The Martyr – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

Covenant of Steel #2

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; June 28, 2022

526 pages (paperback)

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9.0 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit for the lovely ARC! All opinions are my own.

Devotion is inherently nonsensical

Once an outlaw and vagabond, Alwyn Scribe has moved up in the world. Former scribe of the Covenant Company, he now serves as spymaster and sworn protector of Lady Evadine Courlain, the Risen Martyr, whose visions of the apocalypse—called the Second Surge—have divided the kingdom around her.

Evadine’s status as a living martyr has put her at odds with both the Crown and the Faith. Though behind her stand rank upon rank of her converts; barely fed, untrained, fanatics. The Crown and Covenant possess enough of a standing army to make a bloody fight of it, should it come to blows.

Which it has not—yet—as Evadine remains a loyal subject. It seems there exists a plan to see her dead without a bloody revolution, as soon Alwyn and the company are dispatched to Alundia to quash a rebellion; a faith that sees Evadine as more of a whore and heretic than her own. Here they are set up in a ruin and commanded to raise the King’s banner, distribute a list of traitors for deliverance, and hold until the King arrives with his army. Such is basically a death-sentence and all know it. But what choice do they have?

Here Alwyn finds more than just a war for the faith, a division of kingdoms. While he’s never been sure what to think of Evadine—whether she is a sycophant or insane—he knows she remains sworn to a better future. Despite their link, (or because of it) maybe that is something he can follow, to the end.

A man who isn’t truly a king stands ready to greet a woman who isn’t truly a martyr.

I have often reflected upon the notion that the worst thing about having true friends is missing all of them when they’re gone.

The Pariah was one of my favorite books of 2021, an introduction to Alwyn Scribe: outlaw, pariah, prisoner, scribe, liar. The Martyr takes Alwyn in a different direction. Heck, it opens with him as a knight. Well, kind of a knight. In fact, it actually opens with him laid up with a cracked skull and a hallucination taken up residence in his head. It’s quite an up and down for old Alwyn, beginning at the outset of the Pariah, and I am happy to report that it carries on throughout the second book. Never a dull moment.

A nicely paced novel cobbled together with solid world-building, fascinating characters, and an interesting premise—yeah, it ticks all the boxes for me. There is a slight pacing issue over the second half, and the story took me a good while longer to get into this time around, so I didn’t love it quite as much as its predecessor—but all in all it’s another marvel. The mystery of the Sack Witch grows to another level, as does Evadine’s status and what it means for the continent. Alwyn’s status, on the other hand, often changes chapter to chapter. Never a dull moment, as I said.

And… yeah. I’m not really sure what else to say about this. It’s good. Read it? I mean, that’s pretty much my recommendation, especially if you enjoyed the previous one. And if you didn’t enjoy the previous one… why not? Read it again and enjoy it this time. Then read the Martyr. I cannot wait to see where the story goes from here!

Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World – by Joan Druett (Review)

Standalone

Non-Fiction, History, Adventure

Algonquin Books; June 8, 2007
Tantor Audio; April 5, 2016

272 pages (ebook)
8hr 35m (audiobook)

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7 / 10 ✪

Auckland Island is a godforsaken island in the South Pacific, located 285 miles south of New Zealand. With deep inlets and soaring pillars, this rugged and mountainous isle is currently designated an Important Bird Area, and as such is uninhabited except for a transient science monitoring station. But once, the island was inhabited.

The Polynesians were the first to settle the island around 700 years ago, but by the time Europeans visited the islands they had already withdrawn. A whaling and sealing settlement upon the islands was established at Hardwicke in 1849, only to be abandoned three years later.

And then, 258 years ago, Thomas Musgrave and his crew of four aboard the schooner Grafton ran aground on the island’s southern rocks. Over the next 18 months, these four survivors remained, alone, before their eventual rescue. While the crew didn’t exactly thrive upon the islands, they lived comfortably enough, surviving the harsh and ofttimes inhospitable climate that had driven many others to an early grave.

In fact, only four months after the Grafton ran aground on the islands, the much larger Invercauld also wrecked on Auckland Island, albeit upon the island’s far northern point, amidst the cluster of the three smaller Rose, Enderby, and Ewing isles. Here, the crew of 25 (reduced to 19 by the wreck), camped in the remains of Hardwicke, before apathy, disease, and dissent drove them apart. Unlike the crew of the Grafton which remained together, those of the Invercauld splintered—as disease, dissent, starvation, and even cannibalism whittled them down. When the crew was rescued one year later, only three remained.

