book reviews by Althea

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The End is Nigh – John Joseph Adams, ed.

If you liked John Joseph Adams’ ‘Wastelands’ anthology; then this one is a must. The stories range from good to excellent.
This is an independently released anthology, but it’s got the right names behind it and I’d expect it to succeed, because this is a fully professional, high-quality collection.

**** The Balm and the Wound—Robin Wasserman
A cult leader is adept at providing platitudes and fleecing his flock. But after his young son is dropped off at his place; the leader, along with the rest of the doomsday cult, finds himself swept along in a survivalist current, with the boy at the helm. Very nicely done. I really enjoyed the ironic tone.

**** Heaven is a Place on Planet X—Desirina Boskovich
Aliens have arrived; and informed the planet that at the end of the month; everyone will be zapped into oblivion/transported to a distant paradise planet. Everyone, that is, who continues about their business as usual. Enforcers are nominated to shoot anyone who acknowledges that the end is at hand. Eliminating their fellow citizens is hard; but paradise is at stake… or so they believe.

**** Break! Break! Break! —Charlie Jane Anders
Starts off feeling like a high-school-memoir, telling the story of a nerdy stuntman’s kid and an aspiring filmmaker to team up to create a viral Internet sensation. And then it becomes a cautionary tale about how art can be co-opted for political gain… and it gets a lot better.

*** The Gods Will Not Be Chained—Ken Liu
Not bad, but I feel like I expect better from Ken Liu. As far as themes, it starts out with cyberbullying, and has some interesting insights into the uniqueness of communicating with emoji – and gets into the nature of human intelligence vs. AI – rolled into a story that I found a bit more sappy than genuinely moving.

*** Wedding Day—Jake Kerr
A super-contemporary feel to this one. A long-term lesbian couple want to get married, but their long-deferred plans go awry when it’s announced that an asteroid impact will soon devastate America – and only some of our citizens, determined by lottery, will be able to travel to safety in time. Again, a bit sappy, and I really didn’t agree with the conclusion, either.

*** Removal Order—Tananarive Due
What this story made me think about is how very peculiar it is that our society values keeping people alive when they have no hope of recovery from illness, and they are in horrible pain. This story has that situation: a young woman has stayed in an evacuation zone to care for her dying grandmother. The situation is believable, and is dealt with in a sensible manner, but I don’t think I had the empathy with the main character that the author intended.

*** System Reset—Tobias S. Buckell
A hacker and his buddy try to stage a citizen’s arrest of another hacker – one with terrorist tendencies. But they screw things up, an the situation ends up worse than they imagined.

**** This Unkempt World is Falling to Pieces—Jamie Ford
Halley’s Comet is scheduled to sweep by Earth in 1910, and doomsday fever has swept society. Darwin Chinn Qi is a young Chinese man working a menial job at a fancy comet-themed party. Few of the sophisticated partiers seem to really believe the end of the world is at hand… But telling more would be spoiling. Really liked it.

**** BRING HER TO ME—Ben H. Winters
Twenty-odd years ago, pretty much everyone on earth started hearing the voice of God inside their heads, telling them what to do. And what God wants everyone to do now is to commit suicide by poison. However, one girl has been ‘deaf’ to this voice since birth. One of her parents wants to ‘hide’ this defect and give her the poison. The other wants to turn her in to the authority… A much more horror-genre feel to this than most of these stories. The ending is a bit ambiguous – but that’s OK, ’cause it was good and spooky.

*** In the Air—Hugh Howey
A government agent was privy to the knowledge that the government planned on blowing up the vast majority of humans via nanomites in the bloodstream. But he remained silent, and said nothing – and opted to try to save his family. Nice exploration of ethical issues, but the story itself could’ve had a bit more…

*** Goodnight Moon—Annie Bellet
No relation to the Margaret Wise Brown classic kids’ story!
A team of seven researchers on an international moon base discover a huge asteroid heading straight for them. Their emergency shuttle can only hold three, at a pinch. The team must decide who has a chance at life; who will die, and face their fate. It’s an emotionally wrought situation, but stops just short of sentimentality. Still, I wished there was some sort of new twist to this familiar scenario.

