Review of Integration (Ghost Marines Book 1) by Jonathan P. Brazee

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This novel is military SF, released by Semper Fi Press on 25 April 2018. It runs 242 pages and is the first novel of a series. The second novel, Unification (Ghost Marines Book 2), was released in August, 2018, and Fusion is forthcoming. Integration was a 2018 Dragon Award Finalist for Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel. Brazee’s novelette “Weaponized Math,” from The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3, was a 2018 Nebula finalist. This review may contain spoilers.

Leefe is Wyntonian, a non-human from Hope Hollow. When he is still a child, his home settlement is attacked by human slavers, and the community is saved by Imperial Marines. Three tri-years later, the new Emperor of the Empire announces a plan to integrate non-humans into the Imperial Marines. The now-adult Leefen, remembering his admiration for the soldiers who rescued him, volunteers to be one of the first group of Wyntonians to apply for induction. This move by the Emperor is clearly a political strategy to unify the Empire, and all the Wyntonians are warned about failing. In order to become a real marine, Leefen will have to pass testing to achieve induction, get through boot camp, and most importantly, overcome the racism of humans who spitefully call Wyntonians “ghosts.” Does he have what it takes?

The story details Leefen experiences of the induction and training process, then carries on into his service deployments, including a mission to rescue hostages and—coming full circle, a final one to rescue the helpless captives of outlaw slavers. The main theme is the importance of the process that integrates the raw recruits into a cohesive unit, and how they try to confront and defeat prejudice by finding common ground and kinship with humans.

This is a smooth read with a minimal action line. There’s a certain amount of violence, of course, but it’s tailored to support the main theme of unity. The characters are well-developed. The politics in the Empire is suggested, but not detailed. Leefen is offered a political post when his enlistment is up, but avoids it for the moment. There are plenty of interesting leads here that I expect will develop in book 2.

Four stars.

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Where did fantasy lit come from?

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Fantasy has deep roots and seems to be a standard in human culture. Very old fantasy tales have come down to us, including works like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Book of One Thousand and One Nights and the Norse Edda. Then the printing press was invented in the 1500s and people started getting the idea of publishing their stories.

In 1666 Margaret Cavendish wrote the satirical novel The Blazing World, now credited as an early work of speculative fiction with elements of both science fiction and fantasy, as a companion piece to her more serious work, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. As we get closer to the modern day, Grimm’s Fairy Tales were collected in the 1700s, and in the latter 1800s, William Morris set the standard for high fantasy works with The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at World’s End. This inspired early 20th Century writers like Lord Dunsany, who wrote The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan of the Apes, John Carter of Mars) and Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian), who pretty much established the sword and sorcery genre.

In the 1930s and 1940s, J.R.R. Tolkien continued the high fantasy tradition with his series on Middle Earth. Also writing in the 1930s, Gertrude Barrows Bennett (a.k.a. Francis Stevens) invented dark fantasy with the novels Claimed and The Citadel of Fear. Although some might think he falls into the horror genre, I’d place Lovecraft into this same dark fantasy period. I also think Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny deserve mention as mid-20th Century icons. Moorcock’s series of eternal champion novels and Zelazny’s Amber series published in the 1960s and 1970s established the multiverse of alternate worlds as a standard.

By the 1980s, contemporary and low fantasy were finding their footing as a serious sub-genre. Terri Windling is credited with popularizing urban fantasy with Borderlands, followed closely by Charles de Lint. C.S. Lewis is an icon of Christian fantasy, and of course I have to mention J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

This is just a quickie review, of course. Are there any huge icons I missed?

Horror infesting the awards ballots?

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As I was doing reviews for the awards cycle this year, I got some comments about the popularity of works recently that lean to horror. I’ve just never really understood horror as a genre, though I’m better at managing to be less disturbed by it now than I used to be. Part of the problem is that I have tendencies toward depression and anxiety myself, and I really don’t like wallowing in it—there are better ways to deal. Reading about boiling babies in hot water, for example, just doesn’t help me to cope. No offense to people who like that kind of thing, of course.

Various people have made statements recently about the political content of SFF literature reflecting the interests and viewpoints of readers. So, I guess we can say the same thing about horror, right? It’s infiltrating science fiction and fantasy awards ballots because that’s what the majority of fans want to read? All right. So why?

One possible theory is that this reflects the mental health state of the readers. Supposedly the mental health status of teens and young adults in the 21st century (not to mention that of older adults) has seriously declined. About 50% of teens between the ages of 13-18 now have at least one diagnosed mental health disorder, and about 17% suffer from depression. I’m suspecting this is about average for most generations because of changing hormones and the tendency of the current mental health system to want to diagnose and medicate you if at all possible, but still that’s what the articles say. So maybe people with mental health disorders find horror strikes a resonant chord?

It turns out there is some research on the subject. A 2005 study by Hoffner and Levine found that people respond to horrific stories according to levels of three variables: empathy, sensation seeking and aggression. In other words, individuals with low levels of empathy and high levels of sensation seeking and aggression really like those stories about baby torture. There are also gender and age splits, as teens and men are more likely to enjoy horrific works than older fans and women.

