Month: June 2016

Terra Insegura

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I have a lot of conflicting feelings about this book, which boil down into an impression of missed potential. This was a book that I had trouble reading due to the ugliness of spirit of some of the antagonist characters. However, they weren’t interesting, just mostly bland, brutal, nasty sons of guns. I think a lot of my issues stem from that this is a sequel, and so the protagonists were not developed that well. Had I had read the first novel, and had all that character development and plot development behind me, I probably would have received Terra Insegura more positively.

On that note, I constantly felt like the book and myself were not on the same level of understanding. In particular, the details behind the Selkies, their creator, and the Keronomi made little sense to me until the very end. This was frustrating, because the idea is very intriguing and has great potential, and I really liked what I saw of the Selkie populace, but I never really got the feel of what was going on. Additionally, the plot felt arbitrary at points, where obstacles seemed dropped in that had little to do with the main conflict but were not particularly interesting or effective on their own either.

One thing the book really nailed for me was the eerie feeling of a plague-devastated world. There was a lot of uneasiness and mistrust boiling over, with survivors fighting over the cure for the plague.

Cover Art Review: I like it! Aesthetically, it feels too ethereal and floaty to me, probably due to the light burst in the top, and would benefit from either having the bottom of the scene darker to solidly ground you in the scene, or just decreasing how much the bright light washes everything out. On the other hand, this does lend it a confused, eerie feeling, which is appropriate for the novel.

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No Phule Like An Old Phule

No Phule Like An Old Phule is a hilarious tale interweaving the ridiculous adventures of the elder Mr. Phule and the younger Mr. Phule, as well as the stories of two conniving hucksters, a military company full of ridiculous characters, an enthusiastic young recruit, a crew of big game hunters, an environmental inspection team, and the easily mistranslated local Zenobian population.

Before I go any further:
TRIGGER WARNING: Occasional punning; humor of the kind that may make you slam your palms into your face at a reasonably high velocity.

Great, that’s out of the way. The characters were great: generally caricatures, but done well and so over the top that it just makes you grin. And then when it turns out that they actually have a bit more depth, then it is just that much more effective. The humorous aspect of each character is usually something you can grasp right away, but what makes the book shine is how the interaction between the characters is smartly done as well.

Although the characters and humor by themselves were quite honestly enough to keep me reading, there are several mystery arcs weaving through the story that add a good amount of tension and suspense and charge the story with narrative juice that drives the story along. Asprin and Heck also make great use of summary to avoid getting bogged down.

Beeker’s journal entries before each chapter are great as well, because they work along with suspension of disbelief by showing that pretty much the most even-keeled character in the company regards much of the farcical proceedings as a farce.

As a bit of a bonus, while apparently there are 4 other Phule books that take place before this one, I had zero problems diving in. Even though the book referenced previous events, it provided just enough context for us to understand the situation without giving more context than necessary or super spoiling the previous stories. Which is great! Also rare.

Cover Art Review: This cover definitely undersells the book’s writing. While it captures the light-hearted mood, it could have hinted more at the zaniness and farcical proceedings to come.

The Outcasts of Heaven Belt

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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt is a book I started reading months ago, put down after the first few chapters, and picked it up again recently and started over from the beginning. I am glad I gave the book another shot. The first few chapters are sad and overwhelming. Much more important than the tragedy that opens the story, though, is Vince’s moving depiction of how memory, grief, and the need for continued survival can all coexist and drive a recovery. The characters are our main lenses into the societies of Heaven Belt, and as flawed and unlikeable as some of them are, they feel tangible and believable.

