book reviews by Althea

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In The Distance, and Ahead in Time – George Zebrowski ***

This collection was my first introduction to the work of George Zebrowski – perhaps surprisingly, as he’s been writing and publishing for my entire lifetime, has won the Campbell award and been nominated for several others. He’s also the long-time partner of well-known author and editor Pamela Sargent, whose work I’ve been familiar with for some time.

The Water Sculptor –
Working on a tiny orbital station devoted to climate control is an isolated job – but that suits our protagonist here, an ex-astronaut who dreads returning to an overcrowded Earth. His former colleague feels similarly. But space is dangerous.
Nice set-up; a lot of things hinted at and implied about this future, so that the reader really gets a sense of a larger world outside the tiny one that is directly portrayed. But it also felt a bit too short and abrupt.

Parks of Rest and Culture –
‘Blade Runner”s world looks positively hopeful and cheery next to the picture Zebrowski paints here of a similar future. The environment is destroyed. Breathing masks are required to step outside. The wealthy live in sealed arcologies – or off-planet. One man, trapped in a dead-end, routine job and a loveless marriage, is tempted by the ads promising meaningful work outside Earth’s orbit.

Assassins of Air –
In a similar polluted future New York City to the previous story, many things have changed since our day. Other things have not changed, as a young gang member learns when he decides he wants to ‘go straight’ and get a legal job.

The Soft Terrible Music –
Starts off like something by Jorge Luis Borges, and ends up as a sci-fi crime investigation.
A recluse lives in a strange castle in Antarctica. Strangely obsessed with a well-known literature aficionado, he makes up a story about a library of lost books to lure her to become his wife.
However, their relationship, unsurprisingly seems doomed to failure – and hidden layers of motivation are revealed.
I loved the first half, but felt that the later revelations were a little uneven.

The Sea of Evening –
A couple of colleagues engage in a dialogue about the possibility of an emerging AI, and the philosophical corollaries involving first contact with actual alien intelligences.

Heathen God –
A strange little gnomish alien has been a prisoner in a human-run facility for over a century. The little-known secret regarding this inmate is that he is the being who created our solar system and, indeed, humanity as we know it. Obviously, this truth has been hidden due to the religious upheaval potential of this knowledge. But some are scheming to use the truth for their own purposes.

Wayside World –
On a post-apocalyptic colony world, the remnants of human civilisation have degenerated into a life resembling our worst conceptions of cavemen. The strong and brutish survive. Unfortunately, Ishbok is a man who, in our society, would probably have become a nerdy geek. Bullied, and rejected by his love interest, it doesn’t look like there’s much hope for him – until visitors arrive from the skies.

In the Distance, and Ahead in Time –
Here, we find out about another isolated and failing colony world (possibly in the same future and time period as the previous story). The survivors of an abortive arrival on this planet are confined to one plateau, surrounded by an ominous forest full of alien life. The original settlers sought out a simpler life, but for those who don’t refuse to see, it’s clear that things are on a downward slide. The tools they depend on are gradually failing.
You’d think that when visitors arrive, offering a way out, that all would be eager to grab the opportunity – but such is not the case.

Transfigured Night –
This long piece starts out in a very surreal and inaccessible style, but gradually, very similar themes to those in the previous two stories emerge. Far in the future, a group of human have retreated into virtual, solipsistic existences, their experiences bounded only by their imaginations.
Visitors arrive – equally ‘transfigured’ over time – but the new arrivals strongly believe in the value and satisfaction of experiencing objective reality. They try to convince others of their superiority of their philosophy.

Between the Winds –
Nearly identical in set-up to ‘Transfigured Night’ except that this one is written mainly from the perspective of the travellers who come across the ‘host servers’ that contain post-human virtual worlds, rather than concentrating on the inhabitants of those worlds. It’s also written in a much more conventional, accessible style.
The visitors who inhabit ‘reality’ argue about what should be done about these virtual realities: left alone; ‘rescued’ and brought into reality, destroyed? Are the inhabitants really ‘alive’ or merely programs? Is the existence of these worlds a repulsive obscenity – or wildly tempting?

Many thanks to Open Road Media and NetGalley for providing a copy of this book and introducing me to this author. As always, my opinion is solely my own.