But of the two, it’s unclear which group experienced the greater trauma. Perhaps this is why the crew of the Invercauld, upon being rescued, neglected to search for other survivors, in doing so leaving those of the Grafton alone on the islands for a further few months before—concluding that no ship had been dispatched to find them—set out on their own in search of rescue.

It’s an incredible tale of two very different yet similar experiences. Two shipwrecks on the same island group at the same time; one that fragments and wastes away before being rescued; while the other thrives enough to survive twice as long, before constructing a skiff and sailing nearly 300 miles to safety.

So, here’s my nonfiction read for the year.

Two tales of adventure, survival, and hardship. Both of which go in very different directions. In fact, one would argue that if it wasn’t for a particular seaman on the Invercauld, the survival rate would’ve been much lower. Like, a party of one.

Like any other book of this type, Island of the Lost was written as a reconstruction of journal entries, further testimony, and newspaper articles following the crews’ rescues. Fortunately, at least one member of each crew kept a journal while stranded, and saw fit to live long enough to author books about their experiences, including Musgrave and Raynal from the Grafton and Holding and Dalgarno from the Invercauld. Although while the formers’ narratives generally match, the latter’s leave a bit to be desired (Dalgarno, as captain, took credit for everything; Holding, as a peon, was belittled, though he probably kept the other two alive). Addressing the language used in this book: it’s a bit dated. A bit flowery. And a bit long-winded (often like my reviews;). Makes perfect sense, as this was very much the style of the time. Especially among the officers. Just a note—it will take some getting used to. And even then it’s often frustrating to pick through, especially when needing to read between the lines.

TL;DR

Overall, I found these opposing tales of survival amazing, though they were brought down by florid language and odd pacing—often including every minuscule detail of some events while leaving others out entirely. The tale of Musgrave and Raynal being so much in-sync while those of Holding and Dalgarno often contradict one another being just another example of history being written by the victor. Or whichever victor was higher class. Robert Holding’s perspective by itself would’ve been enough of a reason to read this, or that of the Grafton crew on its own. But telling them together is a great example of those that lost it and those that kept it together. It’s a story of survival I’d very much recommend, either as a physical or audio book.

The Half Life of Valery K – by Natasha Pulley (Review)

Standalone

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Bloomsbury Publishing; July 26, 2022

384 pages (ebook)

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7.75 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Bloomsbury & NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

In Soviet Russia, the government monitored everything, but especially its own citizens. In 1937, Valery Kolkhanov was sent to Germany by the government to study biochemistry and radiology so that he could use what he learned for the benefit of his motherland. It was an educational and cultural experience that Valery never forgot, though it exposed him to more than he bargained for.

And then, in 1956, it got him arrested.

Jump forward to 1963, where we find Valery in a Siberian gulag, a Zek (a political prisoner) interred for that fateful time spent abroad. Time, if you remember, that the government sponsored. Serving his sixth year of a ten-year sentence, Valery’s priorities are food, warmth, avoiding frostbite, and keeping his head down—though he’s under no illusions regarding his future. He will die here; it’s just a matter of when.

Only the government still has use for him, it seems. Scooped up from Siberia, Valery is transported thousands of kilometers only to be dropped in another site, albeit a much different one. There are townsfolk and apartments, a lake and a reactor, scientists and guards. This, is Chelyabinsk 40.

Chelyabinsk 40, or simply City 40, is a radioecological research facility established to study the longterm effects of radiation on the environment, so that it might one day benefit humanity (i.e. the Soviet Union). Valery is but one of a growing population of scientists stationed at the Lighthouse, a scientific facility built to study the effects of the Event that occurred in the Techa River basin in 1957. An event that is never spoken of, but that left the lake and forest in a 40km radius heavily irradiated. But from what, no one is saying.

Even as Valery begins his research, he’s struck by so many more questions than solutions. In part due to the faulty data he’s been provided. Intentionally faulty, it seems. More than that, why is there so much radiation in the region? Or even, how?

Even more mysteries emerge the more he looks into it. Where is the radiation coming from, and why aren’t the citizens informed about it? Who are the mysterious people living in the forest, and why are they disappearing? What happened in 1957, and how does it relate to the present?

And if he’s to go fishing for answers to these questions Valery might not even live as long as he had had they just left him in Siberia.

That peculiar thing was happening, the one that had happened in Leningrad when Valery was young; everyone knew one thing to be true, but everyone was obliged to keep insisting it wasn’t. Gosh, of course everyone who’s arrested is guilty. Of course Truth only prints the honest-to-god truth, it’s in the name.

Of course the radiation is fine.

