Sunday, January 14, 2018

Void Star, by Zachary Mason

Void StarVoid Star by Zachary Mason

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Void Star is an excellent if imperfect read. Many of the reviews compare it to work by William Gibson or Neal Stephenson, and I agree fully. The descriptions are rich, the world is sprawling, and the storytelling skates on the edge of getting out of hand. That last may be where the comparison starts to break down--in this book the plot always seems to be getting closer to spinning out of control than in Gibson or Stephenson's work, even though the plot itself is pretty simple--big powerful oligarch is trying to steal plucky protagonist Irina's memories, and also live forever. Stop him. Mason describes larger forces (rogue AIs) at play so there's the possibility of more here, but for this book that's it.

The jacket blurb is somewhat misleading. Irina may not be wealthy like the oligarchs, but she certainly plays in their league. I never thought of her as an underdog in the fight, though perhaps not quite an equal to Cromwell. The other protagonists (Kern the favela dweller and Thales the mathematician/political scion) get their due in the narrative but they are support players.

I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it highly. The span of the story is challenging and fun.



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Gods of Risk, by James S. A. Corey

Gods of Risk (The Expanse, #2.5)Gods of Risk by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I'm catching up this series and am something of a completist, so I'm reading the novellas, but so far they don't seem to add that much. In this one the protagonist is a pretty unlikeable teenage boy, the nephew of Bobbie Draper, superhero of Caliban's War. Bobbie ends up being central to the story, but not so much so until near the very end. What we get is the view of a pretty self-centered teen as we get indicators over their news feeds that their society is going to hell. It's decently written and I guess I am not going to demand the time back, but you could skip it if you are less obsessive than I am.



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Friday, January 5, 2018

The Butcher of Anderson Station, by James S. A. Corey

The Butcher of Anderson Station (The Expanse, #0.5)The Butcher of Anderson Station by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I'm getting around to catching this series up after several years. So far I've read Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War, then came back to this piece. So at this point it didn't make a lot of sense to me. Fred Johnson was a supporting character in Leviathan Wakes, and he's barely a presence in Caliban's War. I didn't find myself burning with curiosity about the backstory of The Butcher of Anderson Station. That said, it fits in well with the series and will probably help later. It's a well written "story segment".



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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Caliban's War, by James S. A. Corey

Caliban's War (The Expanse, #2)Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I first read Leviathan Wakes back in 2013 when it was nominated for major awards, and have not revisited the series since then. Just came back to it. It's great as a late night read, because it does not make you work too hard and it's fast-paced so you stay awake. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will continue to catch the series up at some point.

I'll leave the plot summaries to others. When I read a SF book several years after it came out I like to note what the authors were anticipating. Smartphones had not consumed us in 2012 the way they have now, but the authors and others saw it coming. But the phrasing is kind of awkward--the characters in the novels all carry "hand terminals" that seem to have the same function as smartphones. I'd bet a good bottle of scotch that, for as far into the future as we actually carry them in our hands, we will call them "phones", because it's such a simple word and carries the history of large-scale person-to-person communication with it. Even though phones are busy subsuming all other media (and tools) into themselves.



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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Company Town, by Madeline Ashby

Company TownCompany Town by Madeline Ashby

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I came across this refreshing piece from the 2016 Locus Awards listings. While it didn't win it was a good effort and an entertaining read. The protagonist, Hwa, has Sturge-Weber syndrome, which comes with a large port-wine stain on the affected side of the face. This comes up over and over in the book--in the narrative one gets a little tired of it, until you think about how people with facial deformities are actually viewed and what it's like to go through life with one. The central trope in the book--a "clean" protagonist in a world of highly augmented people, who overcomes odds to do better than the augmented ones--is one we've seen several times in SF. So are highly stratified oligarchies and, well, company towns. This book doesn't break a lot of ground there, and the ending is somewhat weird and contrived, but in between there's a lot of good gritty humor. Hwa has learned how to grind her way through life, and it makes the people around her like her and want to help her more than she knows. This gratitude element is very subtly carried off and makes it worth getting through the somewhat spare narration and plot softness. I enjoyed it all the way through.



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Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I just read this, coming to it after it's been out for some time. In addition to all its other accolades it was second in the Locus Awards science fiction novel category--that's how I found it. Mostly it's an alternate history, with a very near resemblance to the real thing.

I am not sure what to think. A lot of important critics like this book, giving it a Pulitzer is a pretty big deal. Maybe it's the feeling that I'm supposed to like it. There's some good writing here, I found Cora's introspections more meaningful than some reviewers did. Partly that would be because early on I let go of the notion that the characters would have authentic period voices. Colson Whitehead is living now, during the rise of the Right and of Black Lives Matter, and his characters seem like the hardest, most extreme and most self-aware versions of current activist-type people. It's a harsh, tell-it-like-it-is novel so he's getting points for that.

It's not the sort of book you actually like. But if it were put together better it would have more impact. I'm with many of the more disappointed reviewers--it's hard to engage with the characters, they are closer to caricatures and rather thin. The shocking violence gets the point across about the times and the very clear way in which white settlers took what they wanted from anyone in their path. But in the end I was pretty remote from it.



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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Roadsouls, by Betsy James

RoadsoulsRoadsouls by Betsy James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Roadsouls is a fascinating and wonderfully different kind of fantasy novel. As Suzy McKee Charnas noted, it's not about royalty, war, and magic as a weapon. This book is character driven, and works as deeply with the characters as any I have read. The protagonists, Duuni and Raim, are both highly capable and deeply flawed. Duuni is an artist channeling her work as though from elsewhere, and this is where the book is the most "fantastic". Raim is a highly capable man, but blind, caused when he became reckless through his pride. His anger at this fate never left him. Raim in particular suffers trials that make Job look weak. Duuni's struggles are more interior. It's a fine description of differing cultures, told very strictly through how Duuni and Raim experience them. Also plenty of excitement, with suitably villainous people as foils. A very good read indeed.



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