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Book Review: The Fortress at the End of Time by Joe M. McDermott

Joe M. McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time might be a little bit genius, but I can’t decide if I loved it or hated it. It’s got a great classic sci-fi sensibility if, but I’m generally not one for classics. It’s a novel that, while short, is often boring, but intentionally so and in a way that mostly works if you’re a patient reader. It’s got some big ideas that are worthy of considered exploration, but none that are particularly fresh. It’s solidly written with a distinctive voice and style, but there’s nothing especially exceptional about it. It’s a book that I’m glad to have read because it is a bit outside of my usual fare and a nice change, but I don’t feel compelled to read either more of McDermott’s work or more of this sort of thing in general. It’s not that The Fortress at the End of Time is unremarkable or pedestrian; it’s just a profoundly workmanlike example of its type of thing–thoughtful medium-hard military-ish sci-fi that has something to say about some stuff–if you like this sort of thing. I can easily imagine this being a book that lots of other people love, but I can’t muster any very strong feelings about it, myself.

The story is told in first person from the point of view of one of the most unpleasant characters I’ve had the misfortune to read about in some time. Ronaldo Aldo was raised on Earth and attended a military officers’ school, after which a copy of him (not really a clone, despite what the cover blurb says) is made and stationed on a remote military base at the far end of the galaxy, where he finds himself lonely, bored, and with few opportunities for success or advancement. While the book seems intended to explore the banality of that sort of everyday experience–not everyone can be a Captain Kirk, natch–I found Aldo so unlikable that it was difficult to root for him at all. For me, this is primarily because Ronaldo Aldo is a man who really doesn’t care for women, in spite of being straight and wanting to fuck/possess one (or more) of his own.

The first introduction to Aldo is his attempt to flip a coin with a friend of his over who gets to fuck a woman they are both hanging out with, only to find out that his friend and the woman are already a couple. It speaks to Aldo’s self-centeredness and obliviousness that he didn’t know that the people who are supposed to be his two best friends are in love, and it speaks to Aldo’s deep-seated misogyny that he ever thought it was appropriate to flip a coin for access to a woman’s body. McDermott doesn’t portray this behavior favorably, and I think that it’s intended to make Aldo unlikable from the start as well as set a baseline for his behavior towards women from which we can measure change over the course of the rest of the book.

However, Aldo’s subsequent arc never actually improves his attitudes towards women very much. Throughout the book, Aldo thinks of every woman he meets (and there are few enough of them) in terms of sexual attractiveness, which is consistently gross and off-putting, specifically because there are so few female characters in this book. Aldo’s championing of women at the Citadel feels hollow, and his “romantic” relationships are dysfunctional, with the dysfunction almost entirely on his side. Aldo continues to be slightly obsessed throughout the book with the girl from the very beginning; then he almost immediately becomes infatuated with the beautiful wife of one of the other officers at the Citadel, who he later has an affair with.

Aldo magnanimously gets involved with a young trans woman, but he primarily thinks of her in terms of her beauty and her transness, which is in turns almost fetishized and slightly vilified. Amanda’s transness is suggested to be a ploy to be able to marry a man and thus gain more land on the surface of the planet, and this plays off of some extremely negative tropes about duplicitous trans women who want to “trick” good men into being with them. I’d say that the treatment of this in the book falls in depiction rather than endorsement territory, but I’m not sure it’s handled as well as it could have been. There is quite a lot of time spent on talking about Amanda’s transness, in general but especially about her lack of childbearing ability (Future people can replicate whole people but can’t give a trans woman a uterus yet? Okay.) and there are several times where characters misgender and deadname her in ways that are derogatory and unpleasant to read.

Still, thematically, The Fortress at the End of Time is moderately ambitious, and McDermott does a good job of staying on target with the story he’s trying to tell. There’s not much fat that could have been trimmed here, and the deliberately slow pacing works nicely to highlight McDermott’s theses. The interplay between the planetside monastery and the Citadel could have been given somewhat more page time, but I may only feel that way because I could have done with less of Aldo’s feelings. All in all, though, The Fortress at the End of Time is fine. It’s not great, but it’s good, and sometimes that’s plenty. This isn’t a book that was perfect for me, but if you like this sort of retro-styled sci-fi or if you have a thing for unlikable protagonists and likely unreliable narrators, it’ll be right up your alley.

