Review of Touch by Claire North

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I really enjoyed the World Fantasy Award winner The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North, so I’ve looked up more of her books. She’s fairly prolific under a couple or three different pen names, thus providing me with a lot of future reading material. This book was published in 2015 by Hachette and runs 443 pages.

An assassin guns down Kepler’s host Josephine Cebula, and s/he jumps to another host and then another, realizing the assassin is after him/her. Not only is Kepler angry about Josephine, but the fact that the assassin is looking for the next host means he knows about Kepler’s ability to jump from person to person. Kepler follows the assassin onto a train and captures him, jumping into his body from that of an old man. When s/he has an opportunity to question the man, s/he finds a plot in motion to search out and kill others of his/her kind. Can Kepler stop the plot and revenge Josephine?

Good points: This is another winner. It’s basically a thriller plot about transmigration with a lot of added human interest material that develops the characters, describes their history and makes their world real for us. The chase moves from country to country and from big cities to small villages. On the way, it reveals the workings of an underground culture of beings with consciousness but no physical existence, who can possess a host with just a touch of skin against skin.

Possible not so good point: This is character oriented and moves slowly as a thriller. Likely it’s not for fans of heavy action plots. There were also a couple of instances where I thought the characters violated the rules of their existence, or not. It’s a minor logical hiccup, but not that serious.

Four and a half stars.


Review of Wintersong by S. Jae Jones

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This book is part of my effort to review minority authors. It was published through Thomas Dunn Books/Macmillan in February of 2017. Jones is Asian, a native of Los Angeles, and this looks to be her first published novel. There’s a sequel coming in 2018 called Shadowsong. This review contains spoilers.

Liesl is the middle child, dark and plain, while her older sister Kathe is blond and beautiful and her younger brother Josef is a violin virtuoso. Liesl wants to study music, too, and dreams of being a composer, but her father only lets her play accompaniment to her brother. As a child, she finds a boy in the woods who calls himself the Goblin King, and they promise to marry, but as Liesl grows older, she has to give up her dreams to take responsibility for her family. Then the Goblin King comes for his bride. Because Liesl has rejected him, he takes Kathe instead. Can Liesl save her sister by giving up her own life?

Jones has used the German legend of the Erlkonig as the basis for her story, with some other allusions drawn from European culture and the movie Labyrinth. The story is set in the 1800s when touring violinists were the rock stars of the era. According to the Erlkonig legend, the bride gives up her life and retires to the Underground to make sure spring comes to the world above. It’s not very Asian, but somehow I haven’t heard a peep about cultural appropriation.

On the positive side, Jones has put together a really promising plot. The issue of having to give up personal dreams to take family responsibility seems to be a common theme from Asian women writers. Here, Liesl escapes the clutches of her family, but moves into another stifling situation. Her husband offers her complete freedom to play and write music, but there is no audience—she is confined to the Underground. The Erlkonig is a strong romantic interest on the one hand, but on the other, it’s clear that staying with him will slowly drain away her life. There are choices between evils here.

On the not-so-positive side, I didn’t much like Liesl or the petulant, demanding, erratic way she conducts herself around people who love her. I think her character could have been used more positively to send messages about discipline, cooperation, communication, focus and hard work to achieve what you want. Of course, this might be just my viewpoint speaking. I had similar complaints about The Last Jedi.

Three and a half stars.

Thoughts on the 2017 World Fantasy Awards


I’ve pretty much finished all the reviews of the World Fantasy Awards fiction nominees. I’m not going to look at the collections, so it’s time for a wrap up of what I thought.

What really jumps out is the considerable overlap this list has with other major SFF awards, especially the Hugos. In order to complete reviews of the whole World Fantasy list, I had to read 2 novels out of 5 nominees, 1 long fiction out of 5 and 3 short stories out of 5. All the others I had already reviewed as part of either the Nebula or the Hugo Awards. This makes my reviewing job easier, but again, it points out the inbred nature of the SFF awards and the lack of diversity in sources the works are drawn from.

Speaking of diversity, this list is notable for leaning heavily to black and white nominees and totally shutting out both Asian and Hispanic/LatinX/Native American authors. Counting up the ethnicity, it looks like there were three black authors out of fifteen or 20% of the nominees, which well beats the approximately 12% African American population demographic in the US. The list gets extra diversity points for having one nominee of Arab descent, but Arabs are currently designated white in the US.