It was Sunday, and Valery was still curled up in a ball in bed, watching Albert turn his tank heater right up. On the reasoning that an octopus was the best person to know how warm or cold an octopus wanted to be, Valery had shown him how to use it and put an octopus-friendly lever on the dish, in case dripping shorted the electronics. It seemed to work, and it saved him from worrying that Albert would freeze in the night.

I’ll admit that I mostly just skimmed the prompt for this one before requesting it. An epic from the Cold War set in a mysterious town in the USSR. It got classed as science fiction and fantasy, so it was a shoe-in. Vibes of Wayward Pines and various Cold War spy thrillers. Therefore upon starting it I was curious about exactly how fast and loose it was going to play with history.

It turns out not very much.

Before reading this I was at least familiar with the Malak incident in Russia, which was at the time the worst nuclear disaster in history (it has since been moved to third—behind Chernobyl and Fukushima), despite the wider world not knowing much about it. Like, for example, what the hell happened, or how. Or why. But this book—despite being a work of fiction—fills in many of the blanks. Now, the story is still fantasy; Valery and Shenkov, Resovskaya, the octopus, pretty much the entire plot. But that doesn’t mean that a lot of what happened in it was real. The gulag may not have homed a chemist named Valery Kolkhanov, but it held thousands of political prisoners (and millions more), sent for the very real crimes of speaking English, have visited Europe, getting drunk and vocally disagreeing with the government, or getting outed by people they’d never met on charges that couldn’t possibly have been real. City 40 may not have been the scene of a thrilling plot like this, but it was the scene of a very real and very secretive nuclear incident, a radioecological research zone, and a real laboratory know as “the Lighthouse”. Sufficient that I was wondering how much would be real and how much would be fiction: the setting was entirely real; the history was entirely real; the plot was entirely plausible, but just as much fiction.

Natasha Pulley totally nailed the USSR vibe. Pretending everything’s fine even when everything points to the contrary. Paranoia is rampant. Everyone overanalyzing everything they say with the fear of being sent off to Siberia. Optimism also being a trip to Siberia rather than a bullet in the head. Women actually being contributing members of society, except where science is concerned. Communism and Russia seem to go hand in hand, except that the two together is almost completely nonsensical.

This was a slow build, one that took me longer than I’d’ve liked to get into. For the first third/half of it I had it pegged as a six star (out of 10) read. But as the mystery stretched, the story dug its hooks into me, and there was an octopus introduced—it gradually ranked higher and higher. So much so that I’d class this at about an 8—quite enjoyable and entertaining, but just ever so unfeasible.

This part, however, was easy for me to peg. For as much as I appreciated the romance, it was just hard to sell as anything more than a friendship. Yes, it was plausible, but not in a way that felt very real to me. Now, this might’ve been because I’d been immersed in the plot and the romance felt like a distraction from it, or it might have been that it felt like something inane—a budding friendship that just kept pushing the bounds of belief. Whatever the case, it was mostly this that I objected to. Sure, there were a few little things in the story as well—some of the language, the flashbacks—but the science seemed on point (I’m a physicist, not a chemist), and the story was wickedly entertaining, so who am I to argue?

TL;DR

A story set around the mysterious Malak incident in Russian USSR, the Half Life of Valery K takes place in a secret Soviet city where everyone is expendable and no one is safe. Radiation has crippled the countryside and permeated its citizens. And it’s up to the scientists of City 40 to stop it from happening again. An entertaining and immersive mystery once it gets going, the Half Life features strong characters and an interesting story, if a weak romance that only really takes over on its back half—like it was added as an afterthought to everything else. With vibes of Wayward Pines and every spy thriller set in the Cold War, this was definitely a book I’ve no trouble recommending, and an author I’d very much like to see more of!

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy – by Becky Chambers (Review)

Monk & Robot #2

Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; July 12, 2022

160 pages (ebook)
3hr 53m (audiobook)

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7.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Tor.com, MacMillan & NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

The second installment of Monk & Robot finds Sibling Dex and Mosscap wrapping up their tour of rural Panga, before setting their collective sights on the city. While Mosscap has been sent as an envoy from the robots, carrying a very important question to the humans, Sibling Dex is after something more. Right now, they have their wagon, their tea set, and a traveling companion, but once Mosscap has finished its mission—well, what will they be left with.

Tea?

Sibling Dex isn’t sure they want more tea just yet.

Mosscap is struggling with a problem of its own. It has carried its question to the humans—and has asked many of them what they need, and how it can help, but has begun to notice a trend. These people don’t want for much, and what they do want can generally be easily provided. So then, what should Mosscap do now?

In a world where people have what they want, what more can it offer them?

