May 252021
 

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Synopsis: A young debutant in 50s Mexico visits her creepy in-laws in an attempt to rescue her cousin from their possibly-haunted house.

Book Review: This book positively drips with atmosphere. Moreno-Garcia does an amazing job of building a disquieting, gothic mood that permeates every sentence and page. I heard rumors that this may be made into a TV series, and I really hope they’re true, because the visuals you get while reading it are absolutely gorgeous. With a good director and skilled musician, this thing will be a joy to watch, and probably a classic in goth circles for decades.

The protagonist, Noemi, is also flat-out awesome (with caveats given below). She the epitome of the smart, self-assured woman that knows how to manevuer in and optimize her world in a society stuck in the 50s. She reminds me of the women Rosalind Russell usually portrayed. I could watch that sort of character for hours. When they’re doing something. Which is sort of the problem with Mexican Gothic.

Mexican Gothic starts out by building a spectacular setting, populating it with interesting charecters, showing us many hints of mysterious and creepy doings… and then keeps doing that, over and over, for most of the book. It’s really good at doing this, but it goes on for way, waaaaaay too long. For quite a while it feels like the author is just spinning her wheels, not quite sure where to go next. Noemi starts doing the same thing, spinning her wheels without accomplishing much, remaining coy and uncommited to any action long after the conflict should have started, and continuing for many chapters. After quite a while of this, we shift abruptly into the climax of the book. It’s an extended climax, so it goes on for a while, but it’s really good. The novel is fun and exciting again. However, once it’s all over, the whole thing feels kinda unearned. Like something is missing. We went right from teasing to banging without any buildup beforehand.

While I’m not a huge fan of the standard Three Act Structure, I think it’s a useful lens for analyzing Mexican Gothic. Because the problem with this book is that it doesn’t have an Act Two. There is not escalation of conflict, no wins and losses as stakes keep rising, no feeling of things accelerating into ever worse territory. These things don’t need to happen as physical conflicts, and with a protagonist like Noemi they probably shouldn’t. But we never really get to see our hero in action at all until the Act Three climax begins. Basically, Act One is extended through the entire duration of where Act Two should have been. It makes for kinda boring reading in the middle, and an overall unsatisfied feeling at the end.

So, while it does a lot of things very well, I think the book has too deep of a flaw at its core to recommend it. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: While we did have one person that really loved this, we lost a lot of readers around halfway through the book. Probably for the aforementioned reason. The turn-out was on the low side for our book club. There was some decent discussion about what went wrong, as well as praise for the skill in setting. There was a little bit of discussion about the roles of wealth and women in the 50s, but the novel didn’t give us much to work with there, since we only see the setting up of those conflicts at first, and then a no-holds-barred blow-out finale that doesn’t really involve social issues. Overall, not bad. I’m kinda on the fence here. There are some circles where this book is getting a fair bit of buzz, and if you’re in/near one of those, I would recommend it as background for those conversations. If you’re just looking for a book to talk about with friends without the wider SF world as a consideration, I would ultimately not recommend it.

May 192021
 

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Synopsis: The universe is an infinite building full of marble statues, containing only two living people. A mysterious third person may be arriving soon…

Book Review: Yeah, that’s a crap synopsis, but I really have no idea how to give a synopsis of this book. I almost didn’t bother reading it, because it’s by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a book so very bad that I couldn’t imagine ever reading something by Clarke again. But Piranesi is only a couple hundred pages, and I was assured by a book club member I trust who read both of them that they are very different books. So I decided to read just the first chapter or two, to give it a try.

I was instantly in love.

Have you read The Library of Babel yet? If not, it’s worth it to go read right now, it’s only 7 pages, and it’s famous for a damned good reason. If you’re like me, when you got to the end you thought “Dammit, this is so freakin’ good! Why isn’t there more? I could read a whole novel based on this!!” Piranesi is that novel! It’s not literally based in the Library of Babel, but it does take place in an infinite building of repeating rooms that contain permutations of statues which can be interpreted as cryptic messages. The house has its own ecology and provides (bare) resources for those within it. The inhabitants don’t find anything unusual about this, and are focused on unlocking the secrets of the house. The whole thing is presented in a beautiful concreteness that belies it’s surreality, and it grips my imagination like a Sith Lord choking out an insubordinate henchman.

The protagonist, Piranesi, is also the best damn person you’ll ever meet. He’s guileless and innocent and full of trust and energy and enthusiasm. And incredibly analytical and meticulous, in the style of the old British Natural Philosophers. Anyone who doesn’t fall in love with him is a monster, and we probably shouldn’t be friends. There are so many times where I thought “Oh no… Piranesi, don’t do that, you’re too trusting and naive! But I love that about you! But this is gonna suck for you in the near future!”

The story itself is pretty darn good too, with an unraveling that feels like it mirrors a descent into dementia, except maybe in reverse? I don’t want to give things away, but it was a good time!

