Category: Review

Book Review: The Fountains of Paradise

Book Review: The Fountains of Paradise

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Part of my quest to read all of the Hugo and Nebula novel winners. This book won both in 1980.

This is probably what Robert Heinlein would have classed as a “gadget story”. Granted the gadget is awfully big, a ground to geosynchronous orbit space elevator, it’s still a gadget. And if some of the characters are more dimensional than in the typical gadget story, that’s a good thing.

At its heart, this is a novel about the quest towards an idea and turning that idea into reality. There’s a lot of well thought out science and engineering going into this book, and the characters are all competent folk in their own fields, which run the gamut from space engineer to dedicated monk at an isolated monastery.

There isn’t a lot of conflict or adventure to be had here. Aside from the space elevator itself, and a few tense moments during a rescue sequence, this is more a story about ideas. Ideas like the big engineering projects that will take us forward, like science being what will get us to those big projects in the first place.

And I rather enjoyed that the hero of the story, if hero is the right word, is an engineer. A brilliant and supremely competent engineer, to be sure, and one who builds big and dreams bigger.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars. I liked this better than Rama, the last Clarke book I read, mainly due to actually being able to get to know the characters, particularly the main POV, but other books of his rank a lot higher with me. At the same time, there really weren’t a lot of emotionally intense moments.

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Book Review: Cibola Burn

Book Review: Cibola Burn

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Book four in The Expanse series, and the one I’ve enjoyed the least so far. I did still enjoy it, but not as much.

This is a different kind of book than we’ve gotten in the series so far, smaller in scope in a lot of ways, but set up for a lot of character development that isn’t realized as well as I would like. For a book that was so focused around Holden and Amos, I should have gotten to know them a lot better, but Amos was totally in a supporting role, and Holden is seen too much through other people’s eyes, mostly a woman who thinks she’s in love with him for a big chunk of the book (she isn’t, but she thinks she is.)

It’s also a book that can’t quite decide what kind of book it is. Science Fiction, certainly, but beyond that? It’s at times an exploration and settlement story, a “natural” disaster, an action adventure, a survival story, a posthuman experience, a rescue, and even a political thriller for a few moments here and there.

On that last, how the UN figures that it has any jurisdiction in another star system is completely beyond me. The characters in the book all seem to buy it, so I have to, but it seems ridiculous on the face of things to me.

The minor characters with their own POV scenes mostly came through better than those I consider the primaries, though none as well as Miller’s former partner, Havelok who shows the most growth of personality and the most change of any character in the book. It helps that I like the directions he grew in, especially considering his starting point.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars, which I’ll likely round up on Goodreads, mostly due to the strength of previous books in the series. This is a bridge book, with a smaller, far more localized scale than previous stories in the series. It hints at larger events to come in the next book, but gets a bit lost in pseudo-natural disasters, blind obedience, and death slugs.

The idea of cloud-dwelling bacteria colonizing our eyes is kind of neat, though.

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Book Review: Gloriana

Book Review: Gloriana

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Part of my quest to read all of the World Fantasy Award novel winners. This book won in 1979.

This book starts out so description laden it’s hard to stay awake. On several occasions, that description slides into list making and the lists are long enough that it feels like that scene in Holy Grail when we’re learning about what people ate when the Lord bestowed the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch on his followers, except no one is available to say, “Skip a bit, Brother.”

When we finally do get to the point where there are characters, we skip from character to character without warning or apparent reason and the chapter breaks seem completely arbitrary. That arbitrariness doesn’t change a whole lot.

The British Empire is big and early, but otherwise this is clearly an alternate Earth and Gloriana is a representation of Elizabeth I, if in a slightly later time.

There are paragraphs lasting pages, with such overdone lavish description that you get lost between sentences, particularly when those passages interrupt actual storytelling, of which there’s precious little.

And a main point of the book is that Elizabeth, I mean Gloriana, in spite of being the Empress of some large fraction of the world, is an incomplete woman because she can’t have an orgasm, no matter how hard she tries or with who or how many people.

Really.

The main antagonist, an artist of deception and eceipt by the name of Quire, makes her fall in love with him with a flick of his fingers, more or less, and because he’s annoyed with his former patron, Gloriana’s closest advisor, Montfallcon, who just doesn’t get him.

Other members of the court have a variety of sexual tastes and fetishes, none of which are really relevant to what there is of the story, but which nonetheless play for a lot of wordage.

Overall rating: 1.5 stars. Because I did finish it, but this was not a good read for me. For two-thirds of the book, nothing really happens, there’s just a slow buildup of tiny events that add up to maybe a long novelette’s worth of story. When there are actual events finally going on, they’re still mostly boring. And the Queen achieves her ‘fulfillment’ (and orgasm) while being raped by Quire, a point which seems missed a lot.

