Tag Archives: reviews

The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea

I’m really sad that I didn’t enjoy this more. In theory, the ideas are all great: mermaids as an extension of the Sea; the Sea as a larger-than-humans entity with real awareness; witches who tell stories; pirates; a feisty young noblewoman; genderfluid characters and multiple races and discussion of imperialism and colonialism!

Sadly, the execution does not quite match the ambition.

It felt like there were too many ellipses. Too many gaps where it seemed like the author skipped a step in the narrative – it was in her head but it didn’t make it to paper. I’m pretty sure there was at least one mention of the storm having passed, with no prior mention of the storm. And this applied to some of the characters and relationships, too. Evelyn and Flora are both pretty well-developed characters, but their relationship really isn’t. Mermaids are explained – how they exist – and this is probably my favourite part of the whole book; but witches aren’t, nor how their magic works (is it innate? can anyone learn? no idea).

Moving between Evelyn and Flora as POV characters was fine – it made the narrative much more interesting than just one perspective, given the context. But all of a sudden introducing new perspectives quite late in the story was just weird, and put me quite off balance; and not in a good way. One of them made sense, narratively; it could have been added much earlier and would have added interesting complexity to the whole thing. The other, though, felt utterly superfluous.

On a positive note, the issues brought up in the story are dealt with well, and that’s something I was impressed by. This is a world dominated by a Japanese-influenced culture (kimonos, etc); they have largely taken over the known world (this is another problem: there are these portentous ‘oooh, the Red Shore‘ comments, without much explanation of what that place is). The brutality of colonisation and imperialism are bluntly on display and are an essential part of the world – not gratuitously, but as reality.

Excellent ideas; I was engaged enough that I kept reading the whole thing; ultimately, not very satisfying.

The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday

I have a question. And that question is, what the heck was I doing this time last year that I didn’t rush out to get myself a copy of this novella? Because it really can’t have been that important. I didn’t even know what it was about! I just can’t quite get my head around that; what a failing on my part. Still, thanks to WorldCon and whoever mentioned it on a panel, I finally got my act together and I inhaled it pretty damn quickly.

At some unspecified point in the future – definitely a ways into the future, but not so far that humans are off colonising the far reaches of the galaxy – Melek Ahmar, the Lord of Mars, the Red King, the Lord of Tuesday, Most August Rajah of Djinn, wakes up. Turns out he has been asleep for a rather long time, and things have changed. Wandering through the Himalayas trying to figure out what’s going on, he comes across Bhan Gurung, a Gurkha living fairly contentedly, it seems, by himself in a cave. Melek Ahmar is disconcerted by Gurung’s lack of servility but makes use of his knowledge about the modern world – like the existence of nanobots, and that there is a city nearby, Kathmandu, which might be ripe for him to take over; after all, a great king like him needs subjects. Melek Ahmar and Gurung go to Kathmandu and… things progress from there. Poorly, for some people; certainly sideways for a number of them. It turns out Gurung has ulterior motives; and things aren’t quite what they seem in Kathmandu – although the fact that it is run by an AI, allocating karma rather than money as currency, isn’t a secret.

There’s a lot going on here. Melek Ahmar, the Lord of Tuesday, himself has a lot going on; all sorts of references to Greek and Egyptian and I think Hindu? mythology/ ancient history that make me long for a prequel story about the dastardly deeds of Ahmar’s youth. The slow unravelling of the story behind Kathmandu, and why the world runs with nanobots, is superbly paced and very exactly revealed, until it all finally slots into place. The same with Gurung and the revelation of his character, his story. And the story overall is a joy to read; a variety of characters and their interactions, a setting that’s sketched more than detailed but nonetheless brought to life, and a pace that keeps it all rolling along.

This is one heck of a story. I’ll be getting hold of the two other novels Hossain has out, and looking out for more.

Bone Silence

The first book was Revenger.

The second book was Shadow Captain.

This is the third book.

I really like Alastair Reynolds’ work. I own all of his novels (except the Dr Who), and most of his chapbooks and collections. I have re-read several of them, and I get excited about new books.

But.

Um. I was bored by this book.

Like, I skimmed through paragraphs of description in the last third or so.

When I got to the end, I just felt a bit… numb. How had it come to this? How could I possibly not have loved this book?

