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book reviews by Althea


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Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds

Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds
Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great Wall of Mars
A really complex scenario for a short story, but it works, with a good core narrative and glimpses of a coherent larger universe and history outside it.
A small group of implant-enhanced humans is holed up in a Martian colony, under threat from a vastly larger force who view their actions – attempts to ‘escape’ – as military provocations. Two brothers are part of that larger force. One, motivated by revenge, wants war. The other, a former POW, insists on going down for peace negotiations.
An interesting entry into the transhumanist genre, and a nice introduction to this universe.

Weather
Due to this book’s formatting, I wasn’t immediately certain I had started a new story. ‘Weather’ is in the same universe as ‘Great Wall of Mars,’ but set a few generations later.
Out in deep space, a stroke of luck allows a crew to repel a pirate attack. From their attacker’s drifting hulk, the victors reluctantly rescue a young woman who’s a ‘Conjoiner’ – a member of a borg-like, ‘post-human’ collective who are both feared and hated – even as they make the best starship engines to be found anywhere.
One crewman becomes her advocate, trying to protect her from his captain’s seemingly irrational animosity toward the refugee…

Beyond the Aquila Rift
There’s a reason this is the title story! Great sci-fi!
Thom is the captain of a small ship doing a routine cargo run, along with his two crewmates. Although the run – and indeed, all of human civilisation – depends on the wormhole-like routes between stars that are assumed to be the remnants of some long-lost alien civilisation, the use of these routes has become pretty much taken for granted. Sure, there are occasional glitches, but interstellar travel is now as safe and reliable as airline travel is today. The worst that usually happens when a glitch occurs is a minor delay. The crew might be disappointed to make it home late to their families, and pissed off to not receive their bonus pay.
And within these pages, unfortunately for Thom, is a situation where a glitch occurs.
The story does a great job of setting up a completely plausible scenario… and then just wrenching the reader’s perspective dizzyingly. Loved it.

Minla’s Flowers
A solo captain on a mission unexpectedly falls out of warp drive near an unknown system. In search of repairs, he finds a planet which has been out of touch with the rest of human civilization for millennia. His visit seems almost like a pastoral idyll, a time-out from the larger universe of vicious war with nasty aliens – until he discovers that this planet is running on borrowed time: a ‘natural’ disaster looms in the near future.
What he chooses to do next will affect the fate of the entire planet…
A sadly believable, but ultimately satisfying tale.

Zima Blue
Famous galaxy-wide, an artist is known for his use of one particular shade of blue. Now, he’s announced that he’ll be retiring – but he has one last work to unveil. Journalists and media have flocked to the location, but he’s denied interviews to everyone… except one.
But when she meets the artist, it seems that rather than his work, he wants to talk to her about the gadget she uses to record her memories.
Where the story goes from there is profoundly disquieting – and very interesting.

Fury
Works nicely as a thematic companion to the previous story (‘Zima Blue.’)
For millennia, the Emperor of the known universe has ruled justly and wisely. His intellect cannot be confined to one mere human body, so when one of his host of cloned bodies is assassinated, it’s no big deal… seemingly. But his faithful retainer, who’s been at the Emperor’s side for longer than even he can remember, is compelled to find out who was behind the act of violence, and what the motivations could have been.
What he finds is not what he expected.
The ending is… strange.

The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice
Fleeing a bad situation on a rough-and-tumble spaceport, a young man takes the first and only option available to him – a job as a doctor’s assistant on a ship he knows nothing about except that it’s leaving immediately. The surgeon – well, let’s just say he’s no Dr. McCoy, and soon enough our ‘hero’ realizes that he may have jumped out of a frying fan into a fire.
Classic sci-fi – and excellently done.

The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter
Although the sci-fi elements emerge from this story, it starts out with almost a traditional fantasy feel, as a poor village girl tries to avoid abuse from her father’s boss’ son as she runs an errand to the home of the old woman who’s known – and feared – locally, as a witch. At the witch’s house, the girl will receive a way to defend herself – and secrets will be revealed about not only her people’s history, but what they may face in the future.

Diamond Dogs
EXTREMELY similar premise to Algis Budrys’ ‘Rogue Moon.’
As in that story, a mysterious extraterrestrial structure is discovered which seems to be designed to challenge all those who enter it – and failures are destroyed. As in the other story, exceptional contenders are recruited, and ‘duplicate’ bodies are considered as a possible method of solving the puzzle.
The main differences are that this story is not at all sexist, unlike Budrys’, and that this piece focuses on telling a good story, rather than spouting off on random theories about ‘manliness.’ (Although, this one does indeed have something to say about what constitutes “hu-manliness.”)
I have read that this is part of Reynolds’ ‘Revelation Space’ writings, and it is clearly presented as a single incident in the life of a character who undoubtedly appears in other books.