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Book Review: Proxima

Book Review: Proxima

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So there were things I really liked and things I really hated about this book.

The science works well, from the physical construction of the new world around Proxima Centauri (Per Ardua, named for the RAF motto Per Ardua Ad Astra, through adversity to the stars), is a well-visualized and well thought out world with an interesting population of alien creatures. Back in the solar system, things work just as well, with a good mixture of extrapolated technology and technology indistinguishable from magic that makes hard SF set a couple of centuries in the future work.

And I like several of the characters, two of my favourites (for completely different reasons) being artificial beings. I’d like to know more about Yuri’s past than we eventually get, but the gradual reveal of important bits works for the story.

On the other side of things, and these will take longer, are the things I don’t like.

The story has too many jumps in time, making big gaps in the narrative. This looks like an attempt to skip a lot of supposedly boring bits where nothing really happens to the characters but life. Not a new idea, and it’s been used well in the past, but it doesn’t work for me for some reason.

I find the idea of colonizing another world (in another solar system) the same way the British colonized Australia in the 18th century, with criminals and forced transportees, completely unrealistic. There would be no shortage of volunteers, regardless of the ease of finding people you don’t want to keep around anyway.

The sexual/gender dynamics in the book are disturbing, at least, though that may be at least partially a natural outgrowth of the manner of people the author mostly populated the story with. Misogynistic doesn’t seem to be too strong a word here, though. Women are more or less property, and the violence, abuse and rape allowed to happen indiscriminately on the transport ship under the eyes of the guards and crew is extremely disappointing from a storytelling perspective. It doesn’t get any better when the colonists are dropped on the planet.

On the political side of things, we have an escalated version of the Cold War, only with bigger technology and worse potential outcomes. No worry of Mutually Assured Destruction here, though there should have been, and how the destruction comes about is something that everyone involved in the planning should have foreseen. I hate it when a plot hinges on smart people doing stupid things.

Overall rating: not quite 3 stars, but definitely more than 2½. Proxima cliffhangers very well, but I’m not sure I’m keen on where it seems to be leading. No spoilers from me, but looks like it’s going to be a ridiculously overused trope. It was billed as the first book in a trilogy

Part of the problem of this being an incomplete story on its own is the primary storylines being only vaguely related, stretching the definition of vaguely a bit. There are only a couple of points of contact. I’m going to assume things come together more in the second book. Or maybe the third to wrap things up.

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Book Review: A Daughter of No Nation

Book Review: A Daughter of No Nation

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So considering what happened when I read the novel preceding last year’s Aurora Winner, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that I didn’t read the book that comes before this one in the series, but I didn’t actually plan it that way, or even think about it. While it’s obvious within a few pages that this is a sequel, you probably don’t need the first book to enjoy this one. It may help with a few little things, but A Daughter of No Nation is fairly self-contained.

Fairly.

There’s an alternate/parallel/future world that may or may not be Earth. People live there. It’s 90% or so ocean. They call it Stormwrack. Sophie’s real parents are from there. She got to travel there and hang out with her half-sister and aunt for a while, having a few adventures. This is easy to figure out from the narrative, and early.

But there’s political and legal fallout from her first visit, actually, from her very existence. Mix this with a mystery and then a conspiracy and a little bit of exploring the world, and you’re holding A Daughter of No Nation.

Sophie tends to be a little on the melodramatic side as well as feeling, by virtue of coming from a technological world, that she knows better than the savages around her. This belief seems to persist no matter how many times, in how many ways, she’s smacked in the face of it.

Enjoyment of the book comes less from Sophie than from the characters around her and the worldbuilding that’s clearly gone into Stormwrack. There’s a whole society here, a collection of societies, and we get tiny pieces of a number of them, personified in other characters. Stormwrack is a big world and this story only just starts to scratch the surface. There are a still a lot of unanswered questions about a lot of things. In fact, most of the questions about the world and its people we started the book with remain unanswered, almost everything beyond the immediate mysteries and conspiracy, plus a few more raised in the course of the story.

Whether fully intended, this has been set up to be a potentially long series.

Overall rating: 2.5 stars, which I’ll probably round up to 3. A lot of things can make a book live or die, but if I don’t enjoy my time with the primary protagonist, I’m probably not going to read further, so I’m fairly unlikely to read the first book in this series or the next.

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Book Review: Age of Myth

Book Review: Age of Myth

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I was a bit worried going in. I quite enjoyed the Ririya Revelations and was worried that Mr. Sullivan is pigeon-holing himself into only writing in a single world with this third series. My other concern was that I was getting another primitive barbarian story with the old “elves are gods” trope as a central facet.

The second piece of that is accurate, although the author takes steps to break down that barrier throughout the book. Whether the author has pigeon-holed himself into a single world remains to be seen, but it’s happened before.