*** Dancing with Death in the Land of Nod—Will McIntosh
A pandemic brings an unlikely couple together. Forty-something Johnny helps his aging dad with his failing drive-in theater. Twenty-something Kelly, who never completed nursing school, bonds with him over their mutual inability to get out of their stifling small town. Together, they try to care for the townspeople who’ve been struck by a new, incurable illness.

*** Houses Without Air—Megan Arkenberg
Roommates Beth and Fatima deal with the approaching end of the world through their vocations. Volcanic explosions mean that everyone will soon be suffocating. Beth has been working on an immersive virtual reality experience. Fatima is a well-known artist who creates memorials. OK, but I wanted a little more from it…

*** The Fifth Day of Deer Camp—Scott Sigler
Five buddies on a camping trip are snowed in to their hunting cabin – when a UFO lands right near them. The news lets them know that it’s a large-scale alien invasion. They prepare to try to defend themselves.

*** Enjoy the Moment—Jack McDevitt
Physicist Maryam Gibson is desperate to get her name on a major discovery and cement her scientific reputation. But does anyone really want their name applied to the phenomenon that will be responsible for the end of life on earth?

**** Pretty Soon the Four Horsemen are Going to Come Riding Through—Nancy Kress
Sophie and Cassie’s mom might not be educated herself, but she’s gone out of her way to make sure that her two girls go to a good school. It’s not surprising that her kids get picked on for their old clothes and obvious lack of wealth. The teachers may think that aggressive, older Sophie is the problem, with her tendency toward fighting. However, mom knows that younger, sweet but passive Cassie might be the real problem – and that it could be a bigger issue than anyone’s guessed. The story’s a very effective illustration of how revelations don’t have to come from the halls of academia, but can come from native intelligence and common sense. Not that that will save the world…

***** Spores—Seanan McGuire
Lab worker Megan is known for being paranoid. Her OCD means that she’s always cleaning, and her co-workers and loved ones are on the lookout for her ‘episodes.’ However, just cause you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about. Megan works in a bioengineering lab… and not all of her colleagues share her focus on safety and caution. Excellent, truly horrific story. (I’ve really got to get around to reading Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant’s other work…)

*** She’s Got a Ticket to Ride—Jonathan Maberry
A hired ‘deprogrammer’ specializes in getting young people out of cults. But one particular assignment: extracting an heiress from a doomsday cult, might cause him to see things a bit differently.

**** Agent Unknown—David Wellington
Straight up zombie medical-thriller. Really very good – it’s a prequel to an upcoming novel, and I just might go out of my way to read it when it comes out.

*** Enlightenment—Matthew Mather
Hey! There’s no end-of-the-world here! This is a horror story about a sort of religious group that likes to throw very special dinner parties. It’s quite disturbingly horrific, but it also sounds quite a lot like the premise of Graham Masterson’s ‘Feast’ (aka ‘Ritual.’)

**** Shooting the Apocalypse—Paolo Bacigalupi
One of Bacigalupi’s favorite topics – water shortage. A border conflict, a corpse hung up a a fence, left to animals and the elements. A drug war casualty, or superstitious sacrifice? Two journalists are in search of the story, in hope of a scoop. As always with Bacigalupi, this is really, really well done. The different, contrasting motivations here are played against each other really well – from petty personal arguments to decisions that will have far-reaching consequences – and the agonists are, always, all too human. However, I had mixed feelings about the depiction of journalism as utterly predatory and ultimately selfish. It’s an argument I’ve seen a lot of lately, and I’m on the other side of it.

**** Love Perverts—Sarah Langan
An asteroid is heading for Earth. The chosen few have been issued tickets to get into underground bunkers, where they hope to live and survive for generations. Teenage Tom Crawford’s wealthy family had tickets – but they left him behind. He thinks maybe it’s because he’s gay. His best friend, Jules, never had a chance. A nicely crafted tale of different kinds of love – and how some love is real and true, even when the kinds of love we expect to receive turn out to be false.


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The Kraken King and the Scribbling Spinster – Meljean Brook ***

(Kraken King, #1)

Steampunk romance, hmmmmm?

Well, it was free, it was a ‘teaser’ and I thought I’d give it a try, since the author has some good reviews.

Overall: I liked it! It’s not just romance; there’s some good action going on here.

Geraldine and Helene are traveling via airship to reunite with Helene’s husband. Geraldine is incognito – she doesn’t want anyone to know she’s the popular adventure author Zenobia Fox – OR who her secret-agent brother is. After all, she’s been kidnapped multiple times before. (I assume there are prequels to this story).

