bookaneer

bookaneer

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

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.

Review
4 Stars
Penric and the Shaman
Penric and the Shaman - Lois McMaster Bujold

In the midst of all the chaos of recent events, Penric and the Shaman was a gloriously gentle read. We jump back into Penric's life about four years after the events of Penric's Demon, after he has become comfortable with his place in the world. But when Senior Locator Oswyl asks for the support of a sorcerer in chasing down a dangerous shaman, Penric finds himself setting off on a quest led by the rather disapproving Oswyl into the rural mountains in search of a stolen ghost.

I thought Penric and the Shaman did a nice job unifying the world of The Hallowed Hunt with the rest of the Five Gods stories: we get to see the uneasy interactions between the church of the Five Gods and the nature-worshipping shaman, and the interplay between their two magics. The story itself is told from three perspectives: that of Penric, Oswyl, and also Inglis, the shaman himself. It's a bit slow-paced, and I had a hard time seeing how things could be brought to a conclusion that would fit the mood of the rest of the book, but I found myself satisfied throughout, always able to enjoy the gentle banter and measured pace. I especially loved how it explored the humanity of all the players in the story-- there are no true villains in the book, which makes it a wonderful read if you're feeling stressed and depressed. Last, I love the way this whole series respectfully explores religion. For instance, take one of my favourite quotes:

"For all that we trust the gods, I think we can trust them to know the difference between humor and blasphemy."



~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Subterranean Press, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you!~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
5 Stars
"We cannot transcend our past without confronting it."
The Blood of Emmett Till - Timothy B. Tyson

The Blood of Emmett Till

by Timothy Tyson

 

"How do you give a crash course in hatred to a boy who has only known love?"
-- Mamie Till, mother of Emmett Till



Emmett Till. The boy whose lynching galvanized a global movement. Right now, the media seems to be afire with one of the revelations of this book: that Carolyn Bryant has finally admitted that she lied and that Emmett Till never accosted her. Other than her admission, that's not exactly a surprise. So what is the story of Emmett Till? While on a trip to Mississippi from his home in Chicago, he stopped in at Carolyn Bryant's store and bought candy from her. He may have said something pert to her. He may have put the money directly in her hand--physical contact, a taboo in Mississippi--rather than leaving it on the counter. He wolf whistled when she ran out after him in a fury to get the gun out of her car. JW Milam and Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant's husband and brother-in-law,pulled Emmett Till from his house, beat and whipped him for hours until his face and body were pulp, shot him in the head, tied his body with wire to a 74-pound industrial fan, and threw it into the Tallahatchie River.

Here are the murderers, celebrating as they escape justice:

Before she changed her story to attempted rape to provide an indefensible defense for a lynch mob, Bryant originally said only that Till "insulted" her. When her husband and brother-in-law came to lynch Emmett, they demanded that the family produce the boy who had done the "smart talk." This pretense of the "mystery" of Emmett Till's case is and always has been utterly fatuous. As Carolyn Bryant herself said,

"Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him."


The story of Emmett Till is so short, so heartbreaking. But the story of what comes after is both terrible and uplifting, and Timothy Tyson does the story justice. He starts by laying out the political backdrop, a necessary step to explain the meaning of Emmett Till's death to his killers and to those who mourned him. Emmett Till was not a naif to the world of bigotry and racism. Chicago was one of the most racially divided cities in America, and throughout his childhood, guerilla warfare raged over attempted housing desegregation. Dawson and Daley may have given lip service to equality, but they actively maintained segregation because it furthered their political ends. In both Chicago, as in Mississippi, black families kept loaded firearms in close reach, knowing that a lynch mob could burst through the door at any minute.

Mississippi, on the other hand, "outstripped the rest of the nation in virtually every measure of lynching." Vagrancy, a.k.a. "Jobless while Black," was treated as a crime, and through the convict leasing programs, black "criminals" were leased out to plantations as slave labor. To get the ballot, prospective black voters were forced to answer questions like, "Do you want your children to go to school with white children?" or "Are you a member or do you support the NAACP?" Citizens' Councils, white supremacy groups formed in the wake of Brown v Board of Education, terrorized African Americans with "personal visits" and by publishing their names, addresses, and phone numbers in newspapers. As with the present practice of doxxing, lynch mobs were never far behind. And it worked. As Tyson notes, "In the seven counties with a population more than 60 percent black, African Americans cast a combined total of two votes in 1954."