First, the issues I had.

The first third or so of the book is slow, as in pacing. Things don’t happen very quickly and there’s a lot of setup going on. Mr. Sullivan is laying great groundwork for things that are coming later in the story (and probably later in the series), but it’s at the expense of things happening that advance the current story very quickly.

Overall, the plot is a little on the obvious side, very linear and straight forward. There are tense moments and scares, but nothing really twisty.

The elven sorcerers have way too much power. They can literally rearrange the landscape to suit their needs at any given time. The main bad guy, one of those sorcerers and on the verge of considering himself a god, is so clearly the bad guy and so obviously over the top, but no one else seems to even notice, or realize that he doesn’t have the best interest of elven society at heart.

There are some subverted expectations, and good ones. The mystic is a teenage girl, the barbarian hero has got it bad for the chieftan’s widow (I’m not sure if this is an oedipal thing or cougar hunting, but I’m sure more will develop later), and the elves aren’t quite so monolithic a culture as they first appear – plenty of fractures developing while we watch.

And the characters do grow on you, especially Raithe (the barbarian who set everything in motion by killing an elf), and Persephone (the widow), though for completely different reasons.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars. Fun, but I don’t know if I need the next book or not at this point. The basic story is taken care of in this volume, and it’s a happy-ish and satisfying ending for the survivors, while offering reminders that there are still major events to come.

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Book Review: Dreamsnake

Book Review: Dreamsnake

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Part of my quest to read all of the Hugo and Nebula novel winners. This book won both in 1979.

So I’m pretty tired of the whole post-nuclear holocaust theme. Post any holocaust, really, but Dreamsnake worked for me.

Points for a well written, strong female lead in 1978. Points for a well thought out setting and a wider universe that’s only hinted around the edges. Points for a cast of multi-dimensional characters.

Snake is a healer, moving from place to place trying to help people as best she can, often in the face of fear and ignorance. She’s also a realistically constructed character, with understandable motivations and emotions and, as the primary (but not only) POV character we get to see the world through her eyes.

There was a nuclear semi-apocalypse, so common in 1960s and 70s SF, but less common that it happened after humans had managed to get off world, at least a little. There are remnants of the old civilization, and some of those still have contact with off-world humans. There may also be aliens. None of these are exactly central to the story, but they make pieces of the puzzling world Snake lives in, though none of them are ever really explained in any detail, much less the level of detail I’d like to figure things out. But that’s okay. Snake accepts the all as part and parcel of existence, so we have to as well.

The book is named for one of the snakes a healer depends on to make their way in the world. And it’s not native to Earth. The other two are, though, and bio-engineered to be a healer’s tools and companions. More than that gives things away.

Lots of reviews will flag this as feminist SF. Is it? Probably insofar as the main character is a competent woman who doesn’t require a man to protect and provide for her. But Snake is an interesting character and subverts a lot of expectations for the world she lives in.

Lots of reviews will flag this as social SF. Is it? Well, there’s plenty of social commentary, and on such diverse subjects as sexuality, relationships, slavery, gender roles, and societal structure. So yes, I suppose it is.

Lots of reviews will flag this as soft SF. Is it? It doesn’t strike me that way, though I suppose it may depend on how you read things. Alien worlds and creatures are a given (the Dreamsnake, among other things, and it’s life cycle is well thought out and important), but they’re not the subject of the story. Genetic engineering is an important part of the background, but it’s not the subject of the story. The science is here, but it’s extrapolations and not front and centre, so easy to miss.

Overall rating: 4 stars. In a decade of Hugo and Nebula awards with more 4s than 3s (the 70s), this is a strong 4 for me. I enjoyed Snake as a character, and the way she tackled her existence in a harsh world still recovering from a nuclear conflict hundreds of years in the past.

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Book Review: Into a Dark Realm

Book Review: Into a Dark Realm

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Book two of the Darkwar trilogy, which I plan to read all of this year, just not in a row. A middle book, according to common wisdom, often has issues. I’m not sure if all of the issues I had with this story are the standard ones projected for a middle book, but they make me hope for an exciting conclusion to the trilogy, mostly to make up for the first two books.

I said that Flight of the Nighthawks wasn’t quite as exciting as I’d hoped. Into a Dark Realm is even less so. I’d actually go so far as to say boring.

First, the standard middle book issues: there are characters and storylines that don’t appear to matter in a wider context, there’s a whole new storyline added that doesn’t mesh up with the primary one until late in the book, and there are more questions asked than answered.

And then I have other issues.

