Review of Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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This dark fantasy/science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published 10 September 2019 by Tor.com and runs 437 pages. This is Book #1 of The Locked Tomb Trilogy. The second installment, Harrow the Ninth, is scheduled for release in June of 2020, to be followed by the third, Alecto the Ninth. This review contains spoilers.

The God Emperor has the need of new Lyctors for his service. As a result, he has called on each of the Nine Houses to send a necromancer heir with their cavalier to the First House for evaluation. The decrepit Ninth House that guards the Tomb only has one necromancer, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, and no available cavalier, so they draft the only possible candidate, Gideon the Ninth. She was a foundling that somehow survived a pestilence that killed all the other children of her generation before Harrowhark was born, and the two hate each other’s guts. Harrowhark swears Gideon to silence to keep her mouth shut, provides her with appropriate black robes and skull face paint, and they arrive at the First House as expected, along with the other candidates. Gideon has no experience outside the decaying Ninth, but she starts to make tentative friends. There are no instructions on what they’re to do. Harrowhark thinks it’s a matter of research through the forgotten labs of the First House to learn talents and abilities that make one a Lyctor, but maybe it’s a competition instead, as some of the candidates start to die in horrific ways. As the field of candidates narrows, Gideon and Harrowhark start to wonder why anyone would want to be a Lyctor anyhow. Is there a way to avoid it?

This is absolutely brilliant as far as style, world-building, plotting and characterization go. The story has a science-fictional setting, as the Nine Houses circle the sun Dominicus, and are presumably planets or space habitats. The Ninth House is furthest from the sun, darkest and coldest. The God Emperor sealed the Tomb there and apparently thought the caretakers he left behind would die off, but instead they have managed to maintain a small, desperate population. It took a huge magical sacrifice to produce the brilliant Harrrowhark, which leaves her warped and burdened by guilt that spills over on Gideon. Otherwise, this is basically a mystery plot, with a final twist ending as the path to Lyctorhood is revealed. Muir credits Lissa Harris for the sword work, which stands out for detail and authenticity.

On the less positive side, I’m wondering where Gideon gets her porn magazines if Ninth is so desolate. Also, I expect the author watches a lot of horror flics, as the imagery has the feel of slightly cliché special effects. The array of characters is also somewhat stereotypical, and as a long time mystery reader, I didn’t have much trouble picking out the perp—she was just too sweet. I didn’t see the twist coming, though.

Five stars.

Review of A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker

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This near-future science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Berkley on 10 September 2019 and runs 384 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Luce Cannon has the doubtful honor of playing the last live music show in the Before. That’s before plagues and terrorism led to anti-congregation laws and music and sports moved online in the After. Years later, one of her songs has a revival and generates enough royalties to fund an illegal performance venue. Rosemary Laws grew up in the After on a farm where everything was virtual hoodspace. In her tech support job for Superwally, she connects with a StageHoloLive (SHL) band and accepts an invitation to a holoconcert. Hooked, she quits her tech support job and gets accepted as a recruiter for SHL. She’s horrified to find they track her and call police raids down on the secret venues where she finds bands. When Luce’s club is raided, she goes back on the road solo, playing more secret clubs. She loses it at the gates of Graceland and is filmed by a drone, becoming a viral sensation, and Rosemary suddenly sees the future. Is there anything the two of them can do to defeat Superwally and StageHoloLive?

This novel is based on the novelette “Our Lady of the Open Road,” published by Asimov’s Magazine and winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in 2015. First, this is absolutely prescient. Who would have thought Pinsker could so accurately forecast upcoming events? Only seven months from the release date of her novel, we’re already in the world she’s visualized—i.e. all the places where one would normally play music have closed up shop because of coronavirus. The novel length has a big advantage over the novelette, allowing space to better investigate and develop the themes the author presents in the original. The novel features Pinsker’s smooth, trademark style, and is heavily character driven. We especially get to feel for Rosemary, trapped in a world where she’s afraid to come out of virtual space and actually touch anyone, as she works toward independence and self-determination. The details ring true, as Pinsker is a musician as well as a writer, and clearly has experience at slogging it out in back rooms and cow pastures. A last note: this also echoes the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany, when Jewish musicians were barred from performing and forced into underground, illegal venues.