I generally enjoyed the first Monk & Robot—A Psalm for the Well-Built—as it seemed to deliver the questions (and occasionally even answers) lacking in a post-Wayfarers world, while not getting quite as in-depth or existential as that same world turned out to be in its first several installments (pretty much every one but four). A light, interesting read that nonetheless raised questions about sentience, worth, and humanity—confronting the tough questions while still maintaining an air of lightheartedness and humor.

While I’m glad to report that Book #2 continues this theme, it doesn’t try much anything else, leaving the series still a bit short of perfection.

The questions are still there. Within Mosscap and Sibling Dex’s own can we find ourselves. Maybe we’re unsure. Lost. Questioning. Or even just struggling to understand. Regardless of the cause, the reason, these questions find us—as they find our protagonists in the tale. It is thus that Becky Chambers confronts these questions: by raising them as part of a story, a tale with a very clear (and yet very unclear) message. What do you want?

The main problem with this story is, well, the whole “story” part. There’s not a lot going on. In terms of the overarching plot. Sibling Dex and Mosscap are just wandering on their way, tackling themselves as much as they do their rather vague quest. Such was the way in the first story (the wandering, at least), though it certainly had a discernible plot: robots haven’t been seen in centuries, now one is, and they come with a question for humanity. A Prayer for the Crown-Shy simply carries this over from the previous story, adding nothing of note on its own. While this runs its course, the plot is content to wander amiably along, letting the protagonists guide it as they may. This strategy has worked quite well for Chambers before—as she’s really very good at it—and this time is no different. Except.

Except that this format doesn’t really relate very well to a wandering adventure. I’m not sure why a novel-length story of the same type works better—it just does. Maybe it’s because there’s more space to grow, more time to ask, more room to fit everything in. This novella doesn’t have much time to spare. At 160 pages, it can’t bring up the important questions, issues, and possible solutions, while still providing a complete adventure. Instead, it just ends up feeling… incomplete.

Still, there’s more than enough here for me to recommend. For the questions she raises; the real sense of being, of living, of wondering and wandering she instills—I’d pretty much read anything Becky Chambers wants to write on the matter, be it in a full-length science fiction novel or a haiku scrawled on a restaurant napkin. And everything in-between. It’s not the perfection that I found from Closed and Common Orbit or Spaceborn Few, but neither is it of the quality as Galaxy and the Ground Within. A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is something else entirely, while retaining the format that you know and love. Just don’t expect it to be something it’s not—nor to have all the answers. It’s just a scifi novel, not a sentient grimoire of power.

As before, I thought Em Grosland did an exceptional job bringing this story to life. In fact, even better than in the first installment! They nailed the intonation and tone, while still imparting a certain worth and substance into their narration. While I’m not entirely sold that they’d make any book more enjoyable, I’d listen to any Chambers book they decided to read in a heartbeat!

Shinedown – Planet Zero

Shinedown, it seems, have hit a wall.

Now, this isn’t remotely surprising. They haven’t released anything really worth paying full price for since the Sound of Madness—or maybe Threat to Survival. I had high hopes for Planet Zero after the early singles off it were pretty decent. Unfortunately, the rest of the content is just filler.

Planet Zero is a concept album, meaning that each song is meant to fit together forming a greater concept altogether. Or, at least, I assume this is what they were going for. In actuality, what you get is a bunch of maybe semi-related songs (but that’s a stretch) joined together by filler tracks that aren’t worth buying on their own.

Planet Zero has 20 tracks. 7 of them are short (under a minute) instrumentals with a (somewhat annoying) futuristic voice-over. It seems the overall theme of the album is that it’s the future, a dystopian one to be sure. But you’re an individual and not the same as anyone else, and that’s just fine—which is a great sentiment, when it works. And… kinda seems like an homage to the little guy. Which is ummm an interesting stretch for Shinedown at this point.

Partly considering that it just doesn’t work.

I like a song with a bit of beat, story, or concept that I relate to. I’m going to try to stay as minimal as possible, so… I realistically would consider purchasing 2 songs off this album (it was going to be 3, but I get sick of #2—No Sleep Tonight—after only a couple of plays). So…

#3 – Planet Zero

#15 – Daylight

And that’s it. So if you were wondering if this was the album where Shinedown rediscovers its roots: Nope.

Maybe buy something else less syndicated. Or discover a newer, less mainstream band. Or shop around for a new sound. Or just go back to all your popular favorites, small favorites, or guilty favorites. Or, get this, if you’re so inclined. Just don’t expect much from it.