Finally, the brevity of the novel is a huge asset. I don’t know if that sounds like an insult, but it’s not meant as one. The novel knows exactly what it’s doing, and how long it will take to get there so that it stays fresh and exciting the entire way without wearing out its welcome. Once everything is explored and poked, it wraps things up with a touching, poingant, and somehow regretfully nostolgic chapter that feels more like poetry than prose.

What I’m saying is, I really really liked this. It’s weird, and kinda artsy, but without ever getting its head up its ass. I’m really glad I read it. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not everyone was quite as enthralled by this as I was. Some people found the bizarre world a bit too frustrating. But fortunately, it was still well-written, short, and Piranesi was very likable. This meant everyone finished the book, and no one hated it, and we had several things to discuss about style and fiction. Even for people who weren’t thrilled with it, it made for fast reading and good discussion. Recommended.

Apr 282021
 

Rosewater, by Tade Thompson

Synopsis: After an alien outpost appears in near-future Kenya, some humans develop psychic powers. Kaaro is one such human, a thief until the Kenyan government forcibly recruits him into their intelligence agency.

Book Review: A very interesting read. We start with some really cool speculative elements right at the start, and we slowly get more explanations about them, more of them, and deeper effects and consequences of them. This keeps the feelings of wonder and exploration rolling high all the way through, which is really nice. There’s a LOT of magic/tech in this world, and in almost every chapter there’s another cool thing.

The setting is a crumbling dystopia, and it appears the entire world has basically gone to shit. It feels a lot like cyberpunk in that regard — society has ceased to function, the government is basically an extortion mob, and everyone is a defect-bot grabbing whatever advantage they can. Trust doesn’t exist because anyone who trusted someone got exploited out of existence. “Justice” is handled by vigilant mobs lynching people, and not being overly concerned with establishing actual guilt first. No one thinks much beyond the next few days, because there isn’t a high expectancy that you’ll live long, so you might as well indulge any pleasures you do manage to find. The protagonist isn’t very likable, but one understands his motivations and can relate to him. If I lived in a crap-sack world like that, I might end up that way too.

As for the story itself though, there isn’t much to say about it. We follow Kaaro across a period of time, and a number of interesting things happen to him. But he doesn’t have much agency for most of the novel. There doesn’t seem to be any narrative thrust. A series of events occur, but they don’t lead to any particular resolution. In that regard, it seems to mirror Kaaro’s situation very well. He’s also adrift in the world, without a cause to drive him or loved ones to care for. This makes me think it may be an intentional decision by Thompson, letting us feel what it’s like to be Kaaro via a lack of narrative structure. Nonetheless, I would have liked this much more if there was a traditional story arc of some kind. That’s one of the major things I read stories for. :)

That being said, the good parts outshine the bad. I really like being thrust in these sorts of crumbling dystopias. It’s not pleasant, it’s borderline horrifying, but man it really scratches a fiction itch for me. I like dark stuff, and this is a great portrayal of a hopeless, dark place, with lots of really cool alien stuff heavily mixed in. Recommended!

Book Club Review: I’m not sure this makes a great book club book. In our book club, most of the discussion revolves around themes explored in books, or character arcs, or the storyline. Rosewater didn’t have very much in that regard. Kaaro isn’t allowed to change much, and there isn’t much story. Our conversation mostly centered on the world building, which was cool, but not a very exciting book club session. However, everyone did enjoy the novel, and no one regretted reading it. I would give it a mild Not Recommended for book clubs, but still worth reading.

Apr 112021
 

The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North

Synopsis: A woman that no one can remember once they stop paying attention to her discovers a conspiracy to control the minds of society’s more influential people.

Book Review: We picked this book based on the strength of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, also written by Claire North, and my favorite book of last year. It’s fascinating reading multiple unrealted novels by the same author, you can often quickly pick up the themes and worries that trouble the author. For North, based on these two books, I would venture that lonliness/isolation and purposelessness are foundational experiences she keeps returning to, and that really resonates with me, so of course I love works that explore this. :)

Harry August focused a bit more on purposelessness, I think, since having everything you accomplished wiped out every time you cycle is a pure, distilled concentration of nothing mattering. And he wasn’t completely alone, because he had a society of others who remember and befriend him. Hope focuses more on the isolation, because if no one remembers you once their attention is diverted (and everyone has to sleep) you will never have any friends or loved ones in your life. A perpetual stranger, an outsider to every group. The amount of self-reliance Hope has to develop just to continue living is astounding, and watching that is interesting in itself. But the truely fascinating thing about this book is watching how this destroys her mentally/emotionally, and how she keeps finding ways to shore her psyche up and continue on, regardless. It is an intense emotional charge every time she crumbles and/or breaks, and you feel so fucking hurt as she scrambles to keep the threads of herself from fully dissintegrating.

