Mini reviews: dragons, aliens, robots.

Have kept up a solid reading schedule over the last couple of weeks but haven’t been inspired to a full length review of most things, for one reason or another. Here’s a quickfire round of some of the stuff I got to.

blood of tyrantsleague of dragons

Blood of Tyrants and League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

7 plucky midwingmen out of 10

The last two books in the Temeraire series, which charts an alternative history of the Napoleonic Wars and surrounding events by introducing dragons into human history. We follow the adventures of Captain William Laurence, upstanding vanilla navy captain-turned dragon man, who in the first book is forced (because of HONOUR) to take on custody of the dragon Temeraire, who hatches in the middle of a sea voyage and promptly becomes an enormous troublemaker throughout Europe and the rest of the world — they manage to visit five continents over the series. Along the way, they pick up a generally colourful and diverse cast of both the mammal and reptile variety (including badass women), and end up playing a major role in diverting the course of world history from the path our own took. This is mostly in ways which undermine colonialism and European technological dominance, which is exciting even if one wishes it wouldn’t take dragons to bring that alternative world about. (For anyone who wants to follow up on that wish: Everfair).

Novik’s dragons have a human level range of intelligence but applied in very non-human ways, and their coexistence with humans is made possible by applying what’s basically a hoarding mentality to people. For the British dragons, this means they are harnessed by a captain at birth who then becomes the platonic love of their life, with dragons willing to fight and die for a single human who is then able to control their “beast” for military purposes. As Laurence discovers what an intelligent, thoughtful being Temeraire is, the cracks in this arrangement start to show very quickly, and successive books demonstrate that the lot of dragons in many other countries, notably China, is very different and objectively better than what the British dragons are going through. Domestic reform and international shenanigans ensue!

It’s hard to talk about the plot of specific books at the end of a long series without spoiling the beginning, hence why I’m not doing a longer review. The series as a whole covers a lot of ground and has its ups and downs — some pacing decisions are rather weird and if you don’t equally enjoy the Napoleon bits and the globetrotting bits you are going to spend a lot of time wishing the story would go and do the other thing. Blood of Tyrants is a little unfortunate in that it has both Napoleon bits and globetrotting bits and I spent each half of the book wishing it was the other; League of Dragons has particularly bizarre pacing but also a lot of great moments which make that forgivable. Overall, I think this series is well worth your time if the basic premise sounds intriguing and you’re into Regency style prose, and if you don’t mind stories where the main character is the least interesting person in every scene. Poor vanilla Laurence.

solaris.jpg

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (audiobook)

4 excruciatingly detailed infodumps out of 10

I went for this on audiobook because until very recently the only English translation was from the French rather than the original Polish and apparently not well loved by the author himself; the audiobook is the “Definitive Edition”, a new direct translation by Bill Johnston. Not that I’d ever have known I was reading a bad translation, to be fair, but it seemed right to do it properly, whatever that means.

This is a well-known story, due in no small part to the various movie adaptations (the most recent being 2003). A scientist called Kris is visiting the planet Solaris, a world almost entirely covered in an “ocean” which actually appears to be a single, weird living organism. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a bad time for Kris’ Solarian fieldwork; due to some intrusive science shenanigans, the crew of the research station are now being visited by weird visions of traumatic figures in their past. In true Tragedy Bro fashion, Kris has a conveniently refrigerated girlfriend called Harey, who committed suicide after he left her ten years previously. She promptly shows up, cries a lot, gets fridged again, returns, tries really hard to return to the fridge while growing like 10% of a spine, uses that spine to succeed in returning to the fridge, the end. Meanwhile, all the Clever Men of the station are trying and failing to make any progress figuring out the ocean. Is it trying to communicate, or is it just being a giant neutrino-based douchebag?

There’s one chillingly intriguing hour of this when Harey first shows up and the idea of the “visitors” gets elaborated on – a super-strong alien being taking the form of a clingy version of a traumatic person in your past, who literally turns up anew every time you try to dispose of them? There’s so much you can do with that idea that could maybe not involve women in refrigerators! Aside from that unexplored potential, however, its safe to say that this book hasn’t aged well, nor did the audiobook format do it any favours: this is effectively hours of a dry narrator ploughing through long chapters explaining generations of fictional research by dudes. Because I was so indifferent and switched off, I think I missed whether there actually was any conclusion to that research-y stuff or the Plans of the Clever Men, but it’s safe to say I will never care enough to find out.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

9 dodgy soap opera seasons out of 10

I saw there was a reading challenge in May to read the alphabet in book titles! That sounds like a really neat idea and is something I am going to do very late and in my own time, at least until the mood strikes me to do something different instead. So here’s A!

This novella is the story of a self-defined “Murderbot”: a security-programmed android owned by an ominous corporate government whose contract is to accompany a survey group to a planet. What nobody else on the ship knows is that Murderbot has a cracked governor, and the constraints usually placed on cyborgs to stop them from disobeying orders and killing everyone therefore don’t apply. We very quickly learn, however, that this is really not what Murderbot wants to do. What Murderbot would like to do is watch the hundreds of thousands of hours of entertainment content they have downloaded from the SecHub satellite, and it would be wonderful if the humans could leave them in peace for long enough to do this — and certainly to stop treating them like they want to be friends or some nonsense.

This is a quick, well-paced read told in a fantastic voice. The actual plot is more serviceable than exciting, but the characterisation of Murderbot, their interactions with the humans and the way they justify their actions all more than make up for that aspect. Completely recommended to anyone with a quick plane journey or a long waiting room wait in their near future.

 

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