Titanshade – by Dan Stout (Review)

The Carter Archives #1

Urban Fantasy, Mystery, Detective

DAW; March 12, 2019

416 pages (ebook)
12hr 50m (audiobook)

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8 / 10 ✪

Welcome to Titanshade, an oil boomtown grown up, struggling to find its identity in a new era, lest it collapse in on itself, just another footnote on the path of history. Cater is Titanshade’s native son, a local become homicide cop, one who knows his way around the sleazy, corrupt underside of the city that makes up his beat. But the city is so much more than that, as he is soon to learn.

Looming over the sleazy, corrupt underside exist the sleazy, corrupt businessmen and politicians that run it all. Men, women, creatures Carter has known of his whole life, but were always far too high profile for him to concern himself with.

Enter the Squib—a squat, amphibian being—a political delegate involved in funding a project aimed to save the city from itself, providing alternative energy to the dwindling oil business. While such a high-profile case would normally have been above Carter’s station, it’s all-hands on deck, as the more than just the city turns its gaze to the murder. Because in addition to being a high-profile political target, the fact that the delegate was a Squib could have dire consequences to inter-species relations. See, when a Squib bleeds, it releases a highly odorous pheromone along with its cinnamon-scented blood—the combination more than enough to drive many a human mad with lust. Many such Squibs have been killed before, but none in so gruesome a fashion or so bright a spotlight.

To make matters worse, the police already have a suspect: Carter’s adopted daughter Talena, who was in the wrong place at the very wrong time. And with such a high-profile murder already filling the news, tensions between the races of Titanshade at their highest point—the pressure is on to tie everything up as quickly as possible.

And so Carter has only a short amount of time to prove Talena’s innocence, find the true killer, and do it all before the city tears itself apart. Throw in a rookie Mollenkampi (named Ajax) assigned to keep an eye on the wildcard Carter; a second Mollenkampi, Angus, who’s essentially Carter’s nemesis while still managing to be a good cop in his own right; gritty commissioner Bryyh, Carter’s boss; and the feeling even before the mystery starts, that he’s already missing something vital.

Even if he manages to pull everything together in the nick of time, Carter may still alienate everyone and everything important to him, and end up eating his gun in the process. It’s just that kind of day in Titanshade.

I’d heard good things, yet Titanshade still managed to exceed my expectations. Instead of the underwhelming mashup between a high urban fantasy and a detective/mystery, I got a thought out mystery/detective urban fantasy not unlike the Dresden Files, but one set in its own fantasy world—one with its own rules and fantastical beings and creatures and magicks. Now, this is quite an Earth-like world, but still there are key and unique differences. The different races of beings are one; Mollenkampi alongside Squibs (which are called something different that I can’t remember right now) alongside Humans alongside still others, all packed together into the same society.

Honestly, I expected this to go together a bit like the SyFy show Defiance: a unique and interesting idea, but one where all the classes of humanoids basically blend into one when you get right down to it. Instead, the author has them written and designed his creations well—with their own diets and characteristics and languages and ideals. So much so that I’ll say it again: I’m surprised that this went together so well.

The story itself is a gritty detective one, full of morally ambiguous characters and two-faced diplomats, politicians, cops, witnesses, and more. And Carter is just the gritty, hard-nosed detective to handle it. For a guy that most people seem to hate (and everyone seems to be annoyed by), Carter makes a pretty good lead. I was pretty much in his corner from the outset—though if I’d hated him too (being the sole POV), I’d’ve probably quit reading. Twists and turns affect everyone in the plot differently and this is where Carter’s interactions with his new partner, Ajax, take center stage. Carter is a hard-nose detective who’s set in his ways and doesn’t play by the rules. Ajax is a bit fresh faced, but not enough to put up with his partner’s bullshit. He bends at times, stands firm at others, but never really breaks one way or the other. This pairing actually works quite well—and makes the story.

I’d like to see where the story goes next (and if the 2nd installment is just as solid), and will hopefully get to it later in the year. While I listened to Titanshade as an audiobook—and while Books #2 & 3 are out in print—it is thus far the only book in the series that’s been professionally narrated. Not that that’s an issue. I just decided to take a wee break before switching from audio to print. I’d definitely recommend this in either format, really, but I really enjoyed the audiobook. Mikael Naramore does an excellent job bringing both Carter and the world around him to life—complete with its gritty feel and moral ambiguity. If you were after more of him, you’re in luck! I hear Book #2, Titan’s Day, is due to be recorded and/or released sometime soon; just COVID went and delayed its production. Whether or not you enjoy this via audio, print, or digitally, I’d certainly recommend its reading. Especially if you’re a fan of urban fantasy or mystery, or even gritty cop dramas.

