Music Monday is a meme created by Drew the Tattooed Book Geek where he features a song he likes. Here in the dying embers of November, I’d like to share with you a tune quite outside the usual metal and rock that I typically go for. It’s but one of the several string bands I’ve had running through my head in the past few weeks. It bears a moroseness to it that summarizes the mood around lately.
Month: November 2020
Book Loot – October / Updates
So… 2020’s almost over. Which is pretty nice. The pandemic isn’t in a great place right now, with nearly 200k new cases daily in the US. Politics really aren’t any better, with our current Commander in Chief refusing to acknowledge the pandemic at all, while it rages. He also refuses to accept other things, but let’s not get into that. My own anxiety is pretty dang high, as I’m working six days a week somehow. And half of them are surrounded by people. And people in my state continue to ignore the whole mask thing. But let’s not dwell on that.
At the moment, I have no new ARCs for December. I only requested one, and haven’t heard back about Memoria. So, I’m assuming that this’ll be my catch-up month. But we’ll address that later. First, for what I collected this month:
Forged – by Benedict Jacka
Eleventh of a planned twelve in the series, Forged comes at a time when SHRHTF for Alex. I won’t spoil it for those of you who are behind and have any interest, but sufficient to say that we’re seeing a new, uncut Verus who’s in it to win it. I can’t wait to tuck into this—right after I finish Blood of Empire!
Planetside – by Michael Mammay
I was planning on waiting til it actually got here to declare it as loot, but whatever. I’ve heard good things about this series (particularly from Niki), so went out and got a used copy. As I’ve no ARCs for December, and I seriously underperformed with regards to scifi month—figured this was the perfect time.
Since I bought more new games this month (all during black friday sales (all online, I might add) where I’ve apparently no constraint), I figured I might at least talk those up. I’ve always planned on having more of a gaming presence on here but haven’t really ever gotten around to it. Maybe this’ll help (I guess we’ll see).
Horizon: Zero Dawn Complete
This was an impulse thing. It was on sale, I’ve heard great things about it, so here we are. I pretty much just doubled my game haul for the year in one week. I’ll probably get to this sometime next year—here’s hoping it’s good!
Control: Ultimate Edition
This game I’ve wanted pretty much since it’s release but held off because of some news of lag and glitches. But from what I’ve heard those are pretty much patched by now and I’ve managed to get the game and dlc on sale. I’m… pretty excited to get into this. Not as much as Cyberpunk, but close.
One of my favorite co-op series, I don’t play much Borderlands by myself. But as some of my friends are locked away, I managed to B1G1 free and figured I’d gift someone a copy to play it with me. If anyone reading this owns it already and has any interest in some co-op, do let me know, eh?
In terms of news… well we’ve pretty much covered it, right? The US sucks right now. Y’all stay safe, y’hear? I’ve a nasty cold this week that wiped my schedule clean—apparently if you have 2+ COVID symptoms you’re required to quarantine or get a test, but they’re desperate around here as everybody has it—so I actually got some rest in. But since I felt pretty awful during most of the week, I didn’t really get to enjoy much of it.
Anyway, this brings us to December. There’re a couple of posts I want to do this month in addition to reviews, which hopefully I’ll get around to in-between my chaotic work schedule. One is that I’m declaring next year a reread year, where I’ll reread some of my favorite books and see if they live up to my memory of them. I’d been kicking around the idea for a while now, but really focused on it after a comment by Piotrek over on Re-Enchantment. Now all I need is some cool artwork and an even cooler name for it. Which… doesn’t seem too likely, but hey—could happen.
Yeah so, let’s get this year over with!
Phoenix Extravagant – by Yoon Ha Lee (Review)
Fantasy, Alt History
Solaris; October 20, 2020
416 pages (ebook)
4 / 5 ✪
I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Solaris and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.
Gyen Jebi isn’t a warrior or leader. They just want to paint.
But as the native child of an occupied territory, the future of their country, their people may depend on them and what they choose to do.
And yet it all starts when they forsake their heritage, donning a foreign name so that they might become a ministry artist—comfortably housed and paid—just so they might paint to their heart’s content. But instead of the Ministry of Art, the test instead lands them a job at the mysterious Ministry of Armor, where they are set to painting the curious symbols used to animate the Razanei’s fearsome automata.
In one stroke Jebi is cut off from their friends, their family, their life before—and ensconced in the Ministry’s fortress, where they learn to create and paint that which keeps their people in bondage. But the methods used are too horrifying even from them to imagine, which prompts Jebi to answer a question about themselves—will they emerge from the shadows and try to lead their people into the light, or will they instead focus on their art, the only thing they’ve ever wanted?
