book reviews by Althea

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Miranda and Caliban – Jacqueline Carey ***

It’s been a Tempestuous season, with the release of Margaret Atwood’s ‘Hag-Seed’ (…), and then Carey’s ‘Miranda and Caliban.’
The authors’ takes on Shakespeare’s tale couldn’t be more different, however. Where Atwood went for a humorous modern parallel, Carey’s tale is earnest.

The main viewpoint is that of Prospero’s young daughter, Miranda. Marooned on an island with her father, her life has been marked by isolation. She hasn’t questioned her father’s authority, or his agenda. But when the wizard captures the wild boy, Caliban, and imprisons him in their home as a kind of experiment, gradually the walls of everything Miranda has taken for granted will start to crumble.

The point of view shifts between the two young people, as they gradually get to know one another – and the emotions that one would expect to arise when you have two young humans alone together predictably develop. Unfortunately for young love, Prospero has other plans for Miranda. He certainly doesn’t plan to see his daughter wed to someone he considers a savage when he has plans to use her as a tool; a critical part of his grand scheme for personal revenge. And it’s hard to keep young love a secret when the unpredictable and resentful sprite Ariel is around.

It’s not a bad book, and I liked its focus on humanizing Caliban. However, I’m less enthusiastic regarding de-emphasizing the wonderful political scheming and mad twists and turns of the original Tempest in favor of a gradual and drawn-out love story. That’s simply a personal preference.

Many thanks to Tor and NetGalley for the opportunity to read.


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Dust – Hugh Howey ***

I loved ‘Wool.’
With ‘Shift,’ some cracks started appearing in the silo of my enthusiasm, but I carried on happily.
With ‘Dust’ – well, I felt that Howey was coasting on his momentum; using up the supplies that the previous stories had squirreled away in the storeroom.

It’s not terrible… but neither does it feel necessary. Moreover, I felt really disappointed with a major part of the resolution of the story. One of the things I really, really liked about Wool was that **MAJOR SPOILER** [well, I’ve read an awful lot of post-apocalyptic stories where survivors are holed up in their bunker, dome, fallout shelter or what have you, until they’ve forgotten why they’re there and how long they have to stay there. The VAST majority of these stories feature Our Characters discovering that the outside world is livable after all, and venturing out to live in it. Wool didn’t do that. Characters went outside – and they died. It was great. At the end of Dust, Howey does a 180 and… does it. Out we go to a beautiful new society! (hide spoiler)]As I said, disappointing.

In addition, a GREAT number of the details and plot points in Dust feel retrofitted; even more so than in Shift. It wasn’t all planned out in advance; Howey clearly never intended to go so far with this world. He wrote himself into a situation, and then kept coming up with more character intentions and technical details; trying to fit them into the already-published canon. Some bits work better than other bits… but it’s obvious. And some of the critical details that the plot hinges on really make very little sense.

It’s still quick-moving and entertaining… it just starts to crumble a bit if you stop too long to question the whys and wherefores. It would’ve been wiser to just not explain many of these things, and leave them as eternal mysteries, rather than come up with kludges.

I can’t help wishing, having finished it, that Howey had let this story stop at the end of ‘Wool’ – alone, it would’ve stood as a classic. 

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers *

The sequel to this was a Hugo nominee, so I figured I’d start with the first one, and requested it from the library. Well, maybe the sequel was a lot better, but unless I am assured of such a circumstance by a large and passionate crowd; I’m unlikely to bother to find out.

“The Long Way…” is a concept piece. It’s a reaction to traditional space opera. In a “normal” sci-fi adventure, the scrappy crew of the “Wayfarer” would end up getting pulled into some kind of conflict bigger than themselves; something with universe-spanning ramifications; and would team up to defeat the enemy against overwhelming odds; regardless of the traitor in their midst… (Think Millennium Falcon, Han Solo, Lando Calrissian.)

Becky Chambers has decided to make a point of telling a different story. One where no universe-shattering events happen; one where colleagues might be annoying but not actually evil; one where secrets turn out to be pretty mundane and have no meaningful effect when revealed. One where people spend most of their time worrying about things that aren’t really important and doing boring crap.