Thousandth Night
In an extreme far-future, humanity has spread throughout the galaxy, splitting and dividing into different cultures and civilisations, adapting itself to wildly multifarious forms of existence. One strand of humanity originated with one individual in the distant past. Cloning herself, she then sent her clones out to range the stars, exploring and pursuing their separate interests. But at set times, they all return to share their experiences and memories. It’s become an ancient tradition.
But at this one reunion, two of these posthuman individuals, who are especially close to one another, begin to suspect that someone is breaking the rules – and that something is being hidden from them. Investigating the omissions and disparities will uncover something bigger than they could have guessed.
A nice example of an accessibly-sized story set against an epic backdrop.

Troika
Once a cosmonaut, now an inmate at a mental hospital, our protagonist escapes his confinement for a final mission: to find an aging, discredited astronomer and deliver something to her.
His reasons are gradually explained in flashbacks to his notorious mission: a brave expedition to investigate what might be an alien construct which has suddenly appeared in orbit around our sun. Its strange, layered structure lends it the nomenclature: Matryoshka. Three Russian cosmonauts hope to penetrate its layers and discover invaluable data – but what they discover will not bring them the fame and glory they hoped for.
Unusually for this collection, the setting here is extremely near-future and the plot is anchored firmly in the current concerns of our world. Honestly, I felt that the tone of the story verged on negative propaganda (not that I’m any huge fan of Russia, but…). However, it was written well enough for me to forgive its slant.

Sleepover
My favorite one in this collection so far. ‘Sleepover’ takes a familiar sci-fi theme and does something totally unexpected with it.
Our protagonist, formerly the billionaire CEO of a technology company, awakes from medical cryosleep expecting what he had asked for when he paid handsomely for the procedure: that he’s hibernated until the secret of immortality – or at least, life extension – has been discovered. But the dingy room and disrespectful attendants don’t seem like part of the bright, shiny and wealthy future he expected.
He’s been revived for a reason, and, he realizes, as he discovers the gritty, decaying off-shore oil rig he’s on, in rough Patagonian waters, it’s not a glamorous reason. But, it could be meaningful…

Vainglory
An artist is unexpectedly approached by a private investigator, bringing up an incident which she had thought long past and forgotten – and really, unimportant to anyone except herself, as a bit of a romantic embarrassment. But there were unforeseen consequences to that commission she did for a wealthy and untrustworthy playboy. And now the investigator has a threat to make – or is it an offer?

Trauma Pod
Military Sci-fi horror! And it really is quite horrifying. Seriously injured on a devastated battlefield where the main combatants are massive robots, a soldier has been bundled into a medical pod for emergency treatment. Advanced telemedicine lets him know that while the damage is severe, help is on the way. But is the doctor keeping vital information from him?
I guarantee you’re going to come away from this one with an unpleasant feeling about technology.

The Last Log of the Lachrymosa
Another really-quite-horrific sci-fi story. The narrative intercuts between a scene which seems to be a crewmember doing something quite awful and definitely mutinous to her former captain, and a past narrative in which we gradually find out why. Apparently, the small crew – two hired spacers, the captain, and his rather horrible pet monkey – are treasure-hunters, so when they find an old wreck in a remote corner of space, they investigate in hopes of finding a big score. But the body of the downed spacer is mysteriously missing, and the nearby volcano seems to be emanating bad vibes. What they find is definitely not going to make their fortunes…

The Water Thief
Wow. Great story. The themes and treatment remind me of Paolo Bacigalupi.
A woman in a refugee camp scrapes by, earning a living for her daughter and herself by working freelance jobs where she operates robots through VR.
A situation in her camp where an individual is ‘apprehended’ for stealing water rations is neatly paralleled by a dilemma she must face on one of her jobs, when, for the first time, she experiences through VR the lunar colony she’s dreamed of as a symbol of success and escape.
A difficult and thought-provoking example of the intersection of – and conflicts between – compassion, justice, and ethics.

The Old Man and the Martian Sea
Even on Mars, teenagers go through the same angst, for the same reasons. Family conflict spurs one young teen, Yukimi to run away from her home in a colony on the half-terraformed planet by stowing away on an unmanned cargo transport – which turns out to be a supremely bad idea. Luckily, she encounters a solitary, elderly worker at a remote delivery drop-off point. The encounter could shift the girl’s perspective on several things she had taken for granted. Poignant and thoughtful.