Another researcher, Zillman (1980, 1996), developed a paradigm about excitation transfer. According to his theory, readers or viewers experience “fearful apprehension about deplorable events that threaten liked protagonists” and then feel relief when the threats are resolved. However, he doesn’t say what happens when everybody dies. Worse mental health?

Hm.

Wrap-up of the World Fantasy Finalists

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That concludes the reviews of the 2018 World Fantasy Finalists. See the full list of finalists here. The awards will be presented the first week of November at the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, there’s quite a bit of overlap between this and the Hugo and Nebula ballots, so I didn’t have to review that many works to finish up the list. There are actually two prior award winners here: “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17) won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Short Story, and “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17) won the Eugie Foster Award.

There’s pretty fair diversity in this list, not only among the authors, but also in the style and direction of the works–though not as much as in the Nebula ballot. I think. The short story category has a fairly serious diversity issue in that there were no men nominated at all. Best Novella leaned to men, and Best Novel was evenly split gender-wise. As is usual with recent SFF community awards, the nominees leaned strongly to women and Asians, with Hispanic/LatinX (typically at 0%) coming in way short of their US demographic. African Americans were maybe about right for their US demographic. Roanhorse complicates this issue, as she’s bi-racial, but I’ve included her only once in the Native American category below. The breakdown includes 43% POC and 57% white, which pretty much matches the demographics in the US. Here’s the breakdown:

Best Short Story  Best Novella

Best Novel  Overall

As usual, the ballot is completely dominated by American writers, but it does include minority, Greek and UK viewpoints. Of course, this group tends very strongly to the literary, and there’s not much of an adventure cast. There was a variety of publishers, but the big print magazines were shut out again.

Overall the subject matter looks somewhat more cheerful than my most recent reviews suggest. There is definitely a depressive and in some cases nihilist trend to the nominations, but a few works stand out with strong characters fighting for what they want and maybe, just sort of winning ground against the darkness. These brighter works include: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory and In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle. Chakraborty’s novel is dead serious, but the others are characterized by mild humor and social commentary that investigates the human condition fairly entertainingly.

Nothing here really caught my imagination, but the cliffhanger at the end of The City of Brass is going to worry me some. I’ll probably pick up The Kingdom of Copper when it comes out in January.

Best of luck to all the nominees!

Review of City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s released by Harper Voyager and billed as The Daevabad Trilogy #1. It runs 569 pages. The next novel in the series, The Kingdom of Copper, should be available 22 January 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Nahri is a con woman in 18th century Cairo who poses as a healer and palm reader to cover her real work as a thief. She sets up a zar to sooth a crazed girl, and while singing some old songs, accidently summons Dara, a magical djinn warrior. The girl turns out to be possessed by an ifrit, which attacks Nahri. Dara carries Nahri away from Cairo and takes her to Daevabad, the hidden City of Brass. He introduces her to the djinn King Ghassan as the last of the powerful Nahid family, and the court seems to welcome her. It turns out there are nasty undercurrents in the politics, simmering resentments between the six djinn tribes and the half-breed shafit. Nahri struggles to learn the healing arts they try to teach her, and Ghassan thinks she’s at most a half-breed human, but still plans a political union by marrying Nahri to his oldest son Muntadhir. He sends his youngest, the scholarly subversive Prince Ali, as a tutor to win her over to the plan. When Dara hears of it, he tries to carry Nahri away again, but Ali interferes and they are caught trying to cross the magical lake that guards Daevabad. Dara is killed, Ali possessed and banished, and Muntadhir’s companion Jamshid badly wounded. Ghassan is determined the marriage will go on as planned. Can Nahri turn any of this to her advantage?

So, counter to the depressive trend in the WFA finalists this year, this is a romance and an intrigue. All these people are lying to each other, and political groups are plotting right and left. Daevabad is exotic, the details of the city life, the temples and the palace very well assembled. I didn’t have any problems visualizing the people, the creatures or the scenery–the author has done a lot of research. She’s also done a great job in blending tradition with modern sensibilities. The characters are slightly flat, but the story is more focused on the action and intrigue than on revealing their deepest inner thoughts. The reader is left to deduce a lot of what’s going on from their actions.

In case you can’t tell from the synopsis, this is a cliffhanger, as everybody is at risk at the end, and the political tides are still rising. Nahri mostly lets people push her around in this book, but her political faction didn’t abandon her over the marriage, so she’s now well placed to be a power player in the next novel. Without Dara and Ali, she’ll have to find other protectors.

On the negative side, the magical world here was a little too complex for me to keep up with the way I read the book, which was a piece here and a piece there. Politics in the city was fairly clear by the time I was done, but a lot of other creatures seem to be circling Daevabad, just waiting for some chance to get in. I didn’t get a clear idea of the motives or alignments there. One other note: this seems to be an unfortunate choice of title, as it’s apparently shared with a successful video game. That means a search for the book turns up mostly the game info instead. However, I guess Chakraborty’s fans can tell the difference.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

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This is the fourth novella in the series titled The Murderbot Diaries. It was released 2 October 2018 by Tor. This has been a highly successful series, including the Hugo and Nebula winner All Systems Red, followed by Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol. A full length novel continuing the story is scheduled for release in 2020. This review contains massive spoilers.

