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.

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Review of Third Flatiron Galileo’s Theme Park (Third Flatiron Anthologies Book 23)

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This is Anthology #23, a collection of thirteen speculative fiction short stories edited by Juliana Rew and Alex Zalben. It was issued June 15, 2018, and is offered as both an ebook and a paperback. There are 20 stories that range from space opera to SF to fantasy to horror, and there’s a flash humor section at the end.

Third Flatiron Anthologies is a pretty reliable series for smooth, touch-of-wonder stories, without the heavy political messages that sometimes turn up in SFF works. These offerings follow that standard, including everything from the quirky to the serious. Because Galileo is the theme this time around, the volume includes stories including space exploration, adventure, religion, and cosmology.

The anthology starts off strong with Alex Zaiben’s “And Yet They Move,” where a star surveyor finds herself lost in an ancient model. Ginger Strivelli’s gives us a memorable turn of phrase when she describes quantum physics as “a brick wall of sciency stuff” in “For the Love of Money,” a tongue-in-cheek look at colonization. “Vincenzo, the Starry Messenger” takes us to Florence in 1633, when Vincenzo, Galileo’s assistant, has a otherworldly experience with the telescope his master called the “starry messenger.” In “Signals” by Erica Ruppert, a woman is haunted by elusive music. Justin Short gives us a surreal and horrific image of a family marooned on a distant world in “Dispatches from the Eye of the Clown.” “And the Universe Waited” by Jo Miles is a heart-warming vision of mentorship and waiting.

On the less positive side, there are no hugely important ideas here. There is a variety of stories included, but they’re pretty much low-key and meant for light reading rather than deep thought.

Three and a half stars.

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Why do we need all that baggage?

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I’m feeling the need to say more about the messages embedded in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I expect I know where they come from. After the Force Awakens, there was controversy about new directions in the series. Presumably the producers were a little annoyed by this, and the result is all these messages about letting go of history. The loss of the old Star Wars is inevitable, actually, as the original characters are now too old to be dashing action figures, and the Princess is dead. As a traditional fan, I understand these messages, but how is a younger audience to take them?

The old Star Wars was about the resourcefulness, courage and discipline that it took to be a Jedi. It was about attaining wisdom and skill in the arts and sciences, and about how easy it is to slip off the narrow path and fall to the dark side. The reward for all the time and effort Luke put into his study was self-esteem, ability, adventure and success in the new world he helped to create.

To review: Most of the troubling messages in the film come from the conversations between Luke and Rey, where we see Luke has rejected his accomplishments and claims the Jedi “religion” is outdated and empty. He advises Rey to kill off history in order to reach her full potential. Rey is ambitious. She makes feeble efforts to train by herself, but blunders through obvious mistakes, while Luke still refuses to help her. We’re left in a universe of kids with no guidance, and the result is wild magic to get what they want, to defend themselves, and maybe to rescue their friends. There’s no emphasis on study, planning or organization. The message is that individual grandstanding, insubordination and mutiny against your leaders is both forgivable and all good in the end.

So, are these really good messages to send to children? I’m sure a lot of kids will love hearing they don’t need the older generation. But, should elders make a decision that the old order is dead and refuse to teach kids the skills and wisdom they’ll need to run the world by themselves? Do we really need to remember all that baggage about codes of honor, the Holocaust and the US Civil War?

I agree that there’s a certain weight to baggage like that. Minorities that see themselves only as victims of discrimination will have a hard time rising above it. If you spend all your time mired in events that ended over a hundred years ago, for example, then you won’t accomplish much that’s new. But civilization grows because we know about the past and pass on knowledge and wisdom to others. It grows because we, as a society, organize, study the mistakes of previous generations and come up with a common plan that most people support to deal with problems in our world.

Don’t grandstanding and individual self-serving only undermine this effort? Why do we, as a society, want to glorify that above study and hard work?

Review of The Prisoner of Limnos by Lois McMaster Bujold

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This novella is volume 6 of the Penric and Desdemona tales, following Mira’s Last Dance. It was published by Spectrum Literary Agency in October 2017 and runs about 139 pages.

Temple sorcerer and demon host Penric and his friend the widowed Nikys have successfully escaped to the duchy of Orbas, but Penric has put off returning to his work as a temple scholar, hoping Nikys will accept a proposal of marriage. She stalls, concerned about the chaos demon that Penric always carries around with him. However, she accidentally intercepts a letter to her brother saying her mother has been kidnapped and is being held hostage in Cedonia. She comes to Penric for help. Can the two of them rescue mom? Will Nikys ever accept Penric’s proposal of marriage?

Like all the other novellas in this continuing story, this is a quick, entertaining read. The novella is nothing really profound, but Bujold is an accomplished writer and her characters are well-developed, absorbing and entertaining. The world is pretty well built by now, and I don’t have any problems visualizing the houses, towns or shrines. I thought Mira’s Last Dance was a little weird, but maybe it was all to put Nikys off. She’s having to make up her mind here if she can buy the package deal.

Recommended. Three and a half stars.

Review of They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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This book is near future science fiction and was published by Harper Teen in 2017. It runs about 384 pages. Silvera is of Puerto Rican heritage and lives in New York City.

