Review of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It is apparently Martine’s debut novel, and is listed as #1 in this series, suggesting we’ll see more on the same topic. It was published by Tor on 26 March 2019 and runs 472 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Mahit Dzmare is the new ambassador from Lsel Station to the multi-system Teixcalaani Empire. She has been dispatched in haste, and her imago implant holding the memories of her predecessor is hastily installed and out of date. When she arrives, she finds political unrest related to the Emperor’s impending death and a planned expansion war that will annex Lsel Station. Besides that, the previous ambassador Yskander Aghvan has apparently been assassinated, and Mahit and her liaison Three Seagrass seem to be next on the list. With the help of Three Seagrass and her friend Twelve Azalea, Mahit threads her way through the politics, where it becomes clear Yskander made inappropriate deals with the Emperor Six Direction, plus political heavyweights in the succession fight, Minister Nineteen Adze, opposition leader Thirty Larkspur and General One Lightning. Mahit’s imago fails, apparently because of sabotage from back home, and she receives frightening messages that Lsel Station pilots have encountered alien spacecraft—apparently the leading edge of some other inimical space empire. Is there a way Mahit can sort through the mess, straighten out her imago and save Lsel Station from annexation?

This is an impressive space opera intrigue, strongly plotted, with highly complex world building and attractive, well-developed characters. There’s a solid political structure and workable economics underlying the empire versus the independent mining stations, and notable cultural differences between the practical Lsel Station and the Empire, which seems highly literate and given to layered, nuanced communications framed in poetic verse. There are shocks and speed bumps, of course, but Mahit manages to sort out the issues, and at the end of the book is headed back to Lsel Station, apparently to report to the Council and confront Councilors Darj Tarats and Aknel Amnardbat about the sabotaged imago. This signals where the next book might lead.

On the less positive side, I had an issue with the imago timeline. The implant Mahit is given on the Station is fifteen years out of date, but after it fails, she experiences flashes of memory that seem more recent. I thought maybe the implant had picked up some of the dead Yskander’s memories when Mahit viewed his preserved body, but given later events, this doesn’t seem likely. So, either I’ve misunderstood the timeline or else this is just unexplained. Next, I’m a bit surprised that Mahit has only a single liaison for staff—considering her position and the political unrest, it seems she ought to have a security force, at least. And last, Mahit develops a sexual interest in Three Seagrass, her liaison and junior staff member. In the age of #MeToo, this is romantic, but also definitely transgressive, and the narrative skims over it. Mahit doesn’t even seem to repent for overstepping her bounds.

This will likely seem slow and boring to action-adventure space opera fans, but it’s highly recommended for the poetic at heart.

Five 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 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.

Review of The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch

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This novella is an urban fantasy police procedural released by Subterranean Press in May of 2019. It is part of Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series and runs 169 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The setting is Trier, Germany’s oldest city. A dog walker finds a man dead of noble rot, a fungus used in wine production, and circumstances are enough out of the ordinary that local authorities call the Abteilung KDA, a branch of the German Federal Criminal Police that handles supernatural issues. Investigator Tobias Winter, called in from holiday, plans to get there, deal with the problem, and get out with the minimum of paperwork. He teams up with local police representative Vanessa Sommer, and their investigation quickly links the victim with the Stracker vineyards, a pair of river goddesses and a middle-aged men’s social club. There seem to be a lot of issues left unresolved over the last couple of centuries. Can Winter and Sommer make sense of it all?

Good points: This should please fans of police procedurals. The characters are well rounded and have backstories, and the plot is intricate enough that it takes some investigating to find out what old ghosts everyone is hiding. There are a couple of plot twists that change the direction of the investigation, keeping interest up, and the mystery has a satisfactory conclusion. The German setting is different for an urban fantasy, though Aaronovitch admits to making up the vineyard, and the writing style is entertaining. There are some wry ironies lurking in there.

Not so good points: This doesn’t develop a lot of suspense, and the action line is fairly flat until a bump at the end. I didn’t get a strong impression of what the countryside looks like. Also, as the investigation takes shape, it’s fairly clear what is going on, if not who they’re looking for–so somewhat predictable. It’s a good book to curl up with on a rainy day, but not a really exciting read.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

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This novel is science fiction and was released by Vintage on January 9, 2018. It runs 689 pages. For anyone wondering, gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow. It also has implications about shadow secret societies. This review contains spoilers.

