My introduction to Grandmaster of Science Fiction Samuel R. Delany came in a fun little package: the novel Babel-17 that flips over to become the (tanMy introduction to Grandmaster of Science Fiction Samuel R. Delany came in a fun little package: the novel Babel-17 that flips over to become the (tangentially related) Empire Star!
Babel-17, as its name suggests, is about language. I've gathered that Delany is well known for tackling heady, complex topics in his writing, and here he designs the entire story around an examination of how language and thought/conception are inherently connected. Rydra Wong (a polyamorous bisexual non-neurotypical Asian heroine, in 1966!) is a renowned poet and starship captain who is called in to investigate a series of coded transmissions coinciding with attacks on the Alliance. She deduces that it's not a code but an entirely new language, and she recruits her own crew to solve the mystery and save the universe.
I've heard that Rydra Wong has had a long and lasting influence on many women, especially women of color, and it's easy to see why, since she's awesome. She's a smart and competent leader, but she's not perfect, and her weaknesses often show at inopportune moments. She's not badass in any physical way, but she has plenty of badass moments where she figures something out, makes a connection no one else has, understands language and communication better than anyone can.
Wong encounters many colorful characters on her journey, some more developed than others. The narrative bounces from place to place, and it's initially unclear where the story itself is going, but where it's going is some really mindbending places with plot twists within plot twists. Even when it's cerebral, it never stops being fun.
Empire Star is mentioned in Babel-17, but the stories have nothing to do with each other, though it does also concern itself with language. Here, our hero, Comet Jo, is not smart or competent at all; in fact, he's quite simple(x) until a multiplex consciousness in the shape of a gem falls from the sky and tells him to deliver a message to Empire Star and he's all "Welp, okay" because that's the kind of guy he is. The story is actually told by said multiplex consciousness, named Jewel, which is fun. Jo has his own set of misadventures, and he learns about simplex, complex, and multiplex, which Delany uses to describe different ways of perceiving the world. I wasn't as drawn into the story as with Babel-17, though Jo is a pretty lovable galumph. It also goes to some really mindbending places with plot twists within plot twists.
When I looked over the descriptions of Delany's books, these two seemed the most likely to appeal to me, and I was right on that count. I'm definitely interested in checking out more of his work now....more
We Were Liars is one of those books I'd heard nothing but raves about, so I came in with very high expectations...that were not entirely met. With a tWe Were Liars is one of those books I'd heard nothing but raves about, so I came in with very high expectations...that were not entirely met. With a title like We Were Liars about a group of teens who call themselves the Liars (for no actual reason that I could see since they don't actually go around lying to people), I expected some hardcore unreliable narrator shenanigans. Nope, the narrator is pretty straightforward, although she has amnesia, which means her unreliability isn't intended to deceive the reader intentionally, only unintentionally, from her standpoint. When a book is described as a "suspense novel," I expect, well, suspense. This book is not a suspense novel. There is very little suspense.
So this book is about rich, privileged white people who OWN A FRICKIN' ISLAND being all rich and privileged, and also there are a couple Indian characters. Ed, who has literally no characterization at all besides dating the daughter of the patriarch of the Sinclair clan, and his nephew, Gat Patil, who is more socially conscious than every other character put together. I really did appreciate that the book addressed issues of class and race directly; it's clear that it's not glorifying this life. In fact, it rather strongly condemns it. I loved Cadence's constant retellings of fairy tales in an attempt to come to terms with how fucked up her family was, her mother and aunts vying for the fortune of their father. A lot of times, I enjoyed the fairy tale chapters more than the real chapters.
Anyway, Cadence, her cousins Johnny and Mirren, and Gat become summer friends...and two of them become more than friends. The major focus of the early chapters of the novel is the sweet summer romance between Cadence and Gat. And then Cadence has an accident and loses her memory, and she struggles to get it back. What really happened? What really happened? (That's the suspense part of this "suspense novel," except I never felt real tension about it, just a constant gnawing mystery as Cadence related stories about her summers on the frickin' island. She jumps between the present summer and the summer of the accident so frequently I found it hard to keep the timelines straight, especially when listening to the audiobook. Ariadne Meyers does a fine job as Cadence, but her male voices aren't the best.)