Betha and the Ranger’s role as outsiders from Morningside fallen into the chaos of Heaven Belt sets up the inevitable comparisons between the three main societies of Heaven Belt: The Demarchists, The Ringers, and Lansing. Each society has adapted to the fall of Heaven Belt and their new-found vulnerability to environmental threats in different ways. This felt incredibly strong, especially given how each society’s available resources and territory guided their differential responses. One weakness is an over-reliance on telling rather than showing. There are some examples where Vince directly shows the culture in action, such as the mediamen circus on Betha’s arrival in the Demarchy, or where Vince uses characters behavior to get at social norms, for example Shadow Jack’s treatment of others, and these scenes are very effective. Scenes where characters spend a paragraph describing their culture and explaining how it’s different to the other feel more contrived.

One key aspect to each society is how they protect their women from cosmic radiation, and thus ensure the continuation of their society with a new generation of healthy children. None of the cultures fare very well by the standards of current Western society, but what makes this especially interesting is how these societies are confronted by an ‘alien’ ship captained by a woman, visibly challenging their beliefs and shaking their conviction. An explanation of why men are not similarly prized against the radiation is less convincing, although at one point a character explains they can freeze sperm, but not ova, which seems reasonable enough.

Confusingly enough, the ending was simultaneously utterly contrived feeling while also feeling perfectly reasonable and believable. Still not entirely sure how that’s possible.

COVER ART REVIEW: I love it! The gas giant and the teeny planetoid in the bottom right corner caught my eye as being particular awesome, and the ships are gorgeous. A great example of vintage cover art.

The Star Fox

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The Star Fox is suffused with an eclectic, vibrant atmosphere. Whether it’s Vadasz bursting into singing and strumming, Gunnar Heim’s cursing, shouting, and plotting, Uthg-a-K’thaq’s crab accent and practical nature, or the ardent French patriotism that is the cornerstone of Heim’s voyage, there is always a character full of life on the stage, pushing the story onwards with their pep and vive. I have read some stories with a similar plot concept – hero figure acts outside the law in order to prevent an alien menace from overwhelming Earth humans – but Anderson brews a feeling of real import and urgency behind Heim’s journey.

The story was published in the mid 1960s (1964 by Signet Books, of The New American Library), which in practice means that to me, the language, descriptions, and environments all feel delightfully “retro futuristic”. However, this comes with its problems – the characters who actually go out, do things, know things, and have long conversations about politics and science are mainly manly male men. Female characters are there largely to be admired, woo’d, captured, or to confuse men, or to serve as minor advisory characters. The book also spends a fair amount of time on Gunnar Heim’s romantic life, where he largely is agonizing over his romantic life, rather than actually having a romantic life. I found this was actually a good vehicle to delve into his character, as well as being generally entertaining. However, moving on, the novel does a particularly good job at not only showing Earth’s unified World Federation and how its constituents from different places and backgrounds work together, but also showing the cracks in unity resulting from the different views and opinions of its members. It is also interesting to me in that it is particularly European-focused.

There is an oddness to the plot pacing and structure. The story flows at a fluid pace for the first 40-ish pages, jetting through days and weeks of time. Suddenly, the story becomes mired in a particular stretch of days. After this, the story skips ahead several weeks once again, before finally settling into a more sedate pace that favors scene over summary, until it finally skips one last time. Additionally, many of the obstacles and difficulties Heim and his crew encounters have little to do with his actual goal, but with the random obstacles encountered on the way, and much of the voyage and the actual enacting of the plan is skipped over in the process. It’s a little disappointing, as the novel led me to believe we were going to have a story focused heavily on the execution of Gunnar Heim’s plan, and then it ended up with that mainly being the driver for other conflicts to unfold. Still, I greatly enjoyed reading The Star Fox, as the bulk of the plot was gripping and I enjoyed the style and the characters. If you enjoy retro-feeling futurism, this might be a book to check out.

COVER ART REVIEW: I am pretty sure that the Star Fox looked nothing like a giant floating head, nor did any of the character’s heads have giant fins and booster engines on them. However, I do like the coloration of the planetoids, especially the hatching fade-to-black effect. Also, I am torn over the advert for Ian Flemming’s The Man With The Golden Gun. It’s great period dressing, and hints that the book you’re getting may be more action-y than science fiction-y, but also detracts from the feel.

