Review of The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

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I reviewed The Wicked King, second in this Folk of the Air series, which won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Novel in 2019, but thought it would probably help if I’d read the first book in the series, too. The Queen of Nothing completes the three-novel set. This novel was published by Little Brown in 2018, and runs 385 pages. Apparently it was optioned for a film in 2017. This review contains spoilers.

Jude’s mother was a mortal married to Madoc, a general of the High King of Faerie. She had one daughter Vivienne with him, and then ran away with a human artisan to the human world, where they had two more daughters. Madoc followed them, killed Jude’s mortal parents and spirited the girls away to raise with his new wife and son Oak. At seventeen, Jude wants desperately to fit in, but she is tortured by the young fay of her social circle, especially the cruel Prince Cardan, youngest son of the High King. Although her twin sister Taryn yields to the abuse and finds a place, Jude remains defiant, determined to win some kind of power to make her tormentors sorry. She schemes and intrigues, allying with Prince Dain, who is expected to succeed the High King, but then the coronation goes wrong, leaving the kingdom on the verge of civil war. Can she come up with a plan to save her family and make peace in the kingdom?

This is a pretty awesome intrigue, strongly suggesting the author had a tough time in high school. The story starts off with a bullying episode and gets successively more gripping as it goes along. Nothing and no one is what they seem, and all the characters are gray, rather than black and white. The Faerie are all cruel and hungry, but they love each other, too, and they fear loss. The characters take on dimension slowly as the tale progresses, as Jude fights her way through the love, hate and ambition, trying at first to achieve something for herself, and then once things go wrong, to save the people she loves. The Faerie kingdom and its rules are well-laid out, and now and then Jude slips back into the mortal world with her fay sister Vivi to shop at Target.

It’s hard to find anything really wrong with this. Considering the setting, I did start to suspect the characters were two-sided early on, so it wasn’t really a surprise when they showed a different face. One questionable issue here is what Jude is turning into—maybe becoming just as cruel, evil and calculating as the fay? She’s been cursed, so we’ll have to see how it turns out.

Five stars.

I’m going on to review the Queen of Nothing. If you’d like to read my review of The Wicked King, here’s a link to it.

Review of To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

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This science fiction novella is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards, a stand-alone novel written in the universe of the Wayfarer series. It was published 3 September 2019 by Harper Voyager/Hodder & Stoughton and is billed as 176 pages, but it looks more like 136 in the ebook. There’s an extensive acknowledgement section and “exclusive content” at the end that is an interview Chambers conducted with her (mom) science consultant, Nikki Chambers, an astrobiology researcher and educator in Southern California, that makes up the rest of the advertised length.

It’s the 22nd century and Ariadne O’Neill is part of the Lawki 6 team sent to explore exoplanets. The team has an assigned itinerary, and spends the time between arrivals in torpor storage where they are adaptively somatoformed so they can move freely on each particular world. Aecor has an ice crust with phosphorescent creatures that live under the ice. Mirabilis is a riot of life. Opera is terrible, fraught with storms that ultimately prevent them leaving the ship. Votum is tidally locked and at first appears deserted, but they find caves that hold secrets. Somewhere along the way Lawki 6 has stopped receiving bulletins from Earth. The team receives a final transmission from Lawki 5, damaged and attempting to land on Earth, but then nothing else. Is there any reason to continue their mission?

For anyone who’s wondering, this title is from a quote by UN Secretary Kurt Waldheim, 1977, recorded on the Voyager Golden Record as a message to any sentients who might intercept the interstellar probe.

I’d rate this story moderately high on the hardness scale because of the projections and the amount of real science that’s included, and as is usual with Chambers’ work, this contains a pretty big emotional wallop. The characters include two men and two women, with one of the men maybe trans, but this is only hinted and remains respectfully private and unclear. All characters are appealing and they respect each other, getting along with a minimum of conflict. The group is immersed in work they love and they experience the joy of discovery, but the mission turns dark when they start to suspect something bad has gone wrong on Earth. Besides this, Chambers engineers traumatic events in the mission that strongly affect the team members’ mental health.

On the less positive side, this probably needs a trigger warning because of its representation of murder, depression and attempted suicide. I would also have liked to read more on the ethics of killing aliens. The issue is given as cut and dried here, but it looks like a huge philosophical problem to me. The story also leaves us with an inconclusive ending. In the scenario provided, there’s no way around the team being stuck. It looks like a return to Earth might be a poor idea. They could extend their mission, but eventually they will run out of fuel. This raises the question of how they’re getting around. I’m just not sure the technology for a mission like this would be based on fuel that runs out. Shouldn’t the ship be at least nuclear powered?