On the less positive side, there’s a definite sense of déjà vu here for anyone who has read Pinsker’s novelette. We get a nice warm feeling at the end that Rosemary and Luce are going to succeed, but that doesn’t consider the economic power of Superwally and SHL. It’s not Congress that sustains the status quo, but the economic interests behind it, instead. Luce Cannon’s stage name (a.k.a. loose cannon) seems a bit cliché, too. I don’t see how it enters into the story.

Four and a half stars.

Wrap Up of the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award Reviews

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For anyone who doesn’t know, Amazon bought Goodreads in 2013, in a move to integrate the review and discussion site for direct promotion of its literary offerings. Goodreads analyzes the data from what they say includes hundreds of millions of books rated, reviewed, and added to their Want to Read Shelves in a given year to determine which books make the cut for the Opening Round. This is followed by Semifinal Round and a Final Round where site users are invited to vote for the winners. In 2019 there were 300 initial nominees with an average rating of 4 stars. Because the site is so powerful, it’s clearly important for authors to pay attention to how their books are received and reviewed there. That makes this pretty much a popularity award, though I expect it will be affected by factors like levels of promotion and influencers within the various Goodreads groups.

So, this went better than I expected. I don’t always like bestseller novels because I do like solid world building, strong characters and literary elements like theme and meaning. Although Crouch’s book was a little weak, I did like the novels the women authors wrote. One of the big advantages in reading for this award was that there seemed to be a minimum of political messages in the books. There were messages and themes, of course, but in general they were more social commentary than political screeds. These included the dangers of technology (Crouch) and the effects of power, abuse and bullying (Black). Bardugo’s book is a little harder to summarize, but also seems to be about abusing others for the purposes of achieving power.

These books seem to have won the awards pretty much on their entertainment value and for how they speak to the reader, rather than for their “diversity” or other characteristics. All three winners involve mainly white characters, except for Bardugo’s black Centurion, and all the authors are also white. Bardugo appears to be Jewish, and Crouch writes about gay characters fairly often, but hasn’t come out as gay that I can find with a quick search. Of the three, only Black seems to have been recognized by the SFF community; she won the Andre Norton Award in 2005 for Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faery.

Since this went well, I’ll do it again next year. Stay tuned for the 2019 Nebula reviews.

Review of The Wicked King by Holly Black

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The Wicked King is the second novel in the Folk of the Air series, and won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult SFF Novel in 2019 with 48,181 votes. This is preceded by The Cruel Prince and followed by The Queen of Nothing to complete a three-novel set. The Wicked King was published by Little Brown in January of 2019, and runs 336 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of The Cruel Prince, the High King stepped down; backers of Prince Balekin slaughtered the royal family, and Jude discovered her foster brother Oak was actually an heir to the throne. In a scheme to protect him, she lured Prince Carden into a bargain that crowned him High King and left him in her power for a year and a day. In her new position as Seneschal, she sent Oak to live in the human world with Vivi and now works as the power behind the throne, pulling the strings that run the kingdom of Elfhame. Locke has abandoned Jude and is now engaged to marry her twin sister Taryn. Madoc is part of the faction that is backing Balekin, who is imprisoned in the Tower of Forgetting. The Kingdom of the Undersea offers the Queen’s daughter Nicasea as a bride for Carden, backed by the threat of war with the Land if he refuses. The night before Taryn’s wedding, Jude is attacked, and later lured to the Tower, where she is kidnapped and held hostage by the Undersea. King Carden has to make concessions to get her back. He is poisoned by Balekin in a bid for the throne, but Jude saves him and then kills Balekin. Carden offers Jude vows of marriage if she will rescind the bargain giving her control of him, and he then banishes her to the human world in punishment for the murder of Balekin. It seems she has lost control of the king, but there are still threats to her family. What can she do?

On the positive side, this story remains a gripping intrigue, and themes are now developing related to power and submission. While Taryn has submitted to her tormentors and found a way to fit in, Jude has fought her way to a position of power. Although her scheme to gain control of the kingdom succeeded brilliantly, she struggles with inexperience and makes mistakes in dealing with the challenges. The bullying has stopped, but it has been replaced by plots and attacks on a larger scale. Jude is faced with holding onto what she’s won, and she seems unable to move beyond the station of her birth as a lowly mortal. She doesn’t know how to form alliances, or how to wield power except through Carden. Court officials disrespect her and her office, and her family treats her with their usual familiarity, unable to see her as having grown into anything different. She’s still mired in a mortal worldview, unable to see the big picture, and unable to even form a new self-image.