Upgrade – by Blake Crouch (Review)

Standalone

Scifi, Thriller

Ballantine Books; July 12, 2022

352 pages (ebook)

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8 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Ballantine, Penguin & NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

When Logan Ramsay was young, his mother was engaged in the greatest mass gene-editing in history. If successful, it had the power to save millions from famine and starvation. Miriam Ramsay was one of the greatest minds of her generation; her son’s hero and idol. Until she failed.

And instead of saving billions, the project killed millions.

Miriam Ramsay didn’t survive that failure, taking her own life some months later. Logan did a stint in jail, imprisoned due to his mother’s mistake. The only reason he wasn’t put away for life was that he couldn’t’ve known what his mother was engaged in. For you see, Logan was the son of a genius cursed with an average mind.

Now Logan is an agent with the GPA (the Gene Protection Agency), an organization devoted to keep history from repeating itself, and the son of the most famed mass-murderer in history is trying desperately to atone for his past.

Until his past catches up with him.

A typical day for the GPA: an informant, a threat, a raid. Only this one goes awry, and Logan is caught in the crossfire. He awakens in the ER—confused, feverish, infected with an unknown virus. But as soon as the fever comes it dissipates, but Logan is kept under observation. Only then is he told the truth: the virus was not intended to make him sick, but to alter his genetic structure.

And Logan begins to notice a difference.

He’s faster, stronger. Smarter. The very definition of upgraded. But he’s also the GPA’s greatest threat. And that’s just the start.

I didn’t live in a world where any of my dreams were possible anymore.
And the hardest truth—the one that had been eating me slowly from the inside for most of my adult life—was that even if it was, I didn’t possess a fraction of the raw intelligence of an Anthony Romero or a Miriam Ramsay.
I had extraordinary dreams and an ordinary mind.

It is a supremely cruel thing to have your mind conjure a desire which it is functionally unable to realize.
No one teaches you how to handle the death of a dream.

Upgrade is the typical Blake Crouch thriller—immersive, plausible, addictive. A great read, start to finish. It has the same grasp of science featured in Dark Matter (plausible and streamlined) but without all of the muddy time-travel issues. It’s the same post-humanism of some of his shorter fiction (a world in flux, a new era looming), only in a longer format. It takes a similar approach to Wayward Pines (mystery on the run, a lone wolf mentality), but without all the messiness in the following books.

Simply said, Upgrade is the distilled version of all Crouch’s books to date. In a word: perfection.

Except, no. It isn’t.

While the story is strong on its own and the plot deep and often mysterious, the story takes place in a bubble. While world events are relayed through Logan, I never really got a feel for the outside world—how the world was before its fall, and after it; how it was dealing with the events of the present, where the chips fell in relation to the future—it just seemed… muted. Like the story was taking place in a bubble, everything else is viewed through the swirling haze of the waters around it. This certainly works—to a point. But with the bubble comes a disconnect: an uneven pace, a disconnect from reality, a lack of importance. Instead of banking the tension when it comes, Crouch ups the pace instead, and we go from a slower, technical build to an all-out race to the finish.

Despite this, Upgrade is still a good read. It just works—on the same level that all of the author’s thrillers work. It was quite readable throughout, even when the pacing was strange or the scientific terms and jargon threatened to overwhelm. The story never loses its way, always manages to stay front and center. The post-humanism drank me in and kept me, even through the end. The ending itself was good, twists and turns at all the requisite times.

TL;DR

Overall, Upgrade is an enjoyable thriller, perfect for those summer nights you just don’t want to end. And when the night turns to day and the moon sits high and pale in the morning light, you find that you’re still hooked—lost on the prospect of what happens next. Upgrade is like that; a lovely thriller that makes you think, but keeps on so that you don’t get lost in your own mind. While the plot kept going on and on, the pacing and informationism did its best to keep out of its own way. Something that it… more or less manages. I never felt overwhelmed by information, though sometimes it was a near thing. The story always keeps rolling just in the nick of time, so that nothing ever gets to dry or dull. And while it delivers in the way that all Crouch’s thrillers manage—Upgrade just doesn’t seem as polished, despite the name.

What 100lbs of aluminum looks like

So I spent a month at a job I hated. Emptying trash downtown. But the pay was good and, well, I needed the money. But I did eventually quit—because I hated the work.

My job for this month was to empty the 74 trash cans spread throughout downtown whenever they needed it. 4-5 days a week, 4-6 hours a day. It being me, I also picked the recyclables out of the trash and collected them for later. In the 20 days that I was solo, I collected 117 pounds of aluminum, 86 pounds of plastic, 75 pounds of cardboard, and some tin and miscellaneous others. Altogether it added up to just over 300lbs of recycling. More than 7x as much as I got from the actual recycling bins.