In Babelsberg
Eh, this one was good, but probably my least favorite in the collection. I wouldn’t have chosen it as the finale to the anthology. The narrative balances absurdity with sci-fi’s tradition distrust of robots. Our main character is an AI in an android body, back from an exploration mission of the outer solar system. He’s got celebrity status, and is booked to appear on a series of ridiculous popular talk shows. There’s a newer, equivalent AI space probe who’s recently been introduced, and the media is eager to play up an imagined rivalry… or, is it imagined?

I really can’t explain why, but this collection was my first introduction to Alaistair Reynolds work. I’m impressed – this is good stuff! Many thanks to Subterreanean and NetGalley for encouraging me to discover an author I really ought to have been reading long before this! As alwasy, my opinions are solely my own.

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The Graveyard Apartment – Mariko Koike **

The Graveyard Apartment
The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Early in this book, there’s an aside, which I had to wonder if it was added by the translator, that Western people might not find it terribly scary or abnormal to live in the vicinity of a graveyard, noting that many people regard them similarly to lovely parks. This definitely describes my attitude; I would regard a home with a view looking out on a graveyard to be more desirable, not less.
Although I’ve visited Japan, asking people what they thought of living near cemeteries never came up in conversation. This book makes the presumption that it’s shocking, no one would do it unless they had to, friends will comment upon it, and that condos near the cemetery would sell at roughly half the price of what an equivalent home would elsewhere. Is this true? I don’t know. I google-mapped one random cemetery in Japan, and it looked like residential streets were directly abutting it.

However, for the purposes of the story I said, “OK, we will just accept that this is a very undesirable and spooky location.” So, my rating has nothing to do with whether or not living near a graveyard is spooky, or not. (After all, the premise was obvious from the title.)

Married couple and their young daughter move into the condo that ends up being called the “Graveyard Apartment.” The building is half-empty (and soon gets emptier); the neighbors, eccentric. Although, on the face of it, the family looks ‘perfect,’ the relationship is haunted (in the non-supernatural way) by the ghost of the husband’s former wife, and both partners’ guilt about what happened to end that relationship. Soon, spooky events start happening around the building, and they get a bad feeling about the place – especially the basement. Unfortunately, they sank their life savings into this condo, and don’t have the resources to get a new place. (Buyers aren’t exactly lining up to move in while everyone else is moving out.) Gradually, their isolation escalates, and strange events start getting harder to ignore or explain away.

The set-up isn’t bad. However, after that, the book just doesn’t pull it together. It ends up feeling like the author followed the basic form of a bad “B” horror movie, without paying any attention to the logical (or mythological) underpinnings of typical events in the genre. The end result is a non-scary random mish-mash. My issues with how things play out: SPOILER DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK. (view spoiler)

Many thank to Thomas Dunne Books and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this recently-translated book. As always, my opinions are solely my own.
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Alive and Home Here (Tremontaine S5E5) – Alaya Dawn Johnson ***

Alive and Home Here
Alive and Home Here by Alaya Dawn Johnson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lots of dueling going on this ‘season’!
And we learn that this may not be the first time that the swashbuckling Vincent and the lovely ambassador from Chartil may have engaged in ‘swordplay’…

I found the bickering between Kaab and Tess, and Kaab’s increasing homesickness/culture shock, as manifested by her complaining about food, less engaging.

Meanwhile, investigations continue into who could be behind the mysterious warehouse thefts, and Diane knocks down another ninepin…

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All That Glitters (Tremontaine S3E4) – Joel Derfner ***

All That Glitters
All That Glitters by Joel Derfner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Diane weaves her spider’s webs in her goal to become Duchess of Tremontaine in her own right. Other schemers unwittingly become her puppets, and the innocent are endangered by her carefully laid snares.

Meanwhile, the ‘true loves’ of both Kaab and Rafe are assailed by new and exotic temptations. Will their romantic loyalties erode and crumble?

We won’t find out in this episode… on to the next!

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San Juan Noir – Mayra Santos-Febres, ed.

San Juan Noir
San Juan Noir by Mayra Santos-Febres

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I saved this one up to read in San Juan…
Not all the stories are really what one would strictly categorize as ‘noir’ but the common thread linking these pieces that the editors seemed to be looking for is murder. Therefore, the glimpse this anthology by all-Puerto Rican authors as a whole gives into Puerto Rican culture is by necessity not quite as broad as it could be, and focuses on the negatives. But I enjoy darker fiction, so….

Janette Becerra – Death on the Scaffold.
When a person has fallen into a reclusive lifestyle, even small encounters can gain a magnitude of importance. This high-rise condo dweller encounters a window washer… and it will lead to finally admitting a terrible truth.

Manolo Núñez Negrón – Fish Food.
Memoir-ish. Two boys, best friends, take different paths in life.