Citizens' councils were obsessed with maintaining white supremacy in the face of the federal government's decrees, and for them, as Tyson puts it, "The unsullied Southern white woman became the most important symbol of white male superiority." Emmett's death was, for his murderers, about keeping African-Americans in their place, and fearmongers used the "the old song of the Bruised Southern Lily and the Black Beast Rapist" to whip whites into hysterical furor. As J.W. Milam, one of Till's murderer's, put it:

"As long as I live and can do anything about it, n** are going to stay in their place. N** ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a n** even gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him."

Interviews showed later that none of the jurors ever doubted that Milam and Bryant were guilty, but they simply didn't consider the murder of a black boy who insulted a white woman to be a crime.

Emmett's death came after a host of assassinations of various civil rights leaders whose murders were treated as "accidents." Despite the coroner's verdict, the mutilations, the bullet, the fan hog-tied to the body, the local newspapers still termed the death an "odd accident" and Sheriff Shelton claimed that the bullet fragments were "most likely filings from his teeth" and put about the theory that the whole case was a fake concocted by the NAACP. If it hadn't been for Mamie Till, Emmett's death would have been just another lynching. But her strength and determination and courage transformed his death into "a watershed historical moment." As she said,

"I took the privacy of my own grief and turned it into a public issue, a political issue, one which set in motion the dynamic force that ultimately led to a generation of social and legal progress for this country."



The Blood of Emmett Till is an exceptional work. Not only does it bring humanity to the major players; it also vividly details the political and cultural backdrop and the global movement that Mamie Till and her allies galvanized. The writing and story are so compelling that I found myself racing through it like a thriller, even though I knew the outcome. Tyson captures the pathos, but also the hope, the bravery, the valiant actions of the witnesses who, like Moses Wright, stood in front of a white court and accused a white man.



If you want a better understanding of racism and the Civil Rights movement, add The Blood of Emmett Till to your list. I'll leave you with a quote:

"That we blame the murderous pack is not the problem; even the idea that we can blame the black boy is not so much the problem, though it is absurd. The problem is why we blame them: we do so to avoid seeing that the lynching of Emmett Till was caused by the nature and history of America itself and by a social system that has changed over the decades, but not so much as we pretend.

[...]
Ask yourself whether America's predicament is really so different now.

[...]
We are still killing black youth because we have not yet killed white supremacy."




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

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
5 Stars
The Stars are Legion
The Stars Are Legion - Kameron Hurley

The Stars are Legion is a gorgeously crazy book. No matter how much speculative fiction you've read, I'll bet you've never read anything like it before. It was my first book by Hurley, and it won't be my last. The writing is gorgeous, deeply embedded with metaphor and allusion. (It's so very quotable that I'm physically pained to be unable to include any quotes at present at the publisher's request.)

 

If I were forced to categorize the book, I'd say it doesn't quite fit into fantasy or scifi and instead belongs to their parent genre, speculative fiction. Don't go into this book expecting hard scifi. No, the idea of jumping from planet to planet in a matter of hours wearing nothing but a sprayed-on suit and dragged around by a living shuttle doesn't exactly work in terms of Newtonian physics, nor does a planet composed of layer upon layer with an outer layer of tentacles. Just go with it. The sheer breadth of imagination is staggering, from cephalopod cannons to recycler monsters to disturbing funerary feasts to fungal forests to sentient boats to so much more.

 

Like Ancillary Justice, it is a story told entirely with female pronouns, but unlike the Radch, the world Hurley creates is genuinely feminine, each member of each world capable of giving birth, yet sex and procreation are entirely separated. Themes of reuse and rebirth and cannibalism and closed systems, of wombs and maternity and birth, of agency and freedom, of memory and identity, are beautifully woven into a backdrop of complex characters, dizzyingly hallucinogenic imaginings, and wild, vivid, often repulsive creativity. I can't write much because I don't want to spoil anything, but if you're looking for a genuinely unique read, look no further.

 

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Saga Press, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you!~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
3.5 Stars
Colored Pencil Painting Portraits
Colored Pencil Painting Portraits: Master a Revolutionary Method for Rendering Depth and Imitating Life - Alyona Nickelsen

Thought colored pencils were only good for middle-school drawings of ponies and rainbows? Take a look at one of Alyona Nickelsen's portraits and think again:

 

Who knew what wonders could be performed with colored pencils? In Colored Pencil Painting Portraits, Nickelsen seeks to explain how she elevates colored pencils from a child's activity to a true art medium. Perhaps the most surprising thing to me-- although in retrospect, I suppose it shouldn't be-- is her explanation of the other tools she requires to turn pencil into paintbrush. She describes the types of papers to employ as well as blending tools, solvents, and sealants to overcome the natural limits of the medium. Her techniques are fascinating, but I will admit I found her constant advertising of her own products rather tiresome. She never mentions blender or fixative when "ACP Textured Fixative" or "Colored Pencil Touch-Up Texture" can be wedged in instead. ("ACP Textured Fixative" literally turns up 81 times in the short book!)

