Review of Her Silhouette Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan

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This novella is science fiction, published by Tor.com, and runs 119 pages. Kaftan won the 2013 Nebula for Best Novella with “The Weight of the Sunrise,” published in the February 2013 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. This review contains major spoilers.

Bianca del Rios is incarcerated in the dark cave prison of Colel-Cab. The only other prisoner is Chela, a woman Bee has to rely on because she has no memory of the past. Chela says they are powerful telepaths who destroyed a starship, committing mass murder. But then Biana feels the thoughts of another telepath who tells a different story. Chela warns her away, injures her when she insists on trying to escape. The other telepath is Jasmine, Bianca’s wife, who has been searching for her for ten years after Bee was T-locked. Jasmine rescues her and tries to help her heal and regain her memory as they hide out from the authorities. They plan a trip to the beach where Bianca first woke telepathic ability in Jasmine, but there are threats to their safety. Can Bianca regain her memory? Take control of her powers?

This is described as a psychic thriller, and it’s a quick read with a cool, stream-of-consciousness flow. There’s not really any plot, only experience: of the cave, sex with Chela, impressions of a hospital room, the pain of injury, water on the beach. The imagery and description carry the story along and the narrative eventually creates meaning and emotion. This seems to be a story about how talented people get shut down and crippled by people around them. Chela seems to be an alter ego of Bianca who begs her to hide out, while Jasmine, awakened to possibilities, tries to help her heal.

On the not so positive side, the meaning here is all you get, and that’s pretty murky. I notice descriptions of the novella in various places only include the prison and don’t really try to outline events—that’s for a reason. If you like plot-based stories, this isn’t for you. Still, I expect some readers will identify with the pain and darkness, and enjoy the lesbian relationships.

Vylar gets a lot of credit for creating meaning and emotion in this, but not for clarity or significance. I ended up thinking there wasn’t much here.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of Permafrost by Alistair Reynolds

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This is a novella published by Tor.com. It is hard science fiction and runs 176 pages. This review contains spoilers.

In 2080 an event called the Scouring started with the death of a few insect species, leading to a cascade of extinctions that eventually destroyed human food production. Seed banks have failed; most animal species have died out, and now humans are also facing extinction. A group of scientists establishes a base on the edge of the Arctic Circle in Russia, hoping to retrieve self-pollinating seeds from a research project in the past. They mean to implant half of a Luda pair in the brains of people in 2028 through MRI machines, and then install pilots from 2080 who can drive their bodies to successfully obtain and hide the seeds for retrieval in the future. One of the pilots drafted for the project is Valentina Lidova, whose mother was the mathematician who laid the groundwork for Luda pairs. Valentina successfully implants into the brain of a young woman named Tatiana, but very quickly the project starts to go wrong. Can the pilots and their subjects save humanity? What if they change history for the worse instead?

So, this is creative, character-driven, and also rates pretty high on the Ideation Scale. Plus, it’s also that rara avis, real, hard science fiction. I’ve reviewed a couple of Reynold’s books now, and I’m starting to think he’s going to be reliable for good, solid, character-driven SF stories. The idea of using particle pairs for time travel is real science. Einstein’s relativity and quantum states actually allows for this. Then Reynolds has created a crisis with particle pairs as the solution, plus sympathetic characters willing to stake their lives on carrying it out. These aren’t the usual story elements, either: the characters are Russian and Chinese and the protagonist Valentina is 70 years old and apparently in poor health. The action line starts with ugly events, clearly makes the point that this is a desperate situation, and the setting also contributes to the feel and atmosphere of the story, the Arctic base, the military presence and austerity recalling the Soviet Russia of the Cold War.

On the not so positive side, I didn’t connect very deeply with the characters. There were events here with a lot of heart that left me touched and impressed, but I didn’t get a good enough feel for the characters to carry the story into their future, for example. It could have been a little bit longer to allow for more of Valentina’s inner thoughts, desires and feelings, and something of what motivated the project director Cho. There are self-aware AIs here, too, that could have raised the stakes on sacrifice. I would have loved to have heard more from them.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of Storm Cursed by Patricia Briggs

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This novel is urban fantasy, and number 11 in Briggs’ highly successful Mercy Thompson series. It’s published by Ace and runs 368 pages. Briggs also writes the Alpha and Omega series which is set in the same universe and uses some of the same characters. Although Briggs works mainly with these two series now, early in her career she also wrote more traditional fantasy novels which remain good bets for fantasy fans. This review contains spoilers.