However, the airship comes under attack and they have to bail out. Luckily, they’re rescued by a super-hot Asian warlord, Ariq.

Ariq and Zenobia’s meeting-scene was actually pretty hot. Good job.

However, the way the romance began to progress was a bit too typical/conventional. The bad-ass, outside-the-law guy cared a bit too much whether Zenobia was married or not. And the whole ‘misunderstandings caused by lack of communication’ thing felt… done before.

This is not a complete story, so there’s no resolution (or any sex scenes), but since this was a teaser, I wasn’t really expecting either.

I’d read more by the author..

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Loki’s Wolves – K.L. Armstrong **

A middle-grades book. The author is Kelley Armstrong – is the ‘initial’ thing an attempt to sell this book to boys? Aren’t we past that yet?

This story does to Norse mythology what Percy Jackson and the Olympians did to Greek mythology. The book is very, very similar in tone and feel to Rick Riordan’s writing. If you’re a fan; go for it, you will love this. I didn’t – but that’s mainly my personal preference.

A group of American children who are the descendants of the Norse gods are drawn together in a quest to save the world – Ragnarok is approaching. They must form alliances, learn who to trust, and discover their godly powers.

As this is a series; we don’t get around to Ragnarok in this volume – it ends quite abruptly

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Shanghai Sparrow – Gaie Sebold ***

Exceeds expectations!

This book is just pure fun. Eveline Duchen has been orphaned and left to fend for herself on London’s gritty streets. She’s made a life for herself, of sorts – but that’s abruptly turned on its head when a grasping government agent plucks her out of her situation and places her in a school for female spies. Of course, he’s got an agenda. He believes that her uncle was a researcher into the use of Etheric sciences, and that Evvie might’ve inherited an ability that can be harnessed for the use of the British Empire. Little does he know that the real researcher was Evvie’s mother, and that Eveline has no mechanical or magical ability to speak of.

However, she’s got plenty of smarts – and with the help of her new friend Beth; she might even be able to figure out who – if anyone – she can trust.
The tale mixes magic and faerie lore with steampunk elements in a way that I found reminiscent of M.K. Hobson. This book is a must for her fans, as well as fans of Gail Carriger, Leanna Hieber and even Kage Baker’s ‘Nell Gwynne’ stories. It’s got fast-paced action, some good twists and turns, and although it’s got a super-attractive, enigmatic Chinese tutor, it avoids tired romance tropes. Like I said, it’s a fun, quick read – with a bit of the feminism and anti-colonialist sentiment that’s de rigueur for any entry into the steampunk genre.

My one quibble: from the title, I expected a Chinese setting. We don’t get to China until 87% of the way through the book, and it’s only a very brief visit (speedy airship travel is convenient). There aren’t even any well-developed regular Chinese characters in the book. Maybe this aspect will be further expanded on in some sequels (it’s a nice opening), but as it stands, in no way was the Chinese trip necessary to the plot, and the brief scene in Shanghai felt quickly sketched out.

However, the London setting felt vivid, the characters’ ‘voices’ were convincing, and even the villains were reasonably well-drawn, with believable motivations (always a good thing). I’d definitely like to seek out Sebold’s two previous books.

Copy provided by NetGalley & Solaris books; in return for an honest review.

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They Shall Begin Again – Giacomo Papi ***

Not bad. From the brief description I’d read I was expecting a zombie novel, but the scenario pictured here is more like the resurrection at the Day of Judgement – except that there is no judgement.

An old man is found naked and creating a disturbance in a grocery store. The protagonist, a doctor who happens to be at the scene, gets him taken in to the hospital. After some investigation the authorities are flabbergasted to find that the man’s story seems to be true: he is who he says he is – and he died thirty years ago.

But the elderly man is just the beginning. The dead are rising up, just as they were when they died, but in fresh, vigorous new bodies. Not just the recently-deceased but ancient ancestors are turning up, and they’re arriving in exponentially-increasing waves. The situation soon cannot be kept under wraps, and an emergency conference is called to try to find a solution to the problem: the Earth cannot sustain all the people who ever lived, simultaneously.

The doctor leaves his pregnant girlfriend to attend the conference, against her protests. And while they’re separated, civilization may come to a point of collapse.