This review is based on a copy of the title received from the publisher through NetGalley.

Book Review: Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire

It’s early enough in the year that I don’t have much to compare it to yet, but I feel confident in saying that Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is one of the year’s great novella-length works. It’s smartly written, well-paced, has a compelling cast of characters and an original mythology, and is altogether compulsively readable. It’s perfect reading for a cold day or a rainy afternoon, exactly the sort of thing that is easy to zip through in a single sitting like I did.

It might be easy to just focus on the characterization of this book as “that book about the ghost who works at the suicide hotline,” but Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is something really special and interesting that isn’t done justice by that facile, humorous-sounding description. Yes, Jenna is a ghost and she works at a suicide hotline, but this isn’t a funny book and, while a fast read, isn’t really the kind of light reading that superficial description would suggest, either. There’s some lightness here, but this is a book that deals mostly with themes relating to grief and mortality and Seanan McGuire has something quite serious to say about these issues. She does touch on some ideas about community and found family, but those are mostly incidental to the story and more implied than explicitly examined in the text.

Because the book is so emotionally and thematically weighty, the plot is a fairly basic one. After the introduction of Jenna’s predicament and some explanation of her life as a ghost, Jenna and her friend, a witch, have to rescue a bunch of other ghosts when they mysteriously disappear. We never meet any of the disappeared ghosts, so there’s not much emotional stake in their rescue, but the book isn’t really about them at all. Instead, the first person narrative puts the reader completely inside Jenna’s head for the duration of the story. And while Jenna is a kind and caring person, there’s an interesting detachment in her ways of caring for her pets (all elderly cats) and the people in her after-life, and McGuire does a great job of exploring how Jenna’s circumstances have changed her perspective and her understanding of life and death.

McGuire also has an interesting take on witches here, where they have magics tied to any number of things–streets, rats, corn… presumably the options are basically unlimited–that fuel their powers and inform and limit their abilities. The relationship between witches and ghosts is complex and adversarial rather than symbiotic, but it adds another dimension to the reader’s understanding of the themes. Like ghosts, witches exist in a social space somewhat removed from humanity, and both ghosts and witches live extended lifetimes and are subject to forces and motivations outside their control. McGuire’s “What If?” question in this book is broad and perhaps ill-defined, but I love the multiple angles from which she’s chosen to try and answer it.

Looking back on the reading experience of this one, I think the genius of Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is that McGuire has used an extremely simple and fairly straightforward plot in order to hang a ton of mythology and worldbuilding upon, but she’s managed to do it in a way that feels complete and not as if it’s just an introduction to a bigger fictional world or a longer series. Sure, there’s tons of storytelling potential here, and there is at least one character (Delia, if you want to know) that I’d love to see McGuire return to in the future. But Jenna’s story in this volume is completely self-contained and entirely emotionally satisfying. I would definitely like to read more about this fantasy world, but I don’t think any sequels are necessary. I’d love for these kinds of singularly lovely standalone stories become a trend even more than I want to see sequels or companions to this story.

This review is based upon an advance copy of the title received from the publisher through NetGalley.

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale is an excellent fairy tale-inspired historical fantasy that should appeal to fans of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless. Katherine Arden has crafted a well-researched, beautifully written, and overall marvelously realized debut novel that nonetheless has some deep and unsettling flaws that I expect will keep it from being among my favorite novels of 2017 and, frankly, make it somewhat unlikely that I will return to the series (this is the first of a planned trilogy).

First, the good.

If you like historical fantasy or fairy tale retellings, this one is a great choice. Arden has chosen a couple of somewhat obscure-to-Anglophone-readers fairy tales to use as the backbone of her story, and she’s chosen a setting–circa 14th century Russia–that isn’t widely used. Both of these factors set The Bear and the Nightingale nicely apart from the ongoing glut of retold and reimagined fairy tales on the market. These things are always a dime a dozen, so it’s refreshing to see something original being done in the genre, and to have an original idea coupled with a well-researched setting that offers a great sense of place is something really special.

