bookaneer

bookaneer

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

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.

Review
5 Stars
Brother's Ruin
Brother's Ruin - Emma Newman

I can never quite articulate why I find all of Emma Newman's books so utterly enthralling, but I'm pleased to say that Brother's Ruin is no exception. Compared to some of her other more serious works such as Planetfall, I found this novella a pure escapist pleasure. The story takes place in an alternate Victorian London where magic battles it out with the Industrial Revolution. Those born with the gift of magic must renounce their lives and instead dedicate their lives to the nation. Families are punished for hiding their magically gifted children, and paid for having their children taken by the mages. Charlotte has been hiding her magical gifts from her family and fiancee, but that's not her only secret: she is also a talented and successful illustrator. Hiding who she is, protecting her ailing brother, and surreptitiously aiding her family's finances, she thinks she is keeping it all together until the mages arrive at her doorstep.

 

It's an interesting world: although the books themselves are radically different, the general idea of magic practitioners as powerful pawns required to serve the desires of their government reminded me a bit of Myke Cole's Shadow Ops series. Given that in this case, mages rival the nobility in power and they don't appear to be enslaved, I'm not really sure I accept that they would give up all sense of private life out of pure duty for their country, but I'll be interested to see where the story goes. The alternate London is well-researched and has sly references to real historical events; for example, Charlotte's fiancee mentions that he has been mapping out cholera outbreaks to help out his peculiar friend John Snow. The book explores Newman's familiar themes of agency and feminism, and there's also what I'm pretty sure will end up as a budding romance. I read the whole novella in one sitting and I can't wait for more. My major complaints: (1) that it's a novella instead of a full novel, and (2) I don't yet have a sequel in my greedy hands. If you're a fan of Victorian magic or steampunkery, Brother's Ruin is well worth a look.

 

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


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
3.5 Stars
Anatomy of Innocence
Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted - Leslie S. Klinger, Scott Turow, Laura Caldwell, Barry Scheck

Anatomy of Innocence

edited by Laura Caldwell and Leslie S. Klinger

 

What an intriguing concept: have a mystery writer--someone who makes a living inventing crimes and delving into a fictitious criminal justice system--with a real-life exoneree, someone for whom a red herring was a life-altering tragedy and not just an entertaining plot twist.

 

I will admit I didn't read the blurb carefully enough: I hadn't realized that these would be retellings by the writers rather than interviews. Why is the distinction so important? Because retellings run the risk of stealing the speaker's voice, transforming the story to fulfil the writer's preconceived notions, and commodifying the result. A collection like this is powerful but also dangerous: while it can give voices to those who have already been forced to suffer in silence, it can also stifle them. To my mind, examples of both exist in the collection. The worst offender, in my opinion, was Laurie R. King, who attributes incredibly naive thoughts and utterly simplistic language to her interviewee. She is so condescending that it made my teeth hurt. I generally was less happy about the chapters that tried to "novelify" people's lives with overblown drama and suspense, but I deeply appreciated those that gave an account of the interview itself as a journalist would. Probably my favourite retelling was Lee Child's recounting of Kirk Bloodsworth's story, which is told as an interview, with Bloodsworth telling his story in his own words. It is touching, and most importantly, it doesn't pretend to go behind his eyes but gets out of the way and helps him tell his story.

 

The crimes and circumstances run the gamut, from a woman accused of shaking a baby to death to a murdered wife to a gang shooting to a vicious rape, from a clear case of racist scapegoating to mistaken eyewitnesses to damning circumstantial evidence. Many of the cases involve police who forced confessions by torturing their suspects. In some of the stories, exoneration means the real culprit was found; in others, that the state was shown to have been corrupt or not to have proved its case. (As a side note, all of the stories are present unambiguous innocence of the exoneree and negligence or evil on the part of the state, which often means dropping other aspects of the cases that muddy the water. While I understand the rationale, I prefer not to be fed an oversimplification.) Each chapter ends with an editor's note discussing the history and current status of one part of the case, from DNA testing to negligent counsel to faulty forensic science to forced confessions and mistaken eyewitnesses. If you weren't aware of the extremely broken state of the US justice system, this collection will be an eyeopener. Even if you are, Anatomy of Innocence provides an interesting opportunity to hear the repercussions of a fallible justice system on people's lives.

