilis. My problem with this chapter is that it really talks only about the disease in the US. In the Congo, it affects a truly horrific percentage of the population, and conspiracies that western governments actually created and spread the disease do nothing to help mitigate it.

I got to the end of the book and was sad that there was no more. I would have thoroughly enjoyed a chapter on yellow fever or measles or mumps or rubella (the namesakes of the now unfairly-infamous MMR vaccine), or meningitis, one of the more frightening diseases of my childhood, or tetanus, aka lockjaw? I suspect Wright would have enjoyed describing tetanic convulsions. My only major complaint against the book is its extreme Western focus. Where was the Plague of Justinian? The Ebola outbreaks in Africa? Malaria in Spain and Africa? What about dengue fever, particularly in the eighteenth century? "History" doesn't mean "Western history," and I really wish more historians would remember it. But other than my greedy desire for more--or perhaps a sequel--
I got a huge kick out of the book. If those quotes sound intriguing and you like the conversational style and snark, grab a copy. It's a wild ride. And now I'm off to go request Wright's other book, It Ended Badly, from the library...

Review
2.5 Stars
Chasing Embers
Chasing Embers (A Ben Garston Novel) - James Henry Bennet

The last of the dragons hidden within society, passing as human and trying to live out his life until he becomes embroiled in a mystery? Count me in. Plotwise, this book should have been right up my alley, but unfortunately, it just didn't work for me. If I were forced into conciseness, I think I'd describe Chasing Embers as a take on Neil Gaiman's American Gods written in the style of Wilkie Collins. While it may be sacrilege and I may end up tarred and feathered for it, I must admit that I'm not a fan of American Gods. I do generally enjoy Wilkie Collins, but while the Victorian era does much to excuse his fraught verbosity, the careless sexism, and the thoughtless xenophobic exoticism of foreign cultures, it's rather less understandable in a modern novel. As with all my negative reviews, I'm going to lay out my problems with the book because the things that drove me nuts may be unimportant or even positives to other readers.

 

The most notable feature of the book is probably the overblown style. A few examples that might demonstrate why I initially thought it intended to be some sort of spoof:

"Flames sputtered. Steer horns flew. Smoke fouled the air. A girder screamed, busted outward. The city peered in through the breach, her distant lights jealous of the fireworks. A hush washed over the bridge, a murmuring tide carrying prayers."

[About a ten-year-old] "Her sore feet tingled on stone and she moved forwards as if through water, a subtle magnetism drawing her on, the sense of little teeth nipping at her budding breasts. Ants swarming in her guts."

"White fire claimed him, closing around him like a cage. A brief, blinding fulmination and he was in the heart of the Star.

The star was falling, falling. The meteor shook off rock at the edge of space, a flaming Cinderella fleeing a ball."

"Blood streaked the horizon, congealing into an ugly purple, the dam of day broken by the encroaching penumbra, the night flooding in. In minutes, the moon had swallowed half of the sun. It was a black eye bordered by gold, scouring the sands with ominous portent. A minute more and it had obscured the sun completely, the sight a blazing ring in the sky, a flaring golden corona.

"Uncurling from his foetus of grief, Ben raised himself on his one good arm."

The sun blinked a ruddy eye, one moment near the horizon, the next half sunken under it. Like a ball released from a catapult, the moon escaped the temporal glue, then slowed in the heavens, continuing her voyage skyward."

The book also demonstrates a cheerful Victorianesque disregard for the proper use of punctuation and cheerfully substitutes em-dashes and semicolons for commas, colons for semicolons. Yeah, not my cup of tea.

 

Continuing the Wilkie Collins motif, we have a credulous starving native, exotic African magics, and quite imprecise Egyptian history--e.g. ushaptiu described as "bricks"-- as well as a rather Victorian attitude towards women. Women are repeatedly described as animalistic and controlled only by their passions. Those who aren't "all heart, fury bred from spurned love, vengeance from the pain of treachery" want to live out the nineteenth century feminine ideal: "She told him, through pretty tears, that she only wanted a normal life. Marriage. Kids. A future. In no particular order and with possible overlaps between roles to avoid spoilers, this book contains: a damsel in distress, a powerful and magnetic seductress who is the pawn of the man manipulating her, a woman who becomes utterly consumed by revenge against the man who done her wrong, a bunch of evil witches who use sexuality as a weapon, and, to top it all off, a refrigeratored female.

Yes, yes, Rose doesn't actually die, but she is so clearly refrigeratored, mutilated, and dressed as a princess in a tower.

(show spoiler)

The most over-the-top offensive parts? When one woman is considered valuable, or "invested with power," as the book put it, solely because she is a receptacle for a man's sperm. Literal or metaphorical, a lot of the women end "opened up like a door", to be raped and used as emotional pawns. I had to push myself to keep reading, and I'm glad I did, because there is a certain amount of saving grace at the end.

I really loved that Rose turned out not to be dead and confronts Ben: "I am not... a prize." Yet even there Ben strips away some of Rose's agency by deciding that he can "save" her and "protect" her by staying away, making it his choice, not hers.

(show spoiler)

 

I also really didn't buy the basis of the worldbuilding. The basic scenario: King John got all the magical Remnants to make a pact that would leave exactly one of each of their kind in the world and push all the rest into endless sleep. Now, who on earth would agree to that, and in particular, who on earth would elect some leader as the only one to remain alive?

Leaving aside the fact that King "Lackland" John was a pathetic whinging scheming excuse of a king who managed to infuriate the Church, antagonize his populace to the point of war, and lose massive chunks of territory to the French, how on earth would a peace brokered with a weakling king of one measly little island become some sort of universal law to be obeyed by every mortal and immortal being all over the world? At that point, believe me, the sun definitely set on the British empire--on winter days, after less than ten hours. It's that sort of thoughtless exceptionalism that really gets on my nerves.