Mercy Thompson is a Native American car mechanic, a shapeshifter and Coyote’s daughter. She has fallen for and gotten married to Adam Hauptman, previously her neighbor and alpha of the Columbia Basin werewolf pack. A few months back, Mercy made a public declaration that the pack would defend everybody within their territory. This made the Tri-cities seem like safe, neutral ground, and now there is a plan in work to set up meetings there so the government can negotiate with the dangerous Grey Lords of the fae, who have previously been sequestered on reservations. Adam’s security company is chosen to deal with preparations. Mercy gets a call from a local farmer and takes some of the pack out to deal with his goats that have turned zombie. After interviewing the farmer, she suspects the zombies were created by a black witch who first tried to lure the man’s son. Investigating, Mercy finds the witch is from the Hardesty family, a group who has also targeted the local witch Elizaveta, torturing and killing her family in an effort to create a coven. The investigation reveals that Elizaveta has also been practicing black magic. Can Mercy deal with the witches? The zombies? The government officials? And what is Coyote up to now?

Briggs is highly reliable, and this is more on the adventures of familiar characters her readers know and love. It’s warm, safe and inclusive. For all her tough exterior, Mercy has a lot of friends that are willing to step up and defend her, or even to help out when she gets into something over her head. Briggs creates strong characters, plus sticky relations and ongoing intrigues between the different factions, the werewolves, vampires, goblins, witches, Native American walkers, etc., etc. that inhabit the Tri-cities area. There’s always a strong element of romance, too, as Mercy and Adam are pretty taken with each other.

On the not so positive side, this was a little hard to get into. There’s no hook at all. It’s an ongoing narrative, and Briggs seems to pick up one novel where the last left off. But, for her readers, there’s a gap of a year or so where details of what happened in the last novel can get lost. Mercy eventually gets around to filling us in on recent events for her, but until we meet the goats, there’s only conversation to get us started on this story.

It’s another successful adventure for Mercy. Highly recommended for fans of urban fantasy.

Four stars.

Review of The Warrior Within by Angus McIntyre

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This work is McIntyre’s debut as a writer of longer works. It’s a novella published by Tor that runs 178 pages. This review includes spoilers.

The world is ruled by the Muljaddy, a religious autocracy that’s in business to buy salvage from the various ruins of an older civilization and provides food handouts in return for prayer. Years ago, Karsman worked for one of the Muljaddy who outfitted him with multiple personalities in order to cut back on staff. He left her employment and is now living in a desolate, backwater town on this desolate, backwater home planet, where he is recognized as the unofficial “mayor” of the town. A group of commandos arrives from the wastelands, three transhumans who announce they are on a mission to assassinate a particular woman. They don’t find her in the town right away, so they increase pressure on the residents, interviewing all the women and pushing people to inform. Karsman has just met the woman Mira at a recent festival and she’s left town, but he’s concerned they are after her. Violence escalates to a coup against the temple, and finally Karsman needs to do something about the commandos. Can he save the Muljaddy? Rescue Mira? And what are all those old ruins, anyway?

On the positive side, this is excellent world-building, and the writing style is evocative, In other words, it’s a great little adventure that suggests a complex history and hidden depths. Karsman is a very engaging character, generally laid-back, but apparently quite effective once he gets his various personalities sorted out. Mira is a sensible and effective person, too, and Karsman’s various friends and acquaintances, though not hugely memorable, come across like real people. There’s also a surprise twist ending that I didn’t predict.

On the negative side, I was disappointed that this is so short, as I really liked the characters, and I’d loved to have followed them through a much longer and more complex novel. McIntyre was probably right to cut it off here, though, and continue with further plotting in another installment. I’ll have to watch for more episodes.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Transmission by Morgan Rice

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This novella is young adult science fiction and is listed as Book 1 of the Invasion Chronicles. It is self-published and runs 187 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Kevin and his mom get the news that he’s been diagnosed with a rare brain disease and only has about six months to live. Symptoms of his disease include fainting spells and hallucinations including visions of alien landscapes and strings of numbers. All the adults tell Kevin he should ignore this and that treatment might help, but his friend Luna thinks the number strings might be important. A quick Google indicates these are the coordinates for the Trappist star system. Should Kevin notify SETI that he’s receiving alien transmissions? What if they don’t believe him?

This book is billed as young adult, but my estimation is that it’s more middle grade level. It’s seems a bit simplistic for young adult, which often includes fairly adult themes these days. This a quick, easy read and the story flows along well, including a slightly humorous take on the adult characters and the various government organizations that blunder through the alien contact. The theme seems to be cooperation. The tone is fairly low key, even when things start to go wrong, and Kevin’s mom is always there to stand between him and anything bad coming his way. Plus, Luna remains his faithful friend.

On the not so positive side, it’s nice but not really believable that Kevin successfully mediates the adult arguments going on between all the different agencies and governments that get involved in this. The build-up is different and refreshing, but the resulting alien invasion scheme was old in 1950 and, of course, nothing at all gets solved in this book, which likely just serves as the intro to Book II of the Invasion Chronicles. There are a couple of plot holes, which may or may not be explained later. And also, the fact that everybody is lurching around like a zombie at the end of this sort of undermines Kevin’s “I told you so” moment.

