Jun 092022
 

A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark 

Synopsis: A paranormal murder mystery set in steampunk Egypt, 1912, after Djinn and other magical creatures have been reintroduced into the world a few decades back.

Book Review: This is a great romp, and really fun! The plot keeps moving at a good clip, there’s a lot of interconnectivity between the players and set pieces, and it’s very well written. The two biggest strengths of Master of Djinn are worldbuilding and colorful characters.

The worldbuilding is absolutely top-notch. Every bit of this feels like it has a rich history, and deep connections, crafted with love and enthusiasm. It feels lived in. It calls for you to come back and inhabit it.

The characters are distinctive, and they pop. Each has a unique and interesting voice. And everyone one of them is really damn cool, in their own way. You want to spend time with these people.

In addition to all that, it stars a strong female protagonist. I kinda feel embarrassed saying this, because it’s such a cliché, but dammit, I really love strong female characters. I always have, and I’m not gonna stop just cuz it’s a meme now.

In addition, the action is fun, frequent, and very cinematic. All things considered, as I was reading this I felt like I was watching a good Marvel movie. Something in the top quintile of Marvel.

That being said… reading this was a lot like watching a Marvel movie. It was a lot of awesome style without much substance. No deeper themes, no exploration of the human condition, no revelatory character arc.

It’s also somewhat simplistic. A couple times characters are a little too slow on the uptake. The mystery is too obvious for the reader’s side (although that’s not the protagonists fault, she doesn’t know she’s in a novel, so she doesn’t know to steer clear of the basic tropes). It’s designed so that a distracted teen or a dad two beers in can follow along and have a great time.

This is fine, because fun is good. :) But in a few months I probably won’t remember anything about this novel. If you’re just looking for a great, fun adventure, then I would recommend this! But if (like me) you never have enough time to read everything and try to focus on the exceptional stuff, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: For book clubs, this is a better than average book. Because of how fun it is, there’s a lot of fun things to talk about, and some fun things to gripe about, and no one was upset they wasted their time on it or anything. It makes for good light conversation on a nice summer day. It doesn’t lend itself to deeper discussions, due to the reasons mentioned above. On the other hand, this was a significantly better book than several we’ve read recently, and it’s always fun watching a Marvel movie with friends. Take all this into consideration for your particular book club, of course, but overall for book clubs – Recommended.


I’m moving to SubStack. Eventually this blog will no longer be updated, so switch on over.

May 192022
 

Rich Man’s Sky, by Wil McCarthy
and
Poor Man’s Sky, by Wil McCarthy

Synopsis:  In the near future, humanity takes the first steps to creating off-Earth colonies. In Rich Man’s Sky, government agents are sent to infiltrate (and possibly capture) a rapidly-expanding solar-harvesting factory at L1. In Poor Man’s Sky, a detective (and ex-Navy Seal) is sent to the toe-hold Lunar Station to investigate the first off-Earth murder.

Books Review: This is a single review because these novels aren’t just stories, they are a thorough exploration of how, actually literally in real life, we might get off this planet. They take place in the very near future (RMS opens in 2051, less than 30 years from now). All the tech used is either already available, already in prototype, or a single-step extrapolation of such and realistically possible. Wil McCarthy is an actual rocket scientist, formerly from Lockheed Martin.

The primary movers in Rich Man’s Sky are mega-wealthy entrepenuers. There is an obvious Elon Musk stand-in, having taken the SpaceX stand-in to its final form. There’s a Richard Branson equivalent, trying to keep up but aging out. There’s a ruthless Russian oligarch that controls the off-world Helium-3 trade, who I’m sure has a current-day analog that I would recognize if I knew anything about IRL Russian oligarchs. I, too, think the most likely way we’ll get humans living off-planet is via private actors.

The political ramifications of these expansions into space are a major source of narrative conflict. The governments of the world are pissed off, but they don’t have the ability to do much expanding of their own. They do, however, have the power to really bring the hammer down planet-side, and to send elite agents into space. This also seems like an extremely plausible forecast.

Interestingly, the Catholic Church has a stake in a small Lunar station/monestary. The really fascinating part is how convincingly McCarthy portrays the Church’s motivations for doing this, and how they’d execute on it. A nice touch!