Let me suggest some reasons:

  1. The book is too long. Maybe 1/3 too long. There are long, boring descriptions that add nothing to the sense of place or experience. There’s lots of time where nothing happens – and sometimes that can be fine; I will read Legolas and Aragon and Gimli running across Rohan endlessly – but these periods of waiting were… boring.
  2. The climax didn’t feel like it fit the book itself, or the trilogy overall. Actually I started feeling like this in the second book where all of a sudden we weren’t just off to save someone, but there was something weird going on with the whole civilisation – but that wasn’t something that was even foreshadowed earlier so it came as quite a surprise. And then this book is theoretically all about finding out the answers to those civilisation-wide issues, but there’s a whole lot of waaaaaiting… and then BAM here are (most of) the answers you were waiting for. Which were themselves a bit weird and didn’t feel like they fit the world-building to that point.
  3. Fura and Adrana, the sisters at the heart of the story: I didn’t really care. Maybe if I had re-read the first two books before getting into this one, I would have been more concerned with their welfare and fates. As it was, neither of them were particularly appealing as characters, and I didn’t feel very compelled to cheer for them.
  4. The writing style. It was already a bit grating in the first book, and it really wasn’t working for me by this stage. The trilogy is basically like Hornblower in space; the space ships use (light)sails to get around, and there are pirates and privateers and loot and boarding parties and such. The language reflects that idea of 18th-century nautical-ness, especially in conversation. And it got old.

So there we go. I haven’t always adored every Reynolds; the Poseidon’s Children books weren’t my favourite, but I still enjoyed them. Hopefully this book is a blip – maybe a case of the editor not editing as thoroughly as previously? Who knows. I will still be buying the new Reynolds, whenever that comes out; I’ll just be a bit more cautious in my enthusiasm, I suspect.

Murderbot #5

… whose proper name is Network Effect, but everyone just calls all these stories Murderbot, don’t they?

In case you’re late to this party: in 2017, a novella called All Systems Red came out and a lot of people went a bit nuts about a Security Unit robot who had hacked its governor module and was therefore under no one’s control, who kept doing its job because it didn’t know what alternatives there were – it just knew that sitting in one spot and watching media all day was going to land it in trouble. And thus, Murderbot. All Systems Red introduced Murderbot and its problems with humans (including that they keep trying to get themselves killed; Murderbot’s job is preventing that); its love of an epic drama called Sanctuary Moon; and a particular job that goes sideways because the galaxy it inhabitants is largely run by corporations, and the corps like to try and get away with everything. Security Units are used by other companies to try and prevent the other other companies from destroying or killing their stuff.

Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy all followed, wth Murderbot trying to learn more of its own history, the possibilities for its future, and where it can access more media please and thank you except probably without the pleasantries.

If you haven’t read the four novellas yet, you want to stop reading here – partly because of spoilers and partly because seriously your life will be better for having read Murderbot why are you even still here? Ann Leckie says she loves Murderbot; NPR claimed “We are all a little bit Murderbot” and I have to say, right now: so true.

So that brings us to the novel, Network Effect. This picks up fairly soon after Exit Protocol; Murderbot is on Preservation, working for/with Dr Mensah and her family, and trying to figure out what it’s doing and what should come next. Well, it’s not actually on Preservation at the start of the novel; it’s with a survey team and we all know how well that tends to go. And that’s pretty much how it goes… and then things manage to get worse, right about when it shouldn’t. What a surprise. No wonder Murderbot despairs of humans.

Basically if you like the Murderbot novellas I don’t see any reason for you not to love the novel. It’s just… more. More snark from Murderbot, more hating on having emotions, more existential confusion about what it should be doing. Many, many more explosions and much drastic action and epic failures of plans (sometimes because of unforeseen events; sometimes because humans), opportunities for hating on the corporations, and conflicted feelings about the humans in its care responsibility.

I can only hope that Wells is interested in continuing to explore Murderbot’s developing sense of self, and their conflicted relationship with their risk assessment module. Murderbot isn’t human, has no desire to be human, and hates passing itself off as human even when that’s a security necessity. And there is no better way to explore the concept of humanity than through its interactions, its changes in response to stimuli, and its refusal to accept what’s right in front of its visual inputs.

Catfishing on CatNet

In 2016, Yoon Ha Lee introduced servitors who might have a mind of their own in Ninefox Gambit and then proceeded to develop them as a subplot, eventually introducing one who liked to re-cut its favourite media with better music. In 2017, Vina Jie-Min Prasad gave us Computron and its obsession with Hyperdimension Warp Record, and Martha Wells gave us Murderbot and its love of media.

In 2015, Naomi Kritzer had already given us the AI in “Cat Pictures, Please” who definitely doesn’t want to be evil and knows everything about you because you put your life on the internet and while it mostly likes looking at your cat pictures it also knows about your obsession with hentai, that you should buy this house over here, and that you really need a new job.