OBLIGATORY BRIDGEDNESS QUOTE: This book is complete and unabridged.

Gridlinked

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Gridlinked takes place in a fascinating, confusing universe, peopled by strange characters serving coldly inhuman causes, all alongside fairly relatable people.  There is a sense of impenetrability regarding the setting and exactly what is going on. Partly it’s that the characters and institutions are strange. Partially it’s the abundant violence. Partially it’s the story’s bizarre FTL technology, literally beyond human comprehension, as perhaps all things that hurl mankind faster than light well should be. The depiction of aliens who seem truly alien, and whose motives are frequently bewildering is also a great contribution to the atmosphere. But the intense mood and the frequent fast-paced and brutally matter-of-fact violence is the overwhelming contributor to this feeling of impenetrability.

There is some lingo usage that is very clever and original. It definitely takes a fairly common sci-fi technology, teleportation, and makes it memorable, giving it a very unique spin which greatly impacts the mood of the setting as well as individual scenes.

The plot is rather inscrutable, and even skimming through the book as I am writing this, while I understand the overall thrust of the arcs, there are plenty of elements that I don’t entirely grasp. Which felt in line with the general atmosphere. There are other books set in this universe, and I will probably end up reading them, if not right away; Gridlinked wraps up its plot pretty well, but dangles a hook at the very end that is simply begging for an explanation. I look forward to eventually reading the other books by Neal Asher and unraveling more of the twisted webs of technology, governments, aliens, and insurrectionists.

Cover Art Review: I like it! It very much conveys the mood of the book: overall dark with lots of seizure-inducing lights here and luminous circuitry there, bizarre, inhuman and foreboding. I don’t think Ian Cormac’s face looks like that, though.

Lhind the Spy

by Sherwood Smith

Published by Book View Cafe in 2015

So if you are expecting this to be a light-hearted romp as per Lhind the Thief, you will be disappointed. Instead, you will receive a somewhat gritty story about Lhind being kidnapped and forced to live as a royal princess in a grotesque society of conformance.

Lhind the Thief focused on Lhind’s interactions with the various characters she came across, how Lhind changed over time and how she built relationships. However, Lhind the Spy is primarily focused on Lhind’s inner struggles to satisfactorily play the role she has been thrust into in order to survive, while retaining her own identity and preventing that role from consuming her. This is a lot grimmer story than Lhind the Thief, and to some readers (and characters in the book!) Lhind’s struggles may seem like a bit much, seeing as how much of a privileged position her kidnappers place her in. However, Lhind pays attention to both the nobles and the common people and their role in the society she has been thrust into. This is actually a fairly interesting exploration of cultural patterns and societal classes, and if the reader is so inclined, they could draw parallels to present culture and glean some insight if the reader is so inclined. Good stuff, in essence.

All that said, I enjoyed my time, although it was more melancholy than in Lhind the Thief. While I am looking forward to another LHIND book, I hope it modulates its tone between Lhind the Thief and Lhind the Spy. Or adopts an entirely different tone altogether! After all, I’m just a reader, not the author.

Obligatory Kindle Note: I read this on a Kindle.

COVER ART REVIEW: What cover art?

The Straits of Galahesh

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I really enjoyed nearly all of this book, but the climax of the book soured much of it for me. I have not read the third book, the Flames of Shadam Koresh, and I am sure once I read it I will change my mind, but it feels like the ending for this book was pure artifice and that everything should have ended in the climax here.

I’ll dive into what aggravated me. In the last ¼th of the book, one of the major antagonists suddenly was revealed to have an unstoppable super power that no one could defend against, until suddenly someone could defend against it. It felt like a lazy way to get everything to happen that the author needed to happen for the final scene, as if characters being driven by their actual motivations / flaws weren’t enough to get exactly what the author wanted, so they just pulled the strings, moving the puppets around jerkily such that it becomes clear they’re puppets and not characters. That breaking of suspension of disbelief really hurt the ending for me.