There are some benefits to being completely immemorable, which any rationalist reader is probably already munchinking in their heads. Hope has done the same munchinking, and she exploits these advanatages in order to live. It’s damned cool to watch, and it’s particularly exciting when people start to suspect something weird is happening and begin developing countermeassures. Because even though she personally is a blackhole in memory, her effects can still be seen. Catching the attention of an increadibly wealthy conspiracy group that has strong motivation to find out what the hell is messing with their schemes gives the novel a worthy opponent.

In addition to the isolation and purposelessness themes, there is also a lot of attention given to what it means to fit into a group, to get others’ approval, and to internalize unrealistic and downright harmful expectations. And, much like in Harry August, there’s a very interesting friend-foe dynamic, where the people who most strongly oppose you also become those who learn who you are most deeply, and thus grow to respect/admire you even as they fight against you (a very Ender’s Game sort of situation). Honestly, there’s so much cool stuff in here, and such great writing, that it’s hard for me to not recommend it. But….

But the book goes on way too long. What appears to be the climax happens when we’re still 100+ pages from the end. First there’s an extended section where Hope slowly recovers from her injuries and contemplates her lot in life, without showing us anything new or exciting. After that there is a very long travelouge,with an almost dreamlike quality to it. It’s… not bad. It just doesn’t do anything. It feels very much like North wasn’t sure how to end the book, or else didn’t want to leave this world just yet, and so she extended it past where it should have finished. To be fair, it’s not a flaw so glaring that it should sink the whole book. But due to the stupid peak/end phenomenon, with this section being at the end of the story it sticks out in the memory and makes my overall impression seem lower than it objectively should be.

Honestly, there was so much that was so good in the first 3/4ths of the book, that I can’t NOT recommend it. I think it would be a far better book if the last section was greatly abridged, though, and maybe new readers would be advised to read the first paragraph of Chapter 96, then jump to 104? I dunno, it feels like hackery to just go sawing out sections of someone else’s child like this. I wouldn’t advise it to 2-weeks-ago me, but I also would look-of-disapproval at any reviewer who said large parts of the end could be skipped, but then didn’t say which part to skip. At any rate, while this isn’t as devestatingly amazing as Harry August, it’s still quite good. Recommended.

Book Club Review: Another good book for book clubs. There is a lot to talk about here, North really dives into a number of themes, some of them timeless and personal, some of them very relevant to the modern world and our reliance on technology and social fragmentation. A group can talk for a long time about these things, depending on where the interests of its individual members lie. The strength of the writing, becoming downright poetic in areas, also makes it a joy to discuss. And it was nice to get a sanity check of half a dozen other people also saying “Yeah, it’s not just you, that extended ending really was an issue.” :) Again, Recommended.

 

Mar 152021
 

The Iron Dragon’s Mother, by Michael Swanwick

Synopsis: Framed for treason, the pilot of a military dragon must dodge the law while trying to clear her name.

Book Review: That synopsis is really, really inaccurate, but it’s the best I could do with a single line. There’s two reasons for this.

The first is that it gives the impression of a fantasy world. The world of this book is far closer to a Final-Fantasy-style JRPG than a standard fantasy world. It contains battle mechs with dragon spirits in them, sniper rifles and magic swords, elves and wraiths and cell phones and Coca-Cola in aluminum cans. It is a glorious mashup of everything cool that constatly keeps you off-balance, and if you like that sort of thing (and I do) it’s fan-freaking-tastic.

The second reason is that it gives the impression that this book is a standard narrative story. You know, one that follows a single character (or group) as they acheive some goal across the span of the novel. This is not that, and at first it hurt my enjoyment. By the third time the story seemed to go off on a strange digression that was ended abruptly (sometimes with a Deus Ex Machina) and didn’t have much to do with what I thought the plot was about (ie: what’s in my synopsis) I was beginning to get grumpy. I kept reading though, until it finally clicked.

This isn’t a traditional narrative. It is, instead, a collection of individual stories that are loosely woven together by having a single character moving between them to serve as our POV. And not just any individual stories either, these are basically modern fairy tales and/or myths. In this regard, Iron Dragon’s Mother feels very much like Bridge of Birds, which also featured many dissparate fairy-tale-style stories that our main character moves across.

Once I realized that’s what this was, I very quickly started to love this book again. Taking each individual story by itself, we get a rich variety of fascinating charecters, cool worlds, and intruiging conflicts. That they don’t have much cohesion between them doesn’t matter, as long as we’re taken from one to another with a deft hand, and we basically are. The writing is snappy, and getting brand-new fairy tales that have never existed before is actually really dang cool! There are a ton of little narratives in here that I won’t forget for a long, long time.

If you liked Bridge of Birds, and you like crazy Final-Fantasy-mixed-genre worlds, you are going to really, really enjoy this. Plus there’s the joy of exploring something novel, something very different from most of what’s written. Recommended!