Here's the thing: you spend the whole book waiting for the Big Twist because it's clear there's going to be one. Cadence doesn't remember what happened and no one will tell her what really happened, so at some point it will be revealed. And, yes, it's an incredible revelation, skillfully done, but it only affected me on an intellectual level because I didn't really care about any of the characters or what they were doing for most of the book.
So now I read all the rave reviews, the pull quotes about how amazing this book is, and I think...they were liars....more
While I hadn't loved Mr. Shivers, I'd seen many raves for Robert Jackson Bennett's latest book, City of Stairs, and he assured me it was a very diffeWhile I hadn't loved Mr. Shivers, I'd seen many raves for Robert Jackson Bennett's latest book, City of Stairs, and he assured me it was a very different sort of book (each one of his books seems to be a very different sort of book, actually, kind of like Matt Ruff). So I gave it a try.
Reader, I loved it.
In the world of City of Stairs, gods once aided a conquering nation until the conquered nation slew the gods and became conquerors themselves. Now, decades later, the broken city of Bulikov, central hub of the once powerful Continent, sets the scene for a murder mystery that will forever change the world.
The book touches on many similar themes as The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which also explored the role of the gods and how they can be exploited by those in power. Bennett sets up a complex and fascinating dynamic between the Continent and Saypur: both nations have wronged each other and, more importantly, in recent memory. How does it feel to be a Saypuri woman whose ancestors, only a few generations ago, had been enslaved by the ancestors of the residents of Bulikov. The gap is even closer than our own distance from American slavery. The catalytic murder victim is a historian, attempting to preserve the cultural memory of events the now-subjugated Continent is outlawed from knowing. They are not allowed to know their own history.
Of course, I have clumsily summarized backstory that Bennett very cleverly doles out throughout the book. The early chapters walk a fine balance between providing necessary exposition to keep the reader from being lost and withholding information to keep the reader intrigued. And yet he never waits so long that it becomes frustrating; the book is full of instant gratification within the underlying mysteries. Excerpts from primary texts before each chapter provide much of the worldbuilding with regards to the time of the gods and what religion means to these people.
And what people! Shara makes for an excellent protagonist, a smart, clever woman who relies on her knowledge of history and skill with miracles (the magic system involves invocations to the Divinities, who, though dead, left traces behind), a strong female character whose strength is not physical. She outsources her physical strength to the giant brute Sigrud, who tears people apart with ease but plays detective as well. Sigrud becomes more and more interesting as the book progresses. Governor Mulaghesh is Too Old for This Shit. I loved her constant exasperation at the absurdity of various situations, but she also cares for the citizens of Bulikov and will fight for their safety. And, yes, this book has not one but two middle-aged women as supporting characters, the other being Vinya, head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who runs counterintelligence operations. In addition, the country of Saypur appears to be at linguistically inspired by India, if the names are any indication, and the Saypuri are described as dark-skinned. An epic fantasy with a woman of color as the protagonist? Let's do it.
City of Stairs takes its components seriously and delves into some heavy topics regarding colonialism and religion (and the overlap thereof). But it never loses that sense of fun that can be missing from some epic fantasies. The characters have senses of humor, and the narrative voice is almost wry and playful at times. The use of present tense gives everything immediacy, and I cannot think of a single moment in the entire book where I felt the slightest bit bored. It's the sort of the book that gives me the giddy excitement of reading, audibly cursing in public. It's an absolute fucking pleasure to read....more
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown has received many raves and award nominations, and, as I do with most books these days, I went in knowing very little aboThe Coldest Girl in Coldtown has received many raves and award nominations, and, as I do with most books these days, I went in knowing very little about it. I thought maybe I'd heard it was about vampires? It is. It is about vampires.
But it's not your typical vampire book! In a way, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is the anti-Twilight, Holly Black's attempt to portray vampires as brutal monsters rather than sexy love interests. It was much grislier than I expected, especially for YA, but I appreciated that she didn't hold back (and I appreciated that the publisher didn't make her tone it down for YA).
Hell, the book opens with Our Heroine, Tana, waking up the morning after a party where all her friends have been slaughtered. The only survivors are her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, and a vampire, Gavriel, who may or may not have been responsible for killing her friends. Aidan's been bitten, though, so it's off to Coldtown, the quarantine zones for the infected, the vampires, and anyone foolish enough to want to hang out with the infected and vampires.