Phoenix Extravagant combines a unique magical system, an automated dragon of infinite potential, a beautiful by deadly duelist, and a rather bland artist that would rather fame had simply passed them by.
I actually really enjoyed Phoenix Extravagant, something that I would not’ve expected after the first 50-odd pages. The lead Jebi is a bit bland, really. A bit sheltered from the world, a bit caught up in their head, a bit off, odd. Not the best narrator (at least I would’ve sworn early on).
Only Jebi turns it around. As they grow more deeply embedded in Razanei society, so too do they develop as a character, as someone capable of telling a full story alone while maintaining an interesting lead.
In general, the world-building wasn’t terribly creative. The Hwaguk people were obviously styled after Korea, with the Razan invaders from a nearby archipelago were clearly Japan. The Chinese were mentioned too, but only in passing, and I didn’t take note of their pseudonym. If you weren’t aware, Korea and Japan have a… complex relationship, at least historically. And as Japan has previously annexed Korea (particularly during the early twentieth century, roughly the time this novel takes place), there’s certainly a historic precedent.
There’s actually quite a lot of historical parallels thrown around in this. In general I found these to be interesting parallels, though they also cheapened the novelty of the world-building (especially as the “westerners” are just called “westerners”). While the dynamic between the Hwaguk and Razan dominates, others include the isolationism in reference to the rest of the world, and the depiction of the West as something mysterious but to be feared and hated (not that they were wrong there).
Here’s a quick history lesson. If you’re interested, confused, bored, or Ola—read on. Otherwise, feel free to skip ahead a couple (or three) paragraphs .
Korea was known (in the West, primarily) as the “Hermit Kingdom”. For centuries the various Chinese dynasties were seen as the major influencer over Korean politics since even before the Goryeo Dynasty, when it was basically viewed as a tributary state of China under the Yuan and Ming dynasties. This balance shifted during the Joseon period, when the dynasty adopted a severe policy of isolationism in an attempt to keep both China and Japan from meddling too much in their affairs, as both nations favored adding Korea to their empire. But late in the life of the Joseon matters came to a head.
Now I’m going to oversimplify things a bit more. See, there was this peasant rebellion in Korea. The Joseon was late in life at this point, and things weren’t going particularly well. They panicked and requested help from China (the Qing sent aid to what they viewed as their “tributary state”). Japan, angry about the troops that entered Korea from China (as they thought it broke a treaty between the two), sent an army of their own. The rebels were defeated, but neither China nor Japan wanted to leave. Eventually it led to war. A war which Japan won, and China conceded a number of things including, essentially, the right to colonize Korea. The Joseon Empress didn’t much care for this, and attempted to strengthen ties with Russia in order to kick Japan out. Japan, in turn, had her assassinated. Then forced the Emperor to end the Dynasty and form a new government, ripe for colonization by Japan. Something which they did not long after.
So, there’s been a long history of contention between the two. [Historically] Korea hated Japan because they… well, there’s a whole lot of reasons, but it’s mainly the colonization, mistreatment, and the comfort women (you’ll have to google that one—I’m not explaining it). [Historically] Japan hated Korea because of ethnic tensions, inauspicious events, and just a whole host of other reasons. Enough to say that both have their reasons and leave it at that. Since this time, obviously there’re the attempts by the Japanese to ignore some of the things they did during World War II—which is a bit like being a Holocaust denier in Europe—which I’m not getting into either.
There are a number of creative changes made to the history throughout, notably the magic, automata, the gender and identity bias (or lack thereof), and the cultural norms. I quite enjoyed the direction the author went with the magic and automata, though sometimes even it seemed a bit too fanciful to be believed. Even with the obvious historical parallels, the magic system is unique and interesting enough to carry the book. But it doesn’t hurt that the story is really good, either.
The story tells somewhat conflicting tales of how individual choice and freedom affects everyone around you, and the freedoms and sacrifices of following your own path and doing what you believe is right, rather than obeying someone else’s dream instead. While all of this adds up to a very serious book, Phoenix Extravagant’s humor turns the book into something quite different: a fantasy with not one, but several possible lessons, and several possible outcomes cropping up along the way.
“Jebi,” she said, “this is like when you were four and you thought laundry magically happened.”
Jebi opened their mouth to protest that they’d helped with the laundry, then remembered “helping” had consisted of running around shrieking with glee while pulling underclothes off the line and flinging them about.