Now, I often very much enjoy stories that get “down to earth” and talk about what it’s like to actually LIVE as an ordinary person in an imagined society: character-driven stories. I see other reviews of this book raving about the characterization here. I wasn’t feeling it. I found the characters to be flat and stereotypical. The protagonist, Rosemary, didn’t intrigue me at all. The captain is a generic “nice boss guy.” Jenks is your stereotypical nerd guy. Lovey exists to show that AIs are people too. Some aliens and disabilities just to show that aliens and the disabled are people too. And let me not forget Kizzy the WACKY engineer gal who is (supposed to be) just SOOO ENDEARING! (God, I wished she was real so that I could literally strangle her.) And of course Corbin the biologist who’s the cranky loner who no one really likes ’cause he likes his privacy and isn’t wholly on board with the social lovefest that’s life aboard the Wayfarer. (I could relate, considering – but you’re not supposed to, dear readers! APPLAUD when he gets dragged into the fold and drinks the kool-aid, dammit!)

There is a scene with pirates in this book. Even the pirates are reasonable and fairly “nice.” Nothing much happens. There technically IS a plot device, but it’s utterly forgettable. I mean, I genuinely don’t remember what it was already.

If you work in an office, or live in a shared apartment with several roommates: imagine if someone wrote daily letters to their parents about your office politics or quotidian household drama; making sure to not include anything too upsetting or serious. That’s what reading this book is like. Chatty… and dull.

I initially gave it two stars, but upon consideration, after the fact, I’m downgrading it to one, because not only did I not enjoy the book; I object to it on principle. I want my gritty betrayals and world-smashing explosions, dammit!

Addendum: I see others comparing this book to both Ursula LeGuin (?!?!?) and Star Trek. For the record, I am an enthusiastic fan of both LeGuin and ST, and disagree strongly with both comparisons.

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The Boy on the Bridge – M.R. Carey ****

I saw there was a new MR Carey book coming out and requested it from my library without reading anything at all about it. So I was delighted to find out when it arrived that it’s a direct companion to “The Girl With All The Gifts.”

In this post-apocalyptic future, humans are losing ground against the “Hungries.” Fortified pockets of uninfected humans are falling to the zombie plague. In a last-ditch, desperate effort to find a cure – or any strand of hope to cling to – a mission has been sent out: an armored vehicle, containing the best remaining scientists, and a contingent of muscle to guard and protect the brains.

However, as so often happens in this kind of scenario, humans can be their own worst enemies, even in the face of a dire external threat.

Back at home base, politics and plots may be the downfall of the only safe haven they have to return to. And even aboard the “Rosie” (the armored tank/mobile lab) the mission is split into two groups that fail to respect each others’ strengths.

One of the bones of contention is Stephen Greaves – the ‘boy’ of the title. He’s part of the mission at Dr. Samrina Khan’s insistence. As the only epidemiologist they’ve got, her wishes have got some weight behind them. But no one else really believes that Stephen is a genius who invented the beta-blocker lotion that allows them to ‘hide’ from the Hungries. From his behavior, he comes across as closer to retarded than to brilliant. As readers, privileged to be given insight into Stephen’s perspective, we realize that a scientific breakthrough by the boy is probably humanity’s only hope. But will his teammates recognize his value before it’s too late?

While I really liked the book, I also thought that Stephen – the main character – was unfortunately the story’s main weakness. It’s really, really hard to pull off an “autistic genius” character, and rather than feeling like an accurate glimpse into the mind of a brilliant but neuroatypical individual, it ended up kind of feeling like Stephen was “magic” – more of a pending deus-ex-machina than a real person.

That said, the book is wonderfully written, with plenty of tension, thought-provoking content, a good mix of cynicism and hope – and some great surprises along the way.

Fans of ‘The Girl Will All the Gifts’ may enjoy the parallels between the two stories.

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Shift – Hugh Howey ****

Read this follow-up to “Wool” for post-apocalyptic book club.

‘Shift’ contains three parts, ‘Legacy,’ ‘Order,’ and ‘Pact.’ Each is also available as a separate publication, but I recommend the omnibus edition. I also recommend reading ‘Wool’ first, even though the events here precede it chronologically. If you’ve read ‘Wool’ you know the scenario: survivors of a mysterious apocalypse living in massive underground silos, struggling to survive in the face of social oppression, dwindling resources and mechanical decay. In ‘Shift,’ we get to find out how it all happened.