On the not so positive side, this installment of the story is a little hectic. Jude rushes to put out one fire after another, oblivious to the fact that Carden is now the High King and showing signs of competence in using the powers that go with the position. It also looks like Elfhame has some serious issues with security, as agents of various factions seem to have easy access to the king and his court. Jude is especially blind to issues of her own safety. After barely surviving a solo fight in the forest, for example, she falls right into the Undersea’s kidnapping plot. I’m also concerned about the number of people getting killed in this story. The Fay are immortal and have a low birth-rate. This suggests they should heavily guard their lives and have strong rules for investigating and penalizing murder, but it’s just not happening.

On the whole, this remains a good read, and I finished it up fast, moving on to the series finale.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

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I gather this novel is the most popular fantasy novel of 2019, as it won the Goodreads Choice Award with 53,430 votes. Bardugo has been a highly successful young adult writer, and this is her debut in adult fiction, also listed as Alex Stern, Book I. The novel was published by Flatiron Books in October, 2019, and runs 450 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Alex Stern has always been able to see ghosts, and not only that, they can touch and manhandle her—she’s had no defenses against them. After she becomes the only survivor of an ugly massacre, she is approached by Yale University and awarded a full ride scholarship if she will become an agent of Lethe House, which monitors the eight other secret societies on campus. She accepts and becomes “Dante” the freshman acolyte of the Ninth House. When her senior guide “Virgil” Daniel Arlington (a.k.a. Darlington) is suddenly eaten by a magical portal, she takes on full responsibility for investigating various events where women are murdered and abused. Can she solve the mystery? And more, can she find Darlington and bring him safely back home?

This gets off to a slow start, but by the end of the first chapter, it’s clear the narrative is about the occult (trigger warning!) and that this is a ghost story. A couple of more chapters in, and it turns pretty gripping, as people start to die, and then Darlington gets snapped up by the hellmouth. Oops.

Bardugo graduated from Yale, so I expect the world building here is pretty accurate. It’s strongly plotted, and the characterization stands out as first rate, as the author gradually reveals details about the people, places and events. Alex is tough and determined to make it at Yale. She takes her job seriously and follows up on the clues like a bulldog, all the while fighting off anxious ghosts and occult attacks from the various interested parties in the investigation. I don’t normally enjoy occult works, but this is actually sort of “occult lite.” Horrific details are minimal, and the novel ends positively, as Alex sorts out what’s been going on and makes sure everybody get their just due. At the end, Darlington is still stuck in hell, but I expect she’ll figure some way to get him out, or at least make the attempt, in the next book.

On the not so positive side, the methods of prognostication here are pretty icky, and some of the perps stupidly out of control. Maybe this is how frat boys expect to carry on their business, but it seems a little simplistic and stereotypical. Also, I’m not sure Alex is quite believable for a 20-year-old from the background Bardugo describes. She comes across as a much older and self-assured woman.

Interestingly, this got mixed reviews from Bardugo’s fans, as I saw several negative comments on Amazon. That could mean it’s quite a bit different from her young adult novels, but since this is the first of her work I’ve read, I wouldn’t know. The novel is apparently shaping up to be a bestseller, and I had to wait through 18 readers to get it from the library. Hence the delay in the Goodreads Choice reviews.

Five stars.

Review of Recursion by Blake Crouch

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Since I hear a lot about the Goodreads Choice Awards, where books win with vote totals in the 40-60K range, I promised to look at the winners from last year. Because these are popular books, it took a while to wait through the queue at the library, but finally, here they are:

Blake Couch’s novel won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Science Fiction book with 41,261 votes. Crouch is a New York Times Bestselling author and has several other books available, starting from about 2010. The winning novel was published by Crown in June of 2019, and runs 324 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Barry Sutton is a police detective in New York City. He and his ex, Julia, lost their daughter Meghan in a car accident when she was 16. When a woman jumps from a highrise, Barry begins trying to investigate False Memory Syndrome, an illness where people think they’ve lived another life. He interviews sufferers and finally blunders into the answer. Helena Smith, a brilliant researcher, has invented a way to send people back into memory; however, use of her method resets the timeline for everyone. Although Helena tries to keep her discovery secret, it becomes a target for everyone from commercial interests, to the CIA, to foreign governments. The schematics are finally published on Wikileaks, and reality starts to crumble. Is there any way Barry and Helena can stop spread of the technology and stabilize reality again?

