Tag Archives: Tor.com

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.

Best of 2015: Favorite Books

2015, just objectively, has been an amazing year to be a reader, and it’s highly unfortunate that breaking my foot in May sent me into a reading slump that prevented me from getting to enjoy as much of what was published this year as I hoped to. I came in right at ten books behind on my goal of reading two books a week, and I can think of probably twenty books off the top of my head that I would love to have gotten around to this year.

Still, I made it through over ninety books in 2015, most of them new releases, though I did read a couple of classic sci-fi novels and check out a few things that were being adapted to film or television. While most of what I read was excellent (Yay, me, for making good choices!), there were a couple of disappointments (I’m looking at you, The Dinosaur Lords). It was a good year, and it was tough to pare this list down to a reasonable number of favorites. Obviously, “reasonable” is a subjective term.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin quickly became one of my favorite authors when I discovered her a couple of years ago, so The Fifth Season was one of my most anticipated 2015 releases. Jemisin didn’t disappoint, delivering a new fantasy epic that is both enormous in scope and deeply personal. If only for Jemisin’s mastery of her craft, this is one of the most important novels of the year. There’s very little to say about it without spoiling the whole thing for those who haven’t read it, but I will tell you that it’s the most devastating thing I read in all of 2015. The Fifth Season just destroyed me. In a good way.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

This delightfully original space opera is the only book I read twice this year. It’s a sort of space road trip story told in vignettes that take place over the space of some months on a ship that is traveling to a remote part of the galaxy to drill a wormhole that would connect an unstable but resource-rich planet to a kind of galactic federation. It’s a book about family that exemplifies the old adage that home is where the heart is, but it’s also a book about gender and sex and war and politics and what it means to have humanity. It’s funny, smart, and poignant in turns, and while it’s a book that wears its progressive ideals very much on its sleeve, it never turns sanctimonious.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I had read and enjoyed the first couple of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels some years ago, but hadn’t really followed her work very closely until I saw Uprooted getting an enormous amount of buzz in the early months of 2015. Having pleasant memories of Novik’s earlier books, I thought I’d give Uprooted a try, and I quickly fell in love. Agnieszka is a wonderfully funny and clever heroine, and she’s got a friend, Kasia, who figures largely in the story as well, which is important as it prevents the novel from being a straightforward kind of “Beauty and the Beast” romance. Instead, Uprooted is primarily about a young woman learning her own power, growing up, and finding her place in the world. If you like Robin McKinley, Patricia C. Wrede, Diana Wynne Jones, and Tamora Pierce, you will love Uprooted.

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

Radiance had me at “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery.” You know, if I wasn’t already definitely going to read it because, honestly, I would read the phonebook cover to cover if it had Catherynne Valente’s name on the byline. I will say that I think my opinion of the book suffered a little from my own exceedingly high expectations, but it’s a remarkably ambitious tome that is largely successful in its aims. It’s experimental and literary, but not inaccessibly so, and Valente’s lush prose is always a delight. Valente also published a couple of novellas in 2015—Speak Easy, which is a sort of retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in the 1920s with Zelda Fitzgerald, and Six-Gun Snow White, which had been previously published before but is definitely worth rereading.

Updraft by Fran Wilde

Fran Wilde’s debut is probably my favorite debut of the year. It definitely feels almost more like a YA book than most of the other work I’ve been interested in recently, with its teenaged protagonist and coming-of-age themes. Where Updraft really shines, though, is in bringing to life one of the most unique and interesting fantasy worlds I’ve read about in ages. With a heroine, Kirit, who eschews all of the most common and irritating YA protagonist tropes, it’s an absolutely winning combination and one of the year’s most inventive and original books.