I dug Black's worldbuilding for the most part, as long as I didn't think too hard about it. She has a very modern take on vampire culture, realizing that in this day and age, if vampires were an epidemic that we had to live with—similar to the zombie-filled world of Newsflesh—we would be posting about them on social media and there would be reality shows and vampire superstars and vampire hunter idols and so on. (Another modern touch is her dedication to inclusion; I'm not used to seeing trans characters in fiction, but I'm seeing them more and more, and that's cool.)
I did have to laugh at how many writing "rules" Black breaks right off the bat, though. As I said before, the book begins with a character waking up. She also looks in the mirror to describe herself. And then the second chapter is a giant infodump. That rule-breaking, however, is a result of the structure of the book, which I also liked; Black alternates the present-day chapters with chapters of worldbuilding, flashbacks, and other characters' points of view.
She also opens each chapter with a death-related quote because this book is dark. It's really dark, you guys. So dark. Christine Lakin's reading did not help matters: she's a fine reader and she does some good voices but her deliberately solemn monotone highlights how dark the book is trying to be. Plus, the audiobook has music at more intense moments, which I found both cool and effective as well as yet another overdramatic flourish. There are some really nice bits in the prose occasionally, but Lakin strains so hard to make everything sound portentous that it annoyed me more than it might have in print.
The plot moves slowly, and I was never really drawn into the story or the characters, with the exception of some cool surprises here and there. My favorite character was a blogger named Midnight who dreams of going to Coldtown and becoming a vampire, but the book isn't her story, it's Tana's, and I didn't really care about Tana. I know the book grabbed a lot of people, but it didn't grab me.
Overall, I think the book had a lot of potential, and I wanted to get into it, but I never could. My reaction made a little more sense once I realized Holly Black co-wrote The Spiderwick Chronicles Box Set, which also left me—no pun intended—cold. Every author isn't for everyone, so she may not be for me....more
The Lives of Tao established the status quo, presenting a world where humanity lies in the middle of an alien civil war, two factions vying for powerThe Lives of Tao established the status quo, presenting a world where humanity lies in the middle of an alien civil war, two factions vying for power for thousands of years. The Deaths of Tao is where shit gets real.
Three years have passed since the last book, and things aren't going so well for the Prophus. They're continuing to lose ground to the Genjix, who have secret, dastardly plans. Roen and Tao have been investigating, but they're pooh-poohed as conspiracy theorists. In between books, Jill has become practically a different character, and a much cooler one with far more agency, as she's now a full-fledged protagonist rather than a love interest. As before, we do get a Genjix antagonist to follow, and he's also a more interesting (if more infuriating) character than the villain of the last book.
The first book was an introduction styled as a self-improvement narrative. This book is all-out war, full of geopolitical maneuvering and military operations. The battles are deadlier, the beatdowns are bloodier, and the stakes are all-around much higher. As if the fate of humanity weren't enough, we learn on the very first page that Roen and Jill aren't quite the happy couple we expected them to be based on the end of the last book, so their relationship is put to the test as they both engage in missions to support the Prophus.
What's fascinating about these books is the way Wesley Chu reenvisions the entire history of humanity, imagining key points in history and key figures (almost always men) who influenced the course of events as part of the Conflict Doctrine. He brings up the Holy Roman Empire, an example of a successful, stable society...that was seen as stagnant by the Quasing, unable to grow and evolve without conflict. It makes you look at how we have progressed as a people and question whether the Quasing are right or not. Is this how we've become who we are? Is there a better way? I appreciated that Chu gave several examples where the human, not the Quasing, still had the real impact on history, though the aliens clearly guided us in a specific direction. But sometimes the human goes rogue: no matter what a Quasing tells a human to do, the human still makes the choice to do it, so perhaps all these historical figures have the responsibility we believe them to have after all. I really enjoy the relationships between the hosts and the Quasing; no two are alike. The dynamics are different in each person.