The first book (Rich Man’s Sky) has a main plot line of spy-thriller espionage. The second book (Poor Man’s Sky) is a murder-mystery. They share quite a few characters in common, but each one can be read completely stand alone without needing to read the other. They are fully self-contained stories. In this way, they remind me a lot of the early MCU, when each movie stood on its own merits and didn’t assume any outside knowledge from the viewer, but which all existed in a single internally-consistent universe which grew richer with each addition. I really like this model. Come to think of it, it reminds me of Discworld as well, in that structure.

While both of the books have strong primary plots, and likable protagonists with real depth, they have a quirk to their structure. Probably over a third of the page count of both these novels isn’t really focused on the primary plot or protagonist. This is because they aren’t just novels telling a story… they really are thorough explorations of how we might get off this planet. This means there are many short side-chapters that focus on how current tech could mature to make space travel feasible. Or the social impacts these advancements bring. Or how the economy of off-world energy trade finds an equilibrium, and then how it reacts to sudden supply shocks. Or how the most powerful people in the world interact with menial laborors when they live next door to each other.

For me, and for people like me who are really excited into seeing a possible road to off-world colonization actually being fully thought through and put on paper, this is absolutely fantastic. It answers “OK, but how the hell do we get to Star Trek from here? How can I see myself personally, or my friends and neighbors, actually doing this?” It’s wonderful and inspiring, and I love it. But for anyone who isn’t into all that stuff, this will be a drag. It’ll probably be very boring for them, and feel like meaningless world-building that doesn’t advance the plot or develop character. These books are probably not for people like them, and so I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who thinks this sounds lame.

For myself, and people like me, though — Highly Recommended!

Book Club Review? n/a. This was not read in book club, I was reading it in my spare time. Please see Conflict of Interest, below.

Potential Conflict of Interest: I know Wil McCarthy personally. I think he’s a great guy. He’s also in my monthly Writer’s Workshop group, which is why I have already read Poor Man’s Sky — I was a beta reader for it. PMS isn’t in print yet, and you can’t buy it at the time of this publication. I know that this colors my reading of his books, it would be impossible for it not to, and I would laugh at anyone who claimed otherwise.

That being said, I really do think these are very good novels, and people who are also excited about current tech advances and about getting us off this rock would really like them as well. I do still have some ability to see bad writing, even when it comes from my friends, and in those cases I don’t write blog posts saying otherwise. I do value my reputation a little. :) Also I can’t be too terribly off track, because Rich Man’s Sky is a finalist for the 2022 Prometheus Award For Best Novel. So there.


I’m moving to SubStack! Eventually this blog will no longer be updated, so switch on over.

May 052022
 

She Who Became The Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan

Synopsis:  A novelization of the rise of the Ming Dynasty, but the founding emperor is reimagined as a woman living in secret as a man.

Book Review: A fascinating read that focuses on the Will To Power, and sexual dynamics in a pre-modern society. The POV alternates between Zhu (the rising emperor) and Ouyang (a eunuch slave-turned-general with intense self-loathing issues).

1 – The Will To Power. The novel is a great dramatization of the kind of mindset that is required to do something as history-altering as becoming the founding emperor of a world power. There is never anything in Zhu’s mind that rivals the driving importance of securing her rise to greatness. The sheer, burning desire is overwhelming and awesome to behold. It is self-justifying, and it leads her to commit ever-increasing atrocities and sacrifice ever-greater parts of herself to this ambition. It does a great job of making one realize that the vast majority of us would never want to be the kind of person who could take over the world. That level of commitment and mono-focus is just too breaking.

Ouyang has a similar drive, although his Will To Power is in the pursuit of revenge. Watching his dedication is perhaps even more astounding than Zhu’s. His final sacrifice to achieve it is either absolutely inspiring or absolutely chilling, and I’m still not sure which. If someone were to seek revenge for my death, I think I’d want them to be like Ouyang — it’s crazy romantic in its tragedy. Goth turned up to 11, TBH. :)

2 – Sexual Dynamics. I love how many different angles this is attacked from. Most obviously, Zhu is a woman pretending to be a man, because a woman would never be allowed to be at the head of an army, and Zhu wants Power above all else. The vulnerability this creates — where a simple, irrelevant fact about you could be used to cripple you if your enemies knew it — really drives home how fucking stupid it is that this vulnerability exists at all. It is a vulnerability imposed entirely by social convention, and it’s a vulnerability that would cripple your own side, because it deprives your side of their best general and only your own side can enforce it! Madness!