Four stars.

Review of Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

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This horror novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Broken Eye on September 3, 2019, and runs 118 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Caleb is the biracial son of the Lewis town sheriff, and his grandparents’ house is just through the woods from the Royce property. There are rumors that Archie Royce coerces women into some kind of weird religious cult. The house burns one night, and Caleb goes with his dad to try to help out. It seems too late to save anyone but a girl named Cere. While they’re waiting to find her a foster family, Caleb’s dad takes her in. She becomes like a sister to Caleb, and he learns that her evil father taught her magic and expected her to end the world. A woman is murdered, and it starts to look like Cere might not be the only survivor of the fire. Years later when Caleb becomes town sheriff himself, the murders start up again. Is there any way he and Cere can stop Archie’s plan?

On the positive side, this includes some good imagery and manages to capture a faint flavor of the South. It’s based on a legendary figure called Catfish John, a sort of gator bigfoot of the swamp, and the creature makes several appearances, both in dreams and in real life. There’s also a faint flavor of cults, and how charismatic men can twist reality for their followers. On the diversity side, it features a biracial, gay sheriff, someone you wouldn’t exactly expect in a small Southern town.

On the less positive side, this has a disjointed feel, and fails to produce much in the way of plot, theme or meaning. It’s clear early on that Cere is a powerful witch, but we don’t see much of the battle she carries on against her father and brothers. Instead, we get confused dreams from Caleb, unsolved murders and cases of rot that are never explained. There’s no description of the town or any feel for town life, only a few ugly bullies that plague Caleb when he’s a kid. Nobody seems to have any plan to deal with the Royces’ evil cult except to call on Catfish John.

Two and a half stars.

Review of “Obsolescence” by Martha Wells

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This short story is based in the Murderbot universe, and appears in the anthology Take Us to a Better Place, released by Melcher Media on January 21, 2020. This review contains spoilers.

Jixy is an administrator at Kidland Station, somewhere in space. She is first alerted to a problem by screaming children, and finds, to her horror, that Greggy seems to have had a terrible accident. It’s a messy cleanup job, and worse, it looks like some of his components have been stolen. Greggy was a retired exploration rover, an early version of a human-machine construct, who was working at Kidland Station in a second career as a teaching assistant. Suspecting that Greggy might have been attacked by an unauthorized visitor, Jixy puts the station in emergency mode and orders a search of the module. It’s a scary situation, as everybody remembers stories of raiders that attack people to steal their prostheses and augments. Can Jixy find whoever is responsible before they strike again?

On the positive side, this story follows up on information we’ve gotten from Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series. One reason that Murderbot tries so hard to blend in with the human population is that it’s concerned about being identified as a rogue construct without any rights, which would be fair game for a chop shop gang. Murderbot also mentions the exploration rovers as an early example of human-bot constructs. Generally these were people who had suffered some highly debilitating accident and were offered the chance for reconstruction to help establish the first bases on Luna and Mars.

On the not so positive side, this suffers greatly from lack of Murderbot. Without its wry observances, the story fails to generate anything much in the way of interest. The vision of Greggy floating in his own remains is somewhat horrific, as is the perpetrator, but otherwise, I’m not sure of the point here. That transhumans will get obsolete the way an old car does? Well okay, maybe so. It’s a bit short on details, too.

Three stars.

Review of “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Lightspeed Magazine in January of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Jamie feels like both a girl and a boy, which seems to come from a confusion of past lives where they lived as one or the other. Jamie’s friend Alicia tells them a murderer Benjamin Avery and his family are moving in down the street. When Jamie sees the man, it jump starts a train of memory. After some research, they remember this is the man who was supposed to have killed them in their last life when they were a girl named Janie. But that’s not right—it was someone else. Benjamin rescues Jamie from the neighborhood bullies, and they talk. Memory strikes again, and Jamie remembers who the murderer really was. Is there any way to clear Benjamin and make the real murderer pay?