Tere Dávila – The Infamy of Chin Fernandez
The ‘Barrio Obrero ‘ panty snatcher has finally been caught!

Ana María Fuster Lavín – Two Deaths for Angela
Woman accidentally pushes date into traffic and things get weirdly surreal.

Mayra Santos-Febres – Matchmaking
A hit man doubts whether he can go through with his latest assignment: a beautiful cartel boss. Turns out, that’s not what he needs to worry about.

Luis Negrón – Dog Killer
When a gang member is ordered to kill his partner’s brother, he has to obey orders. But the dog is a complication.

Wilfredo J. Burgos Matos – St. Michael’s Sword
A tough guy prostitute tries to find out who shot him… and also to find his missing lover.

Manuel A. Meléndez – A Killer Among Us
Very authentic-feeling, almost like a memoir. A boy gets his revenge on his abusive father.

Alejandro Álvarez Nieves – Sweet Feline
All the hotel workers want to wait on a guest who’s throwing around money like there’s no tomorrow. But one will get screwed over.

Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro – Things Told While Falling
A man glimpses a crime scene from a landing plane and is bizarrely drawn to investigate the murder, inappropriately inserting himself into the situation.

Ernesto Quiñonez – Turistas
After his mother’s death, a man goes to San Juan seeking the father he never knew.

José Rabelo – Y
High school teacher goes looking for his missing star student… with submerged and conflicting motivations.

Edmaris Carazo – Inside and Outside
Incomplete feeling. A woman accompanies her boyfriend as they attend a party, he completes a drug deal… and then there’s an accident.

Charlie Vázquez – Death Angel of Santurce
A prostitute is stood up by her ‘date’…. what happens after that doesn’t end well, but it’s left up to the reader to decide what really did happen. A touch of the supernatural? You can decide. This was my favorite entry.

Many thanks to Library Thing and Akashic Books for the copy of this books. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Autumn Princess, Dragon Child – Lian Hearn (DNF)

Autumn Princess, Dragon Child
Autumn Princess, Dragon Child by Lian Hearn

DNF at 24%, no rating.

I really want to like this story more than I do. I read the first one, and convinced myself that I would get more into it if I just gave the second one a chance… but it’s not happening. I had it sitting around a few months and just wasn’t compelled to start it – and now I’m not feeling compelled to finish it.

The events here follow directly upon those of ‘Emperor of the Eight Islands’ – I read that this ‘Tale of Shikanoko’ was actually written as one story and divided into parts by the publisher, and that seems entirely likely.

At this point, Shikanoko has become an adult warrior, but after a defeat, he has returned to his sorcerous mentor – who gives him the responsibility of raising five magical children, who are partly his offspring. Meanwhile, plenty of other events are going on with other characters – plots, jostlings for power, disinheritings, &c. It’s the *sort* of story I like, but I find the narrative style very distancing – at no point do I feel drawn into the action, emotionally involved, or like I’m inside any of the characters’ heads. Obviously, I’m in the minority here… many people love this book, so it’s probably just me. But life is short, and books are numerous…

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A City Dreaming – Daniel Polansky ***

A City Dreaming
A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Our protagonist, M, is an ancient sorcerer of unimaginable power. M is also a Brooklyn slacker/hipster, with no particular concrete goals. He’s in with The Management, and things tend to go his way and fall into his lap. Most of the time. Not all of the time. Because among the secret societies and hierarchies of magical New York City, not all is always peaches and cream, or craft beer and sex with models.

I ended up really enjoying this roughly-chronological set of linked short stories. I had a few reservations: I’m really not a Brooklyn hipster and don’t want to be, and there were more than a few moments where I felt like “M” was the wish-fulfillment version of the author, and all the supporting characters were probably based on his friends, and it got just a bit too precious. There were also a few bits where I had to say, “no, you got that bit wrong.” (If you walk through Brooklyn toward the Verrazano Bridge, you hit fancier neighborhoods, not more dilapidated ones.) But those moments were outweighed by the reminders of how it felt to be new to New York City and the sense of potential, of discovery, of not knowing what was ten blocks that way or outside the next subway stop. It’s also really very funny in many places – and more often than not, it gets NYC right.

I do have to say though, this city has been my home for about 25 years now, and I think a lot of my enjoyment rested on that sense of recognition. It’s hard for me to say how it would hold up for readers who weren’t familiar with the city. (On the other hand, if you ARE a Brooklyn hipster, this is one you really truly should not miss.) But, just for myself, I liked it, and much more than the previous piece I read by Polansky. Will definitely give him another try after this one!

Many thanks to NetGalley and Regan Arts for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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