Tag Archives: 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.

Book Review: Pride’s Spell by Matt Wallace

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this lately, but I love Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series so very, very much. Sure, I might have started off feeling a little tepid towards it, but it’s new entries have quickly become some of my most anticipated new releases. They’re only getting better over time, and Pride’s Spell is the best one yet. It’s a smart, action-packed, hilariously absurdist romp and probably the most fun thing you can read this summer.

This installment takes half of the team to Hollywood, where they’re doing the catering for an important movie premiere that takes a sinister turn. That doesn’t mean the folks who stay behind in New York are off the hook, though. There’s not a lot to be said about the plot without giving the whole thing away, but if nothing else about this book appeals to you, it’s worth reading just to read the truly superb action scene where a dude fights an evil Easter Bunny.

That said, there’s a lot to love about Pride’s Spell, and it’s good to see the world Matt Wallace is creating start to feel a bit more lived in. There’s a definite monster-of-the-week feel to it that keeps each installment fresh and interesting, but three books in there’s also an internal logic emerging that is finally making the Sin Du Jour world feel fully realized. It also helps that the overarching plot of the series is starting to take shape and make a bit more sense out of the sometimes random-seeming events. The copious pop culture references will likely date the books in the future, but right now they work well to keep these stories grounded enough in reality that the reader can accept some of their more surreal qualities.

Distinct character arcs are starting to come together as well, particularly Lena’s, which was the biggest surprise of this book for me. When I read Envy of Angels, I rather thought that Lena’s roommate, Darren, would end up being the main character, but instead it’s Lena and her experiences that have been increasingly foregrounded. I’m glad because, while Darren’s rocky adjustment to the new job isn’t completely boring, I’d much rather read about Lena’s burgeoning friendships with other women, her professional accomplishments, and even her messy relationships with men. She’s a delightfully complex character who does everything with an admirable if occasionally ill-advised fierceness that makes her both admirable and relatable.

The only major issue I see with Pride’s Spell is that I don’t know if anyone will be able to make heads or tails of it without having read the previous installments of the series. While each novella is a self-contained adventure, there’s a lot going on, and enough references here to the previous books that I could definitely see an uninitiated reader feeling a bit adrift. The good news is that the series is really excellent and improving over time, and it’s not too late to start from the beginning. Sin Du Jour is a fast, fun read perfect for breaking reading slumps or relaxing between more challenging books. You could start with Pride’s Spell, and a clever reader will catch up quickly, but you really owe it to yourself to go back and read the first couple installments.

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

Book Review: A Whisper of Southern Lights by Tim Lebbon

A Whisper of Southern Lights is the second novella I’ve read by Tim Lebbon, and it’s probably the last. I didn’t care much for Pieces of Hate a couple of months ago, or that book’s bonus novelette “Deadman’s Hand,” but I thought I would check this one out nonetheless. Generally Tor.com’s novellas are of good quality, and I thought that perhaps I just needed to give Lebbon’s Assassin Series a second try. Unfortunately, I liked this entry of the series even less than the previous installment.

The basic plot of this series is that this guy, Gabriel, is an ordinary man whose wife and children were murdered by a demon, Temple, after which Gabriel is made immortal and set to hunt Temple across time and continents. Over hundreds of years, the two immortal enemies meet and fight several times, but neither comes out ahead, and there doesn’t seem to be any actual purpose to their struggle. Indeed, when Gabriel and Temple do brush up against regular mortals, it tends to be fatal one way or another.

In A Whisper of Southern Lights, Gabriel is hunting for Temple in the chaos of the Second World War. He finds him in Singapore, where both of them are working to discover some knowledge possessed by a soldier who is being kept by the Japanese as a prisoner of war. However, for all that this sounds as if there would be some specificity to the tale, everything about this book is vague and generic. Even the racial slurs and the venom with which the soldier character thinks about the Japanese are entirely boring because it’s so obviously exactly the sort of thing I feel ought to be expected from this series as it moves into this setting. Gabriel continues to be a completely non-descript character, and Temple is still a caricature of evil. The man with the snake in his eye is as mysterious as ever, and the mythology of Gabriel, Temple, and their eternal struggle is still murky and ill-defined.

