Tag Archives: Tor.com

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 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: The Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster

I expected to love The Drowning Eyes, but I’m sad to say I only liked it. The gorgeous cover art and the book’s description had me very excited about it, but it just wasn’t quite what I expected.

In spite of the way the book description reads, The Drowning Eyes is told almost entirely from Tazir’s point of view. I had expected it to be more equally split between Tazir and Shina, so this was a disappointment. Worse, Shina’s viewpoint was utilized suboptimally in addition to simply being underused; while it did offer a point of view through which the reader is given some extra information, mostly about Shina herself, there’s just not enough of it, and Tazir’s stronger personality is much more interesting and entertaining to read. Instead of being a good complement to Tazir’s sections, Shina’s brief POV scenes ended up being a somewhat irritating distraction from the real meat of the story.

I also thought there would be more swashbuckling adventure. Disappointingly, there was basically none. This was largely made up for by Shina’s actually really fascinating weather magic and the accompanying sort of religious order that she’s part of, but still. I feel like I was promised pirates, and all I received was the rather mysterious Dragon Ships, which are never really explained very well and aren’t actually that big a threat to the characters over the course of the journey described in the book. This also has the effect of making it feel throughout the book as if we’re being told over and over again how high the stakes are without it being backed up by any action that the reader is privy to.

It’s a problem, particularly when the personal stakes are plenty high enough to carry the story all on its own. Shina’s trauma could have been handled better and given a little more page space, and I would have loved to see more interaction with Shina and Tazir regarding Shina’s decision to give up her eyes. I love the whole idea of this practice, personally; all the best magic systems have heavy costs for power, and this is one that deserves to be explored more than it was. Tazir in general is a fascinating example of a type of female character that doesn’t usually get to exist—a somewhat grizzled, world-weary, and slightly misanthropic sea captain. I would read a dozen books about her adventures is Emily Foster would just write them. The supporting characters of Kodin and Chaqal are somewhere between underdeveloped and superfluous—especially Kodin—but this is something that, again, could be helped by just a couple more pages dedicated to each of them.

Where things really fell apart for me in this book was the abrupt ending to Shina’s quest and the disorienting shift five years into the future. Frankly, I just don’t care for it, and I would rather have seen Shina’s search for the idol wrapped up a little more neatly. The break between Chaqal and Tazir and then the one between Tazir and Kodin could have still been handled similarly, but closer to the events that actually precipitated these changes in the characters’ relationships. I suppose there’s something to be said for capturing the messiness of human relationships or something, but I would rather read a story that shows things happening instead of reminisces on them years after the fact.

Even with my criticisms of it taken into account, The Drowning Eyes is a wildly enjoyable novella. It’s full of a lot of things that I love in fantasy, and I sincerely hope that it’s part of some larger fantasy setting that we’re only just being introduced to. Probably the biggest issue I have with this novella is that it feels very much as if it’s only a part of something much larger, and I feel frustrated at not having that something larger in my hands to read right now.

Book Review: Lustlocked by Matt Wallace

I received a free advance copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.

Lustlocked is the second in Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series, which began with the riotously funny Envy of Angels late last year. When I read the earlier volume, it was as part of my ongoing project of reading all of Tor.com’s new novellas, but I didn’t expect to like it much. Instead I found it quite enjoyable—smart and fast and a thoroughly fun read. I couldn’t wait for Lustlocked, and I was not disappointed.

It picks up more or less right where Envy of Angels ended, with Lena and Darren still kind of reeling from their experiences during their first days on the job at Sin du Jour and now faced with the decision of whether or not to sign on to the company on a more permanent basis. Of course they do, or there’d be very little story left to tell, and they (and we) quickly learn that there’s never a boring day at this catering outfit. The first job after Lena and Darren sign their contracts is a huge formal wedding for goblin royalty, which quickly gets out of hand when the bride complains that her in-laws aren’t always as nice to her as they could be and resident witch Boosha decides to do something about it.