But it doesn’t stop there.
The eunuch general is likewise fettered because he isn’t man enough (due to the castration, you see).
The straight, cis, younger brother of the Mongol Prince is even less of a man than the eunuch, due to focusing on “womanly” responsibilities like administration rather than war! Being a straight cis male is no defense in a patriarchy, you have to be an aggro warrior or it doesn’t count.
A very powerful woman is the defacto ruler of a wealthy province, everyone knows it and deals with her as basically an equal, but she has no formal power. She rules only because she picked a husband who is useless and doesn’t care to rule as long as he gets pussy and wine on tap. So while one can be great as a woman, one can only do so in specific unusual circumstances, and only if one has the personality that can tolerate a life with that sort of spouse. This is no way to run a government!

In contrast to all this is Mongol Prince.  He’s charismatic, attractive, a great warrior, kind, caring – basically a good-natured jock. He’s the epitome of positive masculinity, and he never realizes all the bullshit that all the non-jocks suffer through. Unfortunately as a kind-hearted doofus, he is exploited like hell by those who aren’t so naïve.

The past really sucked, guys.

On it’s face, this novel looks like it should be an absolute home-run with me. It explores a lot of fantastic themes, in a depressing world, filled with conflicted characters, and the writing is excellent! But somehow, it doesn’t really work. What happened?

First, it kinda cheated by calling itself a Fantasy novel. This is historical fiction. There is basically no Fantasy in it. The two brief intrusions of Fantasy aspects have no relevance and can be interpreted as delusion and/or removed entirely without changing the story. That’s OK I guess, I don’t mind historical fiction. I just feel like I was lied to, and I’m not sure why. Does historical fiction not sell well, or something? I think this would have been just as popular if it was labeled correctly.

But that’s a very minor gripe. Far more importantly — there is very little emotion in the novel. There is some great desperation at the beginning. The further into the novel we go, the more emotion drains out of it. There isn’t any emotional arc that any character goes through. Zhu keeps hitting us with desperation and will to power over and over, and it gets old. Ouyang keeps hitting us with self-loathing and resentment over and over, and it gets old. A good novel takes the reader on an emotional journey, IMO. This novel, while being historically fascinating, doesn’t have much else.

I kept having to remind myself “Hey, this is grimdark, these people are destroying themselves in pursuit of lost purposes, it’s exactly the kind of story I love!”, until eventually I wasn’t able to convince myself any longer. In a good grimdark/goth tale, we are allowed to ruminate on the darker emotions, and process them, and watch them transmogrify into other emotions. That’s Good Brooding! The plot elements that allow for Good Brooding are all here, but there is never any emotional payoff. There is never deeper twistings of the soul, or radical shifts, or whatever.

I think one of the most important functions of fiction is to allow an audience to feel emotions they don’t get enough of IRL. While exceptions exist, generally if a work of fiction doesn’t make me feel emotions, it’s failing it’s primary purpose. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: There’s a fair bit to talk about here. All the themes I mentioned above provide good fodder for conversation. Furthermore, we felt the victory of New Insight Gained after spending a bit of time trying to figure out why, on paper, this looks awesome, but in practice none of us really liked it and we didn’t know why! Figuring out something like that feels good. It was also a heckin’ neat history lesson. And, as a Hugo nominee, it gets a bit of a bump for being of current interest. Recommended.

Apr 222022
 

Worth The Candle, by Alexander Wales

Synopsis:  A D&D nerd is warped into an RPG video game (maybe?) where he has to survive, level up, and figure out what the heck is going on.

Book Review: This is one of my favorite books ever.

I put off reading this for a long time, because it was Lit-RPG, and I thought Lit-RPG was embarrassing and self-indulgent and couldn’t be taken seriously. I eventually realized I was being a tremendous elitist prick, and I really hate elitist pricks, and I love everything else Alexander Wales has written, so I should at least give it a shot. I then did little else with my free time for the next few months as I read this non-stop, because I fell in love right away.

To start with, the protagonist is emotionally damaged from page 1 in a way that I love my protagonists to be. I like seeing people on the edge of falling apart. He’s also a total nerd, and the portrayal of nerdom here is authentic and perfect. He talks the way my people talk, and thinks the way they think. He is immersed in late 20-teens culture. He immediately recognizes the tropes of modern story telling and modern gaming. He uses the fact that he’s in a video game, and he knows it, to manipulate the world to good effect. He’s sarcastic, enthusiastic, jaded, and funny, in exactly the right proportions.

Wales himself, of course, continues to be a master of storytelling, making it impossible to stop turning pages.