Worst of all, though, is that there’s very little reason to care about any of the characters at all. Even the soldier who is a temporary point of view character isn’t very likeable. He’s a random sort of fellow, not highly educated or a deep thinker, and without any particular virtue to make us root for his continued survival except that he is human, while Temple is not and even Gabriel is something else by now. It does seem unfair that some random guy would get caught up in their conflict, but with no real sense of what the conflict is even about and little enough to like about any of the characters, it’s hard to get invested in the events of the novella.

It seems as the Tim Lebbon wants to convey something deep and profound about the nature of war or of good and evil or humanity or something, but it’s hard to convey much of anything if you can’t string together a coherent story and make readers care about it. Your mileage may vary, but I’m getting off this ride before I waste any more of my time on waiting for it to come to some kind of point.

This review is based upon a copy received from the publisher through NetGalley.

A Whisper of Southern Lights will be released on May 10, 2016. 

Book Review: Sister Light, Sister Dark by Jane Yolen

Somehow, I’ve never gotten around to reading much by Jane Yolen, so I was excited to see this title pop up on NetGalley prior to its rerelease (with new and striking cover art) as an ebook. Sadly, it was just okay. First published in 1988, Sister Light, Sister Dark has aged fairly well, all things considered, but like many feminist fantasy works of the ‘80s, it tends towards second-wave gender essentialism and a sort of pseudo-pagan sensibility. There’s nothing particularly offensive or terribly problematic about it, really, but it’s a subgenre that has just been done to death and has a definite sameness to similar work that will almost certainly make it feel dated and derivative to modern readers. It’s also a book that has some definite love-it-or-hate-it qualities.

The most obviously polarizing aspect of the book happens to also be pretty much its central conceit. It’s not just a straightforward story. Instead, it’s told in a mix of ways—with section headings like History, Myth, Legend, and Parable—so that it’s almost an epistolary novel. I loved this, myself, and thought that it worked well to provide multiple avenues for involving the main story’s themes as well as adding a meta dimension through which to explore bigger ideas about history, storytelling and mythmaking. There are times where parts of the story are repeated, however, and moments where the musings and speculations of the imagined historians are tiresome. If you enjoy the conceit and “get it” it’s nicely done, but if you prefer to just read the main narrative with no interruptions you might resent the breaks in the tale and the shifting perspectives on the story.

Though I in general like the multimedia-ish formatting of the story, I could have done without the Song parts. For some reason, lots of fantasy authors fancy themselves poets as well, and the truth is that they mostly ought to just stay in their lane. I know that poetry is a common feature of fantasy of this book’s age, but it’s just never very good and the poetry here is no different. It’s sophomoric at best and distracts from rather than adds to the story.

Perhaps one of the biggest draws for feminist readers may be that this is a novel that is full of female characters. It’s even touted in the marketing copy that it’s a world with no men, though this isn’t strictly true. There are plenty of men; it’s just the rather narrow world of the main protagonists that is made up of villages of matriarchal, mother-worshipping women. Unfortunately, Jane Yolen doesn’t actually have all that much to really say about gender. Her women-only towns have a more or less utopian maiden-mother-crone hierarchy that isn’t very compelling, and the patriarchal cities and armies that they encounter are, frankly, just too expected to be at all interesting.

Even the individual characters are just alright. Jenna is a pretty archetypal Chosen One, which means that her backstory is the most interesting thing about her. Though the book is largely about looking at what it means for a girl to grow up with the weight of her community’s expectations, fears and doubts on her, the examination of these themes through Jenna’s character is ultimately shallow. By the end of the book, Jenna seems to have conformed to or lived up to the prophecy that she’s supposed to be the fulfillment of, but the story as told in this book stops short of her actually doing anything very momentous.