At the end of Rogue Protocol, Murderbot has safely escaped Milu on Ship. Since Ship isn’t all that bright, it monitors Ship’s inputs as they approach HaveRatton Station. When Ship is directed to divert from its usual dock by Port Authority, Murderbot uses an evac suit to leave through the cargo module airlock and enters the station through another docked ship. The diversion turns out to be about a large security force waiting for some rogue SecUnit. Hm. Safely on its way, Murderbot checks the newsfeeds and finds that GrayCris has charged its owner Dr. Mensah with corporate espionage and that she is now missing. Intensive research suggests this is about the data Murderbot collected on Milu, and that she’s being held on TranRollinHyfa Station where GrayCris has its corporate headquarters. Murderbot uses an ID chip and a hard currency card it took from hired killers Gerth and Wilken and catches a fast passenger transport for TRH. Once there, it identifies a bond company gunship sitting off the station. Pulling a status report, it finds the ship has been refused dockage by the station, but a shuttle from the ship has docked. Drs. Pin Lee, Ratthi and Gurathin are on the station attempting to negotiate Mensah’s release. Can Murderbot get her out of GrayCris’clutches without getting caught itself? If so, then what?

This continues the story arc with the same great features of the other novellas. The world building is notably excellent, as are the characters. Because it’s written in first person, we have the advantage of Murderbot’s wonderfully entertaining viewpoint. Not only is it getting much better at impersonating a human, but I’m suspecting that “comm interface” component ART made up for it provides a lot of extra processing power. We’re also finally seeing why rogue SecUnits really are dangerous, as Murderbot casually hacks its way through the station’s protected systems while simultaneously outwitting GrayCris’ security force and carrying on an apparent love affair with Dr. Mensah (just like on the media shows). Once it’s trapped, the violence escalates, and it doesn’t want to shut the aggression down. Only Mensah’s tenuous hold on it keeps things together. There’s been a rising action line through the whole series, and this caps it off nicely.

On the not so great side, I’ve got some nits to pick with the whole story arc at this point. I suspect the series was written fairly quickly, as Wells has said it’s a short story that got out of control, and after the huge success of the first novella, she quickly got in gear to produce the rest. Tor was also in a hurry to follow up on the initial success, and went light on the editing. That means there are some inconsistencies in the content. 1) ART’s modifications included reducing Murderbot’s height by either one or two centimeters; we’re not sure which. 2) The sampling device that tried to capture Don Abene in Rogue Protocol snatched her helmet away, but later she has it again. 3) In Exit Strategy, the Preservation group plans not to mention Murderbot is a SecUnit so there will be no questions about citizenship, but somehow Mensah’s daughter knows. Also, the plan to produce a documentary (presumably what this series is) will also reveal this issue. Hello? 4) At the end of Exit Strategy, what happened to Murderbot’s projectile weapon? I can’t believe it left that behind, but it just sort of disappears. 5) At the end of Exit Strategy, was it struck by shrapnel or a projectile? It says both in different places. 6) In Exit Strategy, I didn’t quite believe the scenario that led to system failure. It seems like a processing overload would have just led to burnt out capacitors. Extending into a different system should be done with copied code, right? Like a virus? And that shouldn’t jumble up the original code, right? Somebody who knows about AI architecture help me out on this one.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

Review of Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley

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This book is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s published by Saga and runs 465 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The narrator has recently lost his wife to illness and is dying himself. He finds a sick crow and nurses it back to health. They become friends and it tells him its history. The crow Dar Oakley calls the realm of the crows Ka, and that of humans Ymr. He also knows a realm of Other. Dar Oakley receives his name from a human girl he calls Fox Cap. The two of them go into Other to find Nothing, and Dar Oakley finds it but hides it for himself. Fox Cap cries and afterward dies, but then Dar Oakley finds he is immortal, always reborn. Humans have battles that provide carrion, and crows find they can encourage them to kill each other. Following a Saint, Dar Oakley is caught by a storm and blown to a New World, where the people are killed by a mass sickness brought from the Old World. There is a great War where the dead in blue and gray provide a huge feast, and crows become numerous because of the growing bounty. Dar Oakley becomes friends with poet Anna Kuhn, and later her son becomes a great crow hunter. Dar Oakley encourages the crow flock to attack him, and they are eventually successful against him. The narrator wants Dar Oakley to lead him and his housekeeper to the Other place of the dead. Will this plan be successful?

So, this book is about death. Crowley is a well-known stylist, and he gets points for creating meaning in the narrative. Still, I found this really hard reading. Because Dar Oakley is a bird, he is light-minded and in general all his observations are surface level. That means we get a lot about flocks and mating and chicks, and the meaning takes shape from the carrion events and from what the humans say.

It’s clear that Crowley did a lot of research on the topic of crows and their status as death birds. The lore in this narrative is sort of scary, and I think humans are lucky that crows aren’t any bigger than they are. On the other hand, the events that feed the crows don’t say anything much good about humans, either.

This one isn’t for the faint of heart.

Four stars.

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