Book Club Review: An interesting book for a book club, because it is so weird. People’s enjoyment of the book seemed to hinge quite a bit on whether they discovered the “series of fairy tales” angle while reading it, and whether they accepted/enjoyed that aspect if/when they did. While no one hated it, several found it’s lack of focus exasperating. The scattershot aspect of the novel also made it difficult to identify a singular theme to serve as topic of conversation. The many sparkly facets of the novel do make up for this a fair bit. In the end, I think it comes down to if your book club is looking for something novel to throw into the mix. If so, Recommended. If not, probably not.

Mar 032021
 

The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin

Synopsis: Five people become embodiments of the five boroughs of New York, as the city struggles to awaken and become sentient, while being opposed by an interdimensional evil.

Book Review: Look, you don’t need me to tell you this is a well-written book. It’s N.K. freakin’ Jemisin, one of my favorite contemporary authors. She wrote one of the top-five most moving books I’ve ever read. She’s a master of the craft, and giant in the genre. But I’ve been putting off writing this post for weeks. I’m dreading posting it. But… we really have to talk about “The City We Became.” Because “The City We Became” is one of the most racist novels I’ve ever read.

I will admit, I haven’t read a lot of racist novels. I tend to avoid them. But the last time I read something this unapologetically racist, it was written in the 70s and I was unable to finish it. Unlike Lucifer’s Hammer, I forced myself to finish this one, because it felt important to be informed on this. It was hard to do.

In “The City We Became” all people can be placed into two groups. Those who “actually love New York” and “those merely occupying and exploiting it.” The former are human beings that may have flaws, but can be empathized with and dealt with as people. The latter are parasites and vermin whose internal experience consists solely of a drive to dominate and degrade all the good people. Fortunately, it’s super easy to tell who belongs to which group. All you have to do is note the color of their skin.

The rest of this review contains spoilers for “The City We Became” because I can’t discuss this without massive spoilers. If you’d like to read the book and be shocked by its overt racism without spoilers, please do so before continuing.

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Without fail, every white person in this story is a monster, and all monsters in the story are white. Not just in a passing way, it is explicitly their whiteness that makes them monstrous, and makes them want to destroy and exploit all that is good in the world. In “City”, the only thing you really need to know about someone is the color of their skin to know their moral character. It got to the point that one can tell when a new antagonist or ally is being introduced as soon as their skin color is described. It got to the point of farce when hairstyles that are popular among young white men are called literal signifiers of evil in the same manner that goatees are such in comedy and satire. No, it’s not presented as a joke, it’s presented as bitterly ironic that now such a signifier exists in real life when before it was just the sign of campy script writers.

This isn’t just a subversion of tropes. Having The White Woman be the big bad evil, and having her be the whitest white woman in existance — that’s subversion of tropes. Introducing many supporting characters and side cast who are white specifically to show them being intentionally malicious over and over… that’s not trope subversion, it’s just the standard demonization any hate group engages in

The one attempt to portray a white person in a “sympathetic” light focuses on a mentally handicapped white woman, because I guess only a mental handicap can be considered a plausible excuse for the moral sin of being white. Nonetheless, she ultimately gives in to her hateful white nature, and by narrative fiat Staton Island is ejected from what is the True New York City and replaced with a borough that has the correct racial demographics for a “good” city.

I know it’s hard to believe. Please read it yourself to confirm.

This is a shame, because there are some really interesting ideas growing beneath the pall of hatred in the text. For example, the heroes are presented with the possibility that they might be able to save tens of thousands of lives, at the expense of sacrificing their own families. They reject this option out of hand, but it does make one stop to think… why was it rejected so readily? This is a classic trolley problem, wouldn’t heroes at least agonize for a bit over pulling the lever?

Cleverly, this is a set-up for an even bigger reveal later, where we discover that a city becoming sentient requires the annihilation of tens of thousands of universes. Not planets, not even galaxies, but full *universes.* Uncountable trillions upon trillions of people will die, if our heroes succeed and New York awakens. If they fail, consequences are bad for our heroes — the wiping out of Pompeii happened when it failed to wake up, and the erasure of Atlantis happened for the same reason. On the other hand, the evil White Woman seems to have been getting better at stopping cities from awakening with lessened consequences. Her last victory was preventing New Orleans from waking up. The devastation wrought by Katrina as a consequence of failing to awaken was awful for that city and its people, but it was a far cry from being wiped out. And importantly – even if New York was completely annihilated, it’s still an insignificant harm when compared to killing *tens of thousands of universes* of people. It seems that the White Woman is the true hero, in an objective sense, and our protagonists are the monsters willing to kill any number of innocents to protect themselves. This is a brilliant narrative twist, and it’s exactly the sort of fantastic moral complexity that I expect from Jemisin after reading her Broken Earth trilogy.

And yet, this takes a distant back seat to the constant racial animus. Instead of focusing on the emotional twisting of choosing to become a monster to save your family, we are treated to the spectacle of tolerance being portrayed as a vicious character flaw that evil people delight in.

This leads me to…

 

Why?: What was the purpose of writing a novel-length racist screed? I have a very hard time imaging the author of the Broken Earth trilogy as someone who is committed to racism!