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The Accursed – Joyce Carol Oates **

Quite disappointed in this one.

I’ve read a fair amount of Oates’ short fiction, so when this was suggested as a book club selection, I was enthusiastically in favor. However, I enjoyed this book less than anything else of Oates’ I’ve read thus far.

Don’t get me wrong – the book is crafted with consummate skill. If someone told me they absolutely loved it, I couldn’t argue that their feelings were wrong, or that the work is undeserving. A convincing case could easily be made that this is an excellent novel. It’s just not one for me.

Although billed as a ‘gothic’ novel, it felt a bit more like a ‘family saga’ where the ‘family’ is all of Princeton, NJ, in the early 20th century. The story is supposedly being told by an amateur historian in the 1970’s, who is investigating the rumors of a ‘curse’ which affected the characters at that time. The ‘voice’ of the historian is intentionally intrusive, and while the way it’s done is certainly clever, and might be found hilarious by some – I just found it annoying.

However, the most disappointing thing about this work, for me, was not this faux-authorial voice, but the actual authorial voice. Joyce Carol Oates treats every single character in this book with disdain, painting each one in the worst light possible. Whether she’s talking about the (pre-Presidential) university administrator Woodrow Wilson, or the Socialist Upton Sinclair, or a prominent socialite, or the author Jack London – all the characters we meet are bigoted, hypocritical, stupid, venal, insane, or a combination of those and other repulsive qualities. However, rather than feeling like, as readers, we’re getting inside the heads of these flawed characters, we feel like we’re simply being presented with flat caricatures of people.

This caricature-like quality to the book made me feel distanced, and a bit bored, even when extremely dramatic and supernatural events were at hand. Which is not all the time, either. A great deal of the book deals in carefully crafted ambiguities – is there actually a curse at all, or is it all figments of the imagination of paranoid, hostile and high-strung individuals living in a time of racial oppression and sexual repression?

It all wraps up with an ALL-CAPS epilogue which could easily have gotten its point across equally (or more) effectively with one-tenth the verbiage.

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Uprooted – Naomi Novik *****

Best book of the year, so far!

Are you, like me, one of those people who’s been disappointed for years that Robin McKinley never wrote any companion volumes to ‘The Hero and the Crown’ and ‘The Blue Sword’? I don’t think(?) it was intentional on Novik’s part, but there is absolutely nothing in this book to counter my theory that it takes place in the same world, temporally somewhere between the two books, but in a geographically different location – an analogue of Poland.

Of course, the only detail bolstering this theory is that the events of this novel hinge on a grimoire known as ‘Luthe’s Summoning’ – a magic spell created by a wizard named Luthe, which is very much in keeping with what readers know of McKinley’s wizard Luthe.

But – that’s my theory, I like it, and I’m sticking with it. In addition, the ‘feel’ of the book, the writing style, even the nature and dynamics of the relationship between a wizard and his apprentice witch is all very much in keeping with what fans of ‘The Hero and the Crown’ (aka, me) would want.

Agnieszka is a young woman who’s grown up in a small village on the edge of a cursed wood. The wood’s malevolent magic is part of the facts that she takes for granted, as is the reality that every ten years, the local lord, known as Dragon, comes down from his isolated tower and selects a girl to return with him. These girls are not killed, but at the end of their ten-year service, none ever return to their village.

Since childhood, Agnieszka and the rest of the village have pretty much assumed that Agnieszka’s best friend, Kasia, will be the one selected. She is beautiful and talented, and Agnieszka loves her with friendship that borders on hero-worship.

However, events do not turn out the way anyone expected – not even Lord Dragon. Agnieszka discovers previously-unrealized depths to her abilities, and becomes essential in the fight to push back the ever-more-quickly encroaching wood.

Wonderfully done…

Now, I’ve really got to read the other Novik books that I’ve put off getting into, for some reason!

Many, many thanks to Del Rey Spectra and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this book. As always, my opinion is my own.

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Thorn – Intisar Khanani ****

A beautifully-done retelling of ‘The Goose Girl.’

As in the original Grimm brothers’ fairy tale, a princess, on her way to meet her betrothed, is betrayed by her maid, who uses magic to force the two to change places. ‘Thorn’ adds an extra element of magic in that the women don’t just exchange clothes; but actually switch bodies.