But the thing that really draws me in, the thing that cements this as a book I’ll never forget, and which has prompted me to create a 100+ hour podcast about it, is that this story is extremely meta. Joon was a DM for his friends’ RPG group back on Earth. He knows a lot about storytelling, and the conventions of storytelling. When he realizes he’s within a video game, that comes with the knowledge that RPGs are story-driven video games. Worth The Candle is a story about a storyteller trapped inside someone else’s story, who knows that this is what’s happening. Between all the killing of zombies and daring escapes through sewers and rescuing of princesses, there is also a continuous commentary on the nature of story telling. What it means to be inside a story, and how this can be used to your advantage if you are the main character. What the purpose of a story is, and how that is reflected in the monsters/challenges he is being faced with.

And of course hanging over all this is the knowledge that we ourselves are reading a novel, and all such commentary reflects on the text we are reading as well. It’s not just exhilarating and funny, it’s also intellectual and meta as hell. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Turns out, not everyone can relate to being an emotionally damaged teenage male nerd. I had assumed that the shared nerd culture of all the SF/F geeks in our book club would be enough, and that the intense meta-commentary aspects of the work would win over any stragglers. This was not the case. The protagonist can be rather unlikable at first. He has issues, and he’s not the outgoing, charismatic hero type. He’s the depressed, anxious teen that’s isolated himself by lashing out type. That, combined with the fact that Lit-RPG is actually still looked at with some prejudice, meant that half our book club didn’t like this at all, and didn’t stick it out through all 613 pages.

I think this is a shame, but it did serve as a check on my hubris. Just because I think something is great, doesn’t mean even half the SF-reading world will agree. So, a caveat with this one. If your book club has a bunch of people into internet pop culture, that are well-versed with gaming conventions and tropes, and doesn’t mind a broody teenager getting super-powers by Authorial Fait because that sounds cool, Definitely Recommended! But the online culture and gaming culture are strong requirements to enjoyment — if your group doesn’t have a decent chunk of that, Not Recommended.

Apr 082022
 

The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

Synopsis:  Two outcast orphans come of age on a small European island, bound to their community and traditions via the mystical, vicious horse-monsters that can exist only here.

Book Review: I was wary at first. A book about orphaned teenagers? Coming of age? With a strong focus on horses? This sounded suspiciously like the sort of 80s preteen lit that had been done absolutely to death. I felt like Fred Savage asking “Is this a kissing book?” But it was for book club, so I did my due diligence.

By the fifth page I was intrigued. By the tenth page I was hooked. After that, it was all over for me. The Scorpio Races is excellent. I had forgotten that a million knock-offs are launched in imitation of an actual great originator. And sometimes, after forty years have passed and only the ancient ones still remember the faded fads of yore, a true devotee of the progenitor genre will spend a decade refining all her dreams into a successor that captures that greatness once again for a new generation.

The Scorpio Races reads like a labor of love. The island state captures life in a small, isolated community with striking fidelity. The closeness to history, the depth of the communities roots and traditions that hold one tight, and the stifling economic realities that drive the young and ambitious away. Even the smallest of supporting characters is many-layered, with complexities that can often only be seen by subtle implication (with the possible exception of Mutt). The plot is straight-forward but not simplistic — our heroes’ problems are easy to identify but difficult to navigate. The horse-monsters are religion made manifest, the sort of deep magic that tap into spiritual traditions rather than high fantasy spell-slinging.

I’m not sure the novel has a Statement that it is Making. It’s not the sort of thing I usually am taken in by. But it has immense amounts of heart. In a more subtle way than I’m used to, it is commenting on the nature of love. A strong, vivid style of love. Not the sappy, lovey-dovey stuff. It’s the loyal love of one’s homeland, the awe and fear of nature’s majesty, and the fierce love of two survivors finding mutual respect and respite. Very different from what I normally read, and I am happy to have read it. Recommended.

Book Club Review: There’s something here for everyone. I don’t think this will spark a lot of fiery debate or provocative takes, it’s not that kind of book. But there’s substance here, enough to give anyone something to reflect and expound upon. Recommended.

Mar 192022
 

Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell

Synopsis:  A gay(?) teen romance in spaaaaaaace

Book Review: This is basically wish-fulfillment fanfic with original charecters, and I am so here for it. It’s adorable and twee and they are so fumbling and flustered I could just die. I grinned the whole way through.