While Phoenix Extravagant does a good many things right—such as telling an entertaining story filled with interesting characters, and a thought-provoking premise and plot—it is let down by a somewhat uninspired display of world-building, an odd mixture of humor and intensity, and moments in the second half of the text that feel either fanciful or bizarre. I appreciated not only the story, but the multiple ways it could’ve been interpreted—even as many historic parallels can be drawn between this story and that of our own. The tale’s own message about one’s personal choices—on gender, culture, identity—are surely influenced by the author themselves, but Yoon Ha Lee doesn’t seem to lead the reader in any one direction. This story is about Jebi first and foremost—and dragons, magic, war, love, and loyalty second.
Night Sky: Stargazing with the Naked Eye – by Robert Harvey (Review)
Amber Books; November 14, 2019 (original hardcover)
Amber Books; November 3, 2020 (flexibound)
224 pages (Hardcover)
5 / 5 ✪
I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Amber Books and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.
Imagine a night sky. It could be from your front porch, from a lonely mountain, from a high-powered telescope. There could be an aurora in the sky, a meteor shower, a clear view of the Milky Way. Or it could be cloudy—if so, imagine better.
The Night Sky aims to present you with everything your imagination could be taking advantage of; in this case very real examples of the majesty of the heavens from all around the world. While there is some text to read, some notes and descriptions to take note of—this was all about the photos for me. They are stunning, and completely blew me away.
While it initially sounds more like a guide from the title, I’d say Night Sky is rather more aimed to inspire and impress. If it gets you out exploring the stars on your own—great! If not—that’s fine too. It’s more a representation of everything the night sky has to offer to the common observer. There are notes on night sky photography, light pollution, stargazing, and more in the beginning and back appendices. The heart of it focuses on the photos themselves; taken from each inhabited continent, each one a stunning image in a book filled with them.
I was presented with the ebook version first, of which I didn’t have the best opinion. First off, I couldn’t put it on my kindle. Not that the photos would’ve been nearly as impressive there for me, but it was frustrating all the same. On my phone, the photos were quite stunning, but wee tiny things. I could enlarge sections of them, but never see the photos themselves full-size. That and the text was next to impossible to read this way, as I’d’ve had to enlarge it quite a bit, only to scroll along word by word, line by line to read through it.
So I did what any reasonable person would.
I went out and bought the print book.
I was not disappointed.
Note: After I finished this review, I attempted to locate the ebook version anywhere online and could not. So… my problems with it are moot, I guess. Seems it was just a pdf of the review copy, or something? Not sure. Anyway…
Retailing at around $25, this was a splurge for me. Beyond that, even. I don’t even like throwing down that kind of money for a book I know I’m going to read and enjoy multiple times over. At first it was enough to make me waffle and ultimately regret my decision—but then I received the book itself.
First thing, the pages are thick and glossy, perfect for printing high definition photos on. They’ll also resist tearing, which is nice. The descriptions are easier to read in this version, but they’re really only fun facts and notes about the accompanying pictures. The photos themselves steal the show.
This is a perfect centerpiece (if you’re into that), or something to leave out on your coffee table for perusal or idle guests (again, if you have either of those things). For someone like me, I found that I most often looked at it during the day, then it inspired me to go out and look at the stars come night. While I’m fortunate to live in an area with generally low light pollution, I do know that not everyone is as lucky. And for them, this book might in some ways assuage this.
While I realize this isn’t science fiction, it does provide the near limitless potential for the imagination. Maybe you’ll look at these photos and get the inspiration to finally write that novel. Or finish it. Or maybe you’ll go outside and stare up into the heavens instead. Or maybe it’ll simply make your dreams vast, open, and full of infinite beauty.
The Rush’s Edge – by Ginger Smith (Review)
Untitled #1 / Standalone
Angry Robot; November 10, 2020
297 pages (Paperback)
3.2 / 5 ✪
I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot for the ARC! All opinions are my own.
Halvor Cullen was not born but made—grown in a tank until the age of twelve, then trained to fight and kill and die for those that made him, the ACAS. After his seven years of mandatory military service, Hal washed out, as all VATs do. For there he was expected to continue fighting and kill up until he bit it, while trying to fill the void within, mostly with drugs. Instead Hal joined up with his old CO, taking off to salvage the edge of the galaxy for advanced tech.
During one of his layovers in central space, Hal meets Vivian Valjean, a tecker trying to escape her old life and her old mistakes—most recently a man named Noah. Through a series of circumstances, Vivi ends up accompanying the crew on a mission—and the rest is history. But between the discovery of an alien sphere, trouble with the ACAS, and a deadly assassin, possibly the most interesting development is between Hal and Vivi. For what happens when a natural born human and a VAT super-soldier fall in love? I guess we’ll find out—that is, if either of them live long enough.