My best guess is that this was done as an homage to Lovecraft. The book itself dons the mantle of a Lovecraftian horror. It names the Lady In White as such in those exact words. The evil city from the other dimension is named R’lyeh. This isn’t a subtle hint, it’s in the actual text. And the thing that Lovecraft is most known for in pop culture (behind C’thulu) is his rampant racism. If one was trying to fully recapture the Lovecraftian experience, but for a modern day audience, one may very well attempt to make it as racist as possible, to really get that Lovecraft stink on it. If this was the intention, bravo. It was pulled off magnificently.

I’m torn as to whether this is a good thing, though. On the one hand, I personally find it distasteful, and I think there are some things we’d be better off leaving in the past. On the other hand, the essence of horror is to make the reader uncomfortable. You are supposed to be squicked out and repulsed by a good horror novel, right? You’re supposed to be fascinated by the depravity, in a “I can’t look away from this horrific thing that’s happening” sort of way?

But then… why are the more standard forms of racism not acceptable when used in that manner? Maybe it’s just because they’re so passe. When I read regular old “Lucifer’s Hammer”-style racism, I throw some invective at the bigotted author and I stop reading. I even said in my review that “it’s always fun to rip on bigots for a while.” I guess that’s only true when they’re in your outgroup. This review was NOT fun to write. I feel kinda sick writing it. If that’s the goal of a horror novel, the goal was accomplished.

I think this wouldn’t have affected me as much if I hadn’t recently read Jemisin’s “Emergency Skin.” A complaint of several other readers was that Emergency Skin felt like a serious representation of the author’s views. I held that it was obviously satire of bad message fiction. It was so blatantly over the top and absurd that it could only have been meant as satire. After all, there’s no way I could imaging the author of the Broken Earth trilogy seriously supporting *exterminationist rhetoric of a minority demographic.*

And yet, I’ve now found myself saying that I can’t imagine something like that twice, and I’m starting to get nervous. I’m starting to feel like the guy at the party who thought we were all laughing at Steven Colbert’s caricature of a racist talk show host, and is starting to realize everyone else is laughing at the joke about how awful minorities are for real.

I dunno. I think we all went a little crazy over the last four years, living under Trump. Everyone’s stressed out, everything is more polarized, the world’s on edge. We’ve had a pandemic and a coup attempt, and people were circling the wagons. Maybe now that Orange Man is gone and the pandemic’s about to be crushed, things will cool off. The last thing I want to see is a resurgence of racism in SF.

 

In summary: Not Recommended.

For book clubs: Still Not Recommended, but you can probably get a lot of discussion out of it if your group is willing to tackle a problematic novel.

Feb 222021
 

Antediluvian, by Wil McCarthy

Synopsis: A series of four novelettes in stone-age settings exploring technological advancement.

Book Review: This is a hard novel to summarize. It would be called “historical fiction” perhaps, except that it happens in literal pre-historic times, so that technically doesn’t apply. :) Also, historical fiction usually focuses a fair bit on the actual historical events/people/places that we know from that era, which isn’t a primary focus of Antediluvian.

What Antediluvian does focus on is a sense of wonder, surviving cosmic forces, and technological advancement. It does this from the perspective of very ancient humans, though. So I think rather than pre-historical fiction, it would be most accurate to call this Cave Man Science Fiction. It takes the conventions and interests of classic SF, and puts them in a primitive human perspective.

In this regard, it feels very much like Roots of Progress, or Primitive Technology. Like both of those projects, this novel is fascinating. I know it’s not everyone’s thing, but seeing how our ancestors slowly made their way from banging rocks together to creating cities and sea-faring states that smelt iron is a wonderous thing to experience. There are many ways that telling this sort of story could have been boring, and McCarthy manages to avoid most of them. We get to experience what it could be like to work out how to make floating craft, and discovering that putting a spear tip in a fire can make it harder than before. We even get a peek into what it might have been like to be around when the very first technology was being invented, a tech I won’t spoiler here, but one so basic that it could arguably called that which made us human, and was partially evolved as much as it was created.

Every single one of these stories was engaging and felt like old-school SF to me in terms of tech-dependance, exploration, and wonder. However, it’s not all good. There is a framing story about a guy in the near future with some past-seeing device which, to be honest, seems completely unnecesssary. It felt like a distraction to me every single time. I didn’t care about this professor or his invention, and the framing device felt like something that was tacked on after the fact to tie the dissparate stories together. I didn’t need this, the stories were interesting on their own, and the professor’s story never had any stakes or tension. I just wanted to get back to the good stuff.