Three stars.

Review of Shadow Heart by Rawle Nyanzi

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This novella is young adult superhero and mecha-based military alternate history scifi/fantasy, and it’s more specifically billed as Shining Tomorrow Volume 1: Shadow Heart, meaning it’s a series the author expects to continue. It a quick read, is self-published, and runs about 200 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Irma is a heavily-indoctrinated high school girl who lives in the North American Federation, a territory under the control of the Japanese government since the Central Powers win World War I. Irma is very aware of modesty, responsibility and community obligations. She is respected as non-violent because she is involved in a YELOW (Young Elegant Ladies of the West) organization that carries out civic projects to benefit the disadvantaged. When her superhero friend Virginia is captured by the evil combat mech manufacturer Shadow Heart, Irma wants to do something about it, but she is limited by her own sexist cultural expectations about her role as a woman and how this relates to violence and initiative. But, Irma is also heir to a powerful Valkyrie superhero tradition. As a final battle looms, how can Irma reconcile being a superhero with what she’s always believed about herself?

This is a fairly free-wheeling and creative story, featuring a mash-up of cultural and fictional tropes, including superheroes and villain white supremacists, all thrown together in an action story with a slight tongue-in-cheek tone that suggests satire. You can tell the author really enjoys popular culture, especially Japanese-based Manga. But Nyanzi also has a feel for underlying philosophical questions. Where stories from Asian women often seem to be about rebelling against family and societal controls in Asian tradition, the author here looks at the internal inhibitions implanted by culture and how hard it can be to overcome these restrictions and change behavior. Even as Irma makes a decision to claim her birthright and act against Shadow Heart, she knows she has to walk a thin line in order to remain acceptable to both herself and her community.

On the not so positive side, a lot of this will be lost on readers who aren’t familiar with Manga, mecha or Japanese culture. The tone and free-wheeling action approach mean the story requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and the characters tend to be fairly stereotypical. The philosophical questions in the subtext are subtle, and may not be picked up or appreciated by action readers. However, all this doesn’t mean that it’s not fun and different to read.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

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This novel is science fiction and was released by Vintage on January 9, 2018. It runs 689 pages. For anyone wondering, gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow. It also has implications about shadow secret societies. This review contains spoilers.

London in the near future is a surveillance state where a Witness System monitors and records everything. The government operates as a type of perfect democracy where all citizens are polled to vote on issues at regular intervals, and a vote is upcoming on whether implants should be inserted into individuals who need special monitoring and possible adjustment. In this environment, the elderly Diana Hunter, an eccentric Luddite writer and suspected dissident, is brought in for questioning through the invasive method of reviewing all her thoughts and memories. She dies after an unsuccessful interrogation, and Mielikki Neith, an Inspector of the Witness System, is tapped to investigate. Neith reviews the recordings of Hunter’s neural activity during the interrogation and finds a blockade of fictions, apparently presented to defeat the system. Three different narratives emerge: Athenian financier Constantine Kyriakos who is being stalked by a shark; ancient Carthagenian scholar and alchemist Athenais who is attempting to resurrect her son; and brilliant Ethiopian artist Berihun Bekele whose daughter Anna and partner Colson are designing a digital game called Witness. In her own reality, Neith meets a mysterious presence who introduces him/herself as Regno Lönnrot, who seems to be invisible to the Witness system. As Neith works through the neural recordings, she begins to put together clues and symbols that indicate a shadow group controlling the Witness System. What can she do about it?

So, this is interesting and mildly entertaining. It’s another of those brilliant works that presents the questionable benefits of surveillance and government control in the interests of national security, all in general terms related to the story, of course. It’s also a SF mystery story, plus a narration where one reality blends into another and you end up not being sure of what the “true” reality is. As we work through it, we start to wonder whether Neith is a reliable character or not. Actually, Bekele’s narration sounds pretty attractive, too. And then, there’s Lönnrot. And a demon? Hm.

On the negative side, there is a serious readability problem here. First, this is waaay too long. On the initial attempt, I gave up midway and later started over. It took me DAYS of dedicated work to slog through it. I understand this is part of the author’s literary device—it mirrors how Hunter dragged out the fictional narratives in her efforts to block the Witness’ invasion of her brain, but still, it’s just not gripping enough to justify nearly 700 pages. Second, these narratives don’t add enough to the story to support their length and detail–we could have gotten the idea with a lot fewer words. Each one of the stories could have been a novel on its own, and together they crowd out the minimal plot where Neith carries out her investigation and reaches a decision. The realities all come together in a muddle of resolution at the end, and the author just leaves us hanging there. This is followed by a very nice discussion about consciousness and reality in the last chapter, but that didn’t make the effort worthwhile for me.

Four stars for the brilliance and the message, but read at your own risk.

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