You have to know what you’re in for, of course. If you get annoyed by teens constantly being self-conscious, misreading obvious cues, and tripping all over themselves, you’ll hate this. But they just love each other so much, and are so perfect for each other, and we know they’re gonna end up together, that it’s unironically a treat to read. The whole novel could be summed up with:

 

Every now and then some plot stuff happens, which diverts word-count from the romance, which is kinda annoying. But it’s easy enough to skim until you get back to the adorable romance. :)

Two things!

First, my synopsis says this is a gay(?) romance. The (?) is because these charecters use he/him pronouns, but pronouns aren’t related to sex or presentation in this book’s universe, and there are no gender roles or expectations. It is literally a description of their jewelry preference (stone/wood/glass), and has nothing to do with sex. So they could, in fact, be a male/female couple. Honestly, since they both act a lot like teen girls, I pictured them as a lesbian couple the whole time I was reading. XD (Yes, I know that’s a common portrayal of male gay lovers in slashfic). Once I started down that road, I swapped a lot of characters in my mind. The ultra-competant assistant became Batman’s Alfred in my mind, for example.

Once you start reading it this way, you begin looking for counter-evidence, just to see how long you can keep it up. And the thing is, it lasts through the whole book! The author conspicuosly avoids using descriptions that are sex-specific. Even during the freakin’ sex scene there isn’t any mention of any thing that would rule out either sex! I think Maxwell was in on it, and did this on purpose. :) There are a couple references to one having a “solidity” to him, which is male-coded, and a couple mentions of “chests” without any reference to “breasts,” which also implies male. However neither one is definitive, and is exactly the sort of thing you’d do if you were trying to preserve deniability! So, if you want, they can be a straight, gay, or lesbian couple.

Second, my synopsis says this is a teen romance. The book explicitly puts both lovers in their 20s. However, this is a society where gender is based on jewelry preference and has nothing to do with sexual charecteristics. It’s entirely possible that age is equally fluid, and has nothing to do with chronology. It’s sorta hinted at, when one of the lovers is talking about his past, and gets kinda flustered about the ages and yadda-yadda’s past the details. And it’s STRONGLY hinted at by the fact that they act like goofy teenagers the whole damn time. I’m confident enough in the teenage thing that I didn’t even bother to append a (?) their ages in my synopsis.

In summary, this is a fantastic book if you want to read a heartfelt and cheerful bumbling romance of the type I just described. It has the heart of a Chuck Tingle work, but is far longer, and doesn’t have any explicit sex. If you’re as chuffed by this sort of thing as I am, Recommended!

Book Club Review: The only problem with this book for book clubs is that not everyone wants to read a cheerful bumbling romance. If you’re in a romance book club, maybe this is a good fit? I dunno, I’m not in one of those, I don’t know what their standards or expectations are. I admit, it doesn’t really fit into an SF book club. So, if you’re looking for an SF novel rather than a romance, Not Recommended.

(But hey, every now and then it’s good to streach a bit and read other stuff, right? This was so fun!)

Mar 102022
 

The Memory Theater, by Karin Tidbeck

Synopsis:  A series of fairytale vingettes linked via a narrative thread

Book Review: For what it is, this is a pretty good book. The fairytales are distinctive and imaginative, while being solidly in the traditional fae aesthetic. Each individual vignette is strongly focused visually and thematically on its particular scene. They are really neat snapshots that I’m sure will stick with me for quite a while. I enjoyed all of them.

There is even a theater troupe within the book (the titular “Memory Theater”) that goes around recreating such vignettes within the text, which is a neat touch!

The fae themselves are fantastic. They are exactly how you’d think of 2-year-olds with nigh-infinite power. They are completely innocent, because they are so unaware of the internal experiences of others. This makes them absolutely evil, of course, much like 2-year-olds would be if they weren’t tiny and helpless. It’s easy to hate their evil, but it’s hard to hate them specifically, because they are ultimately so innocent that they can’t even BE evil, they can just DO evil. It makes their atrocities all the more shocking.

That being said, in a collection of vignettes, I think aesthetic is extremely important. In general, I consider aesthetic important in most things, and very important in art. You can get away with a LOT as long as it’s beautiful. Conversely, writing something good is marred if it’s ugly. Vignettes tend to have little in the way of plot/characters, and are primarily about creating a feeling, so they lean on aesthetic even more than most stories. Unfortunately, the writing in the vignettes from the POV of Dora is… unpleasant.

