Mini-Reviews: 2017 Books in August

For one reason or another, I’ve read quite a few books published this year over the past couple of weeks, and have also completely stalled on writing about them, mainly because my review of Borne has been languishing part-written for so long.

Borne_(book_cover).jpgBorne, by Jeff VanderMeer

Borne is a gritty but heartwarming tale of a dysfunctional family struggling to hold themselves together in the face of a capricious and uncaring world. It’s also post-apocalyptic New Weird creepiness from Jeff VanderMeer. It turns out these things are perfect together.

The title “Borne” refers to one of the book’s main characters, a mysterious bioengineered creature which narrator Rachel finds nestled in the fur of a giant, malicious, flying bear (Mord!). Beginning its life as a small piece of inanimate goo, Borne quickly acquires all the traits of an inevitably-disastrous monster companion: exponential growth, sentience, pseudopods, unnecessary male pronouns, precociousness, lack of respect for personal boundaries, and (of course) an insatiable hunger. Unlike VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which leaves a lot of biological horror elements open to interpretation, Borne’s various forms and transformations are quite realistically and even whimsically described, and it’s quite easy for a reader to follow along with Rachel as she develops a strong maternal instinct for the many-eyed, many-tentacled thing she has taken under her wing.

Borne, Mord, and the other bits of weird biological innovation (alcohol minnows!) are all fascinating in their own right, but I found Rachel’s voice, and her relationships with Borne and Wick and with her own past, the most compelling part of this book. Rachel is a climate refugee, who has spent most of her life moving through camps with her parents after her island nation flooded; she now views the ruined, decaying city with heartbreaking resignation. The book implies through Wick that the maternal relationship between Borne and Rachel is unnatural, but I don’t think the narrative itself comes down strongly on that side, and certainly Rachel isn’t punished for developing affection, even as the difficulties and misunderstandings pile up. It’s refreshing to have a survivalist character who is allowed to care, within sensible limits, and who is given a narrative which doesn’t make that out to be ridiculous or dangerous. Wick, too, develops from a character trope we are expecting to be antagonistic and uncaring into someone quite complex, and while conflict between him and Borne is a key plot strand, it never devolves into a forced choice for Rachel. The effect is a book which is unflinching about the kind of horror which humanity is able to inflict on itself when it’s not thinking (and sometimes when it is), but which also quietly celebrates our ability to love and to connect with each other, and with many-tentacled things, no matter how imperfectly that might play out in real life.

Definitely worth picking up – 9 desiccated alcohol minnows out of 10

 

raven stratagem.jpgRaven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee

The sequel to last year’s Ninefox Gambit is a book which I literally cannot stop referring to as “The Raven Stratagem” (seriously, it’s going to slip back through in the next couple of paragraphs, just you wait). It picks up right where Book One left off: the Hexarchate, a galaxy-spanning totalitarian government which relies on controlling the thoughts and behaviour of its citizens through a calendar in order to literally shape the laws of reality, has let a 400-year-old disembodied mass-murdering general out of his magic box in order to conduct an assault on a heretical fortress. In order to do so, he has possessed Kel Cheris, a rather unusual member of the Hexarchate’s soldier faction. Inevitably, the nice tidy wrap-up of the fortress campaign where General Shuos Jedao would go back into his magic box has gone wrong, and in Raven Stratagem he’s commandeered a rogue fleet for some military manoeuvres of his own, while elsewhere the leaders of the Hexarchate’s factions wage their own political battles.

This series is fascinating space fantasy, and I enjoyed the fact that there are more glimpses at how the Hexarchate manages to suppress and control its populations in the way it does – I generally enjoy science fiction and fantasy which explores colonialism and assimilation, and the way the Hexarchate functions is an extreme example which Lee takes in interesting directions through different characters. There is a plot strand in Raven Stratagem which deals directly with ethnic cleansing, which I didn’t think added a great deal to the book, aside from providing additional evidence on the gaps between different factions and the brutality of the group sent out to commit these murders (apparently 1/6 of galactic humanity have the power to kill dissidents by touching them? OK). While I loved the setting and characters in Raven Stratagem, however, the political machinations and the overall plot left me cold – there is a game-changing reveal towards the end which was welcome but not nearly as surprising as Lee seemed to intend, and otherwise the “six dimensional chess” aspects of who was fighting who and why simply didn’t grab me. I suspect part of this is simply “middle book” syndrome, and payoff will come in later instalments, but as a standalone experience it was still a little disappointing.