IN 2019, Kritzer produced Catfishing on CatNet which I finally got around to reading because it’s nominated for not-a-Hugo, the Lodestar Award for Best YA novel. And I am super pleased that I did finally get a chance to read it, because it was hugely enjoyable.

The novel follows the short story in that there is an AI, who is an occasional narrator; they do love cat pictures. Here, they’ve set up a social networking site that’s meant to be mostly about cat pictures but as always happens has become something more – not least thanks to the social engineering of the AI, who puts people in groups it thinks they will enjoy.

The focus, though, is on Steph. Steph is a teen who has moved around a lot because her mother is paranoid – and not without reason: Steph’s father was abusive, and her mother is determined not to be found by him. Steph has come up with coping mechanisms to deal with changing high schools a couple times a semester, sometimes; mostly it revolves around trying not to make friends. But at the new school, she starts making friends; and, of course, things do not go smoothly. For Steph, or for the cat-picture-loving AI.

There’s a lot to love about this novel. It’s fast-paced, which is unsurprising in a YA novel. It spends what feels like a nice amount of time setting up the school circumstances, as is appropriate for a YA story where that’s really the big deal for the main character; when things go wrong, they really go wrong and events move right along. There’s some excellent diversity – I can’t believe I still feel like this is something I need to say, and maybe it’s reflective of me being old and the target audience for this novel would just roll their eyes at me; whatever: there’s racial and gender and sexual diversity, and it’s an entirely natural part of the social landscape, as it should be. So is the commentary on the fact that there are racists and sexists and homophobes out there, but the kids kinda just… deal with it.

The AI is not the central character but its actions are central – without its interference/ help, events would unfold very differently. In the short story, the AI discusses how it has examined different moral and ethical codes, and frankly found them unhelpful in its own pursuit of correct action. That’s not explicitly in the novel, although there is some discussion of ethics; but the AI definitely does consider the rightness of its actions with regard to its human friends, and this conundrum – how best to act – informs a lot of what happens. And I love it, because of course these are the sorts of discussions we should be having.

The sequel to Catfishing is meant to be out soon. I’m very excited.

Middlegame

Received as part of the Hugo packet for 2020; Middlegame is up for Best Novel.

When a book is written with just enough information that I get a sense of where the plot’s going, and/or when the book is written beautifully, and I trust the author: then I really love a non-linear tale. This is not as non-linear as something like Kameron Hurley’s Light Brigade but it’s not exactly straightforward. I had absolutely no idea what it was about before charging on in, and that was quite a fun way to do it actually.

Alchemy in the 20th century; attempts to make universal forces incarnate in human children; somewhat gruesome violence, because the people doing the former two things are immoral and ruthless. Our central evil alchemist wants particularly to incarnate the ‘Doctrine of Ethos’, in two people – twins: one will be language, and the other will be maths. Which… there’s a lot in that. And the idea is that essentially those people will BE those things… eventually. When they are fully embodied.

Some of the novel is about the alchemists and their dastardly actions and what they want to achieve. Much of the novel, though, is about Roger and Dodger (yes there’s a reason for the names), and them growing up and how they interact with each other – or not. McGuire has said that it’s like a superhero origin story, which I can see; it’s a bildungsroman. How do you cope when you’re solving impossible maths problems at 9? When there’s a voice in your head that you’re pretty sure shouldn’t be there? And that’s on top of everything else about being a kid and being adopted and being a smart kid. Don’t even get me started about being a smart girl-kid whose smarts are in maths.

McGuire has said it took her a decade to get to the point where she felt capable of doing this story justice, and I can appreciate that. I’ve only read her InCryptid and Wayward Children series, which I adore – but they’re not as narratively complex as this, and I don’t get the sense that Toby Daye or the various Mira books are, either. To be able to hold all of what’s happening here in your head and make it actually make sense on paper would have to require a lot of work. And I think the prose is more wonderful, too. This is not to say that the other books are poorly written – not at all. This is more like Wayward Children than InCrytpid because that’s what the story calls for. There’s a… mythic? not-21st-century, perhaps more formal or timeless, feel to this story than the F1-paced InCrytpids.

The thing I really don’t get is why the Hand of Glory was chosen for the cover. Yes they make several appearances, but I wouldn’t have said that they are symbolic of the plot or even that they’re especially central to the narrative. It is, in fact, one reason why I hadn’t read the book before now; the cover really didn’t appeal – and when there are so many other books in the world, covers do actually make a difference sometimes.