I think this is intentional. When vignettes are told from the POV of the fairy, we get standard sentence structure, sometimes with twists and intricacies. We get fancier phrasing, and words with flourish. It’s not outstanding, but it doesn’t interfere with the reading. Dora, on the other hand, is a very simple person. I believe she is written as someone with functional autism, and it’s done pretty well. As part of this, all her vignettes are written with a particular style. The sentences are short and plain. The words are simple, the descriptions are flat, the prose is matter-of-fact without embellishment or care for presentation. It is, to be honest, very ugly prose. It’s hard to read, because of how ugly it is. Again, I think this is intentional, and it was a bold strategy. But it significantly detracted from my enjoyment.

And since this is a series of vignettes, there isn’t much to the overall narrative that ties them together. This is fine, for this type of book. It is a very short novel, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It doesn’t need to have an overarching storyline, or character development, or thematic purpose. But when you don’t have the lyrical beauty of words to bask in, it makes the lack of a strong narrative more conspicuous. I ended the book wondering “what was the point?”

I’m not sure about recommendation here. It was cool, but not gorgeous, and without a drive behind it. This, to me, is ideal beach reading. Light and enjoyable, without asking major emotional investment. So… Not Recommended if you’re only looking for the hard stuff, but Recommended for the inbetween-times in life.

Book Club Review: Another one of those books were everyone came in saying “Well, this seems like it should be good, but it’s unsatisfying, what went wrong?” and we hashed it out as a group. A fun exercise, and its super short, so not a huge reading commitment. Definitely better than Machinehood for this purpose. While maybe not ideal for Serious Business, I think I would recommend it for a high-stress time in life when lower stakes and investment would be a welcome relief. Recommended with Caveats.

Feb 112022
 

Machinehood, by SB Divya

Synopsis: Religious fanatics assassinate a billionaire, gig-work is stressful, and then someone goes to space.

Book Review: You know how sometimes grandpa starts out telling you a story which sounds like it’s going to have a lot of promise, but it just kinda wanders and rambles and never gets to any point, and eventually you start to suspect that the speaker doesn’t remember what they were originally on about? This book is the novelization of that. It starts out good. The nuts-and-bolts writing itself is good, Divya knows how to make good sentences and paragraphs and all that. But nothing happens.

I’m gonna drop a few spoilers here, which I normally avoid, but they are things I would have wanted to know before starting the novel, so I think they’re justified.

The novel is deceptively marketted, IMO. I was promised a “science fiction thriller about artificial intelligence, sentience, and labor rights in a near future dominated by the gig economy.” I kept expecting there to be some sort of conflict between humans and artificial intelligence(s), and maybe something about what personhood means, and what rights it conveys. Afterall, “machinehood” is a direct reference to “personhood.” Maybe something like the core conflict of The Measure of a Man.

There is nothing like that here. There are no sentient AIs in this novel. Instead, there are humans who modify themselves with drugs, nanotechnology, and cybernetics. A group of religious fanatics decides that capitalism sucks, so they kill a billionaire and pretend they are a newly born Sentient AI that is about to take over the world. Our hero takes their head priest hostage, so the govt decides not to blow up their compound. That’s about it. There isn’t ever any consideration of what it means to be a person, or if artificial intelligence would count. No exploration of how such a debate would effect the world, or shape life, or effect the general public, or world politics.

I mean, the writing itself is fine! And there’s some cool things in the novel. The portrayal of a majority gig-work economy was cool. The extrapolation of protests-as-theater turning into literal performance art, with hired protestors and supermodel bodyguards, that get permits and register their riots and violence beforehand, was both surrealisticly humorous and plausibly prophetic. The way humanity is shown to accept new tech and adopt it to make their lives better and more efficient is great! But I need more than cool world-building ideas, especially in a book that’s sold as a philosophical exploration and/or thriller.

Speaking of this being a thriller — I really loved the bad-ass main character, a disillusioned special forces soldier. The novel could’ve been decent action beach reading… if not for the fact that half of it follows the soldier’s sister-in-law for no reason. Her problems are boring, they resolve themselves without struggle or fuss within a few pages, and she literally contributes nothing to the plot. And I really do mean that literally. Every single chapter focusing on her could be removed, and the plot of the book would be entirely unchanged. This is so blatent that I honestly believe this book was originally written purely from the soldier’s perspective. The publisher looked at pretty decent novella, said to Divya “This is about half the page-count we need. Double it if you want to be published,” and Divya inserted a bunch of filler fluff that doesn’t matter. Her lack of interest in the sister-in-law’s story shows. And, critically, whenever things start to get exciting with the soldier (her partner is critically wounded in an attack, and the world’s communication satalites are falling out of the sky!) we cut back to her sister-in-law and get a chapter that completely defuses all tension by boring us with pages of her emailing her boss about getting access to corporate research data that she thinks she’s being unfairly denied access to. Yes, really.