There are a couple of folks who are LGBTQ and advertize disability diagnoses. Again, the absence of Asian and Hispanic/LatinX/Native Americans could have to do with the lack of diversity in sources the fantasy audience draws from. Gender breakdown was 4 women to one man in the novel category, 2 women to 3 men in the long fiction category and 5 women to 0 men in the short fiction category. This adds up to 10 women to 5 men, following the current trend to strongly favor women writers in the awards nominations. There was also fair diversity of publishers except in the long-fiction category, where published 4 out of 5 of the nominees.

I’ve already reviewed each of the works for quality, content and logical coherence. All of these were well written, with a few real standouts. I don’t have any complaints about the winners. They were first class in all categories. I did note some strong political messages in some of the works. This is a troubling issue. Doesn’t it affect readability when the author’s political views are so obviously promoted that they take over the story?

Again, many congratulations to the World Fantasy Winners!


Review of The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North


This novel was the 2017 winner of the World Fantasy Award. It was published by Redhook/Orbit UK, and runs 468 pages.

Most people totally forget Hope Arden within a minute. This means she can’t hold a job or maintain any serious relationships, and she supports herself by being a world-class thief. Hope is affronted by a woman’s death in Dubai, and partially out of spite, steals the Chrysalis diamonds from the Princess Shamma bint Bandar at a party hosted by the Prometheus Corporation. Prometheus markets an app that recommends actions, purchases and treatments to achieve Perfection. Because of the power and reach of the corporation, Hope finds herself on the run. Allied with a darkweb terrorist called Byron, can she bring down Prometheus?

This is a very complex novel. It’s basically a thriller plot, where Hope and her various allies struggle against the powerful minions of the corporation. It’s also an indictment of our worship of celebrity and perfection, here summed up in the app that guides people in how to become rich and beautiful to the ultimate degree, while also making them slaves to the corporation—meanwhile the ordinary Hope remains invisible. Regardless of the thriller plot, Hope continually digresses into stream of consciousness inspection of her past and the failings of society around her. This includes several prominent cultures because of the multinational quality of the tale. Her eventual solution to the battle with Perfection isn’t simple, either, as Hope’s vulnerability and her emotional responses to the people she meets constantly affect her decisions.

Good points: It’s complex; it’s a thriller; it’s got a lot to say as a mirror for our society. There are some artful cliffhangers, beautiful images, great feelings of place and very complex and well-developed characters. The reader forms emotional bonds with these people.

Not so good points: It’s slow-moving because of all the digressions—I had a hard time getting started because of the pace. The thriller plot could have been a short story or a novella without all the asides, so it’s not the book for people who like fast, hard-hitting action.

I’m going to go five stars on this one. I was impressed.


Review of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff


This book was a finalist for the World Fantasy Awards. It’s a collection of novellas based on the different characters, but it can also be read as a novel. It’s published by HarperCollins and runs 382 pages.

The year is 1954, and African American war veteran Atticus Turner is traveling north to Chicago. His dad Montrose has disappeared somewhere in New England, and with his Uncle George and his friend Letitia, Atticus sets out to find him. They end up at Samuel Braithwhite’s manor, where they learn interesting things about Atticus’ maternal ancestry and encounter Samuel’s son Caleb, who wants to control that legacy. Atticus and his friends soon find themselves dealing with ghosts, warlocks and various arcane events as they’re caught up in the machinations of an ancient cult. Can they save themselves and return to normal lives?

This is an entertaining read, as the characters are all resourceful and end up accomplishing what they need to do through the application of determination and common sense. Regardless of the Jim Crow setting, the characters feel contemporary, as if Ruff has set characters with modern sensibilities into the Lovecraft milieu.

I’ve read some other reviews that promote this book by saying racism is the real horror in the story. I didn’t really see that. If you’re unfamiliar with the facts of Jim Crow segregation and the kind of discrimination African Americans faced in the 1950s, then I suppose this could be a surprise. Presumably Ruff set his story in this period at least partly to display the racial issues, but actually he skims over it as fairly matter-of-fact. Everybody deals and nobody gets lynched.