Phew, now with that aside, the first ¾ of the book were on balance pretty good, although I do admit to enjoying Atiana and Nikandr’s chapters more than Nasim. I found the writing and point of view more engaging. I did have a problem with the sheer amount of twists, turns, betrayals, and reversals. The first third of the book had some very well done plot twists, but after that the density seems to just increase, and even though well done, simply due to the density of them, they just become tired. So when something dramatic and unexpected happens in the climax of the book, I didn’t go “WOAH WHAAAAAAAT HOLY CRAP”, I thought “Huuuuh. Neat. Well, I bet something will undo what just happened within 20 pages.” There is also a problem with the protagonists implementing  straightforward and reactive plans, while the antagonists are the masterminds with plans that have wheels spinning within wheels. As a result, anything the protagonists do is usually either “part of the villain’s plan,” or reacting to something irrelevant and so anything they achieve will be either undone or rendered irrelevant within 50 pages. As a result, the investment you have in seeing characters succeed is lessened, as it’s like Charlie Brown and the football. You just know that little girl is going to pull the football away and he’s going to stumble and fall.

And yet, I kept reading, and grumbling aside, enjoyed what I read. Putting aside the plot, the amazing worldbuilding was still there, and the character development was also very well done. Nearly every Duchy character we saw in the first book has changed drastically in the five years since the Winds of Khalakovo, and in ways that are believable, logical, and true to the characters’ nature. That feels rare to me, and to see it done so well was really great.

The magical metaphysics were still unclear to me, as I am still not clear whether there is any clear explanation for all the various the times a character arbitrarily cannot summon a hezhan when it would be very useful to do so. And while it is unclear how the Al-Aquim can do seemingly unique magic, their status as the Al-Aquim kinda grants them a pass!

Oh, and the glossary – it froze my kindle with its awesomeness! Once I got it rebooted, it was great to have all the terms in one place, not because I needed to look up any of them (again, Beaulieu is great with providing enough context to understand the functional use of a term, letting you build connotations from the sound of the word and its associations), but just to glory in it all.

One thing I really liked about the worldbuilding in the first book was the the cultural bent of the Cyrillic-feeling Duchy relative to the more Arabic Aramahn and the Maharrat cultures. The Straits of Galahesh does one better by throwing in Yrstanla’s Turkish-inspired culture, and seeing the geopolitical counterbalance between the Grand Duchy’s internal struggles and the external struggle with Yrstanla was really great.

For now though, as much as I enjoyed the first two books, I will take a breather to read some lighter fare, and then dive into the Flames of Shadam Koresh after the weekend.

COVER ART REVIEW: I definitely checked this out before reading the book, and gotta say, this kind of thing happens a lot in this book! I like the green coat and the walrus-bone powder shells on the bandolier, and the composition is great, but I wish the background colors were more muted. The jumper’s hair, eyebrows, and mustache-goatee in combination also made me snort.

 

The Winds of Khalakovo

 

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I really enjoyed The Winds of Khalakovo. The story unfolds on Khalakovo, an archipelago of seven islands, one of nine island kingdoms in the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya, all wracked by famines, a wasting plague, and a guerrilla war against the Maharrat. The world is incredibly detailed and incredibly fascinating without being expository, the drama is gripping, the characters are well realized, and the stakes feel real.