I feel kinda upset for the author here, because I think this could’ve been a good novella that was ruined by publisher demands. Unfortunately, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: We actually had a bit of a good time figuring out what went wrong. Every one of us came into this with a feeling of “this novel looks good on paper, and no individual part of it is bad at any point, but it’s really unsatisfying and I don’t know why!” It took a bit of talking and hashing things out before we finally landed on the realization that nothing of consequence happened, and we had been promised many things of great consequence would happen. The ‘there is no AI anywhere in a book with this marketting, cover, and title is super lame’ answer coallesed out of teamwork, and it felt pretty fun to have solved the puzzle together.  That being said, Not Recommended.

Nov 162021
 

Hard Luck Hank: Screw The Galaxy, by Steven Campbell

Synopsis: A nearly-invincible mutant must save his space station (a hive of scum and villainy) from destruction by aliens.

Book Review: This novel is excellent at what it does. What it does is provide a PG-13 comedy-action-adventure story. The skill with which it executes is remarkable.

The story keeps moving at a very good clip, never dull, but not rushed either. All the major players are introduced early and well. The conflict is clear, the plot is interesting. The jokes are good, if you’re into gritty Army-of-Darkness style humor (I am). There’s the PG-13 violence of an action movie, without any gore, and the hot chicks of a PG-13 movie, without nudity or sexual situations. The protagonist is fun, and very relatable despite being a criminal. He’s the guy who doesn’t want to be bothered, but he’s good at what he does, and he’s the Big Swingin’ Dick on this station, so he’s always involved in the important stuff. It’s great for a fun wish-fulfillment action story. :) Also, the story constantly raises its stakes, in a way I found captivating.

I think the best part is that, even though our hero is invincible, the situations he finds himself in are ones were being invincible helps but will not solve his problems. The charecter thinks of himself as dumb, but he’s actually very smart, just uneducated. The major conflicts in the story are all resolved by clever use of his specialist knowledge or unorthodox use of his unusual resources. We don’t worry that he’ll die, but he can still lose, and that makes seeing how he wins interesting.

Also, of vital importance: Hard Luck Hank doesn’t overstay its welcome. It reads fast and smooth. It tells a good story in a couple hundred pages, and then it’s done.

Ultimately, the book is a success because it gives you a promise, and then fulfills that promise well. You can tell exactly what sort of book this is by looking at the cover and reading the title. If you look at this cover and think “This could be fun to read!” then you’ll be happy with the time spent on this. I can’t recommend this book the same way I recommend books that I love. It isn’t emotionally moving. It isn’t intellectually stimulating, or artistically challenging. It has no bigger message. But it IS really fun, which is all it’s trying to be. If you want a fun, light read, of the kind promised by the cover, than I definitely Recommend this.

Book Club Review: Whether people like this book or not can be predicted by its cover. If they see it and want nothing to do with it, don’t bother. If they grin and say “could be fun!” then they’ll probably like it. The conversation around the book itself isn’t very long. It can be interesting, as people work through why something dumb and fun like this is still enjoyable. But you won’t have any major insights. Only Recommended if the group is into it and wants a break from reading more substantial stuff. Otherwise, Not.

Side-note: we read this directly after The Once And Future Witches. This was a coincidence. However, I couldn’t stop seeing the parrallels between the two books. Witches is also light, wish-fulfillment fare. But in all the places Witches failed, Hank succeeded.
– Despite being invincible, his struggles were interesting because his super-power couldn’t resolve them. Witches wasn’t, because despite pretending to be vulnerable, their magic solved all their problems consistently, easily, and without cost.
– Despite being silly and indulgent, Hank leads with “Look at how silly and indulgent this is gonna be! Don’t expect greatness, this is about Manly Dudes and Stuff Blowing Up and Hot Chicks!” Expectations are low, and reader is happy. Witches takes it’s name from a literary classic, and sports an abstract cover. Reader expects something ambitious, and is dissapointed, despite the fact that it’s not bad for light fare!
– Hank is fast and compact. Witches could have been a good read if it had been equally short. Instead it dragged on for more than twice Hank’s length. I gave up on Witches less than 3/4ths of the way through, at which point I would have finished Hank more than a hundred pages ago!