As the price of everything has risen lately, the price of aluminum has dropped. Because of course it has.

July 2022

After the 8 ARCs that I got approved for in June, we’re down to just 4 for July—which is great as I’ve only finished 5 of the ones from last month. So hopefully I’ll have some time to catch up on them, and maybe sprinkle in another few from my TBR that I’ve been waiting to read.

July is a bit of a busy month for me non-blog-wise. Miss the first week to a wedding (COVID permitting), then I’ve a backpacking trip scheduled mid-month, and some other wilderness day trips here and there (smoke and fire and weather permitting). So I might not be around too much. While I’ll try to schedule up a few reviews, just keep in mind that the month may be a bit light compared to the year thus far.

Additionally, I’m not sure what’s coming music-wise for July, so I’ll probably skip that entire section this time around. But maybe I’ll throw in a TBR one or something to cap it off.

And you lot… July plans? Vacation, work, camping, weddings? I hear COVID is up in a lot of places, including Montana (although you wouldn’t know it from the way people are acting here).

ARCs

Upgrade – by Blake Crouch (7/12)

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“You are the next step in human evolution.”

At first, Logan Ramsay isn’t sure if anything’s different. He just feels a little . . . sharper. Better able to concentrate. Better at multitasking. Reading a bit faster, memorizing better, needing less sleep.

But before long, he can’t deny it: Something’s happening to his brain. To his body. He’s starting to see the world, and those around him—even those he loves most—in whole new ways.

The truth is, Logan’s genome has been hacked. And there’s a reason he’s been targeted for this upgrade. A reason that goes back decades to the darkest part of his past, and a horrific family legacy.

Worse still, what’s happening to him is just the first step in a much larger plan, one that will inflict the same changes on humanity at large—at a terrifying cost.

Because of his new abilities, Logan’s the one person in the world capable of stopping what’s been set in motion. But to have a chance at winning this war, he’ll have to become something other than himself. Maybe even something other than human.

And even as he’s fighting, he can’t help wondering: what if humanity’s only hope for a future really does lie in engineering our own evolution?

Intimate in scale yet epic in scope, Upgrade is an intricately plotted, lightning-fast tale that charts one man’s thrilling transformation, even as it asks us to ponder the limits of our humanity—and our boundless potential.

Ymir – by Rich Larson (7/12)

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Yorick never wanted to see his homeworld again. He left Ymir two decades ago, with half his face blown off and no love lost for the place. But when his employer’s mines are threatened by a vicious alien machine, Yorick is shipped back home to hunt it.

All he wants is to do his job and get out. Instead, Yorick is pulled into a revolution brewing beneath Ymir’s frozen surface, led by the very last person he wanted to see again — the brother who sent him off in pieces twenty years ago.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy – by Becky Chambers (7/12)

Monk & Robot #2

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After touring the rural areas of Panga, Sibling Dex (a Tea Monk of some renown) and Mosscap (a robot sent on a quest to determine what humanity really needs) turn their attention to the villages and cities of the little moon they call home.

They hope to find the answers they seek, while making new friends, learning new concepts, and experiencing the entropic nature of the universe.

Becky Chambers’s new series continues to ask: in a world where people have what they want, does having more even matter?

The Half Life of Valery K – by Natasha Pulley (7/26)

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In 1963, in a Siberian gulag, former nuclear specialist Valery Kolkhanov has mastered what it takes to survive: the right connections to the guards for access to food and cigarettes, the right pair of warm boots to avoid frostbite, and the right attitude toward the small pleasures of life so he won’t go insane. But on one ordinary day, all that changes: Valery’s university mentor steps in and sweeps Valery from the frozen prison camp to a mysterious unnamed town that houses a set of nuclear reactors and is surrounded by a forest so damaged it looks like the trees have rusted from within.

In City 40, Valery is Dr. Kolkhanov once more, and he’s expected to serve out his prison term studying the effect of radiation on local animals. But as Valery begins his work, he is struck by the questions his research raises: why is there so much radiation in this area? What, exactly, is being hidden from the thousands who live in the town? And if he keeps looking for answers, will he live to serve out his sentence?

Based on real events in a surreal Soviet city, and told with bestselling author Natasha Pulley’s inimitable style, The Rust Country is a sweeping new adventure for readers of Stuart Turton and Sarah Gailey.