I also kind of love that The Bear and the Nightingale isn’t a romance, though it has some romantic, in the literary sense, elements. Instead, it’s a bildungsroman of sorts, beginning before the birth of its primary protagonist, and Vasilisa grows from precocious child to independent young woman over the course of the novel. Romantic relationships barely figure into the story at all, and it instead focuses on exploring Vasilisa’s relationships with her family and community in order to explore bigger ideas about tradition, religion, gender equality, and growing up. Too often, books like this focus primarily on getting their heroine heterosexually paired off and settled down at the end, so I’m always glad to read something that avoids that narrative that domestic partnership and nuclear familial conventionality are the ultimate happy ending. The somewhat ambiguous, but hopeful, ending of The Bear and the Nightingale suits me far better.

Sadly, while the good parts of The Bear and the Nightingale are excellent, the bad parts are pretty terrible. Mostly, the bad parts all involve Vasilisa’s stepmother, Anna Ivanovna, for whom everything is terrible all the time.

**Spoilers below this line.** Continue reading Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Book Review: The Ghoul King by Guy Haley

I didn’t hate Guy Haley’s first Dreaming Cities novella, The Emperor’s Railroad, though it wasn’t one of my favorite reads of the year so far. Nonetheless, I was intrigued enough to read this second installment of the series. The Ghoul King seemed to promise more action and a female character with something to do besides die for male character development, and I was hoping to see Haley dig a little deeper into some of the potentially very cool world building of his post-apocalyptic landscape. Sadly, I found myself disappointed on all counts with this book, and this is another series that I’m very unlikely to continue with.

Here’s the thing about these books: they’re fine. Haley has a handful of neat ideas, and a solid (if a bit hackneyed) premise. Quinn is a perfectly serviceable anti-ish-hero; the angels are theoretically compelling antagonists; and a post-apocalypse full of zombies and robot dragons marauding brigands and petty feudal-esque politics should offer plenty of minor conflicts and quests for an itinerant adventurer. Unfortunately, once you get past the initial observation of “huh, that’s cool,” there’s very little actually happening under the surface. Haley is great at window dressing, and the books’ appeal is helped along by sharp-looking covers, but when I finished both of these books I was just sort of like “is that it?”

Quinn is as inscrutable and laconic as ever in The Ghoul King, but he never manages to be in the least bit likeable or even interesting. Perhaps because of the choice to have the action narrated again from a point of view that isn’t Quinn’s, Quinn remains a bit of a cipher, as the first person narrator is never quite able to connect with him or get to know him on a personal level at all. Once again, Quinn is a sort of cowboy-ish character who rides into town, impresses the locals and rides away with his cloak of mystery intact. He’s a notably old-fashioned construct of stoic masculine heroism that just… isn’t fun to read about at all. Unless that’s your thing, in which case do you, but it’s not much fun for me.

There are a couple of female characters this time around, though only one, Rachel, plays a major role in the action. In fact, she’s the instigator of this novella’s adventure. Unfortunately, she’s also—through sheer ineptitude and ignorance—kind of the story’s main antagonist as well, and Rachel’s search for pre-apocalypse technology doesn’t end well for pretty much anyone. It’s an almost archetypal arc, with Rachel cast as a sort of Eve who lures men on a fruitless quest for knowledge that ends in tragedy and, ultimately, their expulsion from the seat of knowledge and into an uncertain future. On the one hand, there’s something almost mythologically epic going on. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem as if Haley has anything in particular to say with any of the mythology he’s crafting.

Certainly not every story has to be deep and insightful, and there’s something to be said for straightforward, uncomplicated adventure stories, but there still has to be something to engage the reader, make them care about the events they’re reading about, and keep them coming back for more. Without a likeable protagonist or any discernable message, and with the world building stalled out (there’s not much new information revealed in this volume at all, sadly) this series doesn’t do that for me.

This review is based on an advance copy of the book received through NetGalley.

Book Review: Return of Souls by Andy Remic

I won’t be reading anything else by Andy Remic. I didn’t care for most of his first Tor.com novella, A Song for No Man’s Land, but it got interesting right at the end. Unfortunately, Return of Souls doesn’t deliver on what little promise its predecessor held. Instead, it doubles down on everything I didn’t like about the first book in this planned trilogy and adds a heaping dose of blatant misogyny that makes it a deeply unpleasant read.

Spoilers at the end, so beware.