‘First Shift – Legacy’ shifts (haha) between two perspectives. In the near future, junior politician Donald (an unfortunately distracting choice of character name – who would’ve guessed?) is tasked by his mentor with work on a secret project. Donald was an architect before he went into politics, and Senator Thurman wants him to design a massive bomb shelter. The job takes him away from the side of his wife, and puts him into uncomfortable proximity to his college ex- (Thurman’s daughter) – but he can’t say no, as Thurman was responsible for getting Donald elected.
This story is intercut with a glimpse into the future world of the Silos. In Silo One, “Troy” awakes and is given the job of IT Supervisor. Troy is oddly unable to remember many things about his past, but he knows the scenario: the men of Silo One are responsible for overseeing all 50 silos. They wake for shifts of work, and after a few months, return to cryosleep. The situation is psychologically draining, and not everyone can hack it…
Of course, the reader knows that the two narratives must be connected, but it’s a pleasure waiting for the pieces to match up.

‘Second Shift’ also features two linked narratives. In one, we continue the drama in Silo One, between Donald, Senator Thurman, and his daughter, Anna, as Donald is awoken from cryosleep for his ‘second shift.’ In the other narrative, the action takes place in Silo 18, where we meet a young porter called Mission, who has never known any other world but that of his silo. The only inkling he and his contemporaries have had that things might once have been different are the stories of an elderly teacher, who tells fantastic tales – tales that seem unlikely, but at the same time, are sufficient to sow the seeds of discontent. And the society of Silo 18 may be increasingly unstable…

‘Third Shift’ – two more stories. Due to an error (or is it?) when Donald is awoken for his third shift, he is mistaken for Senator Thurman. As long as no one finds out; he’ll stay in charge of the whole shebang. Will this give Donald a chance to redeem himself for his part in the destruction of the world? Or will he continue to make yet more mistakes and stupid decisions?
In the second story, we go back and explore the ‘origin story’ of the character of Jimmy/Solo, who will be familiar to readers of ‘Wool.’ Let’s just say that when you’re a nerdy kid whose survival depends on hiding from and if necessary, shooting every other survivor you encounter, cause they’re all out to kill you, the psychological result is not ideal.

Because Jimmy’s story relies on the linkage back to ‘Wool,’ on its own, it might be the weakest of the three. And, to a degree, I did feel that ‘Shift’ was written as an afterthought, and in response to the runaway popularity of ‘Wool.’ Some of the ideas seem a bit reverse-engineered, as far as how everything in the silos works and why decisions were made the way they were. It’s still engagingly written – it’s a long book, but moves along quite quickly, not inviting too much detailed analysis of the nitty-gritty specifics. Overall – not quite as good as ‘Wool,’ but it still squeaks up to 4 stars, for me. 

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Review: Brother’s Ruin

Brother’s Ruin
Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Charlotte knows that she has a talent for magic. She knows that her duty – and legal obligation – is to make her magic known, so that the government can train her talents to be best used for the good of the country. But it’s unsettling that street preachers rant on with dire warnings about the evils of the magical Academy, and besides, Charlotte has other plans for her life: she’s a talented commercial artist, even if as a woman, she has to take her commissions anonymously, and she has plans to marry her fiance. Magicians are required to live a celibate life: not the most enticing inducement.

However, Charlotte’s beloved father has got himself into debt, and when the suspicion arises that the debt collectors that are after him are committing serial murder, Charlotte may have to put her family’s interests before her own.

However, not all is as simple as it seems: some kind of nefarious plot is going on involving magic, and its threads are there to entangle Charlotte no matter which way she turns.

I very much enjoyed reading this book, and would recommend it to any fan of Victorian/supernatural fantasy. However, I’d have to include the caveat: wait until the sequel is ready. This short book really functions more as an introduction to the characters and the scenario than as a complete story. it doesn’t just end on a cliffhanger – it barely gets into the meat of the conflict! As it’s less than 200 pages; I really feel that the ‘sequel’ should’ve been bundled together with this.

Many thanks to Tor and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are independent and unaffected by the source of the book.

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Review: Amberlough

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for book club.

An extremely impressive debut novel! Imagine if Ellen Kushner’s ‘Riverside’ novels were set in an analogue of 1920’s Germany?

I do think that all fans of Kushner’s ‘Swordspoint’ &c. will love this book. It also does a great job of introducing its world and characters without unnecessarily driving home the parallels between the fantasy setting and that of the Weimar Republic and the impending rise of fascism. It’s not a 1:1 correspondence; there are also elements of the Balkans, and wholly original elements of the world. All of it emerges organically from the story’s progression.

The story involves spies and double agents at a popular decadent nightclub; and the complexities and betrayals spawned by the intersection of inclination and obligation. I didn’t find any of the characters to be sympathetic – but they were all interesting.

I will, without a doubt, be reading the sequel – which I hear has already been submitted to the publisher! 😉

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