 

Another unexpected aspect I found interesting was Nickelsen's pragmatic advice for professional portrait painters. She has made a career out of a role I thought had died out with the invention of the camera, and I was somewhat amused by the very practical advice she shares about the profession. As in very traditional portraits, Nickelsen favors single light sources, static poses, and strongly suggests avoiding "perspective distortion"-- in fact, it's the opposite advice you'll see in guides for gesture or animation. There's an entire chapter on how to pose the subject to make them appear to be slimmer, as well as a long digression into the delicate art of flattering the sitter without making them look unrealistic. It's the sort of thing that Bernini or Sargent must have struggled with constantly.

 

I was intrigued to discover that reading the book clarified something about my own feelings for art. With pencil and charcoal and paint, I like to see the strokes, the layers, the careless mastery of the tool. Nickelsen's portraits demonstrate tremendous care, but the techniques she supports-- careful posing, tracing photographs-- and the medium itself have inherent limits in the artistic spontaneity I love to see in an artist's work. Both portrait painting on commission and colored pencils are very specialized forms of the art, while I don't think the book stretches past these very specialized fields, I found it an entertaining and fascinating read.

 

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

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
"The great power of the Black Panthers [was] in their ability to create, manipulate, and subvert mass culture."
Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon - Jane Rhodes

Framing the Black Panthers

by Jane Rhodes



"To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage."
--Eldridge Cleaver

 

The Black Panthers are one of the most simultaneously notorious and least-understood movements in American history. It is impossible to analyze the Black Panthers Party without also discussing the media that exoticized and excoriated it. In Framing the Black Panthers, Rhodes seeks to illuminate the relationship between the Black Panthers and the media, whose exploitation and commodification gave the Panthers the visibility that both granted momentum and eventually aided in its destruction. While it's not suitable as an introduction to the history of the Black Panther Party-- I'd suggest Black Against Empire for that --The Framing of the Black Panther Party explores a critical aspect of the story: the Panthers' struggle to harness and control the media and public perception, and their ultimate inability to fully shape or control their image.

Framing the Black Panthers starts by examining the political origins of the Panthers and the way in which the media shaped perceptions of the Civil Rights Movement, such as newspapers' portrayal of Rosa Parks as a spontaneous protester rather than part of a greater movement, or the way that ever-present violence was downplayed in favor of the neater story of nonviolent protest for well-defined civil liberties. Blacks protecting themselves with firearms from white gangs come to lynch them is not a new story. The new element-- and as Rhodes points out, not even this was actually novel-- was in the Panthers' portrayal of the police and the government as yet another racist gang come to invade and attack the black community. And thus the powerful statement the Panthers made with their guns and berets: that the justice system didn't have a copyright on armed and uniformed defenders of its citizens.

The Panthers were a conscious paradox, abandoning nonviolence while portraying themselves as disciplined defenders, simultaneously embracing and rejecting the stereotype of the angry, virile, destructive Black man. Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, in particular, saw Black Power as the reclamation and exaltation of Black manhood, yet employed discipline to escape characterization as "black brute." Rhodes argues that the guns that the BPP so famously embraced were at least partially utilized as a media spectacle to gain attention to the struggle.Their symbols--the guns, the berets, the upraised fists, phrases such as "pig" and "power to the people"--all became cultural touchstones with very different interpretations for different communities, in part because of this paradox. By escaping respectability politics, the BPP became the emblem of Black militancy.

While we want to view the media as dispassionate and unbiased chroniclers of current events, in actuality, they shape the narrative and therefore public perception and reaction. Rhodes highlights the interdependence between the Panthers and the media: the Panthers used the media to gain notoriety and use that notoriety to gain momentum and a modicum of safety from a government that sought to silence them by any means possible. However, the media had their own well-defined agenda: to exotify, sensationalize, and commodify the party while still upholding the viewpoints of their readers. As Rhodes puts it:

"The news media, in particular, had a conflicting social agenda--to appease the power elites of whom they were a part and to uphold societal norms while professing some concern for the problem of racial inequality. [...] Because the press is primarily invested in reinforcing normative values, one should not expect them to seriously interrogate the complexities of a group such as the Black Panthers."

The rise of television eroded media responsibility even more by incentivizing the reduction of complex stories into their most sensational, easily digested elements.

"Most damning, perhaps, was that the media was deeply invested in the self-fulfilling prophecy [of violence] it advanced."