I really enjoyed this. However, it’s up against Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire, and Light Brigade, and that’s just horrific competition.

By Force Alone

I have a long and increasingly cynical relationship with King Arthur, and all the stories around him. I read a fair bit of it as an adolescent – I even did subjects at uni about the mythology and so on. But as sometimes happens, I got cynical and impatient as I got old, and I haven’t read much new Arthur stuff in a long time.

I did re-read Susan Cooper recently, which was an excellent choice and is a bit more left-field than other Arthuriana so doesn’t really count. (Also, not new to me.)

UnknownAnd then a friend started raving about this book and while he’s not prone to hyperbole I was a bit like… really? That good? But I was intrigued and so I bought it and…

By golly.

I’m not sure I can read another Arthur book ever.

This is it. This is everything.

Tidhar knows Arthuriana intimately. He’s referencing medieval romances. I’m pretty sure there are Mists of Avalon references, and Sword in the Stone. There’s the grail, sure, and the Green Knight, which is obscure but not that obscure… but there’s also the Questing Beast, and… and… yeh. So this is in no way someone coming in and thinking they’re reinventing Arthur (which has been done, and oh so badly). This is someone who knows Arthuriana deeply.

The thing I kept thinking of when reading this was A Knight’s Tale, that Heath Ledger break-out film. It used modern(ish) rock music in order to make the point about how people in the 14th century (the time of Chaucer) would have perceived music that 20th century ears hear as weird and ‘old’, and it used utterly modern language. By Force Alone is simultaneously utterly set in the 5th or 6th century – the Romans are gone, Britain is a by-water and non-existent in political terms, the Anglo-Saxons are coming (ignore the historical reality here) – but feels in some ways very 21st century: Arthur screaming ‘Come at me if you’re hard enough!’ Bully boys in London who want to be knighted, talking about being ‘made men’. Picts on the northern border being vicious.

Everyone, actually, being vicious.

This is a vicious book. There is no gallantry. There is no courtly love – which is right because the notion wasn’t really a thing until at least the 12th century and then honestly becomes part of nostalgia basically the next day. There is no honour except for what you can get; kings hold power by force alone; Galahad gets him nickname for quite, um, different reasons from how it’s usually told.

This book left me dazed. It starts with Vortigern and ends where every Arthur story ends. It covers so much at a break-neck speed that honestly it’s all you can do to hold on and see where this beast is going to end up. But it’s all completely controlled and Tidhar knows exactly what he’s doing. And what he’s doing is amazing. He’s setting a monumental myth in context, and exposing some of the nasty underbelly of nationalism and the Matter of Britain, as well as writing intriguing characters out of characters who are just so well known (what he did with Lancelot was… unexpected, and I’m curious to chase up whether it was based on stories I don’t remember or know; the Green Knight was the most amusingly outrageous). And he keeps the fantastical nature of Merlin and Morgan and makes that part of Britain itself… but in such a way it almost feels realistic. Almost.

This book is incredible.

 

Good Morning, Midnight

UnknownThe most enduring result of my first-semester first-year English course, aside from a healthy disdain for both DH Lawrence and James Joyce, was a love of Jean Rhys. I haven’t read Good Morning, Midnight since I was 17… and a lot more callow than I realised at the time.

Reading at this at 40 was, unsurprisingly, a whole other thing.

The first thing that I have to say is that whoever wrote the blurb for the Penguin edition really didn’t understand it. In the first sentence they very bluntly set out two things that are serious revelations in the book; and then the last sentence of the summary is just wrong. I don’t know whether they read the book and didn’t get it, or whether the summary was written from third-hand information, or what. But what I can say is: don’t read this blurb. It’s also deeply unsympathetic, which made me cranky.

Sasha is in Paris. It’s the late 1930s, and she’s been in a bad way, but she’s better now. Honest. As she walks around Paris, much of the novel is taken up with reminiscing – about being in Paris in the heady post-war days when she was a Bright Young Thing, or living like it anyway. The Sasha doing the remembering is a bit older than I am now. She has lived a lot, experienced joy and tragedy, struggled with identity – all the things you would expect for someone in her late 40s.

There’s little action in this novel – and let’s be honest, that makes it a bit unusual for me. It’s a deeply internal novel, although it never gets to self-indulgent navel-gazing. It’s an emotional novel, although it never tried to make the reader experience wild and tumultuous feelings: it balances the line between clinical – here’s what happened – and drawing the portrait of Sasha’s experiences so finely that honestly, at the end, I felt a bit exhausted. It’s short; I read it in a day. And when I finished I had to go dig out the bottle of Pernod from the back of the cupboard and sit and have a quiet drink. (Sasha drinks a lot of Pernod in her time in Paris.) Rhys writes so… matter-of-factly about life, and the difficulties of life. Her genius is in not making it melodramatic and also not detached.