Likewise, like the classic SF this reflects, there isn’t much in terms of “characters” in these stories. There is enough to keep you interested and move you from one cool dicovery or action to the next, but they aren’t a major concern. I only vaugely remember any of the characters now, or the personal journies they went through. Normally this would be bad, because that’s usually what novels are written for. But not in this case. The heroes of these stories aren’t the individual characters, they are the human race as a whole. Our continued progress to know more of the world, and make it more managable and livable. In the style of Utopian SF that shows us how amazing the human race can be when we defeat death, conquer physics, and spread out to the stars, this novel shows us the first faltering steps in those processes, as we were first beginning to understand that we can make the world better and safer as we learn how it works and how it can be altered. Ultimately, I don’t need every story to be angst and drama. When its done well, the joy of exploration and science can carry an entire book.

I have to put in a personal disclaimer here – I know Wil McCarthy IRL, and I quite like him. He even wrote a guest-post on this blog when this book releasted. I have no illusions about the fact that this must inevitably color my reading of any of his works. I have strived to be as objective as I can, but there are limits to how much one can disentangle personal emotions when judging something that’s specifically designed to evoke emotions (like all art does). So, that’s a thing to keep in mind? Though if the book was bad, I either would have said that outright, or just not reviewed it at all to prevent hurt feelings.

As for recommendation — my metric is always “would I recommend this book to the me of the past that hasn’t read it yet as a good use of my time?” Initially, I was kinda torn on this. Antediluvian is a fine story, but it doesn’t have the pathos and drama that I so adore in fiction I read. It isn’t like the best thing I read in 2020 or anything. But on the other hand, it’s a lot better than much of what I did read in 2020. And, crucially, it has aged very well in my memory. A lot of novels that are fun at the time fade from my memory very quickly, and I can’t tell you much about them even after six months. Antediluvian, OTOH, still comes up in my mind from time to time, as something unique with an interesting perspective. I am glad I read it. I would put several things before this one in a strict ordering, but I would certainly include this on a list to myself of things I will be happy that I spent the time to read. Thus – Recommended.

Book Club Review: This is a harder call to make. The major problem with this book is expectations. Based on the cover, and the framing story that opens the book, almost everyone in our book club was expecting a near-future SciFi work. It’s not that — it’s prehistory novellas — and the clash of reality with expectation really threw a lot of readers off. They were frustrated by the back-and-forth of the novellas with the framing story, the feeling that whenever they were in the past it was a distraction from the “main story” (even though the prehistory novellas are the large majority of the word count), and the fact that the framing story didn’t have much substance. Again, I believe this would have been a better novel if the framing story was excised completely. After our discussion, several people said “I probably would have liked this if I thought I was reading prehistorical fiction, rather than expecting SF.”

I think, if you can set these expectations, there is a lot in here to talk about in terms of human developement and the history of technological advancement. Sadly, we didn’t quite get to that point. So, as is, probably Not Recommended. But with some initial intervention – possibly! If someone gets a chance to do this, please let me know how it goes, and I can updated this page.

Jan 132021
 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North

Synopsis: Groundhog Day, but the time loop duration is Harry’s entire life, and he has to stop the world from ending hundreds of years in the future.

Book Review: When I say “the time loop duration is Harry’s entire life,” I just mean that’s the portion of the time-loop he experiences. In fact the time loop lasts at least from the beginning of human history until the end of humanity, and it’s likely that the time loop is literally the entire lifespan of the universe from big-bang to heat-death. But several people in the world (including Harry) remember their lives in all the previous time loops every time the universe resets. And they can use this information the same way Bill Murray did in Groundhog Day. They are also limited in the same way as Bill Murray, because in the end everything resets, everything is the same, and nothing they do matters(?).

There’ve been quite a few books I’ve read between Blood of Elves and now, and Harry August is the one I’ve chosen to restart my blogging with, because it is far and away the best book I read in 2020. It may be the best book I’ve read in several years. It takes everything that was good about Groundhog Day and pushes it into the stratosphere. Groundhog Day was a universe without consequences for Murray, since anything he did would be reset in a few hours, and it explored what that could do to someone. Harry August asks how far out this meaninglessness can be pushed. If everything you do matters for the rest of eternity… but then you wake up after a lifetime and everything has reset, did it matter at all?

My personal interpretation is that it doesn’t, which puts me in a bit of a bind, because that doesn’t seem to make sense. Why shouldn’t it matter that you saved someone’s life, or murdered someone, if it changes the world? Just because in a few decades for you it will look like it was all undone, that doesn’t mean it didn’t effect everyone for the rest of that universe, and that should be impactful. And yet, seeing the same non-awakened people doing the same thing over and over, and having to redo everything you did before, just makes everything feel so… empty. I was very quickly won over to the side of “None of these people matter, nothing I do matters,” and that bothers me a bit. You gotta read the book to get it, it presents it very well.

Or at least, that’s my take, but I already struggle with “Nothing matters,” in real life, and there’s no time-looping going on here, so maybe I’m just predisposed to think that way.

But that’s just the start. Other people who also loop are introduced, and suddenly something matters again. THOSE PEOPLE. Because they remember what you did, they continue to be effected by it from one universe into the next. Actions have consequences again. Unfortunately this now leads to a two-tiered world, of a few people who are real people and matter, and the vast majority of humanity that are basically expendable NPCs and can be used and discarded at will, because next life it’ll all reset and they won’t remember. Which is troubling. And yet, I can’t help but feel that it’s true, on a basic emotional level (in the context of the story, of course).