As media portrayal spiraled out of control with violent repercussions, the Panthers sought to control their own image by restricting media access and broadcasting their own voices via the Panther paper, but they had become a "salable commodity," both for those who hawked sensational tales of violence and depravity, and for "white guilt" liberals embracing "radical chic."

Rhodes explores the narrative and symbolic frames that the media employed when reporting on the BPP, including the extreme partisanship of outlets such as the Oakland Tribune and the Golden Gater. Yet the book itself occasionally uses the same sort of phrasing that it accuses these papers of using, promoting, if perhaps unintentionally, its own framing of events. For example, Rhodes calls William Lee Brent's holdup and shootout "a costly mistake" and terms the ex-Panthers who made accusations of sexual abuse "disgruntled", employing language that implicitly dismisses the accusations. The BPP was a complex movement, both flawed and glorious, despite media attempts to flatten it into a simple "good" or "evil." It was constructed as a paradox, and remained one throughout its lifetime, simultaneously promoting "Black self-love" and embracing a patriarchal form of homophobia and sexism. Rhodes dives deep into her subject, exploring the goals and outcomes of the Breakfast Program, the relationships between the Panthers and the Peace and Freedom Party in terms of press gains, the Panthers' worldwide influence, including the Black Panther movement that formed in the UK, and more.

For me, the one place where Framing the Black Panthers fell short was in the paucity of images. The book routinely describes headlines, photographs, and illustrations in words, yet I counted less than twenty photographs in the entire book, shoved together into a section at the center. I found myself performing image search after image search on Google to find the photographs or headlines described in the text. There is something powerful about the images themselves, and I think the book would greatly benefit from showing the images it so carefully describes. For example, take one of the Doonesbury cartoons mentioned, or the famous sketch of Bobby Seale when he was gagged and chained to his chair in court:


I think the book would be much more powerful if the inclusion of visual elements doubled its length.

 

Framing the Black Panthers is a wholesale indictment of the media, but also an exploration of the complex relationship between media and subject. As is now publicly acknowledged, the BPP, termed by Hoover "The greatest threat to internal security of the country," was under constant assault by the government and by the media. As we again enter an era of Civil Rights struggles, I believe it is critical to understand our own past with the hope that it may give us insight into our future. The media desire for sensationalism fed public fear, which in turn fueled the police's belief that the Panthers "would someday invade their homes for the purpose of killing wives and children" (Commission of Inquiry into the Black Panthers and Law Enforcement). Repercussions of the mutual distrust fed by media frenzy continues to create tragedy today. With the creation of new movements like the Brutality Prevention Project, perhaps Panthers' dream of community defense can finally be achieved, with cellphone cameras instead of guns.


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

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
A Spy Among Friends
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal - Ben Macintyre

Still as riveting as everything else Macintyre writes, but this book is definitely less fun than ZigZag or Double Cross. In fact, it's downright depressing. And how could it be otherwise? At its heart, this book is about a terrible, immeasurably costly betrayal.

While the book describes the life of Kim Philby, the infamous Russian double-agent who actually headed counterintelligence the USSR, it doesn't ever really explain the man himself, possibly because with Philby, it's not really possible to ever determine what was real. Certainly Macintyre seems to have given up on that task. And with the eponymous character an enigmatic villain, we're left to choose protagonists from the men that Philby duped: Nicholas Elliott, James Jesus Angleton, and the other figures of the spy game. And in the end, everything they did, every action they made, is tainted or destroyed by Philby. So many lives were lost by their attempts in the Cold War, from assassinated defectors to murdered nationalists whose identities Philby leaked to his masters. As some later admitted, it would actually have been better if they had done nothing at all, and Philby's betrayal continues to have repercussions to this day. For how can one ever trust anyone if a traitor can hide for so long?

The book has all of Macintyre's sly asides, but not even his rendition can make the story fun, or even simply satisfying. I wanted Philby to be disappointed with the USSR he found. Certainly his wife claimed he tried to slit his wrists, but in that leaked video from the 1980s, he seems utterly self-satisfied and content. And with Philby, how can one ever conclude which attitude was real and which fake? I wanted some sort of final stand, some case in which Elliott or Angleton genuinely got the better of Philby, even if unconsciously, and thereby saved lives. But it really never happened. The book is of course utterly readable and addictive, and if you get lost in the words and the wackiness and can briefly forget the bigger picture, quite fun-- there's something insanely wonderful, for example, about the Russians not believing their double agents' reports about Double Cross because, in their paranoia, they assumed their own agents had been doubled as part of the Double Cross scheme those same agents were telling them about-- but at the back of it all, there is always Philby and the terrible tragedy of it all.