JoWaltonThessalyThe Just City and The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

The Just City was one of the first books I read this year, and I was thrilled to learn that it had a sequel coming out just a few months later. These books, the first two in a planned trilogy, explore what might happen if the goddess Athena gathered thinkers, philosophers, and dreamers from every end of human history to try and build Plato’s Republic on an island in antiquity. Apollo becomes a human so he can learn about equal significance, and Socrates shows up to debate with everyone and instill revolutionary ideas in the community’s robots. If you love philosophy and think that a book whose climax is a lengthy debate between Socrates and Athena sounds good, you should read this series before the final volume arrives in mid-2016.

A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

I didn’t read a ton of epic fantasy this year because I’ve been more focused on reading diversely and broadening my horizons to include more science fiction and more literary work, but I couldn’t help but pick up this one. It’s almost a pastiche, though I’d say it plays most of the regular epic fantasy and grimdark tropes just straight enough to not be altogether outside the genre. That said, A Crown for Cold Silver is definitely a genre-critical and self-aware novel that, at the same time, doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s every bit as violent and bloody and morally ambiguous as The First Law or A Song of Ice and Fire, but with a sense of humor that makes it a much more enjoyable read.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Ken Liu has coined the term “silkpunk” to describe what he’s creating in this first novel in a new trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty, and I’m happy that I’ll be able to look back many years from now and know that I read this stuff before it was “cool.” The Grace of Kings is a captivating mix of Eastern and Western literary and historical influences that is worth reading if only because it’s so unique as a work of epic fantasy. While this first installment in the series is mostly focused on male characters, it’s not devoid of interesting and diverse women who are set to figure more prominently as the series continues. The book itself is a slow starter, but once you get into it you’re almost guaranteed to fall for its rather rakish charm.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor Baru Cormorant has the distinction of being the most technically perfect novel I read in 2015. It’s just, objectively, absurdly good—well-conceived, perfectly paced, tightly plotted, just excellently written overall. It’s also incredibly dark and perhaps a little more pessimistic than I would have preferred in the end, but I think I could forgive this book almost anything because it gave us the character of Baru Cormorant. As I get older, I find that my favorite characters are, increasingly, women of the complex and ruthless variety, and Baru is definitely that. She’s not a woman who I’d ever want to be, but she’s exactly the sort of woman I love reading about.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

This conclusion to Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy was everything I could have wanted it to be. It’s a wildly entertaining and fast-paced finale to one of the most compelling original space operas in recent years, and it manages to wrap up the series in a satisfying way while also leaving plenty of room for sequels—a somewhat likely possibility as the author has said she intends to write more in the Imperial Radch world in the future. While I loved to see how things work out for all my favorite characters from the first two books—Breq, Seivarden, and Tisarwat in particular—Ancillary Mercy introduces a couple of new characters that I found surprisingly endearing. All in all, a solid finish even if it doesn’t quite match the sheer inventiveness of Ancillary Justice.

CixinLiuThree-BodyThe Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

Though The Three-Body Problem was technically a 2014 release, I read it this year after it was nominated for a Hugo Award and then just had to read The Dark Forest when it came out a couple of months later. These might be the most unusual books I read this year as I seldom read translated fiction and had never read anything translated from Chinese before. I’m so glad I did, though. This pair of books were definitely not easy reads—they’re very cerebral, heavy on philosophy, and owe a great deal to a lot of classic “hard” sci-fi that I haven’t read (as well as to a lot of previous Chinese SF that I’m, of course, also not familiar with)—and the fact that the two books have different translators makes them feel subtly stylistically different, almost as if they had two different authors altogether. Even still, they’re some of my favorite reads of the year, if for no other reason than I appreciate the chance to read something written from a perspective and in a context so different from my own. If you do read these, I highly recommend buying them; with any luck, commercial success for this series will encourage the publication of more translated work in the U.S.

Queers DestroyQueers Destroy SF!

I’ve been following Lightspeed Magazine’s Destroy SF projects since their very first Kickstarter, and they really only get better over time. This year, Queers Destroy Fantasy! was by far the best issue of the bunch, but they are all worth checking out. I’ve discovered several new authors in the pages of these magazines; the reprints prove that diverse authors have always been around if you just keep an eye out for them; and the essays and author profiles are fascinating and often powerfully written. 2016 will bring us POC Destroy SF!, with the Kickstarter planned to start in mid-January. In the meantime, it’s not too late to buy the past issues of Women Destroy and Queers Destroy.