The Rush’s Edge is the debut novel from author Ginger Smith, part science fiction, part romance with action, adventure, space opera, and cyberpunk elements all thrown in. If this sounds like a lot—that’s because it is. If it sounds too good to be true—again, yeah. The Rush’s Edge tries too hard to be too much, and ultimately topples beneath its own grand desire.
My main problem with the Rush’s Edge, was how it was sold to me. I was sold an epic space adventure with “a little bit of romance, a smudge of aliens, and a whole lot of butt-kicking”. And to be fair—we got all of that. What I expected though, was a complete story. And didn’t necessarily get this.
The Rush’s Edge IS a complete story in the way that The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a complete story. Just where the latter tells you up front that this is a tale of how people become a family with some space-exploration-y elements, the former kinda makes you find that out on your own. Now, if I’d been sold “it’s basically like the Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”, that’d’ve been great! While Becky Chamber’s first book wasn’t a masterpiece, it was quite a good read. But between wondering if it was setting me up for a sequel or cliffhanger and then reaching the end with none of these questions actually answered… the Rush’s Edge didn’t captivate me in quite the same manner.
The conclusion also drew on quite a few overused clichés, which I really would’ve ditched. And I DO understand that when you’re writing something and decide to throw in a few classic plot twists you never want to think they’re cliché. But sometimes they are. Instead I would’ve liked to see the author try something different—maybe it’d work, maybe it wouldn’t—because, as they say, “nothing ventured, nothing gained” or “you’ll never succeed if you don’t try”.
The POV can change from paragraph to paragraph, so sometimes it’s difficult to tell who is talking/thinking, unless it’s explicitly mentioned. While this does allow the author to include several characters’ perspectives on any situation at almost any time (so long as they’re present), I’ve always found it incredibly frustrating to switch back and forward without knowing exactly when.
It’s really kinda science light fiction. There’re spaceships, yes, but there’s no explanation on how they travel between the stars. Do they use a hyperdrive? Faster than light travel? Wormholes? Instant transmission? We don’t know—it’s not explained, or mentioned. They just leave and… then they’re somewhere else. It must be some kinda faster than light travel, but we’re not told, which is a disappointment. While I realize not every science fiction tale is heavy on science, I would’ve liked to see more—but I’m like that.
Even if the action falls a bit flat, it’s the story that steals the show—specifically the romance between Hal and Vivi. One a natural born human, the other a vat grown super-solider; while it sounds kinda silly, it’s difficult to put into words just how much it’ll pull at your heartstrings. My main problem with the romance is that I don’t really read a book specifically FOR the romance, so when it’s the most entertaining element, there’s probably some things wrong. That being said (again), if this had been pitched as a becoming-a-family, Wayfarers-type story: I’m pretty sure I’d’ve been sold. Just leave off the (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) action-elements, the fights, the mysterious conflicts and battles that I can’t get into without spoilers. The alien presence can stay as it (minor spoilers) isn’t really the focus of the story. The romance isn’t really all that romance-y, even. It’s a bit as if the author didn’t want to sell out on romance, but then sold out on action instead. So now there’s not even enough of a romantic element to carry the story entirely on its own.
While overall I enjoyed the Rush’s Edge, there were definitely some issues with it. But it WAS a debut after all, so some of these an be forgiven. If I was to offer the author some advice: leave off on some of the overused tropes—they don’t add anything. Tell your own story—if it’s a thriller, then go action; if it’s a romance, then go romance. The Rush’s Edge is like a romance that tries to go all in on action—and just fails.
The Rush’s Edge is a debut that blends science fiction with romance, attempting to weave the tale of an unlikely romance between a natural born victimized woman and a vat grown super-soldier. It reads kind of like a Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet—where it’s more about the voyage than the destination, how the ending doesn’t matter as much as how we got there, and the ideals of family, love, and hope steal the show. As a heartwarming romance, it kinda works. As an action-adventure, it doesn’t. The action is overused and the adventure is incomplete. The science fiction is mostly fiction, with just the occasional science cameo. For a debut—it’s okay. Tries too hard to be too many things, play too many hands. Uses far too many cliché tropes. But these are to be expected. I just wish they weren’t.
Scifi Month ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com
On Tap 11/14
• After Atlas – by Emma Newman
The second in the series from Planetfall author Emma Newman, I’ve heard that this is better than the original, which is good, as the entire thing was overshadowed by the trainwreck of an ending. But the first book is also what haunts our lead, Detective Carlos Moreno. But when a murder forces Moreno to confront the demons of his past, it also forces him to dig deeper into the departure of Atlas—more deeply than he ever wanted.