This is a very well-developed story with a great plot and great characters both. The description is first rate, and the neighborhood and age-level kid details feel real. The plot Jamie and Alicia come up with to track down the real murderer is highly entertaining. There are also some interesting asides here, too, where Jamie refers to his dog Meetu as a teddy bear trapped in a pit bull’s body. Hm. A touch of satire there? The ending is also satisfying, where Jamie decides to act on their feelings for the lesbian Alicia.

Regardless that this is both touching and entertaining, it has something of a forced feel because of all the sexual and gender diversity. I don’t think it necessarily follows that being born as both a male and female in past lives is going to lead to gender confusion in this one. It seems like a characteristic that would carry over fairly clearly from one existence to another.

Four stars.

Review of The Teardrop Method by Simon Avery

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award, and the title piece for Book 4 of the TTA Novellas series, published in 2017. The British press TTA also publishes Interzone and Black Static. The book is dark fantasy and also contains the short story “Going Back to the World.” The novella is about 111 pages and the short story runs about 40. This review contains spoilers.

Krisztina Ligetti is a cult artist, a singer/songwriter living in Budapest who produced one hit album years ago and then had nothing else to follow up with. After her lover Alice dies, Krisztina begins hearing elusive music that turns out to be the songs of mortality from people around her. She collects songs for a new album one-by-one that become complete as people die. She reconnects with her father, a 60s pop star who has been diagnosed with cancer, and hears his song. The story darkens as Krisztina finds she’s being followed by a man in a porcelain mask. Tracing the song of a ballerina, she encounters the writer Rebeka, a serial killer with a similar gift who has no compunction about killing people to complete their stories. Rebeka wants her story. Can Krisztina find a way to survive?

This narrative has something of a sick feel, as it’s about winter and death and the extreme depths that people plumb to feed their creativity. The title refers to the method Krisztina uses to produce her songs, detailing the grief and pain that go into each one. It lingers over relationships, failures and bitter coffee. The imagery seems foremost, as it’s all about bright futures declining into eventual decay and death. There’s nothing left at the end but the songs.

On the not so great side, the narrative jumps around a bit and seems fixated on Alice’s death, while her character remains undeveloped and peripheral to the main story. The whole thing is about depressed people who need some joy in their lives. I’m also left wondering how Rebeka gets away with her murders. Although Krisztina sees her commit a murder and the man in the mask knows who she is, nobody reports this to the police. But then, I guess it’s not about the reality.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Provenance by Ann Leckie

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This novel is a finalist in the 2018 Hugo Awards. It is science fiction and falls into the same universe as the Imperial Radch novels, presumably beginning a new series. It’s published by Orbit. This review contains spoilers.

Ingray’s aristocratic mother has set her adoptive children into competition to become her heir. Ingray comes up with a plan to retrieve Pahlad Budrakim out of “Compassionate Removal,” hoping e will offer to return artifacts e was supposed to have stolen. The retrieval takes all Ingray’s financial resources, but goes off as planned. However, Captain Uisine of the ship where she booked passage won’t take Pahlad as a passenger without eir assent. Meanwhile the Geck ambassador arrives in pursuit of Tic Uisine, posing the danger of treaty breaches. Things go from bad to worse, there’s a murder, and Ingray ends up offering herself as a hostage in exchange for her mother in an Omkem attack gone wrong. Can she deal with the politics and get out of the situation alive?

Although Leckie hit the big time with space opera and this novel falls into the same universe, I’m not sure it qualifies as the same. Instead, it’s more of a political intrigue, or maybe a cozy mystery. It’s a smooth, easy read with quaint world-building, weird mechanical puppets, mild humor and budding romances. Ingray’s hardworking translation app is a total hoot. There was also something of a twist ending when Ingray decides on a private life of activism instead of a political career.

On the not so great side, this is really dull and plodding as a political intrigue. The characters seem childish and naïve, events are simplistic and Ingray is wildly untalented as a schemer. It is absolutely unexplained why she would spend her entire net-worth on a half-baked scheme to convince Pahlad to give her the artifacts e supposedly stole. She takes huge risks and then sits and cries when thing turn out scary. Her brother Danach is an idiot, too, and mom is seriously in trouble for a workable heir. Also, given the treaty, I don’t understand why the Geck ambassador is allowed to run rampant through the human spaces.

Three stars.

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Review of Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s science fiction and published by Orbit. It runs 361 pages.