The worldbuilding is very dense, in that Beaulieu is not afraid to just go and use characters, concepts, places, social classes, kingdoms, faction names, and professions without any explanation or introduction. This sounds like it should be bad – but it’s not! Beauliu uses the terms in context quite well, so I figured out the functional use of the terms well enough, and I quickly built connotations that helped me figure out the cultural meaning of the terms as well. For example, Landed terms are usually Cyrillic, while the Aramahn and Maharrat use much more Arabic-sounding terms. For example, the characters know what streltsi are, what a sotnik is, what a havaquiram is and how it relates to havahezhan, what ethnic groups Landed and Landless refer to, how the Aramahn fit into Khalakovoan society, etc. On the other hand, figuring out what the Maharrat are up to is something both I as the reader and Nikandr the character struggled with together.

On one hand, the plot often feels harsh, with some overly vindictive, petty characters and willfully blind characters. On the other, the Greek tragedy feel of some moments lends a lot to the feel, with a mixture of the characters’ motivations and flaws driving them to their actions. The plot also has lots of twists, turns, and mysteries, both in terms of the characters figuring things out as well as the reader figuring out the world as they read. Some of the assumptions I made make early on were wrong, and realizing that and reassessing everything on the fly was both somewhat frustrating and really interesting.

One negative aspect of the worldbuilding is that it can be hard to pin down everything that is happening, as there are so many characters, factions, terms, and concepts in play. Since much of my knowledge of the world’s magical physics and political balance was inferred from context and scraps of explanation, often a new phenomenon would upend my understanding. This might be something you are looking for (exhilarating, thrilling), or it might not be (confusing, jarring, disorienting).

Cover Art Review: I actually did not see the cover art until writing this review. (Kindle. And this book actually had the cover art in the .mobi! Not sure how I missed it.) Which is a shame, because I really like this cover art! It nails the windships – a lot of the scenes make a lot more sense having seen this, and as one thing I missed was environmental description, seeing some of the landscape is really nice too.

Rogue Clone

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Reading this book was not fun. The writing was flat and uninteresting, quite possibly intentionally (more later), but that does not redeem it for that. The plot was probably alright, but given some horrific worldbuilding choices that destroyed my suspension of disbelief, it felt very artifical and badly structured, with long stretches of either the main character doing nothing, or secondary characters doing important things.

The main character is a clone who, despite having the capacity for independent thoughts and actions, has no capability for human sentiment. In that light, sure, this particular character’s perspective might be limited. However, that does not excuse a boring, flat, predictable characters, who repeatedly hammers home how flat and inhuman he and other clones are in order to convey his/their emotionlessness. It is quite possible to make emotionless, inhuman characters interesting: a great example of this is Franks in the Monster Hunter International series (which I probably will get around to reviewing someday). Additionally, on top of being boring, the characters in Rogue Clone never seem to be up to much, either traveling towards an objective, not being present while another character does something important, or being present while someone else does something important that hurtles them off somewhere else towards a new objective.

There are some startlingly bad worldbuilding choices: for starters, race has been bred out of humanity. The book’s exposition literally states this. Of course, about halfway through the book, you learn about a Japanese Empire, who emerge from the shadows as one of the sector’s most powerful players. And there is also a separate colony world of Africans (although being neo-Baptists, they are more likely space African-Americans), which are a minor power but play a very important role in the plot. So, despite the fact race has been bred out of existence by intermingling and human society is totally racially integrated… both the most powerful faction and one of the most important factions in the main character’s journey are pure racial enclaves. And in the intermingled racially integrated society, the only character names you see are white western European / American. And the only cultural touches you see are white western European / American touchstones.

Secondarily in terms of worldbuilding awfulness, there seems to have been very little attention paid to connecting technological developments, political events, and societal or cultural changes. For example, the U.A.’s military ranks are made up almost entirely of clones. Yet this is barely touched upon until the end of the book, where it is drawn upon to manufacture a crisis for the book to continue. It’s merely a plot point that shows up once or twice, and most of the worldbuilding aspects are similarly there to artificially prod the book along, rather than to create a place where the characters, institutions, and plot make sense.

This book is apparently the sequel to Clone Republic. Perhaps reading the first book may have been rendered Rogue Clone a better experience, but it seems unlikely.