Once again, we’re following Robert Jones through his time in World War I, only he’s come somewhat unhinged since the events of the first book and we’re now navigating his deteriorating mental state and his journeys through a sort of dark, war torn Wonderland, still pursued by the walriders that were introduced in A Song for No Man’s Land. Though all his friends died in the last book, this time around Robert is joined by a mysterious young woman named Orana who also seems to be running from the walriders. I’m sure that there are other things going on in this novella (I think I remember Bainbridge’s ghost showing up at least once), and I still get the feeling that Remic has some point that he’s trying to manfully make about war or something, but all of that is eclipsed by the sheer disgustingness of Robert’s relationship with Orana.

I mean, come on.

First off, Orana is barely even a character at all. Instead, she seems to be a sort of generalized embodiment of Remic’s ideals of womanhood, created to both tempt Robert and to motivate him to new acts of chivalrous heroism. Over and over again, Orana is described in infantilizing and fetishistic terms as childlike, naïve and in need of protection. When Robert and Orana finally have sex, even Robert feels as if he’s raping her, and indeed it’s difficult to understand exactly how this strange child-woman in need of rescue could be truly consenting. Either way, it’s gross to read.

But, wait! It gets worse. After about a hundred pages of detailing Robert’s creepily paternalistic relationship with Orana, the final revelation of the book is that Orana was a walrider all along and was, I guess, using Robert Jones to help her reach her home? Or maybe she was just tricking him deep into walrider territory? Or maybe Orana’s transformation really is just a misogynistic commentary on the inherent duplicitousness of women? I don’t even know, and it’s hard to care very much. Robert Jones is a highly unlikeable and, frankly, boring character, and honestly, by the time I got to the end of the book I was just ready for it to be over. Unfortunately, there’s no real ending here, just this major revelation and a sort of teaser for the trajectory of the final book in the trilogy, which I just don’t think I can bring myself to read.

I’d like to say that it’s not Return of Souls, it’s me, but I’m having a hard time even thinking of reasons why other people might enjoy this title. Its pace is slow, and its prose is only workmanlike. Its horror elements are sloppy, and its fantasy elements, drawn from real-world mythology, are poorly researched and badly implemented. Robert Jones is a character in turns profoundly dull and remarkably despicable, but he’s at no point enjoyable to read about. There’s no humor to speak of in the book, no spark of fun or joy to speak of; rather, it’s just unrelentingly dark and almost nihilistic in tone. But, hey, maybe that’s your thing. I won’t be back for more, though.

Book Review: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning is a tremendously, gloriously wonderful book that seems like an obvious contender for all of the genre awards next year. It’s a remarkably original, refreshingly optimistic (but not cloyingly so), and deeply challenging read that demands the reader’s full attention. It’s a novel that is difficult at times, but it’s very much worth taking the time—and it may take quite a while—to work through.

The narrator, Mycroft Canner, is a convict in a utopian future where the world is administered collectively by enormous “hives” of philosophically like-minded people and tied together with a system of flying cars that have made travel faster and safer than ever before. As a convict, Mycroft’s sentence is a life of servitude and enforced poverty; he and others like him are essentially public property, bound in service to the community for life. Too Like the Lightning is the first part (I understand the series is planned as four books) of Mycroft’s account of significant events in the year 2454.

There’s not much to say about the plot that wouldn’t be a spoiler, but suffice it to say that there are several slowly, methodically unfolding mysteries contained in this book. It’s a story that isn’t as complicated as it seems, with much of the book’s seeming complexity owing to Ada Palmer’s intricately humane portrayal of Mycroft Canner as a character rather than to any particular complexity of the plot itself. Some of the novel’s high reading level also comes from the affectation (Palmer’s and Mycroft’s) of telling the story in such an antiquated fashion (in the style of the 18th century from which most of the book’s characters’ philosophies are taken). As a great lover of 18th and 19th century literature and philosophy, this put Too Like the Lightning about a hundred and ten percent right up my alley, but it definitely makes for a novel that may require some googling in order to truly appreciate it if you don’t have the requisite background to “get” it right away.

Where Too Like the Lightning really shines is in the worldbuilding department, and there aren’t even proper words to describe how delightful it is to read something so fresh and different. Certainly, one can see marks of many of the usual genre influencers along with the influences of more literary classics as well as works of philosophy and actual history, but Too Like the Lightning really isn’t quite like anything else I’ve ever read. For one thing, in a sea of modern dystopias that seek to explore all the ways in which theoretical utopias can fail, Palmer’s imagined future stands out for being an actually utopian one, and the book is a sort of look at what makes that kind of utopia tick. From eliminating gendered language to banning public displays of religion to the system of flying cars that are teased on the book’s cover to the reorganization of family life, Palmer has thought of answers for nearly all the world’s problems. Those she hasn’t, she’s been sure to include a group of people—the Utopians—in her book that are dedicated to improving on near-perfection.