As this is the second book in a trilogy, it is time for everything to go wrong for Our Heroes, and boy, does it ever. Chu went some places I did expect him to go and some I did not, but I'm very interested in the thrilling conclusion. While the first book put a human face on an epic story, this book shines a light on the global scope, and it makes you feel the impact of every victory and every defeat and what they mean for the future of humanity itself....more
How did Orsus Zoktavir become known as the Butcher of Khardov? This is a question I have never asked because I've never played Warmachine. But this tiHow did Orsus Zoktavir become known as the Butcher of Khardov? This is a question I have never asked because I've never played Warmachine. But this tie-in novella answers it! Surprise, it involves his lover being killed. If you can get past the fact that the story centers on a fridging, the silly pseudo-Russian terminology used in this fantasy world (guess what vyatka is), and the fairly generic nature of said fantasy world, it is a decent story. I liked the use of non-linear narrative, and I actually enjoyed the depiction of Orsus and Lola's relationship; their scenes were more compelling than the several battle scenes. But in the end it's a very manly story about manpain....more
Neptune's Brood begins with a travel agent offering to amputate the protagonist's legs to get her a cheaper flight, which is the first clue that thisNeptune's Brood begins with a travel agent offering to amputate the protagonist's legs to get her a cheaper flight, which is the first clue that this is going to be a strange book. It's set way in the future. Way, way way the fuck in the future, so far that we are basically cavemen to these people, who are largely metahumans, constructed bodies with downloadable identities (and why have only one of yourself when you can have multiple versions)?
Krina Alizond-114 is one such metahuman, and while the exploration of what makes a person a person when you can split yourself and effectively clone yourself into progeny is present, the real plot is about money. Money, money, money. Charles Stross posits the extreme evolution of money into categories of slow, medium, and fast, based on their liquidity, distinctions that do exist today but have ballooned to a much, much larger scale a few millennia from now. Krina, a historian who specializes in tracking the evolution of money, is on a mission to find her sister for...a reason that is not at all clear in the beginning but the blurb of the book brazenly spoils.
What I love about this book is that something is always happening. That is, when something is not being explained. This book is made up entirely of plot and exposition, so when something exciting is not happening onscreen, something fascinating is being explained to you so you can understand why exciting things have happened, are happening, or will happen. Like with Rule 34, I eventually got lost in the complexity of it all and simply trusted that whatever conclusion Stross came to made sense. This book shares that book's interest in scams and Halting State interest in finances and economics. By discussing the future of money, of course, Stross is also putting current global economics and banking and debt into perspective.
I also loved the narrative style, as in many points, Krina is very much telling the reader a story, and her cheeky humor occasionally made me laugh out loud or give a hearty "You did not" at a cheerfully groan-worthy turn of phrase. This is the kind of book where the narrator says, "Do I need to draw you a diagram? Well, yes. Yes, I probably do." THAT IS HOW COMPLICATED THINGS GET. As I said before, something is always happening, and her voice gives the book a lot of energy, so much so that it's easy to handwave the portions of the book that are third-person accounts of events she didn't witness. It's unclear whether those sections are intended to be deliberate breaks in POV or her suppositions, but they didn't bother me as they might in another book.
While I did love the narrative momentum and general sense of a fun thrill ride, I did find that I was not emotionally invested in the characters or the outcome. I was intellectually engaged by the story and the worldbuilding and the ideas, but I didn't feel very much, which I think is a consequence of the tone. Krina is so matter-of-fact about everything that even when bad things happen to her, she sort of shrugs it off and keeps going.
Neptune's Brood provides a nearly unfathomable look at the future, when both time and money are measured in amounts we can barely conceive of today. Is this the future of humanity? Only time—and money—will tell....more
I don't necessarily gravitate toward traditional high fantasy in the D&D mold, but Rat Queens is far from traditionalI DID NOT KNOW I WANTED THIS.
I don't necessarily gravitate toward traditional high fantasy in the D&D mold, but Rat Queens is far from traditional. For starters, it has four female main characters who defy that mold. The Rat Queens are a diverse group of women, in body type and personality. Each one is distinctly drawn and has her own small bit of backstory that drives her character. Even if they can be reduced to D&D characters because of their races and roles—smidgen thief, human cleric, dwarven fighter, elven mage—they're characterized so well that after five issues, I already have an incredibly good sense of who each one of them is.
(It's sad that I have to make the fact that this book has distinctly drawn female characters a selling point, but there you have it. Also, Dee is black. Also, Violet has hips. Dee also has hips. Also, they swear and drink and fuck and are not ever judged for it or told they're being "unladylike.")
The Rat Queens are mercenaries, and they're about to uncover something rotten in the town of Palisade. And they're going to hack and slash their way to the answer, dammit. Well, also do actual detective work. But hacking and slashing works too.