I can think of one good thing that came out of reading it: I can no longer disparage ridiculous spy story plots whose final twist is that the Big Boss is actually a sleeper agent. After all, it already happened (at least) once.

Review
4 Stars
"Tonight we rise as one and change the world!"
Battle Hill Bolero - Daniel José Older

Battle Hill Bolero

by Daniel José Older

 

Bone Street Rumba. Half-Resurrection Blues. Midnight Taxi Tango. Battle Hill Bolero. From the titles alone, it's clear how important an influence music is on Older, and his love of rhythm and texture can be felt through the pages. Sure, it's a story about ghosts and humans duking it out against supernatural monsters, but for me, the series is just as much about New York City, the backstreets and communities that half-dead Carlos Delacruz and his full-ghost and human friends inhabit, from the juxtaposition of layered history in the ghost world to creeping gentrification to chatty santeros to the clash of cultures on the city streets. In Battle Hill Bolero, the story really picks up its tempo.

 

If you've read my reviews before, you probably know I'm somewhat cavalier about series order-- even in this case, I started with Midnight Taxi Tango (#2) and only recently went back to read Half-Resurrection Blues (#1). So please take my word for it when I say that this book simply won't work without the previous two in the series. (In fact, that realization, which occurred within the first chapter of this book, is the reason why I went back to read the first book.) Any discussion of the plot necessarily involves spoilers for the previous books, so consider yourself warned.

 

After the slow buildup in the previous books in the series, the rebellion against the Council has finally reached boiling point. After a host of mutual misunderstandings, Carlos and Sasha are finally trying to work things out, complicated by the revolution exploding around them. Battle Hill Bolero is chock-full of battlescenes, and some of them are pretty awesome. However, I did find it surprising that, given the series' focus on exploring the humanity of the other characters, there was so little concern for the sanctity of the lives (or unlives, as the case may be) of the adversaries. This is a civil war that pits friend against friend and coworker against coworker. How did the fight against the Council become a fight against a faceless enemy? I also don't tend to find plotting to be Older's strong point, and this book was no exception. I never really understand why the antagonists--and some of the protagonists-- do what they do; their often contradictory actions seem to serve only the plot.

One thing that drove me slightly nuts was Carlos's entirely inconsistent status as secret rebel. At one moment, they're looking for a traitor; at another, he's going out to a bar with them; at another, they offer him a job; at another, they're attacking his house. It was logically inconsistent and didn't even really drive the plot. The ngks were another issue. While it was gratifying to see all the pieces of the previous books come together, I have no clue how or why they got involved, and why anyone thought it was a good idea to employ the magical equivalent of a nuclear attack. And while it was interesting to finally find out what happened at Carlos's death, it was sort of a letdown. Honestly, the whole "murder their whole families" thing still makes no sense to me, particularly given that Carlos and Sasha had no idea who they were in their previous lives anyway. But the biggest issue was, of course, Flores. Other than to drive the plot, what was the motivation for all the insane actions he took, from sending them to the Web to starting a war against them to bringing in Caitlin? He was basically a plot device, and a shallow one at that.

(show spoiler)

 

I'm drawn to these books because of the vivid glimpses of New York that Older gives us, and the diverse characters, not because of the plot or action scenes. And I absolutely loved some of the characters introduced here, from Kris the take-no-prisoners ghost to Red, a transgender pirate whose spunky spirit outlived his body by centuries, as well as old friends from previous books. And then there's the sheer love of language that imbues the story, and the sly situational humor that is such an integral part of urban fantasy. For example:

"Meetings are Satan's way of balancing out all the beautiful things in the world, like music."

We even get an enjoyable cameo from Shadowshaper as well as a few hints about the next mythological entities Carlos and the gang will encounter. Battle Hill Bolero is a watershed book for the series. It absolutely cannot be read without the other books in the series, for the plot is filled with an unexpected but gratifying symmetry. I'm not sure where Older will take the series next, but I'm definitely in for the ride.

 

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

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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

 

Invisible Planets

Edited and translated by Ken Liu

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chen Qiufan expresses its influence on society as follows:

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

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

 

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

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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

The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred

 

by Greg Egan

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~Cross-posted on Goodreads.~~

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

This book. Is. Amazing.

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

An Import of Intrigue

by Marshall Maresca

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

(show spoiler)

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

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

(show spoiler)

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

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

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

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

 

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

The Secret Language of Dogs

 

by Victoria Stillwell

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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

After Atlas

by Emma Newman

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

(show spoiler)

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

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

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

 

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

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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

Ancillary Justice

by Ann Leckie

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

As she also says:

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

 

(show spoiler)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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