Prevented by a curse of speaking of what has been done to her, the princess Alyrra must make the best of her new situation and adjust to living a life of privation and hard labor – like so many of the kingdoms’ subjects take for granted. Luckily, she is an adaptable and resourceful individual – and has the advice of a wise horse to help her through.

However, the story does not shirk from the cruel and tragic elements of the original tale, and Alyrra’s troubles are not at an end, even when she resigns herself to her fate and makes the best of it. Not to mention – does she have a responsibility to the kingdom to make sure that her cruel former maid, now drunk on her new status, does not get the opportunity to keep on deceiving the Prince and grabbing for power?

Fans of this book may also wish to take a look at another take on the story, Shannon Hale’s ‘The Goose Girl.’

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Inside Job – Connie Willis ****

Hilarious little novella based around a paradox:

Can the existence of a disembodied spirit prove that a ‘channeler’ claiming to communicate with spirits is a fraud?

Our protagonist, Rob, is a freelance journalist and professional skeptic. His assistant, Kildy, is a gorgeous and wealthy Hollywood type moonlighting in the field. Rob has a crush on Kildy, but fears she’s far out of his league.

It’s Kildy who’s picked out the latest target for an exposé: The New Age charlatan Ariaura, who channels the spirit ‘Isus’ and sells her adoring audience overpriced swag.
But when Ariaura, mid-lecture, starts spouting shocking and off-script announcements that seems like they could only have come from the mind of the notorious atheist and skeptic H.L. Mencken (deceased), Rob has to worry – is Kildy setting him up?

As expected from Connie Willis, extra-fun.

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Collected Fiction – Hannu Rajaniemi ***

A nice collection which could be a good introduction to Rajaniemi’s work. Mainly science fiction with a splash of Finnish folklore thrown in, the book showcases a greater breadth to the author’s talents than I’d expected, having only read one of his novels previously.

*** Deus Ex Homine
The world is recovering (?) from an AI plague… Computing viruses symbiotically meshed with human intelligence, creating ‘gods.’
Now, a ‘nerd’ who was once a god and now relies on another kind of artificial symbiont, meets up with an ex-girlfriend who has devoted herself to the military battle against monsters like what he once was. Talking out how things ended, unexpected revelations ensue…
Definitely one for those with an interest in transhumanism.

*** The Server and the Dragon
In a distant, lonely reach of space, an isolated AI node follows its programming and sets up shop. However, a corollary of intelligence may be the desire for companionship. Although this ‘server’ is powerful enough to create universes, it may find that it has a very human vulnerability.

*** Tyche and the Ants
A little girl is trying to survive alone in a hostile environment; a desolate moon. She’s trying to follow the last instructions her parents gave her. But an infestation of self-replicating, antlike machines may bring about a paradigm shift… as well as a shift in the reader’s perception of the situation.

****The Haunting of Apollo A7LB
A woman who worked crafting the spacesuits for the 1960s moon missions is nonplussed when one very particular spacesuit turns up at her doorstep one night… with someone in it.
A touching tale of dreams deferred.

***His Master’s Voice
Alone on a floating raft-habitat, a brilliant engineer ‘adjusts’ the intelligence of his pet dog and cat. But tinkering with his animals isn’t what gets him in trouble with the authorities, in this transhumanist future. Funny and truly bizarre.

***Elegy for a Young Elk
A man who has chosen to live in a primitive way, following ancient traditions of hunting – well, except for the fact that he keeps company with a genetically modified bear – receives a visit from his ex-wife, who has chosen another path. She, like most of the people of this future, has chosen a tranhumanist path, after the manmade disaster that destroyed the world we know. And now, she has a favor to ask…

***The Jugaad Cathedral
Reminded me of ‘Ready Player One’ in many of its themes. A young man feels forced to choose between his immersive online role-playing game and his ‘real-life’ friends and social status. The story makes a good argument, that goes against today’s ‘mainstream’ narrative about this kind of issue.

***Fisher of Men
A modern Finnish man comes up against powerful natural forces out of folklore. The story vividly evokes both modern Scandinavian life, and the chthonic forces of ancient tradition.