 

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


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
"Private detective by day. Private killer by night."
Standard Hollywood Depravity: A Ray Electromatic Mystery (Ray Electromatic Mysteries) - Adam Christopher

Standard Hollywood Depravity

by Adam Christopher

"This seemed to be my lucky night for going undercover, which was something I rarely did on account of the fact that I was not only a robot but the last robot, which tended to make me stick out in a crowd just somewhat."

"Robot noir"? Just those words and I'm already a fan. Raymond (get it?) is the last robot in Hollywood. Intended to replace the human police, general robophobia left Raymond a lone and lonely robot, his only friend the profit-obsessed supercomputer Ada, these day he makes his money as a hitman (hitrobot?). Raymond's newest job is a dancer at a club--doesn't matter who or why she is wanted dead, just that someone is willing to pay for it. But when Raymond finds himself within a web of instincts, his detective instincts take over.

Christopher's noir pastiche is pretty perfect. Femme fatales and fast-talking gangsters abound. Fast-talking gangsters abound, and there's the standard noir sexism and proliferation of femme fatales, despite a near-but-not-quite-successful subversion of the trope. But what was most important to me was that he has the patter down perfectly. It's hilarious. Some of my favourites:

"I thought it all went rather well against my chassis , which was bronzed and the color of those sculptures by that guy who did sculptures in bronze."

"Being a hit man— hit robot—is an interesting business. It requires a certain level of what I like to call not being caught. There were ways to avoid that particular outcome and I liked to think I was pretty good at a few of them. I had several advantages in my favor. I didn’t leave fingerprints, for a start."

Despite the comedy and all of the noir spoofiness, there are also some really interesting elements I'd love to see Christopher expand upon. Raymond has been reprogrammed--by Ada-- to be a hitman. As he puts it:

"A little adjustment and I was invited to the party. Which was also fine. Because I was programmed to think it was fine."

His personal memory is constrained to a short tape reel that is overwritten when he returns to Ada, which reminded me a bit of Person of Interest. And how did Ada become the ultimate evil scheming femme fatale in the first place? I'd love to better understand her background and how she interacts with her clients.

Overall, it's a great little novella, and I'm looking forward to another adventure with Raymond the Robot. The plotting is tight, the story moves fast, and the ending manages to be both somewhat ambiguous and, to me at least, entirely unexpected, which was fun. If you're looking for a short punch of scifi noir, Standard Hollywood Depravity 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 novel as a whole.

~~Cross-posted on Goodreads.~~

Review
4.5 Stars
The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories
The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories - Nnedi Okorafor, Patricia Hermes, K.J. Parker, Kamila Shamsie, Jamal Mahjoub, Catherine King, Kuzhali Manickavel, Monica  Byrne, Kirsty Logan, E.J. Swift, J.Y. Yang, Usman T. Malik, Sophia Al-Maria, Jared Shurin, Claire North, Neil Gaiman, James Smythe, Maria Dahvana Headl

I'll admit I was a bit wary when I picked up Djinn Falls In Love: tempted by authors such as K.J. Parker and Claire North, I worried that the collection itself might suffer from repetition. I needn't have worried. The collection demonstrates a truly staggering variety of perspectives on the concept of djinn, as well as mixing prose and poetry, vignettes and plot twists. As is mentioned in the foreword, the unifying theme of the collection is the humanization of the Other. The collection begins with the poem that gave it its title by an author who goes by "Hermes," then quickly delves into the very traditional, very folkloresque-feeling story, "The Congregation," by Kamila Shamsie, which also contained one of my favourite quotes in the whole collection:

"There is no evil here, only love. God save us from a world that can't tell the difference."