 

As as surely become clear by now, this book was not for me. I really wish it had been--it sounded so perfect. However, it was not meant to be. If you are more tolerant than me, or if a cross between Wilkie Collins and Neil Gaiman sounds fun to you, dear reader, then Chasing Embers may be worth a look.

 

~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Orbit Books, in exchange for my (depressingly) 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 novel as a whole.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
3.5 Stars
The difference between a gunrunner and a politician?
Behind the Throne - K.B. Wagers

"Spoken like a consummate politician, Highness. One would think you've been doing this for years."

"I have, Caspel. It just involved more guns."

 

Behind the Throne

by K. B. Wagers

 

Whatever your expectations may be, I suspect Behind the Throne will probably defy them. When I first started reading, misled by the flowery descriptions of eye colors and muscle definition, the careful note of each time the characters touched, and the derogative-yet-highly-descriptive portraits of the protagonist's beautiful clothing, I was quite worried that I had picked up a romance. However, for those of you who are also not fans of that genre, never fear: while the flowery description may occasionally give you pause, the book is absolutely devoid of love triangles and passionate glances. In fact, thematically, it's a thoroughly enjoyable mix of space opera and worldbuilding scifi flavored with a taste of mystery. I'm a huge fan of detective fiction, and even when they're less "whodunnit" than "whatyagonnadoaboutit," I still love the structure and focus on character that I think a mystery component brings to a story.

Despite an ongoing obsession with urban fantasy, noir, and heist stories, I'm paradoxically conservative when it comes to characters, and I was never really quite sure how I felt about the protagonist. Hail escaped her royal upbringing to become a gunrunner. The book focuses only on the badassery of the career and never really questions its morality. However, I personally couldn't get over the opening scene, where we see her in a room of corpses of her making. Gunrunners profit by inflaming wars and selling death. By their very nature, are rulebreakers who show a disdain for law and life. Personally, I'd want someone who is vying to be leader of a constitutional monarchy to question their past of illegality and pure bloodthirsty villainy. Hail isn't an honourable rogue. She punishes those she likes without trial and without due process, and yet her stalinesque savagery in a world of laws is never questioned.

The most controversial and memorable aspect of the book is probably going to be the creation of a female-dominated society. I found it thought-provoking, but not in the way the author intended. Personally, I think this book does a disservice to a discussion of sexism because the sexism here is so superficial. We're told that in Hail's world, the equal rights movement was taken "too far" and men are now considered inferior and forced into a lower role in society. That's what we're told, but in reality, men show absolutely no subservience or deference to their female "superiors" and are utterly unlimited by legal chains or glass ceilings. In our era, most of the sexism we encounter centers around objectification, tokenization, and glass ceilings, but this story supposedly happens in an even more sexist pre-lipservice era that would probably be more comparable to our 1890s. So where are the enforced gender roles and vicious stereotyping based on faulty pseudoscience? The characters occasionally make (forced, artificial) asides such as " men are not capable of the kind of responsibilities ", but they don't add any analogues to the specious biological arguments that cast women as smaller-brained, logic-deficient, emotion-driven, hysteria-prone weaklings, not any arguments that men are subordinate because they are biologically suited to be subordinate. Sure, I appreciated the occasional touches like describing a woman as " chatter[ing] like a schoolboy " but apart from a very few artificial attempts at creating a culture of ingrained sexism, I think the author mostly forgot about her attempt at a reverse-sexist culture.

In fact, even the gender gap itself was missing. Even though we're supposedly in a female-dominated world, women still seem to be caregivers and child-rearers. Men seem to be able to take on any career they desire, and they're often casually mentioned as the breadwinners. The attempts to demonstrate ingrained sexism were absurdly artificial. Take one conversation where Hail's male bodyguard accuses her of suspecting one man "Without any proof? Why? Because he's a man?" Well, I don't know, maybe it's because he's a man, or just maybe it's because they've just watched him attend a secret meeting with dissidents and killers. Within the book, the Director of Galactic Imperial Security, an admiral of the military, the prime minister, the head guard for the empress, the most elite of trackers, and even business owners such as a successful restaurateur are all men. The head of the resistance and the ruler of a rival empire are both men, yet no one objectifies or dehumanizes or attributes sexist stereotypes to them. Seems like the only thing a man can't do in this world is become emperor, and considering there are additional non-egalitarian genetic requirements for that anyway, I wouldn't consider an inability to become emperor much of a glass ceiling. Men of the society don't seem limited to me, and describing this as a sexist culture discounts the much more virulent sexism that women of our world have faced and even continue to face.

Behind the Throne is definitely intended to be the start of a series, and Wagers has left herself a lot of worldbuilding to explore. The story takes place in a planet-spanning empire: I want to know more about the industry, the tech, the exports that keep the lifestyle we see afloat. How do the colonized worlds feel? Do they welcome the Saxon empire? Do they seek true independence? How much say do they have in the government itself? I was rather fascinated by the blending of Hinduism and Catholic traditions, and I'd love to hear more about the religions of the world. I really appreciated the various same-gender couples throughout the book, which should have been particularly interesting given the supposed sexism of the culture, and I think this is worth further exploration in future books. We're briefly introduced to an alien species who have incredible healing capabilities, and while they mostly turned out to be a plot device in this story, I think they deserve deeper examination. The worldbuilding may have felt a bit flat for me, but on the other hand, this leaves a lot to expand on in the sequels. The true power of the story is its compulsive readability. No matter my criticisms, it was genuinely difficult to put down. If you're looking for something fast and fun with a bit of worldbuilding thrown in, Behind the Throne is definitely worth a look.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Orbit Books, 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 novel as a whole.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

recently reviewed

latest posts

series I'm hooked on