These people all try to deal with their ennui as best they can, and one of them in particular befriends Harry, and then we learn that he’s trying to change the universe forever with various interventions, that he experiments with and iterates on every life. But these iterations are dangerous to the other loopers, the Real People, and now we get a multi-lifespan, many-loops cloak-and-dagger intriuge that piles deceptions and lies and murder into this giant cake of absolutley delicious action and ideas. And all the while, we aren’t even sure we’re on the right side of this fight, we may be the baddies? Like, I just said most of humanity are non-people that don’t count, wtf is wrong with me!?

This is an absolutely stellar book. If you can only read one book a year, and you haven’t read this one yet, make it this one. The Highest Recommendation.

Book Club Review: Yes, yes, of course yes! The main thing about this book is that it asks a lot of questions about what is meaningful in life, and gives some thoughts about it, but leaves it up to the reader to figure out what is right and what is wrong. It’s basically designed to get people to state their opinions on grand questions, and disagree with other’s interpretations, and really get into the meat of what makes humans human. It does it all while telling a really compelling story, and being very well written and entertaining, rather than a lecture. It made for lots of indepth conversation that went on for quite some time!

I note that this was published in 2014. I almost hadn’t heard of it. How is that possible? Of the books nominated for the Hugos and Nebulas in the corresponding award cycle, only Annihilation was on par with Harry August. This is a bit of an embarrasment, the whole point of awards is to find and highlight books like this. Books which will never be hugely successful in the wider market, but are designed to be adored by the heavy reader like us that wants to see something new, innovative, and fantastic. Anyway, I’m ranting. Highly Recommended.

Aug 242020
 

Blood of Elves, by Andrzej Sapkowski

Synopsis: A series of vignettes mostly centered on a magical girl, used to build a fantasy world setting.

Book Review: The most important thing about this book is that it is not a novel. It is a series of short stories that have some characters in common, but no central narrative arch. These short stories are used to build a very deep background setting for a much longer story that I assume we will get in the following books in the series.

As such, it’s really hard for me to judge this book. Normally one can judge a short story by how well it accomplishes its goal (usually of making the reader feel something special and powerful). But the goal of these short stories isn’t that. There is entertainment along the way, to be sure! It was an absolute blast reading through the “Three Men and a Baby”-style story where these grizzled old mercenaries are trying to figure out how to care for a young girl. :D And the action is well written, when it happens. But the story goals here are almost entirely for creating a world.

I’ve written before about how important world-creation is, so I apprecaite this. The world-building on display is really impressive. But I can’t judge whether or not reading this book was worth it without having read an actual narrative.

Blood of Elves was interesting on several levels. First, the entire book gives you the feeling of someone setting up an immense number of dominos. Every story is another piece being put into place, getting set up for the grand show we’ll get eventually. It’s enticing. But we don’t get a pay off in this book. We don’t even get the beginning, we just see the set being made. It’s like when the DJ is building to a crescendo, but keeps just NOT DROPPING THE BASS and it’s both enticing and maddening.

Also, since nothing ever happens, I never really wanted to keep reading. I didn’t dislike reading it while I was doing so. But after I put it down, there was never a feeling of “I want to get back to reading this, so I can find out what happens next.” If I had lost the book I wouldn’t have gone looking for it, and it always felt a little bit like a chore getting started again, even if the process itself was interesting.

I was surprised that this was mostly about Ciri, the young girl. I had thought this was about The Witcher himself, and maybe later on the series turns into that. But if all I knew about the series came from reading this book, I would have thought it was a coming-of-age-with-magic story with Ciri as the protagonist, whose adopted dad comes around to help her out at times (and he’ll have to die sometime before the final act so she can come into her own).

Finally, since I had played Witcher III before this, it was really cool to already have all the faces and voices of the characters in my head, and already have a feeling of their personalities, and how everything looks. I don’t know what the experience of this would be for someone coming into it fresh, but having played the game before, I REALLY appreciated having that background. Having read this now, it makes so much sense that this was used as the basis of an open-world game. The author puts *TONS* of effort into creating a rich, deep, vibrant world. This is exactly the background that an open world game needs so that players can get lost in a huge, thought-out setting with a million details and characters and political interactions and things to do.

The fact that the setting up is well done but nothing actually happens makes it really really hard to judge this book. Like, how could you judge a movie after watching the first 14 minutes of it? How can you judge a book after reading the first 1.3 chapters? This series doesn’t even pretend to start telling a story yet, so there’s nothing to say “this is good” or “this isn’t good” about yet. I legitimately can’t judge this until I’ve actually read story stuff. So… technically not recommended. Once I get deeper into the series I’ll be able to actually recommend or not, I guess.