The rest of the collection varied widely in the mood, setting, and in the vision of the djinn themselves.

 

My down-and-out favourite, and enough to make the collection a five-star all on its own, was "A Tale of Ash and Seven Birds" by Amal El-Mohtar. It is a rich, gorgeous allegory or immigration, where djinn refugees to the land of the wizard-nation repeatedly change themselves in their efforts to survive. An excerpt:

"Great Horned Owl

You are an apex predator. Nothing can hurt you now.

You have embraced silence. [...]

Sparrows though. Crows. Cormorants. All these will fill your belly now, and it's their own fault. All their own fault for not choosing a shape the wizard-nation cannot hurt, their own fault for being small or loud or trying to build communities of which the wizard-nation disapproved. You have learned the wizard-nation's way, and you will be able to stay, now, forever." This was not the only story to explore the theme of djinn as immigrant. "Somewhere in America" by Neil Gaiman is actually excerpted from American Gods, which I admit I wasn't thrilled about, but certainly fits the theme. Comically bitter and rather gruesome, it tells the tale of a disillusioned visitor who runs into a particularly peculiar taxi driver. "The Jinn Hunter's Apprentice" by E.J. Swift is an imaginative scifi story that takes place on a busy spaceport on Mars. A bunch of angry djinn, tired of having their once-peaceful world invaded, have invaded a ship and the captain calls in a djinn-hunter. In "The Spite House" by Kirsty Logan, djinns were made corporeal, badgered and threatened out of their homes by violent protesters bearing signs such as "NO SNAKES IN OUR NEIGHBOURHOOD", and forced to live on scraps in the outskirts of society.

 

Other stories use the djinn as the ultimate outside observers. "Bring Your Own Spoon" by Saad Z. Hossain, which was perhaps my second favourite story, takes place in a dystopian future in a ruined world made habitable only by the constant efforts of nanobots. A destitute human and djinn living on the outskirts of society decide to act upon their crazy idea of starting a restaurant for other forgotten members of society. The story is gorgeous and poignant and thoughtful. One of my favourite quotes:

"People always assume that poor people are dangerous. They wouldn't be here, if they were."

"Emperors of Jinn" by Usman T. Malik is a brutal tale about a group of children and a magic book that mixes casual cruelty with human possession. "Authenticity" by Monica Byrne uses a film student's desire to get a romantic encounter between djinn and human on film to very directly plays with the theme of observers and voyeurism--not for me, and I'm not entirely sure I understood the story's goal. "The Glass Lights" by J.Y. Yang is a wistful vignette about a girl who sees herself as a passive observer, constantly pulled by the needs and desires of others and her own compulsion to reshape the world as her djinn ancestors once did. She feels out of place in the world, not because she is secretly part djinn but because she is Muslim:

"You don't giggle with a girl in a headscarf, who can't watch any of the Channel 8 K-dramas you follow because she doesn't speak Mandarin."

 