Although, the comparisons aren’t fully fair. Witches is aimed at a very different audience than Hank. Hank is great for people who enjoy teenage-boy shenanigans. (again, people who love Army of Darkness). Witches is aimed at elite women readers. Perhaps being super-long and unexciting is exactly what they like, and Witches is perfect for them. The contrasts in how “light, popcorn reading” played out between the two books just kept jumping to my attention.

Nov 052021
 

The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow 

Synopsis: A revenge fantasy wherein three sisters in the early 1900s fight for women’s sufferage while resolving personal issues, and bringing back magic.

Book Review: This book is pretty much the definition of Light Reading. It flows well, it moves quickly, and it’s not difficult to read. Interesting things keep happening. The characters are very archetypical, so you know who you’re reading about very quickly. The villians are irredemiable and flat, the good guys are unobjectionable and sympathetic. This is a good book if you’re looking for something light to pick you up. Unlike most revenge fantasies, it’s not bloody or angry, it’s actually pretty lighthearted. Which, while not what I look for in a revenge fantasy, actually worked really well for several of our readers. More about that in the Book Club section.

My one major complaint about The Once and Future Witches is the same complaint I had about Alix Harrow’s earlier novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (no link, because apparently I never wrote a review of it?? WTF self! We read it in book club and everything!). That complaint is that there is never any inkling of danger. We are never worried about our heroines for more than a few pages. Any time a bit of tension creeps into the story Harrow immediately dissolves it and fixes whatever the danger may have been. It’s as if she’s apologizing for letting the story develope tension.

This becomes so common that when Harrow does try to raise the stakes, we don’t believe it. We go from “never worried for more than a few pages” to “never worried.” Like, “Oh no, everything has been destroyed, and all is lost? Pff, whatever, I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Lo and behold, a few pages later it is. (Doors of January had a similar problem. Late in that book a character was supposedly killed, and no one in the book club believed he was actually dead for even one paragraph.) I guess this is the type of stroy Harrow prefers to tell, since it’s been a strong theme in two novels now, and there ain’t nothin wrong with that, per se. It just made it harder to hold my interest. I would have been fine with it in a novel of less than 300 pages. Clocking in at over 500, I just got too bored to keep going. I made it 70% of the way by the time book club day came around.

Magic also is a complete cure-all for any snag in the plot. If the heroines have a problem, there’s a magic solution. Something inconviencing you? There’s a spell for that! This is basically just an extension of the “tension is not allowed” thing, though.

Anyway, it’s fine if you want a doorstop of light reading. Personally, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: It’s decent for book clubs. The analysis of what works and what doesn’t for different people is pretty interesting. There were readers in our book club that really loved this. The audience this will resound with is what I earlier described as the “white woke woman.” It’s basically a revenge fantasy for the tarot-loving side of Twitter. So I predit it’ll do well at the Hugos next year. :) They really loved this, and I’m glad it worked for them! It’s wonderful to find something that’s joyful and speaks to you. If you consider yourself that sort of person, I would definitely recommend this, it seems to hit all the right buttons. The conversation was interesting, as basically there was agreement as to what the flaws are, but the degree of how much a flaw mattered varied greatly. What some people found boring others found charming, etc.

One thing that was brought up was the observation that the novel seemed disrespectful to real-life suffergates. It implied that this was a problem that women just needed to try harder or just want it enough in order to solve. It seems true in the novel’s world, due to magic being a tool the women have. In the real world (it was pointed out) there are far more complications, real trade-offs to be made, and sacrafices that many women simply can’t make, especially those with children. Reducing that actual struggle to the cartoony depiction in the book felt revisionist and white-washing.

I dunno how to feel about that. It’s a fair accusation, but also it’s a revenge fantasy, so does it really matter? I’m a huge fan of The Crow, a revenge fantasy for young males, and does it really matter if it portrays society incorrectly, or that Eric is invincible and never in real danger? No, not really, the point is reveling in the revenge. So what if the real world is complicated and messy? I guess it comes down to what you were expecting from the book.

If this was shorter, I would recommend it for book clubs. A few hundred pages of this would be great. For as long as it is, it felt like it was beating a dead horse, and it wore out its welcome with the people who didn’t love it. Several of us didn’t finish it. If your book club is mostly the type of people who would enjoy this, Recommended. But for general audiences, Not Recommended.