Jenna’s relationships with others are as one-dimensional as she is. She has no mother, being thrice-orphaned, and her relationships with mother figures aren’t very important. Her friendship with Pynt is a significant part of the story, but both girls are immature and selfish to start with and the relationship is easily dumped towards the end of the story in favor of the suggestion of Jenna having a romance and a grand destiny in the future instead—not to mention that Pynt is essentially replaced when Jenna calls forth her dark sister, Skada. Her antagonistic relationship with the head priestess of her village has potential, but the priestess is more a caricature of petty small-mindedness than anything else.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the book for me, however, is this whole dark sister concept. I want to love the idea, but it just didn’t work for me, mostly because it’s talked up through the whole book but when Jenna actually gets her sister nothing much happens. Instead, Skada is just sort of there, without anything of importance to do. I fully expected the dark sister thing to be a way of exploring the characters’ dual natures or of personifying the idea that people are often of two minds about things, but that’s not the case. It ends up just being a piece of window dressing that is never utilized to its full potential, which is a shame.

All the same, I think I would have loved this if I’d found it twenty years ago. Today, though, it just doesn’t hold up that well, even if the new cover art is gorgeous.

This review was based upon a free copy of the title received from the publisher through NetGalley.

Book Review: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

It’s easy to see why Sylvain Neuvel’s debut novel, Sleeping Giants, is one of the most talked about sci-fi novels of the year. It’s got a gorgeous cover, a great (in very inaccurate) mash-up description (World War Z meets The Martian? Not really.) to sell copies, and it’s compulsively readable from page one. It’s also a book that can be read as seriously or unseriously as you like; on its surface, Sleeping Giants is a blockbuster thriller that (judging from its recently being optioned for film) would be right at home at a movie theater in June, but there’s a good amount of depth to it as well if one cares to look. In short, it’s an excellently written middle brow novel that defies strict genre classification. Between its broad appeal and heavy advance promotion (it’s been on NetGalley since before Christmas, I believe), Sleeping Giants is well-positioned to be one of the most widely read sci-fi novels of 2016. Even better, it’s a novel that deserves to be widely read. Because it’s really, really good.

The story opens with a young girl falling into a hole in Deadwood, South Dakota. Inside the hole is a giant, glowing turquoise hand, which is quickly whisked away and the whole incident hushed up. Seventeen years later, the girl, now Dr. Rose Franklin, finds herself in charge of a team overseeing the search for the rest of the pieces and trying to figure out how to make the ancient alien machine work. In a way, this description—basically what is on the cover of the book—is misleading. Rose is not the main character as it implies, though she does have a vital part to play in the narrative. In some ways this is a little disappointing, as I was expecting a book about a badass lady scientist, but the lack of focus on Rose is more than made up for by the other main female character, pilot Kara Resnik, who is wonderful. That said, all the characters were pretty good, even linguist Victor Couture, who is a pretty obvious semi-self-insert on the part of the author but tends to steal every scene he’s in.

I have been a fan for many years of the epistolary novel, and I’m glad to see that it’s been coming back in recent years. Sleeping Giants is another one to add to the pile. Told primarily in the form of transcripts of interviews between various characters and an unnamed interviewer, Sleeping Giants is consistently entertaining and never once boring. Early in the novel, Neuvel does lapse into a more generic prose style that doesn’t feel as conversational as it ought to, given the format, but by about a quarter of the way in you can clearly see each character’s voice and personality emerging and by the end of the book they feel like old friends. It’s not perfectly executed, but the later finesse makes up for earlier stumbles, and the novel is overall nicely structured. Each character has a well-defined arc, and Neuvel does an excellent job of setting up the story, breaking things, and then pulling it all together for a satisfying ending to this first installment of his series.

Interestingly, the most compelling character turns out to be the unnamed interviewer. He doesn’t get a character arc in the same way that Kara and Vincent do, but the slow revelation of his character is fascinating. I wasn’t, at first, totally sold on him as a character—a shady figure outside the government who has, well, not a heart of gold, but some kind of conscience—but by the end of the book I was totally engaged in his story. And it is the interviewer’s story, at least as much as it’s the story of Kara or Vincent or Rose. Because the interviewer is the only constant character and the collected files that make up the book seem to be the part of the interviewer’s records, it’s the interviewer who is ultimately in control of the narrative that we’re exposed to as we read. This may not matter for a surface reading of the text, in which case it’s totally fair to just accept that the interviewer is what he seems to be, but I feel as if we could endlessly debate the veracity of the collected documents that make up the story, the motives of the interviewer, and the degree to which he is or ought not be considered a reliable narrator.