Some of the stories stretched the idea of the djinn to represent sentient magic, supernatural beings, or even just as a metaphor for untapped and dangerous potential. I find K.J. Parker's short stories to be, without fail, utterly fantastic, and "Message in a Bottle was no exception. A scholar, pursuing forbidden research in the effort to save his country, is faced with the choice of whether or not to open a bottle that could either cure the deadly plague or cause an even worse one. As always, the story is fabulously fun and funny with a darkly ironic edge. Jamal Mahjoub's "Duende 2077" takes place in a future where capitalism has imploded and "The Caliphate flooded into the power void.". The main character is a jaded detective who begins investigating an apparently political crime and finds himself tracing the strands of a rebel plot. Vivid and gritty, it also takes the time to try to explore the motives of martyrs for a cause. "History" by Nnedi Okarafor is an interesting story about a singer who harnesses magic--including a djinn-- to improve her song, and also about the odd quirks of history and the ways in which our actions have unforeseen effects on others. "Queen of Sheba" by Catherine Faris King expands the djinn to other cultures in the context of a very sweet childhood story about growing up. "The Sand in the Glass is Right" by James Smythe uses the djinn as a mechanism to redoing a life over and over. I saw "Reap" by Sami Shah as a classic ghost-revenge story transcribed onto a slightly different space: that of members of the military spying on potential terrorists. It felt to me like a very traditional child-based horror movie, and I found the violence sick and pointless. "Black Powder" by Maria Dahvana Headley is a wild, gruesome, exceedingly American story about a magical gun whose bullets have the potential to grant wishes. Full of archetypal characters and twisted darkness, it reminded me strongly of Catherynne Valente. The writing is gorgeously vivid; for example:

"Each person is a projectile filled with sharp voice and broken volume, blasts of maybe.

The hands outstretch, the hearts explode. The chamber is the world and all the bodies on earth press close around each bullet, holding it steady until, with a rotating spin, it flies."

 

I also appreciated the more traditional takes on the djinn seen in stories such as "Manjun" by Helen Wecker, where a djinn, once the favourite of Lady Aisha Qandisha, becomes a Muslim and exorcises his kind from the humans they torment. It's a bittersweet story about the sense of loss and isolation from loved ones that the newly converted sometimes experience. "How We Remember You" by Kuzhali Manickavel is an odd and creepy story told to a djinn companion lost in childhood. "The Righteous Guide of Arabsat" by Sophia Al-Maria is a cynical and disturbing take on an inexperienced and gullible "mama's boy" who begins to believe his new wife is possessed by a djinn--after all, how else could she be sexually experienced? It's a telling exploration of morality, norms, and the dangers of combining dogmatic ignorance with credulous believers. Claire North's "Hurrem and the Djinn" is an enjoyable alternate history of Sultana Hurrem. Although it starts as a traditional fairy tale, I thoroughly appreciated the ironic relish and flair of North's dialogue, as well as the final sting about a proper woman's place.

 

The Djinn Falls in Love gets a high rating from me not just because of the wide variety of stories but also because of a few memorable tales mixed in. As with all anthologies, not every story will appeal to every person, but I believe there are enough spectacular tales in here that the collection is well worth a look.

 

~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Rebellion/Solaris, 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 stories.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
"It's going to be fine. Assuming we survive."
The Curse Mandate (The Dark Choir Book 3) - J.P. Sloan

The Curse Mandate

by J.P. Sloane

 

Alright, this proves it: Dorian Lake is a trouble magnet. All the man wants to do is train his new apprentice and find his dislocated soul, and maybe make a living from his job as a hex-maker and his new gig as a bar owner. But fate--or knowing Dorian, it's probably karma-- just refuses to cooperate. Instead, he finds himself promising to help out his apprentice's brother with a nasty curse and finds himself embroiled in a nasty string of mysterious jinxes that threatens to bring the Presidium-- the governing body of American magicians-- right down on his head. As he puts it:

"The Presidium's about to go on a tear. Last time that happened, we got the Red Scare. Before that, Manifest Destiny."

Oh, and the demon he sold his soul to before it went walkabout is asking for a new deal while there's still time to make one.

 

If you're addicted to urban fantasy and looking for a Dresden Files analogue, then in some ways, this could be a good fit. There's a less-than-thriving magic business, a basement where magical experiments are conducted, a young and attractive apprentice that the narrator has an exasperating tendency to salivate over, and even the extreme overuse of a few catchphrases. (Ever since I read the Dresden Files, I've winced every time I've read "arched an eyebrow" or "shambled." In the Dark Choir series, on the other hand, there are far too many "sniffles," "grumbles," and "smirks," usually when words with a neutral connotation are more appropriate.) On the more entertaining side, both have a protagonist who eschews technology because of magic's ability to "put a whammy on electronic devices", and even a detective from "Special Investigations," a unit I'm pretty sure exists only in Canada and the world of Harry Dresden. I found Wren, this series' answer to Charity Carpenter, a lot more likeable. There are also many distinctive worldbuilding, from the far more secretive Presidium to the practice of geomancy to the weird world of the stregha. This book, in particular, greatly fleshes out the shadowy Presidium, dipping into an enjoyable early American alternate history.