What really stood out for me instead was the message that these black characters read and treasure the SFF classics of the day by Lovecraft, Burroughs, Bradbury, Asimov, etc., without any disconnect because of their race. Is that so? Currently these writers are all considered to be both racist and sexist because they reflect the attitudes of their era. So, do readers of all races normally transcend racism and sexism to place themselves in a romantic character and a romantic setting? Or is this just an irony that Ruff has inserted in his story? I’d like to hear from people with an opinion.

Four and a half stars.


Review of Walls and Wonders by S. R. Algernon

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This is a collection of S.R. Algernon’s short stories, published by ReAnimus Press. The book has just been released on January 15, 2018, and runs 328 pages. The collection contains the short story “Asymmetrical Warfare,” nominated for a Hugo Award in 2016.

You get a lot of stories for your bucks here, as the collection includes 21 short stories, some previously published and some appearing here for the first time. I’m no expert on literary styles, but the best description I can come up with for Algernon’s style is “psychological.” The stories tend to investigate minds at work, whether human or no. There are people responding to the increasing surveillance of life or to controls on speech from the state. A man is haunted by a stillborn brother. A vampire looks for a cure. In a few cases, Algernon makes the leap to representing completely alien life forms, imagining possible creatures and their concerns. The brilliant “Asymmetrical Warfare” falls into this category, as does “Once More, onto the Beach” and “Symbiosis.”

I was impressed with the world building here, especially in the stories about alien cultures. The psychological angle is also impressive, as it tends to investigate problems and look for solutions. On the other hand, I didn’t get much in the way of strong imagery or description of the settings, and the characters tended to be a little flat, without much in the way of background or expression of their most intimate emotions, wants and needs. This meant the stories were a little shorter and had a little less to say than what they could have presented. Algernon’s fans will likely be happy to see these works collected.

Three and a half stars.


Review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi


I’m running a little late on reviewing this film, but feel the urge to comment regardless. Note: there may be lots of spoilers below. This was written and directed by Rian Johnson.

The story picks up just after events of the Force Awakens. The Republic is dead and the fascist First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke, is now on a mission to take control of the galaxy. The Resistance is struggling against this new threat. Rey searches out Luke Skywalker, hoping he’ll be able to answer her questions and teach her to be a Jedi. Meanwhile, the Resistance ships prepare to face the overwhelming forces of the First Order. Can Rey convince Luke to leave his secluded island and rejoin the fight? Can Princess Leia, Finn, Poe, Chewbacca, Rose and the other Resistance fighters hold off the First Order and escape with their lives?

Well, this isn’t as bad as I expected from some of the reviews out there. There’s action and a reasonable (if thin) plot. It’s billed as humorous, but I didn’t really see that—the jokes were pretty feeble against the grand scheme of the production. What I mostly took away from this was clear messages to the traditional fans that change has come to the series.

Most of this comes from the conversations between Rey and Luke on his isolated island, where it becomes clear Luke has withdrawn from the Force and considers the Jedi “religion” outdated and empty. He advises her to kill off history in order to reach her full potential. Rey makes feeble efforts to train by herself, but blunders through obvious mistakes, while he stubbornly refuses to help her. Eventually she gives it up and goes to try to turn Kylo Ren, whom she feels connected to in some way. That turns out to be a trap engineered by Supreme Leader Snoke. Lots of folks die at the end, and the Jedi history is wiped out.

So, that’s all fine. But what are they going to replace it with?

The original Star Wars set up is a classic archetype, the same kind of hero tale that’s passed down from generation to generation around a village campfire. There’s a hero, a sidekick, a princess, an aspiring youngster and a couple of wise old wizards, all fighting for light against the forces of dark. Lucas’ understanding of this, plus some really creative imagination, is what made the series so successful. But now they’re going to kill off the old characters, tear this structure down and give us something else.

I agree that the Resistance is pretty tired at this point, but I’m not seeing this spark they’re expecting will emerge to fire it all up again. We’re left in a universe of kids where both Ren and Rey are strong in the Force, but (without history and education) have no idea what they’re doing. There’s no discipline or consequences here—personal grandstanding is the big thing, and insubordination and mutiny among the Resistance fighters are laughed off by indulgent leaders as no big deal. Ren wants to rule the galaxy, and he tells Rey that she can come from nothing and rise to success. Still, it’s clear life isn’t working out for him. He’s weak and sniveling as a tool of the darkness, at this point totally unable to carry the role with any conviction. Actually, none of these characters are very strong. They’re just cogs in a feel-good commercial machine.

Three stars.


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