****Invisible Planets
Written in homage to Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities.’ I haven’t yet read Calvino’s work, but this reminded me very much of  Angélica Gorodischer’s ‘Kalpa Imperial,’ ( which has also been compared to Calvino. The piece consists of descriptions a few vividly imagined and disparate societies, connected by a framing device of an ancient and fractured probe ship, having collected data on its journey for so long that it is no longer sure what is real. Very nicely done.

*** Ghost Dogs
Black dogs are a classic horror element – this story brought to mind both Peter M. Ball’s, “Black Dog: A Biography” and and other tales using this legend (
Normally I’m not a big fan of horror stories that use their supernatural elements as an ambiguous metaphor for the traumas of childhood or strained family relationships – but this story pulls it off with aplomb.

***The Viper Blanket
This is another piece where modern Finnish life meets dark and ancient magic. An elderly man picks up his brother from the nursing home for an annual family reunion. But this event is most likely not like YOUR family reunion (I hope.)

***Paris, in Love
Magical realism/surrealism. A rural Finnish man visits Paris for the first time – and then dreams of the city when he returns home – with remarkable & absurd results.

Almost a 5-star story – but only half of a story. This reads like the first chapter of a brilliant cyberpunk thriller. A group of edgy young people… an exotic, futuristic setting… a suspicious death, and clues left in a startlingly original online environment. I wanted to read the rest!

***The Oldest Game
A man returns to his childhood home, thinking only of death. But in an encounter with the ancient forces of nature that he goes to meet, the result he experiences is unexpected. Nicely contrasts bleakness and vitality.

***Shibuya no Love
Mixed feelings here… on the one hand, I liked the idea of the ‘virtual dating’ gadget/app. It was original, thought-provoking, and believably Japanese. On the other hand, the portrayal of Japan seemed informed by a superficial visit rather than deep knowledge, and although the setting is at a minimum 20/30 years in the future, the fashions and behaviors described seemed very 5-years-ago, rather than futuristic.

****Satan’s Typist
Very brief, but I liked it! There’s a very Clive Barker-esque feeling to this vignette featuring a secretary in Hell.

** Skywalker of Earth
My least favorite in the collection. I felt like this was intended to be a clever, modernized take on Golden Age space opera… but it dragged on a bit, and I just wasn’t that interested in which megalomaniac (if either) would control the Earth.

****Snow White Is Dead
Fascinating concept – this story was originally presented as a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ presentation based on individual readers’ neurological feedback. []
The ‘version’ printed here was the one most popular with ‘test’ readers.
From a purely literary perspective, I actually liked it a lot – I enjoyed the update to the classic fairy tale based on a modern scenario involving cosplaying teenagers from broken homes.
I do wonder what the other ‘options’ were, though…

**Unused Tomorrows and Other Stories
I understand that authors sometimes enjoy the challenge of trying to produce meaningful work within the limits of artificial constraints. However, I have serious doubts about the actual worth of bothering to write a ‘serial’ Twitter story, and the other 140-character “stories” here didn’t really do it for me, either.

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Mother of Eden – Chris Beckett ***

This is apparently a sequel to ‘Dark Eden,’ which I have not read. However, I felt that this book worked perfectly as a stand-alone – I didn’t feel I was ‘missing’ critical information at any point.

‘Eden’ is a colony world – one founded by a small group who apparently stole their ship – the details are lost to history, and hotly contested by different factions of the inhabitants of ‘Eden.’

The original colonists’ descendants are severely inbred, and their way of life has reverted to a primitive, tribal existence. One young woman, Starlight Brooking, is from a tiny, isolated village even more primitive than most of the planet’s settlements.

Starlight’s forebears created her hidden village to find safety and peace away from factional infighting – but Starlight has a deep longing to see more of the world. Will her chafing at boundaries and desire for more out of life end up destroying her community’s hard-won safety?

The book had a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it. There are many vividly original details, but also many familiar elements – such as that of seemingly ‘ordinary’ items being elevated to religious status, the theme of lost knowledge, the exploitation/abuse of alien life, &c. Those who love the sci-fi subgenre of tales of colony worlds will find a lot to enjoy here. I’d recommend particularly for fans of Sheri S. Tepper.

Many thanks to Crown Publishing and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this book. As always, my opinions are solely my own.