The translation here is not top-quality; there are quite a few problems with it. Many of the technical errors I’m submitting to the publisher; so hopefully it’ll soon be cleaned up a bit. However, it’s immeasurably better than the other translated Italian book I recently tried reading from Open Road. The author’s voice definitely comes through, and there are some lovely, absorbing passages here. In tone (though not style), it even occasionally reminded me of Jose Saramago’s Blindness/Seeing duology. (Interestingly, this book seems, on the face of it, to have a lot in common with Saramago’s novel “Death with Interruptions,” which I haven’t read.)

However, the book also has some weaknesses. The major plot events seem to occur more for the sake of their symbolism than out of a convincingly argued logical sequence of events. The ending is remarkably inconclusive – again, with an event picked for symbolism rather than actually tying up the plot points. (The whole thing with the dead deciding to organize and slaughter pregnant women was what really didn’t convince me; it just seemed to be about the concept of the dead versus the living, rather than working from an idea of how a whole bunch of unconnected displaced persons would really behave. And ending the book with a birth and the whole “the end is a beginning” bit was nice and all – but the actual plot wasn’t wrapped up.)

The book overall fits in nicely with other recent entries into the post-apocalyptic genre – I belong to a post-apocalyptic book club, and will be recommending it to them.

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To Ride A Rathorn – P.C. Hodgell ***

(Kencyrath, #4)

Fourth in the series… got motivated to read this by picking up the seventh. But I’m still missing two…

In this segment of the tale, Jamethiel has been named by her brother, the Highlord Torisen, as his heir. She’s also escaped the halls of highborn women, and enrolled in the demanding randon college of Tentir, to be trained in martial arts.

However, although she’s achieved these goals, things are still hard for her. She has enemies at the school, and many do not take her unusual position seriously, mostly because she’s a woman, but also because of who she is, and her family history.

In addition, she seems to be pursued by an enigmatic rathorn colt (a carnivorous, armored horse), and strange visions and supernatural visitations follow her…

I felt that this book has passages of true beauty and brilliance. However, as whole, it feels a bit unfocused. It does read more like a segment of a larger tale, rather than a self-contained story. And often, what was ‘real’ and what was supposed to be a vision or nightmare got a bit hazy and confusing – intentionally so, but I still felt that it detracted from my reading experience. The pacing was sometimes slow and uneven. However, when it honed in on Jamethiel’s experiences at the school, I quite enjoyed it.

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Reign of Ash – Gail Z. Martin **

(Ascendant Kingdoms, #2)

The second in the series, directly following the cliffhanger ending of ‘Ice Forged.’ I’d recommend beginning with the first one.

Here, Blaine McFadden, the last living Lord of the Blood, has accepted that he is likely the only man who has a chance to restore the magic than his civilization depends on. Therefore, gathering his friends around him, he embarks on a quest to find the thirteen disks that were held by the original thirteen Lords of the Blood when the magic was harnessed to men’s will.
Assisting him are cryptic clues inserted into his companion Connor’s mind by the enigmatic mage Vigus Quintrel.
Opposing him is the vicious bastard lord Pollard and his ally, the vampire Reese.
Luckily, McFadden’s also got a powerful vampire (and his followers) on his side: Penhallow.

The plot progression felt very much like watching someone play a videogame: collect these tokens, figure out this clue, defeat these monsters. On to the next level… Collect another token, get past this obstacle, have another clue revealed. Time for a battle…

If you’re into this kind of thing, your mileage may vary. The first book was firmly within the familiar tropes of the fantasy genre, but this one, I found even more predictable. For me, it got tedious well before I got to the end (and it’s quite long – over 650 pages.) I also found myself annoyed that the only female main character in the story, Kestel, who was the coolest part of the first book, here gets relegated to the position of love interest – and thus lost my interest.

I wanted more – the drama between Blaine and his family members at their unexpected reunion is interesting, but not fully explored. I wanted more about the villains’ motivations. I wished all the characters were more rounded; not just “I’m a thief! Whenever I see a lock, I’m just itching to pick it!” or “I’m a beautiful gypsy! I will constantly hint darkly about the visions that come to me in dreams!” (etc.)

There’s another book in the series coming, but I was glad to find that this installment ends on a much more satisfactory conclusive note than the previous book did.

Advance copy provided by NetGalley in return for an honest review.