Maria is one of a seven person crew on the generation starship Dormire, 25 years into a voyage to a new home on Artemis. Her clone wakes drowning in cloning fluid and it’s immediately obvious something has gone wrong. There’s no gravity. Once out of the vat, she sees her dead body is sitting there, like she’s hit the resurrection switch. The rest of the crew is struggling out of their own vats. They’ve awakened without any memory of what happened. Can they get control of the ship, unravel the mystery of who killed them all and stop the carnage from happening all over again?

This is a strongly plotted novel, as all the members of the crew are criminals/undesirables that have been given the option of crewing on the ship as opposed to legal penalties. As they give up their personal stories in the aftermath of the massacre, a picture emerges of conflict over cloning and the rights of clones, including riots, religious opposition, power politics and illegal hacking. This is the real meat of the novel, which investigates how human cloning might be regulated and what could go wrong. Eventually the crew puts together the story of how they’ve been used, and how this threatens the future of the ship and the passengers waiting to be revived into new life.

Not so good points: There are some bad-science errors here that an editor or beta reader should have picked up. For example, some of the systems work on “solar power” but there isn’t any of that in deep space. Also, the technology here sounds like it’s contemporary, not projected to the late 2200s. Why would they still be using computer labs and tablets with glass screens instead of something more integral? The technology also seems uneven, with the kitchen being clearly better equipped than the infirmary or the cloning lab. There’s a huge waste of space on the ship for apparently recreational woods and gardens. Last, the prose doesn’t flow well, and the dialog tends to be somewhat stilted.

Regardless of these issues, I’d recommend the novel because of the ideas it presents. Lafferty gets an A for effort here. She’s aimed at thoughtful hard SF.

Four stars.

Review of And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award and for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s alternate reality and was published by Uncanny Magazine. I expect the title refers to the classic mystery novel And Then There Were None by English writer Agatha Christie.

Sarah Pinsker gets an invitation to the Sarah Pinsker convention, where Sarahs from various alternate realities are offered a portal to attend. After discussing this with her partner, Sarah accepts. The convention turns out to be more mind-bending than narcissistic, held on an autonomous offshore island and featuring an interesting array of women who vary because of key decisions Sarah has made in her life. This particular Sarah finds herself lodged in an isolated wing with a great view of the dumpsters and a neighbor who is a drug-addicted disc jockey. The organizer of the conference quickly turns up dead, and our Sarah (who is an insurance investigator) is asked to play detective. Can she find the clues? Figure out motive and opportunity? Name the killer? Okay, so then what?

This is an awesome idea for a story. Just thinking about the situation is mind-bending. All those Sarahs together in one place look like a rainbow assortment of possibilities, but they still drink up the supply of her favorite beer in the hotel bar. When Sarah is investigating, looking for motive and opportunity, she’s trying to psych out herself. It’s a cool little detective story with a great twist, and the motive to the crime turns out to be a bit heart-wrenching, too, as we find out what’s really important to the infinite Sarah.

I don’t have much in the way of complaints about this one. It’s got a laid-back feel, great characters, a well-developed setting and enough imagery that I can make mental pictures of the various Sarahs and what they’re up to. If anything, I might complain about it being a bit too short and too mundane. This kind of great idea could have supported a full length novel and an expansive, earth-shaking plot.

Highly recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

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This book was published in 2017 by Hogarth, and is promoted as interrelated stories. It would most likely be classified as psychological dark fantasy, though a couple of the stories might be considered science fiction. Enriquez is Argentinian and the work is translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell.

I was expecting something like Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, but this work didn’t really produce a timeline or anything like a plot; instead, the stories are only tenuously connected by setting and sometimes character names. The tales are variously described as gothic, macabre and spooky, which is appropriate reading as we move into October. They provide brief glimpses of unreality, psychosis and death as the author takes us into the minds of people with different and terrifying visions.

Almost all Enriquez’ main characters in the stories are women. She’s a very strong writer, and her characterizations and imagery suck you in gradually, as people who first appear normal begin to slide into different perceptions. Her stories include a lot of social criticism, taking place against a backdrop of poverty and addiction, and cover issues like cutting, anorexia, murder, suicide, hikikomori and even more horrifying personal statements. Highly recommended.

I don’t think this will fly as a novel in the 2017 awards cycle, but I’m going to post some of the stories on the Nebula Reading List. I also think some of these stories would be excellent choices for the Stoker Award. I’m not a member of the HWA, but I’d like to recommend this book to people who are.

Four and a half stars.

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