Raven Stratagem is in the unfortunate situation of being less memorable the further I get away from it. However, there’s still a ton of interesting stuff here, and exciting set-up for Book 3, which I hope is going to bring more action back to this unique and interesting world – 7 cindermoth manoeuvres out of 10

 

the stone sky.jpgThe Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The third book in the Broken Earth trilogy ends this series with all the grace and fury of a Fulcrum-trained orogene’s torus. In the Stone Sky, we reach the end of the story of Essun, a woman born with the power to control earthquakes (i.e. an orogene), in a world where having that power means being treated as subhuman and discriminated against at every turn. Ironically, the Broken Earth’s world is the Stillness, an enormous mega-continent which is constantly being afflicted with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and where humans must periodically endure “Fifth Seasons”, which are long periods after major seismic events where normal weather patterns end and communities need to go into regimented survival mode to have any hope of continuation. Even in normal times, the Stillness’ entire society is built around this survivalist mindset; people don’t have family names, they have “usecastes” which define the work they will do in a fifth season, as well as a comm name which indicates where they belong. The Stillness has racial prejudice as well as discrimination against magic users, but this is expressed through features which don’t exist on earth, like “ashblow hair” which is fine and woolly enough to act as a filter when volcanic dust is in the air. The whole series is a worldbuilding masterclass, where nothing is just lazily imported from our earth – the humans of the Stillness are who they are because of their world, not ours.

From a storytelling standpoint, neither the Stone Sky or its predecessor, the Obelisk Gate quite reaches the technical brilliance of Book 1, the Fifth Season, which I highly recommend you read without any sort of spoiler. However, the story, and its exploration of anger and trauma and of trying to belong in a world where the entire of humanity is prejudiced against you and the earth itself is literally trying to kill you, is just as brilliant here as ever. The Stone Sky also spends some time building on hints of the past which have come up over the past two books – I was somewhat torn over these sections, as on one hand their appearance in the last third of the narrative is well-timed, but it also means that we only get glimpses of a long-dead society which feels like it needs another book series dedicated to exploring it. Maybe we’ll get that series one day, or maybe this is a good time for me to explore Broken Earth fanfiction.

Love it, love it, love it – 9.5 ominous floating onyx monuments out of 10.

 

And some even shorter reviews:

massacre of mankind.jpgThe Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter: A sequel to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, set 13 years after the original at the opening of a second Martian invasion. I won an ARC of this from the Strange Horizons fund drive lucky draw so long ago, and even though it didn’t explicitly come with a requirement to review it I feel really bad for not doing so (although technically it’s not out until tomorrow in the USA, so I’m still a tiny bit early!) My main interaction with War of the Worlds is the Jeff Wayne musical, although I read the book earlier this year and it was pretty much what I expected it to be. The Massacre of Mankind delivers more of the same in some ways, but expands to a genuinely global scale and features a more proactive hero (the sister-in-law of the original book’s narrator) and a plot where characters continue to persevere even in the face of invasion, rather than giving up early and going for a hopeless descriptive walk. The plot itself is a bit left field, but works with the tone. It also directly addresses the limitations of the first book and incorporates the reaction to that text (which canonically exists as a widely-read non-fiction work in Massacre of Mankind), indirectly raising questions about who gets remembered by history in such cases. Overall, I found this an enjoyable read despite feeling like it’s Not My Thing – which is actually a very impressive thing for a book to achieve. 7.5/10

Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray: Noemi is a human from Genesis, an idyllic planet trying to escape from earth control. Abel is a prototype android from Earth, built with superhuman skills and, it transpires, the Capacity to Love. They meet and turn out to be conveniently heterosexual and into each other, while also trying to save Genesis from Earth in a way which doesn’t involve a mass suicide assault. As a rule, it takes quite a lot to get me to read YA romance-like things these days, but I loved both of Claudia Gray’s Star Wars tie-ins, and one of those is a YA romance-like thing (Lost Stars), so I thought I’d give this a go. It was fun, with some likeable characters (including the central pairing) and a plot that wasn’t super straightforward. I struggle to say there was anything spectacular about any of the worldbuilding or the issues raised, however, and I’m not sure I care enough about the future of Earth and/or Genesis enough to pick up a sequel. 6/10

Inferno Squad by Christie Golden: OK, so this one is pure Star Wars tie-in (to a forthcoming Battlefront video game). Crack team of Empire kids infiltrates a hardcore Rebel cell. Inferno Squad had promise, but because it presumably needs its surviving characters to be at a certain developmental point for the beginning of the video game, nobody actually seemed to grow or learn anything in the book itself. My expectations were probably too high, to be fair, but this was highly mediocre. 5/10

 

 

 

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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.