On the positive side, this is a story about 1) the dangers of technology and 2) a possible do-over for your life, a way to correct all those mistakes that you wish you’d never made, to save your children from harm, or to connect in the kind of relationships that will last. Couch spends some time on the relationships, where the characters try to make things better for each other, which is probably what readers like about it. However, the book is mainly about the damage to reality the resets do, as they shift the characters into different timelines. False Memory Syndrome eventually gives way to the apocalypse, complete with horrific details.

On the not so positive side, there’s a giant hole in the science, and I somehow didn’t really believe in the characters or the settings. Helena’s research produces a device called a “chair” that will record a memory and reinject it later. (Note: This isn’t SF. It’s already accomplished in the real world.) Slade, the man who provides her funding, produces a sensory deprivation chamber and an ugly procedure for killing people inside it and then injecting the recorded memory, which causes a branch in reality so the dead person wakes at the memory point in a different timeline. This isn’t an accident; it works reliably all the time. Other chairs and chambers built from the same schematics also work reliably. Couch discusses a jumble of theory about arrows of time and tiny wormholes, but none of this explains why the equipment works. Next, the characters feel like cardboard cutouts that Couch moves through the story. Sutton is described as a police detective, but he doesn’t think like a detective, act like a detective or work on police business in NYC. In some timelines, he shows amazing flexibility in picking up a second career as a scientist. Helena is described as a brilliant researcher, but she doesn’t act the part, either. After umpteen resets where she tries to fix things, it’s Sutton with his police-issue Glock who produces a solution.

I wasn’t really taken with this, but it’s clearly a popular favorite.

Three stars.

Review of Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson

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This is a futuristic detective novella published in 2017 through Sanderson’s imprint Dragonsteel Entertainment. It runs 98 pages, and the film rights have been optioned by MGM. This review contains spoilers.

Anthony Davis and his partner Chaz are police detectives assigned to the Snapshot project. This is a technology that can recreate a city of 20 million for a single day as a resource for police investigations. Davis thinks the two of them have been taken off regular duty for this because of deficiencies—Chaz is rated too aggressive, and Davis isn’t aggressive enough. The two of them have been sent to investigate a crime that took place 10 days ago. They successfully locate a murder weapon, and then they have to wait for evening for their next assignment, a domestic dispute. Davis visits his son Hal, successfully avoiding his ex-wife, but then the two detectives get sidetracked when they run across evidence of a mass murderer, The Photographer. Headquarters orders them not to get involved, but feeling a sense of duty, they cautiously start an investigation. None of the people in the city are real so they can’t be really killed—except Davis and Chaz. Anything they do in the city causes deviations from reality. Is what they’re doing putting them at risk?

This is an entertaining read. It sets up the situation and some guys with problems and lets it play out. As usual with Sanderson’s work, it’s strongly plotted, with complexities and a sudden twist at the end that I wasn’t expecting. There’s an emotional component when Davis sneaks in the visit with his son, followed by later issues with his ex. The eventual face-to-face with The Photographer strongly suggests this might be a Snapshot of a Shapshot, in other words, an investigation of crimes committed within a previous Shapshot of the city.

The fact that both men have been taken off regular duty because of aggression issues mirrors a more developed discussion of this in Sanderson’s recent Skyward series. The repetition suggests it might be a recurring theme in his work, but there’s no real discussion of it here—Sanderson only presents the contrast, and maybe the difficulty of getting something like this right as an officer of the law.

On the not so positive side, I thought the sudden twist wasn’t that well supported by what had gone on before. It was foreshadowed some by The Photographer, but the conflict we saw didn’t quite build up enough motivation for the main characters. This could have also tied in better with the theme of aggression. What the mass murderer was doing didn’t quite make good sense, either. Still, these issues don’t detract from a good story.

Three and a half stars.

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