Where Envy felt a little disjointed and too busy, with the fish-out-of-water story of Lena and Darren seeming almost incidental to the various other, more interesting storylines happening around it, Lustlocked finds a much better balance. There’s still an awful lot going on, including a sort of prologue that still seems somewhat out of place and disconnected from the main plot, which concerns a goblin wedding, but Lustlocked never feels overstuffed the way its predecessor sometimes did. Aside from the prologue, things flow along at a respectable and pleasantly methodical pace.

Where this second installment of the (hopefully open-ended and long-running) series really shines, though, is in continuing to bring to life its world and characters. Every new revelation about the mythology Matt Wallace is creating for this series is a new delight, and between Lustlocked itself and the bonus short story at the end (which was an excellent surprise) there was a ton of character background and development. I loved the sequence where Lena and Darren are being given a tour of the building, where I was glad to meet a couple of new characters. Wallace’s descriptions of food are delectably creative and full of vivid sensory descriptions, while his knowledge of the restaurant/catering/food business is definitely up to the task of making Sin du Jour feel like a real and lived-in place.

My only real criticism of the series so far is that I’m not quite sure what exactly Darren is there for. He didn’t make much of an impression on me in Envy, and he wasn’t much more present in Lustlocked. While Lena is really coming into her own as a character, Darren just kind of… exists. In a series as jam-packed with characters as this one, especially when being told in novella-length pieces, I kind of feel like every character really needs to exist for a specific reason. Lena is his roommate, and even she doesn’t seem to like or think about Darren very much at all, so he sadly ends up feeling superfluous.

In a bittersweet-in-hindsight turn of events, I read Lustlocked the day that David Bowie died, which feels a little like destiny, as it’s heavily implied in the book that David Bowie is/was an actual goblin king. I think this book might always be a little special to me because of that, as it’s a lovely tribute to the man, and one that I especially like because it is such pure, unadulterated fun. Of course David Bowie could be actual goblin royalty—IRL headcanon accepted.

Book Review: Patchwerk by David Tallerman

I received a free advance copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.

I had no idea what to expect when I opened Patchwerk, aside from what the cover blurb says about it, so it was a complete and mostly pleasant surprise. I’d never heard of David Tallerman before, and this is the only thing I’ve ever read by him. Patchwerk is a type of sci-fi story that I don’t usually seek out—the “man invents something ill-advised and hijinks ensue” sort—so it was an interesting change of pace, although it was a great follow-up to Microsoft’s Future Visions anthology of “harder” sci-fi, which I just recently finished.

In some ways, Patchwerk is an interestingly experimental work, told in a series of alternate universe vignettes, each beginning where the previous one left off so that the reader learns what is going on at about the same rate as the characters do. At the same time, I figured it out before I think I was supposed to when I read it, so that the revelation when it came felt a little redundant and slightly condescending. It felt as if Tallerman thought he was being a good deal cleverer than he actually was when he came up with the concept for the book. Still, it wasn’t a particularly egregious example of this flaw, and the concept works well in other ways even if it fails somewhat as a tool for creating suspense.

What Patchwerk lacks in suspense—the stakes are said to be high (or at least implied to be), but things never do feel all that dire, and the ending was a little too pat—it makes up for in sheer action packed-ness. At no point was I ever bored reading this little book, and I finished it almost entirely in one sitting, on the edge of my seat the whole time. Though I complain that I figured some things out before the book confirmed them, I was so delighted with what was going on that it didn’t bother me at all while reading.

Perhaps my only significant complaint about this novella is a technical one. While I’d have to reread it to find specific examples, it seemed as if Tallerman shifted pretty freely between a close third person point of view focused on Dran and an omniscient narrator with some insights to Karen that Dran wouldn’t have been privy to on his own, and this was sometimes distracting. It might have benefited from another close read during the editing process to clarify some random-seeming point of view shifts that were a little distracting.

This definitely isn’t my favorite of Tor.com’s novellas, but it’s another solid entry into the catalog, and I’m glad to have read it. While it didn’t tickle my fancy as much as Of Sorrow and Such or Binti or Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, it was a nice journey outside my usual sub-genre choices, and it gave me something to think about for the afternoon that I read it.