Mateo Torrez is eighteen. He’s reading the CountDowners blog at 12:22 a.m. when he receives his final alert from Death-Cast. His dad is in the hospital in a coma and Mateo doesn’t want to spend his End Day alone, so he brings up the Last Friend app and looks for someone to spend the day with. Rufus Emeterio is seventeen. He’s beating up his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend Peck when his phone sounds the Death-Cast alert. His gang the Plutos plans a great funeral for him, but Peck spoils it by calling the police. Rufus escapes and looks on the Last Friend app to find someone to spend his End Day with. The two boys find each other and set out to live adventures they’ve not tried before. Is there a way they can escape death at the end?

Good points: This story is very positive and life-affirming. Mateo is shy and reclusive and Rufus is assertive and slipping into bad behavior. The two boys influence each other to change in a single day, where Mateo comes out of his shell and Rufus takes up a lot of his new friend’s kindness. They end up with a relationship that’s more than just “friends” by the time evening rolls around. The story also touches other people’s lives on their End Day that cross the boys’ path. Of course, there’s a philosophical thread to all this, about how we should live our lives every day, but Silvera spends most of his time with the characters, leaving the philosophy subtle.

Not so good points: Silvera is very focused on the characters and their interactions and tends to neglects the action line. I can’t really complain about the plotting. There’s a sequence of events, subplots that include other characters, and a suitable finale. These provide little peaks of interest, but without the rising action line, the story fails to develop much drama. Slivera may be working to make the story gentle and encouraging for teens instead, but some authors would have made this a real heart-breaker.

Silvera gets extra points for having such fresh ideas.

Three and a half stars.

Guest review of Monster Hunter: Siege by Larry Corriea

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I can’t personally read all the books released in 2017, so here’s a guest review by The Phantom. Monster Hunter: Siege is published by Baen and runs around 399 pages. It’s sixth in the Monster Hunter series. The review follows below:

If monsters like werewolves, vampires, undead zombies and other, more obscure evils really did exist, if Chthonic demons did exert an influence in the world, and you found out… what would you do?

Monster Hunter International is a group of people that made a business out of killing evil creatures. That notion of ingenuity and sheer attitude, the idea that not only one should fight evil but one should also be well paid for doing so, that’s very appealing to me. These are people who approach a werewolf the same way the exterminator approaches a raccoon in your attic. As a business. All the stories have that mix of the fantastical and the practical, down to the exact mix of silver and lead you want in a shotgun shell, to be sure of taking out the werewolves in a cost-efficient manner.

Monster Hunter: Siege is far enough along in the series that we have seen the main characters develop from know-nothing civilian, to raw recruit, to veteran Hunters. In Siege we see Owen Pitt continue his development from leader of a small unit hunting monsters one at a time, to an officer in charge of taking the battle to the Enemy in a brigade-level operation. This involves ship movements, the practicalities of how to shoot an evil giant with an armored vehicle, logistics for 1000 Hunters in a remote and inhospitable location, and what to do when you’re facing the very personification of Chaos. Pitt makes the kind of personal sacrifices routinely expected of soldiers every day, and the cost is made very apparent. One minor example, he goes forward with planning and executing the operation knowing he won’t be home for the birth of his first child, and knowing he won’t be able to protect his family from the monsters while he is gone. He trusts his comrades to do that for him, and goes ahead because he knows he has to. That’s an inspiring character.

This story and the rest of the series are like a rest for me. I get to live in a world where evil has a physical manifestation that you can fight. There’s none of the usual gray, “everybody does it” dark world where nothing is ever worth doing, and people sit around whinging about their feelings instead of fixing the situation. These people do their whinging while they work, like real people who get things done.

The story moves fast, and there is plenty of action. The thing that distinguishes these books from others for me is that the action is necessary given the plot elements and the construction of the world. There’s no random, pointless scenes where the Good Guys are fighting something for no good reason. Every scene forwards the story, every character is there moving the events forward to the conclusion.

Plus there’s an evil giant getting shot by a tank. Twice. That’s some awesome story-telling, and better yet, a story that’s worth the telling.

Five Phantom thumbs way, way up for this one. ~:D

The Phantom

Review of Borderline by Mishell Baker

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This novel is urban fantasy, a Nebula finalist published by Saga. It ended up with 17 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Millicent Roper is a suicide survivor and double amputee suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and living in a mental health institute in Los Angeles. She is approached by Caryl, who offers her an interview for a job with the Arcadia Project and then mysteriously disappears. Intrigued by the offer, Millie checks out of the hospital and moves into one of the project’s residences. This is an old Victorian house peopled by other individuals with mental health issues, and a certain amount of friction ensues. It turns out the Arcadia Project monitors gateways to Arcadia used by the fey to enter the human realm, and something has gone wrong. As Caryl is preoccupied with indications, Millie moves into the gap, taking over an investigation into a missing fey. She contacts people in the film industry and eventually learns what plot is afoot. The group mounts an expedition to remedy the situation in the face of highly dangerous fey.

On the pro side, this is a solid supernatural mystery story with Millie playing the part of investigator. The characters are well-drawn, and it’s very readable and strongly plotted, leaning to adventure rather than sentiment. It’s written in a slightly tongue-in-cheek style, and Millie is both cynical and snarky. This tone works well at the beginning of the novel, but less well as things get more serious and people start to die. Also, I didn’t quite believe that someone as down and out as Millie was at the beginning of the story would suddenly rise to the occasion of dealing with an investigation and wrap up of this scope. I’m under the impression that BPD is a serious disorder, and that a few months of therapy won’t make sufferers functional. Also on the pro side, I absolutely was not able to predict who would make it out of this adventure alive.

Three stars.

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