Sleeping Giants isn’t going to be one of the technically “best” novels of the year, in spite of all its hype. It’s good, and it’s highly enjoyable, but it’s not great literature. Still, it’s a solid debut for Sylvain Neuvel and a nice start to the Themis Files (a trilogy, I guess?). I don’t think this is going to be a book with much reread value, but I’m absolutely looking forward to the next installment of the series.

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

Book Review: The Emperor’s Railroad by Guy Haley

The Emperor’s Railroad is an utterly pedestrian story that is only rescued from total mediocrity by some intriguing world building. Unfortunately, Guy Haley’s novella never manages to full utilize the potential of its setting, and the ending leaves the reader with far more questions than answers.

Told from the point of view of an elderly man, Abney, looking back on his childhood encounter with a Knight, Quinn, The Emperor’s Railroad details a harrowing journey as Quinn escorts twelve-year-old Abney and Abney’s mother from the ruins of their small town in what I guess is Pennsylvania to a different small town in Ohio. It’s not entirely clear, and it doesn’t really matter that much because the setting a really just so much set dressing for a very old and very dull tale. It’s cool set dressing, but there’s not really a lot of substance if you think about it for more than a minute.

So, basically, there was some kind of global war apocalypse that was followed up by a zombie plague some thousand years before the events of the story. In the centuries since, “angels” have taken up residence in some of the major cities east of the Mississippi—Pittsburgh, Columbus, and others—from which they rule large territories that are additionally broken up in a sort of feudal system of kings and lords and even at one point an emperor, all of whom are beholden to the angels. The angels seem to have retained some science and technology, and they seem to have at least some measure of control over the armies of Dead that still ravage the countryside.

The Dead, along with a “dragon” set to police the borders between a couple of territories, are the dangers that are most immediately relevant to the story here, though, which I guess is good because none of this makes much sense. It’s neat, and I like some of the ideas, but Haley both over- and under-explains here. There are a lot of details that hint at a complex and potentially interesting world, but there’s not enough explanation for how or why this world came to be. Sure, the “angels”—though they obviously aren’t really angels—are kept mysterious, but their motives are also completely opaque, and while it’s clear that these overlords are managing the ugly and unjust world as we find it in the story, what’s not clear (at all) is how this benefits them. The subjugated towns and downtrodden populace live miserable lives, but they don’t seem to pay taxes or tithes of goods to the Dreaming Cities. In fact, travel and trade of all kinds is shown to be nearly impossible. It just doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Abney’s mother, Sarah, is the only female character in the book, and she’s not particularly present in the story. She exists largely on the edges of the story and her primary purpose in the narrative is to die so that Abney can survive. She does get a bit of backstory about how she’s a valuable commodity in a world with few fertile women left, but though Abney loves his mother and is saddened by her eventual—and heavily telegraphed—demise, The Emperor’s Railroad is primarily about Abney and Quinn and how meeting Quinn changed the way Abney saw the world. Quinn is a pretty standard lone wolf itinerant hero, though, and there’s not much to distinguish him from other characters of his type. He’s stoic and self-deprecating and gruffly kind, and when he discharges his duty he moves on to new adventures. That is to say, he’s nothing special.

Perhaps this story deserved to be told in a novel length work in order to take better advantage of the author’s considerably imaginative world building, or perhaps it’s a world that ought to have been explored through a different character’s (Sarah’s, perhaps?) perspective. Either way, The Emperor’s Railroad doesn’t quite manage to be terribly interesting. It also feels a little too reminiscent of the other recent Tor.com novella, Pieces of Hate by Tim Lebbon, which dealt with another type of itinerant hero and opened with a novelette that was a similar type of boy’s-adventure-with-hero-passing-through kind of story. Still, it’s for the most part a highly readable and mostly-enjoyable introduction to the world of Guy Haley’s Dreaming Cities. I don’t expect that these will be among my favorite of Tor.com’s novellas, but I’m looking forward to the next one, if for no other reason than I’m hoping to find out some of the answers to all the questions I have about how this post-apocalyptic world works.

The Emperor’s Railroad will be released on April 19, 2016.

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