Other Releases

The Law – by Jim Butcher (7/05)

Dresden Files #17.5

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Set in the months following the apocalyptic events of Battle Ground, the seventeenth novel in the worldwide bestselling Dresden Files, this powerful new novella by Jim Butcher finds wizard and Winter Knight Harry Dresden mourning incalculable losses. 

The Law, though, in no way recounts the quiet period of reflection that Harry needs, no matter how much he deserves such. Taking on what at first seems to be a much smaller case than any he’s worked in years, the world’s only consulting wizard soon finds himself facing enemies far more powerful than the “invincibly stupid” pimp his client is meeting in court. And not the Unseelie Court or any of the other supernatural governing bodies Harry is used to dealing with, but a “real life” court of law in magic-wrecked Chicago.

The pimp, it turns out, is a minion of an old enemy and erstwhile ally of Harry’s and is thus under potent magical protection. Through a series of literally explosive events, Harry must depend on the cooperation and help of friends, enemies, queens, demigods, and even apparently everyday denizens of Chicago, such as one lawyer who may be more than he seems, and another who is definitely more than he seems.

Used to taking worldly and supernatural laws into his own hands, in this novella Harry’s potent abilities may not prove to be enough to right a simple wrong. Instead, he must depend on his canniness, his wits, and his friends if he wants to see justice done.

The Law is the latest entry in Jim Butcher’s Hugo-nominated Dresden Files, which have been thrilling readers for over twenty years. The series of novels and other novellas describe a secret world behind our own, one that threatens reality at every turn, but which at every turn finds a staunch defender: Harry Dresden.

The Last Storm – by Tim Lebbon (7/05)

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Struck by famine and drought, large swathes of North America are now known as the Desert. Set against this mythic and vast backdrop, The Last Storm is a timely story of a family of Rainmakers whose rare and arcane gift has become a curse.

Jesse stopped rainmaking the moment his abilities became deadly, bringing down not just rain but scorpions, strange snakes and spiders. He thought he could help a land suffering from climate catastrophe, but he was wrong. When his daughter Ash inherited the tainted gift carried down the family bloodline, Jesse did his best to stop her. His attempt went tragically wrong, and ever since then he has believed himself responsible for his daughter’s death.

But now his wife Karina––who never gave up looking for their daughter—brings news that Ash is still alive. And she’s rainmaking again. Terrified of what she might bring down upon the desperate communities of the Desert, the estranged couple set out across the desolate landscape to find her. But Jesse and Karina are not the only ones looking for Ash. As the storms she conjures become more violent and deadly, some follow her seeking hope. And one is hungry for revenge.

Currently Reading

Just the one book at the moment, though I’m sure to add another shortly. I’m leaning towards the Half Life of Valery K, but haven’t decided yet. Loved the Pariah; Martyr’s good so far, but I’m not that far in. Many thanks to the wonderful people over at Orbit for sending over a physical ARC.

TBR

If you’re a longtime follower you’ll know that I used to do a TBR update ever month, but I scrapped it because I was feeling the stress of fulfilling some quota I’d set and reading’s supposed to be fun. So (at present) I’m not thinking of reviving this. These are just a few books that are already out (and have been for a little) that I’m excited to try. Please do let me know if you’ve read any of these and how you might’ve liked them (other than RoW—I know it’s good and I know I need to read it now) (seriously, I know). Thank you!

Life

Bought some new games recently that I’ll recap here, as my new job (and also old job—yes, I quit, mostly because I hated it with a passion) (no, not that one. I mean I quit the new one that I just got last month. Still have the older one) has been sapping all my energy.

Okay so, question. I have 100 pounds of aluminum cans. 100+, I guess. Picked them out of the trash over the month or so I had this job. I really want to gather them all and take a photo, because I’m never going to have that many at once ever again. But they’re already bagged, and I’m not sure I want to unbag them just to have to rebag them again. What do you think—picture or no picture?

Gaming

Not a whole lot of gaming recently. As I’ve mentioned, I just haven’t had the energy. But I picked up a few new games that I need to try out, so I’ll just list some off.

I’ve actually played Firewatch before—right up til they updated some bug fixes and it crashed my computer. But now I have it on console, so I’m hopeful to continue. I’ve heard a bit about it since, so I’m tempering my anticipation, but I’m still hoping for a decent story with good indie graphics.

I actually have been waiting for this one for a while, but ummm kinda forgot—until Caitlin over at Realms of My Mind reminded me to check it out. Best part about forgetting I guess is that I was able to get it on sale!

In addition to these, Wanderlost is coming! I backed the Kickstarter last year and I’m super excited for this one—hopefully it drops soon!