Rat Queens is funny and irreverent and self-aware, but what's brilliant is that none of the humor precludes actual substance. The characters and their relationships have depth, and the plot sets up a larger arc for the series. While it could easily be a slapsticky silly comic, ha ha here are ladies being vulgar and violent, it manages to keep a light tone without making the story feel inconsequential.
Honestly, look at the title of the first volume: Sass and Sorcery. Does that sound like your bag? This book is so much fun, and I am so in for more adventures....more
I am not between the age of 6 to 12 and I am not that into poetry, but even I can tell this is a beautiful, important children's book. It is to my knoI am not between the age of 6 to 12 and I am not that into poetry, but even I can tell this is a beautiful, important children's book. It is to my knowledge the only one of its kind: a children's book about Chinese musical instruments and, more significantly, a book about Chinese children playing Chinese musical instruments. And not only Chinese children! Black children, white children, children of many colors, all playing music together. You know, like it happens in the real world.
Emily Jiang's poems are simple and cute, and they tend to focus on either the mechanics of playing the particular instrument or the experience of performing. While the former poems are evocative at times, I appreciated the latter poems more, as an actor. "My Place on Stage" is my favorite in the book, a poem about how a yangqin player sees herself that builds and builds to a perfect ending. Most others simply capture a description or a moment, but that one is so effective I wish more in the book had that power.
I had never heard of any of these instruments, but Jiang did her research, and she provides physical descriptions, musical descriptions, history, and the occasional folk tale to show the place of these instruments in the culture.
Finally, April Chu's art truly makes the book something special. It's colorful and gorgeous and imaginative, every page a new delight. In some cases, she illustrates the poems literally, and other times, she takes inspiration and creates something magical, connecting the experience of playing music to the culture from which it comes.
Summoning the Phoenix is a lovely look at an underappreciated arena, and I hope it inspires more writers and artists to branch out and explore other cultures to represent children from those cultures as well as introduce other children to the wonderful things about them....more
In Robert Jackson Bennett's Depression-era hobo revenge adventure (revengeventure?), Marcus Connelly has one sole purpose in life: kill the mysteriousIn Robert Jackson Bennett's Depression-era hobo revenge adventure (revengeventure?), Marcus Connelly has one sole purpose in life: kill the mysterious man who killed his daughter (sacrificed to the Gods of Male Character Motivation). The titular Mr. Shivers has acquired mythic status across the country; on his quest Connelly continues to meet people who have stories about him, who have been wronged by him. But how far will Connelly go, and how much will he lose of himself in the process?
In the extras, Bennett notes that the book follows the epic fantasy mold, which, in retrospect, does explain the structure in which Connelly keeps adding people to his party and merging with other parties because everyone wants to kill this guy. Yet I found most of the characters indistinguishable; I did care about what I considered the core group that's formed early on in the book but if you were to ask me to give a concise description of their characters, I'd have trouble. I find it really fascinating now to look back on the book as a sort of fucked-up quest narrative, as I could see some of the elements as I was reading but never thought to see if the pieces cohered into something intentional.
I liked parts of Mr. Shivers. Although at times it seemed to go a bit too far, I loved the conception and construction of Mr. Shivers throughout the book, the way you only get to know him through other people's horrific stories about him. Is he a madman? Is he the devil? Is he a monster? A blurb compares the book to vintage King, and Mr. Shivers does remind me of some of King's preternatural, mythic villains, practically beyond the ability of the human mind to conceive. When Connelly discovers the secret of Mr. Shivers (from, um, Magical Negros who, again, make a lot more sense when I view the book as a classic quest narrative), it really enhances the metaphysical slant of the book.
Overall, though, I could never get into the book. Another blurb calls it "convincingly bleak" and, hoo boy, is it ever. Bennett paints a very bleak portrait of the country as these hobos hop from train to train, town to town, in pursuit of a man who will do terrible things to keep from being pursued. Because the narrative is so simple, with no major subplots, I felt like I'd like it more as a short story or novella. I wasn't quite sure how I felt about the end. Part of it felt right and appropriate, but some of the individual elements didn't work for me.
Even though I found Mr. Shivers ultimately unsatisfying, I loved the creeping dread and macabre poetry that pervades the book. It'll give you the shivers....more