  

However, despite all of the similarities, I found the tone radically different, both darker and more (intentionally) morally ambiguous than anything the Dresden Files can serve up. To start with, the magic of Dorian's world is a hell -- if you'll pardon the pun-- of a lot nastier. The powerful stuff ranges from chaos magic to Netherwork -- curses powered by the demonic "Dark Choir" -- to scary forces channeling the nastier aspects of nature. Dorian's magic is primarily hexwork based on what he blithely describes as "karma." Don't get me wrong; it still has its fun and silly moments--my favourite involved the magical properties of smiley faces-- but all of that moral ambiguity add a hell of a lot more suspense to the brew because the reader is left genuinely concerned about whether Dorian will slide off the moral event horizon. I found the plot itself somewhat problematic because of its tendency to completely drop subplots at arbitrary moments, but this additional moral suspense kept me simultaneously engaged and frustrated.

I don't even know what to make of the Presidium plot--it seems insane to me, but hey, I think the ringleaders probably were insane-- but I was quite irritated by the way the Ches/Ricky subplot was completely dropped. After Ches leaves, I think Dorian only mentions her a few times, and he doesn't seem even remotely preoccupied with her fate. (What a dick.) Also on the list of "wtf, Dorian?" moves was bringing Edgar along on the suicide mission.

(show spoiler)

Both Dorian and his allies take actions that made me cringe, and I still don't know where the series is heading, or just how much of an antihero Dorian will become. It's something of a refreshing change from cookie-cutter UF. When combined with a mystery I found utterly perplexing, all of this made the book nearly impossible to put down. 

 

As for Dorian himself, he's still pretty much the guy you love to hate, but what I really appreciate about this series is that it is so very self-aware of the protagonist's flaws. The other characters continually confront Dorian with his general entitled, self-obsessed, obnoxiousness. They call him out in the way he talks down to everyone, the way he believes he deserves to win, the way he demands loyalty of others long before he grants it to them, the way he stumbles into situations he doesn't take the time to understand. One asks:

"Why do you make everything about you when it isn't? And when it actually is about you, you make it about everyone else."

So sure, Dorian is annoying and seriously flawed, the novels don't try to convince us otherwise, which makes all the difference. Plus, there are the side characters. As in previous books, I have significant issues with the way women are characterized: they're all pretty much seductresses, naifs, or in the rare cases they do manage to gain power, they're depicted as animalistic. But hey, that's a criticism that is pretty much innate to the genre. Series staples Edgar and Wren make an appearance, as does Ches, the rather conflicted character of the last book, and Julian Bright, ex-politician-assistant and current bar owner. One character I was quite happy to see again was Reed Malosi, the guy Dorian kept calling "Penn State", and he has a much more central role here, and I love his character even more.

 

In the increasingly overcrowded world of urban fantasy, J.P. Sloane adds some new elements. Despite much of the standard machinery, from a struggling business to a sexy apprentice, Dorian himself is unique, both in his own unabashed flaws and the risk that he'll genuinely go Dark Side. Although I don't say this often, I suspect the Dark Choir series would be quite difficult to read out of order, so if this book sounds intriguing, I'd suggest checking out The Curse Merchant first. If you're looking for a new UF series, the Dark Choir series is worth a look. I don't know where this series is heading, but I'm definitely in for the next book.

 

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook from the publisher, Curiosity Quills Press, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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