London in the near future is a surveillance state where a Witness System monitors and records everything. The government operates as a type of perfect democracy where all citizens are polled to vote on issues at regular intervals, and a vote is upcoming on whether implants should be inserted into individuals who need special monitoring and possible adjustment. In this environment, the elderly Diana Hunter, an eccentric Luddite writer and suspected dissident, is brought in for questioning through the invasive method of reviewing all her thoughts and memories. She dies after an unsuccessful interrogation, and Mielikki Neith, an Inspector of the Witness System, is tapped to investigate. Neith reviews the recordings of Hunter’s neural activity during the interrogation and finds a blockade of fictions, apparently presented to defeat the system. Three different narratives emerge: Athenian financier Constantine Kyriakos who is being stalked by a shark; ancient Carthagenian scholar and alchemist Athenais who is attempting to resurrect her son; and brilliant Ethiopian artist Berihun Bekele whose daughter Anna and partner Colson are designing a digital game called Witness. In her own reality, Neith meets a mysterious presence who introduces him/herself as Regno Lönnrot, who seems to be invisible to the Witness system. As Neith works through the neural recordings, she begins to put together clues and symbols that indicate a shadow group controlling the Witness System. What can she do about it?

So, this is interesting and mildly entertaining. It’s another of those brilliant works that presents the questionable benefits of surveillance and government control in the interests of national security, all in general terms related to the story, of course. It’s also a SF mystery story, plus a narration where one reality blends into another and you end up not being sure of what the “true” reality is. As we work through it, we start to wonder whether Neith is a reliable character or not. Actually, Bekele’s narration sounds pretty attractive, too. And then, there’s Lönnrot. And a demon? Hm.

On the negative side, there is a serious readability problem here. First, this is waaay too long. On the initial attempt, I gave up midway and later started over. It took me DAYS of dedicated work to slog through it. I understand this is part of the author’s literary device—it mirrors how Hunter dragged out the fictional narratives in her efforts to block the Witness’ invasion of her brain, but still, it’s just not gripping enough to justify nearly 700 pages. Second, these narratives don’t add enough to the story to support their length and detail–we could have gotten the idea with a lot fewer words. Each one of the stories could have been a novel on its own, and together they crowd out the minimal plot where Neith carries out her investigation and reaches a decision. The realities all come together in a muddle of resolution at the end, and the author just leaves us hanging there. This is followed by a very nice discussion about consciousness and reality in the last chapter, but that didn’t make the effort worthwhile for me.

Four stars for the brilliance and the message, but read at your own risk.

Review of Witchmark by C.L. Polk

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Polk is a Canadian author. This is her debut novel and a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It’s fantasy and billed as Book 1 of the Kingston Series. Book II, Stormsong will be available in June of 2019. This runs 318 pages and was published by Tor.com. It’s also a finalist for the 2018 Lammy Awards. This review contains spoilers.

Sir Christopher Miles Hensley was born a witch and a healer, which means he is unvalued because the aristocratic leadership of Aeland needs storm-singers instead to maintain a livable climate. To avoid being enslaved to a storm-singer as a secondary or imprisoned in a witch’s asylum, he runs away and joins the war effort against neighboring Laneer. As the war ends, he fakes his own death and returns as Dr. Miles Singer to work in the capital city of Kingston as a psychiatrist in a veterans’ hospital. This comfortable career is destroyed when Tristan Hunter brings a dying witch to the hospital’s emergency room. Singer is unable to save him, but when the man’s body mysteriously disappears from the hospital morgue, he and Hunter embark on an investigation, looking for evidence to present to the police. Complications to Singer’s life immediately set in: Returning veterans start committing mass murders. Another doctor at the hospital begins to suspect Singer is a witch. Singer meets his sister Grace at a hospital fundraiser; and under his human disguise, Hunter turns out to be one of the fay and beautiful Amaranthine investigating the loss of souls from the mortal world. The Laneer are arriving in the Capital to officially surrender, but are they planning a last effort to win the war? Can Singer solve all these mysteries and still maintain his freedom? And what should he do about Tristan Hunter?

This starts off like a wonderfully charming little Edwardian mystery, enhanced by the extra fantasy dimension, but as we move along, the plot unfolds into complexities. Miles’ aristocratic family turns out to be deep into politics and his father behind a horrific infrastructure that keeps Aeland prosperous and successful but consumes souls. The loss of souls in this scenario is so bad that it has attracted the attention of the otherworldly Amaranthine, whose leadership is thinking of interfering. There are some pretty serious structural horrors in the society, but it’s all low key and background enough that you have to think about it to reveal the symbolism about slavery and consumption of souls. Instead, the main storyline is the developing relationships between the characters, the evasions of the guilty, and how Miles, Tristan and Grace work to expose the underlying horrors in their world and deal with them to create a better tomorrow.