Margaret Atwood has said that every utopia has a little dystopia in it, and Too Like the Lightning digs deep into examining this idea, looking for and often directly at some of the underlying ugliness that supports the world its author has dreamed up. Mostly, this is accomplished through the observations of the narrator, Mycroft, who offers a unique perspective on a world that he is decidedly set apart from while still embroiled in the events he’s recounting. Mycroft’s personal history, which is one of the central mysteries of the book, comes into play about two thirds of the way through and in a significant way that forces the reader as well as some of the other characters to wrestle with some big ideas. I won’t say it was entirely unexpected, but it’s a pretty major twist and I love a book that challenges my expectations the way this one did.

All things considered, though—little dystopia or not—the world of Too Like the Lightning is one I wouldn’t mind living in, and I feel privileged to have gotten to spend so much time there with this novel. If there’s one problem with it, it’s only that there’s not enough of it. There is no real resolution to most of the problems and conflicts the book introduces, which makes me think that the ultimate success of it is going to rely on the how well things go with the rest of the series. That said, I have a feeling it’s going to be just fine, and I can’t wait to read Seven Surrenders and find out what happens next.

This review is based on a copy of the book received through NetGalley.

Book Review: Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

It would have been useful to know in advance that Central Station is a novel that was cobbled together from a collection of related short stories. While there is much to love about the finished product, it nonetheless has a somewhat disjointed feel to it that makes it somewhat difficult to fully appreciate the novel’s strong points. It’s not incoherent, exactly, just slightly garbled in execution, which is too bad because Central Station is otherwise a gorgeously imagined, smartly written, ambitious work of thoughtful futurism.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of Central Station is Lavie Tidhar’s lovely prose, which brings his vision of a future Tel Aviv to life with great depth and richness. There’s an almost magical, mythmaking quality to his descriptions of Central Station, its inhabitants and their lives that reminds me of nothing more than Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to which Central Station is an obvious successor, if not intentionally than certainly through serendipity. While most of Central Station’s chapters have been edited so that they no longer entirely stand alone, there is still the feeling of it being constructed from a series of slice-of-life vignettes clustered around an overarching narrative—primarily concerned with the comings and goings of people through Central Station, which is here a major hub of travel between Earth and space—and core themes—mostly perennial sci-fi big ideas about war and religion and artificial intelligence and robots and how technology effects the human condition.

Along with crafting a striking and memorable setting, Tidhar has also populated his future Tel Aviv with a fascinating cast of characters. Sadly, this is another area in which the book is sold short in the marketing department, as its cover copy focuses on introducing Boris Chong as if he’s the main protagonist of the novel. Certainly, Boris’s experiences are important and effectively work as bookends to the rest of the stories, and the book description correctly communicates that Central Station is a sort of family drama, but Boris actually turns out to be one of the least compelling characters in the book. Instead, I found myself drawn more to Boris’s ex-lover, Miriam, Carmel the data vampire, the book dealer Achimwene, and the robot priest R. Brother Patch-It. Even the fraught romance between Boris’s cousin Isobel and the robotnik Motl somewhat overshadows Boris’s contribution to the narrative, which makes the decision to sell the book as Boris’s story somewhat unaccountable.

The missteps in the back cover copy of the book are mostly made up for, however, by its absolutely stunning retro-futurist cover by Sarah Anne Langton, which is more than enough reason to have it on your shelf. It’s a perfect package for such a lovely book, and it nicely telegraphs the fusion of classic sci-fi themes and posthumanist sensibilities contained within its pages. There’s very little new under the sun when it comes to storytelling, and Tidhar hasn’t reinvented the wheel with this book, but he definitely brings a refreshingly new and important perspective to the material he tackles. Central Station is a book that is perhaps too “literary” to get the readership it deserves, but it’s certainly worth a look for any serious reader of science fiction, especially if you think you prefer the classics.

This review is based on a copy of the title received from the publisher via NetGalley.