In an odd way I see a connection between this and The City We Became; Paris is an integral part of the novel. The places Sasha goes, and the influence cafes and faubourgs and parks have on her mood – it reminds us that a place isn’t always only, or just, a place; it’s a trigger for emotions and memory, sometimes even a repository of them. As with The City, I don’t know Paris – I’ve visited once but didn’t invest in the place that deeply. I can only imagine what it would be like reading this as someone who knows the area.

I love this book. It’s not likely to be one I re-read every year; I’m not sure I have the emotional resilience for that. But every few years, now that I’m reminded of it? Absolutely.

The City We Became

UnknownI loved the short story that turned into the prologue of this book. And I love this book.

It should be noted that I do not know New York. At all. I understand people who love NYC have a very particular reaction to this book, but that’s not me. You tell me it has five boroughs? OK. You tell me Staten Island doesn’t like being one of those boroughs? Happy to believe you. You could tell me that New York streets are all slightly curved either north or west and I would have to actually do research to see if you were right.

So anything I say about this book in relation to New York City should keep that in mind. My love for this book does not stem from my love for the city that is, in more visceral ways than is usually meant by this phrase, truly a character within the book.

Six characters, in fact…

Look, to some extent my reviewing this book is a bit redundant. There have been lots of other reviews by people who are far more eloquent than me; who know New York better than me, who can speak to the WHAT THE HECK WAS THAT twist that I seriously didn’t see coming (possibly because I don’t have a certain background, which I am completely fine with), who can speak to the way this book reflects Americana with much more knowledge than me. So what do I have to add?

I can say that even as someone who doesn’t know the USA or NYC, this book is visceral and captures a city brilliantly. And USES a city and the way people think about it to magnificent effect

I can say that it’s fantastically paced – meeting new characters and ‘getting the band together’ can sometimes be tiresome, but not here. Here, it’s all so intricately part of the evolving plot and understanding what the heck is happening that I barely noticed half the characters hadn’t met each other for a substantial part of the novel.

I assume that those who know NYC will agree with the choices made for who represents each borough, or at least see where Jemisin in coming from; the explanation for why you get a particular person in a particular area made sense to me in a fictional way, at least. So I can say I loved the variety of characters and the amount of backstory that is woven expertly into the current story and why those things are necessary and how each character could really just have a mundane story written about them and it would still be fascinating.

I can say that I have precisely zero regrets about pre-ordering this six months ago and have every intention of doing the same as soon as the sequel is announced.

And… SPOILERS BELOW:

Continue reading →

Slow River

UnknownI don’t often go to the library, privileged as I am to be able to afford books, as a rule – and I like owning books. But sometimes I think I might like to read a book and probably not own it.

This book is one that I picked up at the library because I was there getting something else; the yellow of the SF Masterworks stood out to me, along with Griffith’s name – I didn’t know she had a piece in that set. So, serendipity at play.

This is a fascinating novel and one that I can’t really do justice to in a review – I’d give too much away and I hate doing that.

At the centre is Lore, who either doesn’t know much about herself or doesn’t want to know much about herself when she wakes up naked on the street. She’s taken in by Spanner, who might have acted like a saviour but really isn’t one, not in how she acts and not in how she thinks, and she doesn’t want to be one either. The relationship between Spanner and Lore is… difficult, and sometimes unpleasant; necessary, too, at least for a while. Griffith does a good job at revealing details quietly, and slowly, and almost without you noticing, so that a complex picture gradually comes to light.

This is also the case with Lore’s own family and personal history. A glimpse here and an idea there, gradual filling in of gaps, and suddenly things make so much more sense.

The world Griffith created as futuristic in 1995 is really quite recognisable today. There are some things that are still futuristic – the bioremediation of waterways is probably still a long way off – but her descriptions of the city and the way things work is full of familiar detail. And that’s where Griffith’s genius is, I think; it’s in the detail. This isn’t a Neuromancer adventure; it’s not a Mellissa Scott adventure. This is a story about life and the difficulties – and joys – of relationships, set in a web of competing economics and politics. Above all it’s about identity, and whether identity is mutable or not; whether revelations can change who we are, and whether we want them to; whether other people can change who we are, and whether we want them to.

Just great.