Tor.com NovellasTor.com Novellas, Various Authors

Tor.com has been publishing great fiction for years, but this was the first year that they published novellas, and this has been one of my favorite developments in the world of SFF this year. I’ve always loved novella-length work and felt like shorter novels don’t get enough attention, but that seems to be starting to change. The first round of Tor.com novellas was published this fall, and they were all at least good. My favorites were Kai Ashante Wilson’s Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Daniel Polansky’s The Builders, and Angela Slatter’s Of Sorrow and Such. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, Sunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss, and Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell were also strong titles.

Book Review: Genrenauts #1, The Shootout Solution by Michael R. Underwood

Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution is the first in a new series of novellas by Michael R. Underwood that explores and interrogates genre tropes with a premise that is basically like what would happen if the mid-90s television show Sliders got mashed together with the popular fiction section of a Barnes & Noble. It’s a fun idea, and it more or less works.

Leah Tang is a great protagonist who’s funny, smart and resourceful. It’s not often that an Asian-American woman gets to be front and center in a speculative genre, and this makes her a great choice to take the lead in a story that is very overt in its critical examination of genre standards. It’s nice to see Leah’s race and gender considered as positive job qualifications that, along with her background as a stand-up comedian, make her uniquely and especially qualified for the work the Genrenauts are doing.

Starting the series off with a look at the Western genre, which isn’t widely read these days by the under-60 crowd, is an especially smart move on the part of the author. I expect that this is the genre that younger readers will be least familiar with, which makes it a perfect introduction to the Genrenauts world and an ideal backdrop for establishing characters and easing the audience in to some of the deeper ideas that Underwood is concerned with.

As an exploration of genre as a concept and an in-depth look at some of the more widely used tropes of genre fiction, The Shootout Solution feels a little simplistic, though it hints at more sophisticated genre analysis to come. Hopefully, future books in this series will raise the stakes and broaden their scope, as this one never felt particularly dangerous, and the actual solution, when it’s discovered, was obvious and too-heavily telegraphed to surprise anyone with a higher than 101 level understanding of literary criticism.

The author himself has referred to this book as the “pilot episode” of this series, and it definitely reads like one. Much of what we get in The Shootout Solution is worldbuilding, character introductions, and set-up for the rest of the series, so this volume ends up a little light on plot. Like many a promising pilot, The Shootout Solution feels just incomplete enough on its own to make me want to come back for more of the series.

Book Review: Domnall and the Borrowed Child by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Domnall and the Borrowed Child is the definitely weakest of Tor.com’s novellas published to date. It’s not bad, but it’s a little too short and doesn’t have any standout qualities to elevate it above the ordinary.

The story has the kernel of an interesting idea, but it’s not very well-developed, and even just hours after finishing the book I find myself struggling to remember details of it. I like the concept of a faerie people in decline and struggling to survive on the margins of modern society, and this is alluded to throughout the story, but the story is too small and too personal to be really effective at communicating anything substantial about these hinted-at themes. I could see it being a nice fit for a larger collection of work exploring these ideas in greater depth, but it falls a little flat as a standalone tale.

None of the characters are particularly distinguished, and the elderly Domnall’s sexual interest in his young protégé is just plain creepy. Domnall had the potential to be an interesting character, but I just never felt like he truly came alive. The characters that I found truly fascinating were Micol and the human girl the fairies entranced, but neither of these characters gets a point of view in the novella and the human girl doesn’t even get a name. Sadly, what this means is that there are more interesting stories here than Domnall’s, and that knowledge colors the whole experience of reading Domnall and the Borrowed Child.

It’s bad enough reading a dull story; it’s far worse to read a dull story with potentially wonderful stories trapped inside it.