• Phoenix Extravagant – by Yoon Ha Lee
Ah, one of the backlog of ARCs that somehow I missed. While not exactly science fiction, it’s not exactly NOT science fiction. I mean, there are automatons. Dragons. A government coverup. And… magic paint? Anyway, just started this, so no insights yet, but I’m optimistic!
• Salvation – by Peter F. Hamilton
What will be my 3rd Hamilton novel, Salvation features an entire galaxy ripe for the taking, and a colonization of planets stretching unchecked across the stars. Unchecked, that is, until a mysterious disaster that hints of a threat mankind might have somehow overlooked. A menace that might just prove their downfall.
I actually have a science fiction review coming out tomorrow, so there’s that. There’s some political stuff going on, which I’m going to avoid talking about… past saying that this election is indicative as to why the two-party system really doesn’t work. And why we need to take third parties more seriously. And that’s it for that.
Almost have finished Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I’m maybe 80 hours in, almost done with the main story, still glut with side quests, and I’m only now starting to get sick of it. I’d certainly recommend it, if you’re looking for a good game on the cheap (I’ve been playing the PS3 version) or you could try the re-release for the current systems.
COVID continues to ravage the Mountain West states, as Montana has been posting around 1000 new cases a day for the past two weeks! Yesterday we just posted a record 1214 new cases. This week at least 30 of the 50 people I worked with tested positive. Considering we’ve a population of barely a million, this is staggering. And while a fair amount of people are crying panic, it seems more (around here) are just content to ignore it. Putting aside every political belief for a second, I just can’t believe this is happening. Not only here, but around the country. I… I can’t even think of what to say about it.
My anxiety has been crazy lately. With everything that’s going on, I just want to lock my doors and hide in the corner. I haven’t been sleeping well or getting much reading done. I’m firmly in the camp that we all need to hide in doors and go out as little as possible, but the incoming administration in my state vehemently disagrees. So… I’ll power through—at least for now—but something has to change. Soon.
Hope the rest of y’all are keeping safe! And for my international friends and followers: I love you guys, please don’t come visit. It sucks here.
Minor Mage – by T. Kingfisher (Review)
Novella, Fantasy, Middle Grade
Red Wombat Studio; July 30, 2019
185 pages (ebook)
4.5 / 5 ✪
Oliver is a minor mage. Though only 12, he’s the town mage of a backwater hamlet, one that has seen no water in quite too long. Therefore they’ve dispatched Oliver and his armadillo familiar to the distant Rainblade Mountains to bring back rain. Armed with his three spells—one of which controls his armadillo allergy, another that ties people’s shoelaces together—he sets off with only the vaguest idea of what awaits him.
What follows is a rollicking adventure filled with peril, sarcasm, armadillos, and times when it’s perfectly alright to miss your mother. It also teaches a valuable lesson about not overextending oneself and keeping armadillos as pets.
“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
During a year like this one, full of deceit, jealousy, plague, anxiety, mayhem and more—it is good to have a nice, charming tale every now and then. Not that Minor Mage is always cuddly and cute. Yes, it has its moments of adorability, but it’s also a tale of reality, friendship, and coming of age. All told with an offhand humor that belies the danger lurking around every corner, often in stiff contrast to the drought, death, and darkness all around. While it is definitely told in Vernon’s distinct voice, mixing dark sarcasm, light cheer, reality and more, the wit and sarcasm has an almost Pratchett-esque feel at times (which is really the highest praise I can give it), without ever becoming anything too comic or glib. (Now if you were unaware that T. Kingfisher is actually just Ursula Vernon… spoilers, I guess?)
Whether it be “screaming bone harps”, “cheeping baby armadillos”, or “possessed potatoes”—the story delivers some frightfully odd one liners, that somehow turn out to be the most normal thing in the world later on. Well, maybe not the MOST normal thing.
All in all, I found Minor Mage to be one of the most lovely stories I’ve read this year, not lessened any by the fact that it is a children’s tale. While I was slightly put off by the ending (more when it ended, rather than the way it did), there’s still more than enough for me to recommend it, even if you aren’t one to usually go for Middle Grade.
While it’s not a deep dive into fantasy, Minor Mage is a welcome distraction from the world for however brief it is. Filled with interesting characters, light (and occasionally dark) humor, life lessons, and a very real sense of adventure—it’s the tale you didn’t know you needed quite as bad as you did.