Book Club Review:  An interesting trend developed when we met – those of us who had listened to the audio book (including myself) were neutral-to-positive on the book. Those who read it in text were far less happy with it. In retrospect, this makes a lot of sense. Reading is work, and the implied promise a reader is given by an author is “this work will be worth it.” If you don’t get the pay-off in the book you purchased, you might feel cheated, even if that pay-off is much greater in a later book due to the build-up put in here. Also, it’s extra-work to read exposition, and this book has pages upon pages of exposition. It’s probably 50% exposition TBH. When one is listening to the audio book, one has to do far less work. And importantly, one can do other things at the same time as one is listening to the book, so the lack of payoff isn’t as upsetting.

So, first things first, it’s probably best to get this one in audio.

That being said, most people were still neutral-at-best about the book. Because, and I know I’m repeating myself here, not much happens in it. If you want to read this in your bookclub, I think the only way to do that is to set aside several meetings and read the series. After reading hundreds of pages of nothing happening, a group doesn’t have very much to talk about. Perhaps the series is great, but if you’re going to read just one book, this particular book is Not Recommended.

Jul 302020
 

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Synopsis: A diplomat from a space station makes friends with high-level officials of a space empire.

Book Review: The book starts with a really interesting situation. The diplomat has the memories and personality of the previous diplomat uploaded into her head, and the two of them have to integrate into a new unified personality. She deals with foreign reflexes and intrusive emotions, and can speak with the old diplomat in her head to a fair extent. It was a delight to read, and I was looking forward to a great rollercoaster of interaction and personality conflicts. Which was good, because with the setting being a boring diplomacy gig in a safe embassy, the action outside her head was pretty dull.

And then a few chapters in the uploaded personality & memories are wiped out.

Most of the rest of the book is a slog to get through. The stakes are low, we don’t really care about the protagonist’s mission, and the political intruige is poorly done. The personal assistant that gets assigned to our protagonist seems to be fawningly in love with her and her home station, showing far more loyalty to this stranger than her own people. I assumed she was a very bad double-agent for being so unrealistically loyal, but it turns out she really does just exist to give the protagonist an unswerving ally.

Which is a good thing for our protag, because she’s a complete idiot. Early on she, her assistant, and a friend play a game of “Let’s build trust by telling each other secrets!” The assistant reveals a minor sexual fetish for foreigners. The friend reveals something equally innoculous. Our protag reveals the most sensitive state secret of her people. I /foreheaded. Turned out to be fine though, because her assistant is just so loyal!

I get the feeling this book was trying to be A Song of Ice and Fire In Space. There’s a great, inhuman threat descending from the North deep in the galaxy, which cannot be reasoned with or understood, and the small border state that knows it’s coming has to appeal to a larger empire to defend all of humanity, but gets caught up in the machinations of a power struggle within the empire. The problem is that the machinations of the power struggle have to be interesting. GRRM knew how to write political intruige. Martine does not. Ideas are easy, execution is hard, and the execution here left me alternately rolling my eyes and bored.

Deep into the book, a few chapters from the end, the action picks up and SOMETHING worth writing about finally happens in the story. We get quite a bit of fireworks, and it’s actually fun reading for a few chapters! Then the news of the approaching alien onslaught is delivered to the people who can do something about it and the book ends.

This book could have been titled “Space Opera: Prologue.” Because that’s what it is — a prologue that was spun out into a novel for no good story reason. It was done for a pretty good financial reason. As has been bemoaned on this blog before, everything has to be a series now to make any money, and so what should be a prologue within a novel is sold as a seperate novel… even if it has to be padded out with a hundred thousand words of filler. Bleh. A thousand curses upon this dumb trend. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: There’s not much to talk about in a book of such thin substance. Not Recommended

Hugo Note: I’m being a bit harsher on this book than I would normally be. This is because I came in with high expectations. This is a perfectly servicable fluff book for times when people just want to kill time wandering through a space opera prologue. It is mediocre, but it’s a first novel, and most authors need several novels to get their writing legs under them. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I recognize there’s a place for these sorts of things. If I had come into this like any other book, I wouldn’t have expected something really good from the get go, and I would have been able to enjoy it a bit more.

But I didn’t come into it like any other book, because it has been nominated for a Hugo. A significant number of people put this forward as a book that may very well be one of the best SF books written in 2019, a book which may alter and redefine aspects of genre fiction, and a work that any other novelist should be proud to aspire to. So I came in with some expectations. Turns out those were ridiculous expectations and it really hurt the novel that I had them, because there is nothing exceptional about this. It’s…. fine. It’s fine. But it’s not good. It’s certainly not genre-defining or among the best things published that year. It’s just a space opera story being stretched out to meet publisher demands for a series. That is not inspired, and it’s not inspiring.

I know there’s at least one Hugo nominated novel that I just don’t get every year, but I don’t think anyone is doing Martine a favor by pretending they think her novel is a Hugo contender. I feel bad that this happened.