The Dasati, who start out as the supposed big bad but who get humanized (to a degree) through this new plotline, are wasteful. I have a really hard time believing that a species who slaughters each other so well, so few of the elite making it to adulthood and then most of those not surviving their first year before the survivors turn to hunting down their own children and the children’s mothers, could manage to effectively populate one world much less a dozen. Sure, the ones who make it are going to be the biggest badasses you’ve ever met, but there aren’t going to be that many of them.

And everything is still Macros’ fault. Remember Macros the Black? Pug’s occasional mentor and frequent manipulator, and also father-in-law, he’s set everything up, manipulated whole worlds, whole dimensions, to bring things together at the right time and place to fix the universe. Again.

Not that he remembers all of it. Or even much of it, if we’re to believe him, and I don’t.

I’m also still not thrilled with Bek as a character. He’s not just completely amoral, he’s aggressively amoral, and the author takes great pains to make sure we see him pointing that out again and again. I have to be honest in saying that drives me a little crazy. I don’t mind hating a character, but I hate finding one I want to skip over every time they’re in a scene.

Overall rating: 2 stars. At this point, I’m only going to read the third book in the trilogy because I want to have all of the background moving towards the end of the series. I don’t know if I can quite answer why I want to read the entire series when I’ve abandoned several others from my teenage years that I enjoyed just as much back then. Maybe I’ll find the answer along the way.

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Book Review: Our Lady of Darkness

Book Review: Our Lady of Darkness

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Part of my quest to read all of the World Fantasy Award novel winners. This book won in 1978.

Meh.

I spent a lot of this book waiting for something to happen. I spent even more of it waiting for that to be something with a speculative bent. All I had up until the last dozen or so pages was the main characters seeing something that might have been a figure at the limits of his visual acuity through a set of binoculars.

I want to say there’s a Lovecraft influence here (a lot of other people have), and there are certainly plenty of references, but while Lovecraft tended towards the weird and bizarre, this book tends a lot more towards the boring. Right up until the last couple of chapters, all we really have is the story of a recovering alcoholic with weird friends trying to solve a mystery that may just be a faulty recollection from his alcoholic days.

It’s well written, certainly, especially when compared to the last Leiber book I read (The Wanderer), and the characters might be interesting if they had anything to actually do, but the plot is rather plodding and uninteresting and there really isn’t anything speculative about the story until the climax of the novel.

Yes, the book won a major speculative fiction award and there really isn’t anything speculative about it until the last 10% of the story.

Overall rating: 2 stars. I find it hard to go lower since I did manage to finish the book (a first on the WFA quest) and didn’t hate it. I just didn’t find anything to really love about it.

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Book Review: Storm Dancer

Book Review: Storm Dancer

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I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. Steampunk isn’t my thing, whether or not it’s got a flavor I don’t usually get in my fantasy. Steampunk with a Fantasy bent doesn’t help much because it’s still Steampunk.

But I’m trying to push boundaries in the fiction I read, to break out of molds, to see through different lenses than I’m used to seeing through. And I got a copy of this for Christmas in 2015 that’s been sitting on the shelf staring at me for quite a while now.

While reading, I found the book has other strikes against it.

It’s kind of info-dumpy for the first few chapters as the author tries to introduce us to the world. A slow start, it takes quite a while to get to the point where the story is actually moving.

I don’t speak much Japanese, but there are some misuses that appear to be just for flavor that even I pick up. Honorific suffixes that are used for titles instead, and the regular tossing in of Japanese words into otherwise English sentences just for flavour. You can get a lot from context, but there’s a glossary built into the book, just in case.

If I were more familiar with Japanese culture and history, there would probably be more to bother me, and I think that probably expands to other aspects of Asia borrowed and twisted a bit to fit into the world. There’s a lot of Asia out there, and it’s all part of the Empire, but we don’t see a lot of it directly, at least in this first book.

Stormdancer has a dystopian flavor and I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction (have I said that before?). Chi (the stand in for fossil fuels) is ruining the world in a lot of ways. In fact, more or less all of the evils in the world are laid at the feet of Chi and the Emperor.

Speaking of fossil fuels, the book comes across as a bit on the preachy side talking about environmentalism. Be subtle. Influence my thinking. Don’t smack me over the head.

Okay, enough negativity.

The story does have things going for it, and it’s those things that push me up from a 2-star rating. The heroine is a competent young woman who is able, and willing, to think and act for herself. She’s not thrilled with the society she lives in or her place in it and does try to act to change both. That she needs other characters to show her more of herself and the world than she’s been seeing to take some of those actions sometimes makes her a more rounded character.

And then there’s Buruu, the thunder tiger, the arashitora, a slightly modified and suped-up griffin created for the series. I like the character, the concept, and the relationship that builds between him and Yukiko.

Overall rating: 3 stars. A lot of problems balanced out by the two primary characters. For me, things work out that I enjoyed the story overall. It was fun, but those problems still exist, so I’m not too likely to read the rest of the series.

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