On the less positive side, it’s a little hard to believe that Grace is in line to replace her ailing father and still doesn’t know what Aeland’s infrastructure is built on. And how does Miles transition from a surgeon to a psychiatrist? Did he fake credentials, too? Next, there might be a touch too much complexity in the plot, as either the Laneer’s necromancy plot or the Aeland infrastructure issue would have been plenty to fill out a novel of this length. These are two competing subplots for a long time, and it seems a stretch that Miles manages to deal with both problems in one huge wrap-up at the end. Also, I’m wondering why someone with healing gifts would be so undervalued. Don’t the Aelanders understand what witchy healers could do for all those sinus infections? And last, I think the romance between Miles and Tristan was a little too pat. We’ve been warned about the Amaranthine all the way through this book, and now Miles is going to fall into his arms? I wouldn’t rush into anything, Miles.

I’m going to go 5 stars on this one.

What does “important” mean for lit awards?

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In his 2016 article for the Daily Beast, Tom Leclair indicates he thinks literary awards should be for works that are “the most ambitious and important nominee—a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of…history.” This is an interesting philosophy, as it says nothing about the quality of the writing or the writer’s skill in putting the novel together. Additionally, Leclair suggests that popularity, or even likability, should not be important for choosing a winner.

This, of course, is a philosophy for judging great literature. Examples from the 20th century might include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Lord of the Flies and The Color Purple. These are all profound works, and everyone pretty much agrees on their landmark status. The question is, should this kind of philosophy apply to judging genre works, too?

Genre works like romance, mystery, science fiction and fantasy are splinters from mainstream literature that originally formed to tell entertaining stories—as popular fiction, in other words, without any ambition to become fine literature. Of course, some genre fiction was bound to become landmark works. The Lord of the Rings, Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 come to mind.

Novels like this don’t come along every year, but you never know when one will break through into landmark status in a mainstream literary sense. So, do the SFWA professionals look for these “important” works for the Nebula Award?

Leclair goes on in his article to suggest we’re really better off not knowing what goes on behind the scenes of a literary prize. We’re assuming the SFWA members take their responsibility for the Nebula seriously, read all the works on the ballot (or at least critical reviews), and avoid voting on things like name recognition, friendship or reputation of the publisher.

What about this year’s winners make them important for the SFF genre?

Review of “Every Heart a Doorway” by Seanan McGuire

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This novella is a Nebula finalist published by Tor.com. It ended up with 13 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Miss Eleanor runs a home for wayward children that’s actually an effort to rescue those who have found doorways to other realities and then been forced back to the real world. Nancy has returned from the Halls of the Dead where she existed on pomegranate juice and learned stillness. At the home she meets the active Sumi, her roommate, but prefers the company of Kade, the wardrobe master; Christopher, who has a bone flute, and twins Jack and Jill, all of whom have been to dark places. Soon after Nancy arrives, Sumi is found dead, then another of the girls and one of the instructors. Can the children find who’s killing people before authorities close down the school?

This is a young adult type murder mystery with the added interest of the children pining for lost worlds. These are all children who are being ostracized because of their experiences, but they separate into cliques in the school, too, based on what kind of world they went to. This is presumably a metaphor for worldview and personality differences.

Pros: The story needed to be full novel length, I think; I would have kept reading. The murders are an interesting plot twist, and there was a really unexpected one at the end. Good character development and imagery. Lightly addresses gender and sexuality issues. Cons: Contains a couple of graphic descriptions of really horrific activity from the lost worlds and alludes to necrophilia. Is this suitable for young adults?

Four stars.

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.

Review of “The Liar” by John P. Murphy

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This Nebula finalist is a fantasy novella published by The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It ended up with 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Greg lives in a small Massachusetts town and considers himself a liar. This means that he can lie to things like broken rakes and convince them they aren’t broken. Pastor Julie can’t get him on the phone, so she comes to the house to ask him to step in as caretaker of the local cemetery. He agrees, but goes to talk to Joe, the last caretaker, whose back has gone out. Joe tells him there’s an accidental death of a young person every November 5. Concerned, Greg checks the records and finds this is true. He ties this to the crash of a World War II plane and a possible ghost. Can he and Pastor Julie deal with it?

I saw this described somewhere as a fantasy written by Garrison Keeler. That pretty much outlines the style. It’s very laid back and written in mystery format as Greg investigates and tracks down the threat to local youths while striving to bake the perfect apple pie. Mysteries normally have about three major plot twists, and this builds up nicely with a major twist about mid way, but it’s missing the expected one at the end, so ends up fairly anticlimactic. Murphy achieves great characterization of the narrator—I was involved and getting really concerned about Greg. The other characters are well-drawn, too, and the author injects an element of sadness about Greg’s brother, who turns out to have been one of the victim.

Four stars.

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